Thanks to Twitter and similar social media platforms, you're always auditioning for a job.
It has long been true that the key to getting the right job is presenting yourself as the right kind of person to someone with a free line item in their budget. For years, simple nepotism has been the easiest way of accomplishing this goal.
But with the rise in social media this has mutated into a strange kind of theatrics, where a person demonstrates their employability by performing an identity that adheres to potential employers without ever having met. This week The Atlantic's Alexis Madrigal announced his newest hire, Robinson Meyer, a recent graduate of Northwestern he'd grown to admire over several years of Twitter postings. It wasn't the number of followers or Klout metrics that so impressed Madrigal, but the content of Meyer's Twitter posts and the thinking he saw behind them.
"His humility is genuine," Madrigal writes, "driven by a real desire to think this stuff through. And the thing that I always noticed about Meyer's conversations with everyone was that he was such a good and generous reader of other people's work. He tended to respond with whatever the opposite of snark is. His role became to connect good ideas with each other by connecting good writers with each other. He wove the social fabric tighter and made our conversations richer."
It's disturbing to have socializing—something that's most generally defined as anything that happens between people when they're not working—turned into a metric for employability.
This list of idyllic qualities seems unassailable, but it suggests through omission a list of qualities that could disqualify someone from the position—someone uninterested in overlapping their social and professional interests, nor unwilling to favor congenial exchange over experimental taboo crossing and confrontation. What one wants in a media personality is the ability to make the already known seem new again while treating the negative byproducts of the present as tolerable glitches in the system.
This approach to social media is temperate but inherently narrowing, it favors empirical diligence over performative confrontation and experimentation. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Twitter accounts like trevon mertun, a fictional carousel of maximally offensive posts made in the voice of the dead Trayvon Martin. It leaves almost every possible sensitivity offended with posts like one of an image of Martin's corpse flying into the World Trade Center, with a Skittles bag and Arizona Iced Tea swapped in for the skyscrapers and the accompanying message "9/11 joeks are jst plane rong." These posts have an irrational power of consolidating and ridiculing both the piety of media critics and the audience that believes its media consumption choices can somehow reflect their good political intentions.
Rather than offering analysis, the performance rebukes analysis by making its worst case conditions truth, something that is no less intellectually demanding than juxtaposing white papers from two different research groups. It's the underside of the cordial intellect and omnivirous curiosity of utilitarian media contributors, a living scroll of offended audience tastes that makes its author entirely unemployable.
In the same way that the Internet had its values reshaped around the logic of advertising and page views, social media has easily accommodated uses of it that favor professionalism over social play.
Reputation.com is one recent attempt. It offers its users an option to make their personal information and social media posts available to certain marketers and companies in exchange for discounts or rewards. The company takes advantage of a long-standing tradition of trying to commodify one's social media networks, from Yelp reviewers bullying their way into free meals to Google Glass enthusiasts pitching their social media reach to earn early access to the device. Similarly, companies like Valve and YouTube have been quick to allow their customers earn money by conflating work and pastimes. The cumulative effect of these encroachments is to recast the value of socializing, turning the most meaningful contributions to one's community into those that seem most professional.
Mardrigal says of his new hire, "I know a lot more about Rob from his Twitter usage than I could ever locate on his college transcript or resume." That may be true, or it may be an elaborate trick of perspective, where we discover in others what we want to find in them. It's not difficult to trick people into believing what they want to believe when using the keyhole theater of social media, but it's disturbing to have socializing—something that's most generally defined as anything that happens between people when they're not working—turned into a metric for employability.
A platform built for playful exchange among all the sensical and nonsensical personas we can imagine for ourselves is being turned into a litmus test for how thoroughly we can internalize the narrow values of our employers.
And in the same way as you can lure a potential employer by performing your qualities as a worker, it becomes easier to lose your present employer for having a social life that's less cautiously engineered than your professional one. In that way, hearing news that someone's won a salary on the basis of their social media presence is as unsettling as news that someone's lost a salary over it.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.