Life online: ‘I found no joy in what I was doing’
Different users can experience the minefield of social media in vastly different ways
Arguments that companies are upholding their reputation by policing social media posts can interfere with employees’ rights to privacy. Photograph: iStock
Social media transformed the working life of midwife Clemmie Hooper, known on Instagram as Mother of Daughters. Then it proved her undoing.
Ms Hooper received brand endorsements through her work as a parenting lifestyle blogger. But after admitting to leaving anonymous abusive messages on rival Instagram accounts, she closed hers and demands were made to the UK’s Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) that she stop practising.
The NMC has only said that it has “passed all messages on to the relevant teams”. While Ms Hooper sowed the seeds of her own difficulty, other influencers have found their careers hit by online pile-ons, as well as harassment and burnout.
Jenna Drenten, assistant professor of marketing at Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business, Loyola University, says that “while platforms, such as Instagram, may not directly encourage users to engage with harassers, the optics of engagement and ability to hack the attention economy for potential monetisation does innately encourage such interactions”.
One study showed some female influencers on social media platforms engage with harassers by posting playful emojis or shorthand such as “lol”, rather than manually deleting their posts, because even these negative or aggressive comments boost engagement rates, which in turn increases their visibility and the possibilities for monetisation.
Social media has become an extensive part of everyday life and it can provide positive things in the shape of friendships, camaraderie and information, especially for workforces
Yet even those who are not digital influencers have found their careers harmed by social media. In 2013, Justine Sacco, a US public relations executive, lost her job after posting an offensive tweet.
In 2016, Angela Gibbins was dismissed for gross misconduct from the British Council after publishing an offensive post on Facebook about prince George, third in line to the British throne.
Despite having the highest possible privacy settings on her profile, the post was leaked to the press. An employment tribunal upheld the dismissal, finding she breached her employer’s advice on social media use that “staff should be careful what they said even if they believed their comment was private”.
In an academic article published this year, titled I Lost my Job Over a Facebook Post – Was that Fair?, Virginia Mantouvalou, a professor of human rights and labour law at University College London, wrote that British employers have good reasons for wanting to rein in employees’ social media posts because. For example, it can inflict potential harm on “workplace performance, harmonious relations at work, and business reputation”.
However, arguments that companies are upholding their reputation by policing social media posts can interfere with employees’ rights to privacy and may mask “moralistic views about how employees should lead their lives”, according to Ms Mantouvalou. And supposed social media breaches may provide a perfect excuse to fire someone for unrelated underperformance. Social media can also get in the way of work.
The rapper Nicki Minaj (Instagram following of more than 108 million) said she would not be posting on the site because it was trialling a new system to remove “likes” from public view and spoke for many who suffer distractions when she tweeted: “Hmmm what should I get into now? Think of all the time I’ll have with my new life.” Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, wrote in the Financial Times (FT) this year that he took a break from Twitter after realising too much of his time was spent composing witty retorts, or becoming exercised by comments.
“I was, in short, wasting time, energy and emotion. I was engaging with the people and things around me more narrowly, and I was thinking with less freedom.”
Others have complained that they become so wary of triggering wrath on social media forums that they end up censoring themselves, which also affects their thinking. Lorenzo Bizzi, assistant professor of management at California State University, Fullerton, says that we tend to have an unsophisticated view of social media when it comes to work, failing to differentiate between passive use, like scrolling through feeds, or active use when we post content.
“Different social media behaviours have different reactions,” he says. He also points out that different job roles might make divergent use of social media. In a creative job, say, at an advertising agency, it might provide a welcome five-minute break, or promote a feeling of wellbeing, prompting productive work.
Whereas for those in boring repetitive jobs it might have different implications: a quick browse on Twitter could spiral into cyberloafing. Recommended Social Media Social networking and the increasing burden on mental health.
But work, rather than social media, might be at fault. If your job is unsatisfying, the lure of Instagram quickly proves more appealing than spreadsheets.
Roland Paulsen, associate professor in organisational studies at Lund University’s Department of Business Administration, has researched empty labour, which he defines as “private activities at work”.
In a paper, he argues: “Despite the overwhelming mass of sociological research demonstrating how the hardened competition of globalisation leads to precarisation and an increase of socio-pathologies such as ‘burnout’, several studies report that employees generally spend 1.5 to three hours of their daily working hours on non-work related activities” – including social media.
Others find social media beneficial for their careers, for example, freelancers turn to it to combat isolation and provide social interaction and gossip that they miss out on by not being in an office.
Responding to a callout on Twitter by the FT on this subject, several people replied to extol the virtues of social media in a work context. One UK National Health Service consultant says he uses social media to educate a global audience.
“Rather than showing [a medical case study] to a dozen people in one room, I can spread the knowledge to tens of thousands more, across borders, time zones, professional and societal hierarchies.”
As a result, he has met new colleagues in other countries with whom he collaborates professionally and also engages with other medical professionals on work-related topics ranging from the light-hearted to pension taxation issues.
It can also provide a platform for those whose voices might previously have been overlooked.
Tanusree Jain, an assistant professor in corporate social responsibility and ethics at Trinity College Dublin, wrote that: “As a woman of colour, I know the amount of trolling one can be exposed to on social media.”
However, she points out that social media helps amplify voices and opinions “that sadly to say won’t be heard on mainstream platforms” and that it has created role models where few existed before. “This prompts us to pay it forward to the community worldwide.”
Gossip is infotainment – people love to be entertained. It reflects them – they want to see someone famous who is not alone. They feel better about themselves
One woman working in the aviation industry responded on Twitter to say she had found social media a useful tool to bring disparate workers in different countries and shifts together over union activity.
This has played out elsewhere, notably in the tech industry. Google workers used the hashtag #Googlewalkout to help co-ordinate protests last year. The aviation worker said that over time, however, Facebook groups became flooded with fake news and dissent.
“Social media has become an extensive part of everyday life and it can provide positive things in the shape of friendships, camaraderie and information, especially for workforces. But it can also consume our emotional wellbeing and our time, which in turn can negatively affect our feelings at work towards our companies and colleagues.”
Michelle Phan, a pioneer beauty vlogger, started posting on YouTube in 2007. Now she has almost 9 million subscribers to her channel.
Two years ago, she took a two-year break from YouTube, also reducing her social media posting, returning in September. As well as beauty influencing, she has become an evangelist for bitcoin.
Ms Phan says that before she took a “hiatus” she was creating content and “constantly on social media”. “I became so exhausted. I started to lack motivation, I found no joy in what I was doing. When you’re an online creator there’s endorphins that are released when you get likes and feedback. Being online and getting a lot of validation is like a drug.” At times, it caused physical stress. “My chest was tight and I had a shortness of breath.”
When she stepped back from creating videos, it allowed her to reduce the amount of time on Twitter and Instagram. “I wasn’t thinking how to game the algorithm. I focused on life outside the social media world.”
She wanted “normalcy” in her life again. After a year, she felt rejuvenated. “I got forgotten. I had a quietness in my life to think. There’s so much noise [on social media]. I had to shut up this noise. I needed my inner thoughts.”
As a vlogging pioneer, she had no clue what the career trajectory should be. “I didn’t want to linger around and see my own demise. Even a star will combust and shrink. It was a reset button for my ego.
Twitter has a bad effect on my writing as I waste so much time. It’s a fantastic way to procrastinate and by fantastic I mean terrible
“ You have to keep your ego in check – you’re surrounded by so many yes people who enable you. I had to set my own limits and re-evaluate where I wanted to go.”
Gossip and online criticism had also affected her. “You have to lack empathy not to get hurt by trolls [and] negative comments. There were lots of people spreading gossip about me, there are a lot of gossip vlogs.
“Gossip is infotainment – people love to be entertained. It reflects them – they want to see someone famous who is not alone. They feel better about themselves. Gossip is like junk food, it tastes good but it’s not good for you. I fall for the clickbait too. I can’t control how people feel about me – only thing I can control is how I react.”
Few people say negative things to her face, she says. “At meet and greets, people are so kind – the internet doesn’t reflect the real world.” The break gave her a chance to study cryptocurrencies.
“Of all the communities I’ve been part of, the bitcoin community is the most informed – politically and financially. Of course there’s trolls but they’re angry at the financial world.” She likes the mix of ages and backgrounds.
“You have truckers, people who have left Wall Street. It’s a very diverse community.” When she made a video on YouTube, she was surprised by the warm reception.
“It’s better for people to miss you than for people to get sick and tired of you.”
Heidi Allen, former Liberal Democrat MP The member of parliament is one of a number of female politicians who have spoken out about toxic social media. A recent analysis by the FT found that female MPs received a disproportionate amount of online abuse following a parliamentary debate last month in which British prime minister Boris Johnson denounced death threats to politicians as “humbug”.
Research by Amnesty International, the human rights charity, found that black and Asian female MPs received more abuse than their white peers, while Diane Abbott, a black Labour MP, received 45 per cent of all abusive tweets in the run-up to the 2017 election.
The former Conservative turned Lib Dem MP for South Cambridgeshire did not stand in the recent UK election, citing the “utterly dehumanising abuse” she had faced.
Social media was not the only reason Ms Allen decided not to stand again, she says. But it is a “contributory factor”.
“For me it was real life threats [that were worse], emails sent to me. Social media was the final straw. The abuse is mainly from either a sad keyboard warrior or a troll farm distorting public discourse.”
It is “definitely worse for women – I don’t see men bawling their eyes out [after seeing a] rape threat on social media. Women get it worse than men.”
The “anonymity” has unleashed abuse. “If you scroll through it for five minutes it’s pretty horrid.” Trolling affects online discourse, she says.
“It permeates normal people on Twitter. It makes them think it’s a) OK, b) puts people into camps, they pick a side, it’s the last thing we want. People in a modern society need to articulate views that aren’t aggressive.”
While some MPs might prefer to withdraw from social media and communicate directly with their constituency, Ms Allen thinks part of the role of an MP is to participate in “national debate” and that includes social media. The response from Twitter’s leadership, she says, is inadequate.
“Whenever I’ve had death threats on [IT], I report it and a bot replies. It’s not fit for purpose. It has been successful [as a communication tool] in the past but recently it’s been taken over by this trollathan – it’s a bad use of an MP’s time to sift through followers to find valuable connections.
“You can’t wade through that rubbish to get to the real stuff.”
Her advice to a new MP would be to “talk to a variety of new MPs who use it and prepare to use it as a broadcast medium until [Twitter] can get over the anonymity.”
Marian Keyes, novelist and avid Twitter user Ms Keyes was the first person to donate her digital archive to the National Library of Ireland which is collecting video, emails and social media.
“When I started on Twitter, I was going through a bad spell of mental health and wasn’t working. I spent lots of time on Twitter. It’s all my thoughts from that time. It’s not just a slice, it’s all of them.”
She also donated early versions of novels with editor’s comments on them. In the past, strangers would approach her and tell her that they loved her books, now they tell her they love what she wrote on Twitter.
“Twitter has a bad effect on my writing as I waste so much time. It’s a fantastic way to procrastinate and by fantastic I mean terrible.”
She started using it in 2012 after her publishers persuaded her to join the platform to promote her books. “I like it way too much. I have so much fun.”
However, once she’s in the flow she can relax into writing. “I get very immersed in it. I wouldn’t bring social media into the equation. Once I’m in my work I enjoy it.”
Though she spurns Facebook. “When it started all those years ago, I set up an account and suddenly all these bitches from school wanted to be friends and I was horrified. I thought they’d left my life. I hated the thumbs up, thumbs down effect. I found it so cruel.”
Instagram is “less interactive. I find it frustrating that I can’t have conversations”. She does not enjoy the impeccably curated lifestyles of her fellow Instagram account holders.
“Twitter is very bruising. There are a lot of people who are perpetually angry and waiting for a reason to be enraged and Twitter is their happy place. I would say something that’s innocuous but you can’t account for how people experience it. Human beings are diverse and we have different sore points and triggers. There’s always a chance you make someone cross or upset.” Now and again Twitter can make her feel very low.
“It’s a double-edged sword. I get so much happiness and fun on Twitter. I am very shameable – if someone gives me a good telling me off, I take it on board.”
Social media has helped keep her keep up to date with the way people speak – slang and syntax, particularly useful for her new book (Grown Ups out in February) which has two characters who are 30- and 22-years-old.
It influenced her book, The Break, in which her character worked in PR and another was a beauty vlogger whose grandmother becomes an internet star. Overall, Twitter has made her more vigilant about language and representation. “The seven main characters in my new book are white. There are people of colour in the book but [social media’s] made me wonder if I could have done better.”
She used to use the word “mental” about herself (she has had depression), “but am more mindful and thoughtful. That’s not a bad thing at all. I’m a white, educated woman. I have privilege that for a lot of my life I wasn’t really aware of.” Social media has helped raise her profile, she says, among men who might have previously ignored her.
“The nice thing is that men who wouldn’t read my books if you put a gun to their head, follow me because I’m funny and that makes me happy. It’s making me more seen and accepted. Some of them say, ‘OK, I’m doing it. I’m buying one of your books.’ ”
Is that not irritating? “I’m not a bit offended. One of the lovely things about getting older, I can tell them that they’re wrong.”
In April, Lush, the cosmetics company, closed down its UK social media accounts. Before doing so they posted in Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts: “We are tired of fighting with algorithms and we do not want to pay to appear in your news feed.”
An audit of its social media accounts found that only 6 per cent of followers saw the company’s posts in their various feeds – which Lush says is because it refuses to pay for posts.
The company’s strategy in the UK is now to focus on its own platforms, including ecommerce and content. Jack Constantine, chief digital officer, says that “you can get misled by thinking you’ve got millions of followers but we were only reaching 6 per cent of them. Now there’s a middle man – the social media platforms who decide how to reach customers. We wanted to experiment to find out what works.”
The company believes that fans and customers are more likely to pay attention to good stories about the benefit of the products generated by customers. Mr Constantine cites the example of a post by a woman who showed photos of the effect of Lush’s Dream Cream on her baby’s eczema.
While the company does work with influencers, it says it does not pay them. Use of the hashtag #lushcommunity has increased 42 per cent since Lush switched the accounts off.
User votes on Lush’s own platforms have been far more popular than previous ones on Twitter and Instagram. The flipside is that the reach has nonetheless decreased.
“We were already seeing a downward trend – we’ve escalated it.” The company is going to work harder at improving search optimisation. “You want to plant the seed,” says Mr Constantine.
“We have a huge subreddit but owned by the community – we can’t go on and tell them stuff, they’ll tell us to go away.” So far the UK account switch off has not affected sales, the company says. – – Copyright Financial Times