About a month ago Cathryn Sloane penned one of the most polarizing articles written about social media in recent memory. The premise was that companies should not hire anyone over 25 to handle their social media management because a younger person is more in tune with social media.
Since the NextGenJournal, where the article was published, has a Facebook commenting system, a few angry comments ended up snowballing into one of the most shared social media articles of the year. It was commented on by pretty much anyone associated with digital media or marketing. It spawned deep discussions about ageism and the benefits of hiring people from certain generations.
Recent college graduates say that older people are ignorant when it comes to technology, and would leave their VCRs flashing on 12:00 if they didn’t have college aged children to program it for them. Older professionals like to think of college graduates as drunken Dude-bros who stay up too late, dress inappropriately, have too many tattoos and watch Jersey Shore.
The ageism discussion in social media has become one of the most blatant displays of confirmation bias aside from politics that we’ve witnessed in 2012. Generalizations never provide insight, and in some cases just seem like blog fodder for people who want to become as popular as Cathryn Sloane. I avoided commenting on the post for several weeks because it seemed like everyone wanted a piece of it, but I realized that my story was actually a unique spin on ageism.
I’ve Lost My Bias Because I Don’t Fit in Your Groups
Since I started doing web development and consulting once again I’ve felt more like the experienced fossil than the drunken frat kid. I started working in digital marketing and web development when I was 14, and since my websites became so popular as a kid I got a firsthand education and learned my lessons the hard way; very quickly. I’m still dumbfounded by the fact that my first successful Internet project had a larger community and a lot more traffic than all but a handful of blogs I visit today – including this one. I am not sure if Facebook has encroached on traffic to websites, or if wrestling was just that popular. I could only imagine how things would have turned out if the Internet was as thoroughly networked in 1999 as it is today. “Why You Shouldn’t Let a 14 Year Old Run Your Company’s Digital Strategy” would be an article about me instead of written by me.
The writers would have encountered a problem though; I knew more kids under 20 that were considered a “Webmaster” than I did people who were over 20. Back then the barrier for entry was higher. You had to have legitimate web development skills or hire a professional before you could call yourself anything on the Internet. Teenagers actually took the time to learn code. You may be even more surprised to know that teenagers weren’t just handling a large amount of online promotion for small businesses, and some of us actually faired quite well.
I built an impressive portfolio of features and achievements, but ultimately I was an example of why maturity is an important personality trait in PR. The first year I operated a decent sized website I managed to alienate a whole community (which was effectively half my target audience), my website was destroyed because my shared hosting was literally shared hosting with another website, I effectively built an advertiser’s bill up to nearly a million dollars, and I never got paid a dime because I had set up my website in a way that every visitor also visited an advertiser (which was unethical, but I thought it was kosher as a bright eyed adolescent – they were buying web traffic right?). It reminds me of an old saying: “Any man can make a million dollars, but it takes a smart man to keep it”. I wouldn’t have had anything to lose if I hadn’t done so well at building it. My mistakes had more to do with my attitude than it did with inexperience, and so did Cathryn Sloane’s.
My Partner at the time was instrumental in teaching me how to act as a leader. He was approximately 55 at the time that we developed the AWS, and like the stereotype would indicate, teamed up with me because as a teenager I had a better grasp on various technologies. Without his direction, I would have never been able to make it as far as I have. I hate to think that thousands of people over 40 wouldn’t even consider hiring someone because they’re too young. We have so much to learn from other generations that I see any type of discrimination based on age as a major weakness.
So I would have agreed with our hypothetical columnist that 14 year olds shouldn’t run your digital marketing; but a year later when I was 15 I was back at it, and went through the entire year sporting a flawless record with PR. Being politically correct and not being a jealous little brat is a hard lesson for some 8th graders to learn, but it’s really not that complicated when you think about it.
How to Win With People at Any Age
So does that mean that 15 is the magic age when someone becomes proficient at being placed in a customer facing marketing role? We’ve figured it out, and now you can recruit your digital marketing employees straight out of Sophomore Biology. I would say no, but the whole idea was that no one ever explained to me a few very simple rules about being a community manager.
- Always be nice to people and think carefully about possible consequences before you say or do anything.
- As a community manager, it’s best to remove yourself from trivial community discussion. Stay objective, avoid taking sides, and respond quickly when someone is breaking rules that affect the experience of other community members.
- Lose the ego. Just because you have a platform with reach doesn’t mean that your opinion is more valid than anyone else’s.
- Respect your competitors, detractors of your own brand, your community, and especially the people who contribute to it.
- Always, and I mean always read and understand Terms of Service. You never know when you’re missing key information that could cost you big.
It really wasn’t rocket science, but the most important contributor to my learning was experience. Not the 15 years of experience that 40 year olds hold in such high regard, but the sudden experience of failure. When I was 14 you couldn’t convince me that I didn’t have all the answers or that I could be my own worst enemy. Experience isn’t about knowing all the answers, it’s about realizing that you can’t have an answer for everything. I find it odd that I learned the very rules that keep me from becoming a bad social media marketing meme 10 years ago. I find it even more surprising that some of my counterparts back then excelled at all this and handled their communities magnificently, even though they were teenagers.
Only Hiring Senior Citizens or a Good Way to Miss Out on Child Prodigies?
At 27 I can truthfully say that I have been handling digital marketing for over 10 years; which is exactly why these overzealous college graduates are lashing out at the elderly in ill-advised blog posts fueled by ageism. When they apply for a job, the person doing the hiring doesn’t consider them for lack of experience. That’s a totally understandable reaction, and I’m not sure why it would surprise anyone who just graduated from college to get turned down by a business that clearly states that they require 5 years of experience in their employment listing. I’ve always been a firm believer in paying your dues. Even though I’d like to say that all my experience means I’m going to do a better job than someone that just came on the scene, it’s another false generalization that fits into this scheme.
The only reason I found myself in the position of handling the online promotion and community management for several websites at the age of 15 is because I was a wrestling fan. I joined a community that was hosted on a message board, and learned HTML to build us a website. For about a month I spent every waking hour working on various websites, and it was all pertaining to my hobby. One of the websites was a fantasy wrestling website styled as a school, and since I had a partner to handle much of the community management I was able to dedicate my time to promotion and ended up building several sustainable streams of traffic that equaled a small nation.
I almost instantly became an authority on web development and promotion within that niche, and people started contacting me every day asking for advice. It was a huge ego boost, so I began to take myself seriously. One day a kid named Steve Heady contacted me and asked how to go about setting up a community networking website. As self-importantly as I could I rattled off about 10 tips that I had got during my tenure as a webmaster and by studying how other websites had built theirs, and I thought to myself that it was a waste of time. I didn’t consider the success I had to come easy, amd he was going from having no experience in graphic design or community management and operating on a free message board to developing a self-hosted community on his own domain.
Within a month Steve opened Wrestlecell, and as my community was falling apart due to some bad decisions, burn out and my own stupidity / lack of interest, Steve designed one of the most graphically stunning, well branded and well run communities I have ever seen (even considering sites and communities that have been built since then.) He had a natural gift for graphic design, and his personality was well suited for community management. It just came natural to him to respect everyone, even though he was just a teenager. He may have learned those hard lessons before his tenth birthday, but I’m more inclined to think that it just came naturally for him.
Of course Steve is the exception, not the rule; but generalizing a whole generation because Forbes published an article about an intern drunk texting on a large corporation’s Twitter, or basing your opinion on the fact that you disagree with Cathryn Sloane so you want to promote a polar opposite viewpoint is selfish and short sighted. You may be missing out on the 23 year old Steve Heady, who would not only outperform anyone on your social media team, but also has a portfolio of development and community conquests that rivals, and likely exceeds potential candidates of any generation.
I have an 18 year old, Zachary Brown, helping me moderate the Social Media Sun Facebook group. He also has developed two social networks on his own already, a dating website and a blogging platform called Scribbler. Zach knows how to program in about a dozen programming languages, even when most individuals selling “social media management” and other products online don’t even know what languages Facebook is written in. I’ve dabbled in both sides of the aisle, and believe me when I say that there are a lot fewer people capable of programming than there are people capable of developing a Facebook campaign. That’s comparing apples and oranges, but to think that your skill is the only one in the world that is impossible for a college student to become proficient at is wrong.
I’m more prone to help a teenager because his situation is very similar to mine when I was his age. I feel like I was an adequate community manager at 18, so I have faith that he could be too; and so far I’m right. If you’re 35 and managers didn’t give you the opportunity to mess up when you were young, it probably had more to do with you than your age. The same goes for the 23 year-olds running around writing blog posts. Prove yourself every time out and you’ll get your shot, probably sooner than later.
Solid Gold: Oldies but Goodies
On the flipside of this, I find it ridiculous that anyone would say that baby boomers shouldn’t be put in positions managing social media. My mom’s boyfriend was the person who showed me how to use Yahoo! in 1998 to find websites about wrestling. I didn’t realize it then, but one of the first widespread uses of computers was in engineering and drafting (which happens to be my day job now). The business I work for started using computers in the early 90s, and we still have a wide array of digitizing devices, dot matrix printers, taped backups and other obsolete technology that most recent college grads wouldn’t even know how to turn on. The guys who were in their early 30s at that time are now in their 50s, and even though some don’t enjoy adopting new versions of programs because they’re familiar with an older version, they all have had to stay up to date with the technology to stay in a job.
The whole basis of the recent graduate’s argument is that since they grew up with technology they’re somehow better suited for jobs that honestly don’t even require that much technical knowledge. I could teach my grandma, who has never saw a computer, how to post to Facebook and Twitter in less than 10 minutes. The most important skills involved with community management and marketing stem from topical fundamentals that were often taken from print media, and customer interaction procedures that were developed decades ago. When someone says they were doing brand development in the 1980s, they aren’t lying. The channels have changed, but the fact that you’re delivering a message and responding to feedback hasn’t. The most basic concepts of sociology and psychology haven’t, which are the little things that we’ve learned about interacting with others, either consciously or subconsciously, that make us good at social media.
So What’s the Verdict?
I don’t like to try and re-phrase something when someone else has said it perfectly, so I’ll leave you with this piece of wisdom from Mari Smith.
“I’m not big on generalizations about age. Successful Social Media takes a mature & responsible approach regardless of age.” – Mari Smith
I think the problem boils down to young people not wanting to pay their dues and older people knowing the value of youth, but having no incentive to acknowledge it. Of course you’re better off at 40 than you were at 23; if you aren’t, then you made some terrible mistakes during your career. That doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have handled the same job at 23, and it doesn’t mean that a 23 year old can out perform you in some ways now.
I would give anything to have the creativity and motivation that I had at 16 with the relative wisdom and direction that I have at 27. Those are all things that an organization needs, and ultimately continuing the cycle of promotion, apprenticeship and teaching is more important than arguing over which age group is better.
I’ll leave you with 2 of the industry leaders…. in 1990s wrestling websites. They’re both still in tech fields, and they were both young when they were running websites that competed with mine.
Jamie Kosoy- Parsons School of Design