The first time I tried social media, I didn’t really try it at all. The summer before college, because I was totally disinterested but my boyfriend lived in the 21st century, he made a Facebook profile for me. I used it mainly to send him private messages.
Now, six years into a career as an editor, I’ve caved enough to have a private Instagram account with exactly 116 followers (a number low enough that I count every one, like a four-year-old who reports she’s four-and-a-quarter); a pseudonymous Twitter I haven’t updated in two years; and a complete aversion to Snapchat—which, like all reasonable adults in the vicinity of 30, I don’t understand at all.
That being the case, it’s no surprise that I’m uneasy with the idea that a strong social media presence is essential to a career in traditional media, a landscape I was first drawn to in part because it didn’t look “social” (in the 21st century) at all. Crafting a personal brand still seems antithetical to the craft of reporting on others. If you’re too popular, I can’t help thinking you aren’t really doing your job.
So when people like Derek Blasberg (523,000 Instagram followers) and Eva Chen (601,000) are hired by legacy media outlets like Vanity Fair, or legacy-lite ones like Lucky, I get all sad-emoji. These are personalities—not journalists—known primarily for their ability to take selfies with Karlie Kloss and get more likes than the circulation of The New Yorker. I conveniently disregard their traditional media accomplishments (a New York Times bestseller for him; seven years at Teen Vogue for her) for bitter asides about the end of journalism in the age of the 140-character popularity contest. Social media simplifies complexity, flattens depth, abhors reflection, etc., etc. And when Lucky folds—two years after Chen is hired and 13 months after she shepherds its transformation into an e-commerce brand—I secretly feel big schadenfreude.
But I still wonder whether even David Remnick’s successor will be chosen less on the strength of her ideas than on the number of shares for her VSCO-cam’d pictures from St. Barts. And, looking at mainstream media’s abysmal favorability rating (last year, Gallup had us at 20 percent; only Congress got fewer likes), I wonder if that would be all bad.
After all, media, like government, should strive to be representative. One part of that is reflecting your audience, and another is engaging with it. This doesn’t mean it’s the media’s job to give the public solely what it wants. But it might not be a bad idea to understand those whom the public has told us understand them—in likes, follows, retweets, or however you voice approval on Snapchat. This is not, as is often stated, because ignoring readers is bad business, but because it’s bad democracy. Our patrician view that we know best—that an overwhelmingly white, Ivy League coterie can filter the news—has, in part, led to the current atmosphere of disjunction, disdain, and distrust that permeates our politics and our press. Ignoring the will of the people breaks bonds of trust and foments anti-establishment rage, creating an opening for those who would turn one us-against-them into an us-against-all. (See, e.g., Trump, Donald J.) Media that isn’t of and for its audience risks ceding it to twits who care about nothing but retweets. And if we’re so certain we know what’s in the public interest, we should be able to show why it’s interesting to the public.
Which brings us back to Blasberg and Chen. So far, likes have mainly translated to print-media jobs in the rarified realm of style, not often a beacon or bellwether of democracy. So far, too, Blasberg, Chen, and co. have mainly used their followings to merge media and commerce. Yet the rest of the fourth estate can still be informed by the connection they’ve forged with their audience—not to push products but to respond to needs. Meaningful aside: Under Chen’s leadership, Lucky became an e-commerce brand, yes, but it also featured exponentially more women of color on its covers than before. (Chen, perhaps unsurprisingly, is now on staff at Instagram.)
For every Eva Chen running Lucky into the ground or Dulce Candy hosting a vacuous Hillary forum (or Milo Yiannopoulos trolling on Twitter and Breitbart), there’s an Alicia Garza rising through the noise to found Black Lives Matter, and take journalists and politicians to task. Social media is velocity in need of vector, and while popularity isn’t the same thing as democracy, it isn’t the sole province of the demagogue either.
All of which is to say: Follow me?