March 12, 2010

Social Media Experts: A new opportunity or a new form of control?

Posted in Uncategorized at 1:20 am by Kira M. Newman

The past decade has seen the rise of a new job: the social media “guru,” who uses social media to market products and conduct consumer research.  Based on this job listing, I will analyze the new “social media expert” in light of Jenkins’s analysis of fan culture and Coté and Pybus’s discussion of immaterial labor.  I conclude that social media marketing, though it may seem insidious and invasive, has the potential to empower consumers because companies must adapt to their communication styles and practices.

Theoretical Background

Jenkins classifies fan fiction as a middle ground between avant-garde film – associated with experimentation and alternative cultural politics – and commercial film, like Star Wars.  The commercial aspect of fan fiction lies in its use of mainstream cultural material, which is reworked as amateur producers create new storylines, new characters, or spoofs.

Using this three-part framework, social networking could also be seen as a middle ground, between social interactions unmediated by private corporations (e.g., in person or on independent websites) and the commercial use of social media, or social media marketing.  For social networking, the commercial aspect lies not in the content but in the structure: Facebook, MySpace, and other companies determine what types of interactions and communication are possible among users.  Social networking is also commercial insofar as social media users, particularly technology professionals, “market” themselves using some of the same techniques pioneered by corporations.

This view of social media use, as a type of middle ground, is supported by Coté and Pybus.  They classify it as “immaterial labor,” labor that shapes cultural standards, fashions, norms, etc. (89), involving a constant tension between the “radical potential” of social media use (enabling the grassroots development of opinion and resistance) and its commercial aspects (how corporations like Facebook are capitalizing on their users’ social interactions).

If social media can fit into Jenkins’s three-part scheme, then recruiting social media users to become social media marketers is akin to how Lucasfilm recruited talent from within the Star Wars fan fiction community.  For Jenkins, this reflects how culture is becoming a cycle – where corporations influence fan culture, which in turn influences corporations – rather than a process of top-down production and control.  In the realm of social media, this would mean that social media users now have some influence over corporate marketing.


This HubSpot job listing suggests two ways that social media marketers are taking hints from social media culture.

First, its hip language and in-group references suggest that HubSpot wants to recruit talent from inside the social networking community.  The ad begins: “Are you an SEO freak?  Is SEOMoz your ESPN, Matt Cutts your Chris Berman and SES your Super Bowl?”; one of the job qualifications states, “You blow Dunbar’s number out of the water.”  When young digital natives are recruited as “social media experts,” they will have the power to influence marketing in new ways, rather than being subordinate to older executives with potentially inaccurate assumptions about new media and young people.

Second, the ad demonstrates how companies are trying to adapt to grassroots social media culture.  It states, “You will be evaluated based on your ability to grow organic search traffic and traffic from social media sites like LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.  You will have enormous freedom to figure out how to do this”; it later explains, “You must be smarter than your hiring manager.”  HubSpot will rely on its social media expert to speak to social media users in their own language, a language that HubSpot itself may not fully understand.  This means adapting to grassroots social media culture – users’ interests, styles of communication, community norms, etc.  For example, users will not read blog posts that are blatant marketing, or follow a company blog or Twitter account that is updated only once a month.  Because HubSpot’s social media marketer will be evaluated on whether his or her tactics generate user interaction, consumers have more power in determining how the company interacts with them.  This is made possible precisely by the nature of new media, which enable features like comments and counting page views, in contrast to older forms of advertising like TV commercials.


I have presented the positive potential of social media marketing because I suspect that critics will focus on its potential harms, but issues still remain.  Both Jenkins and Coté and Pybus present trichotomies: avant-garde film/fan fiction/commercial film, and radical activity/immaterial labor/commercial exploitation.  Whereas Jenkins sees three realms that beneficially influence one another, Coté and Pybus see them in tension and conflict.  If they are right, the commercialization of immaterial labor – in the form of “social media experts” – could be more harmful than beneficial.  Ultimately, though, it may be a question of social practice: how consumers respond to social media marketing and how companies respond to them.

What do you think?  How do you feel about social media marketing?  Is it inherently good or bad, or is its future yet to be determined?

Works Cited

Coté, Mark and Jennifer Pybus. “Learning to Immaterial Labour 2.0: MySpace and Social Networks.” Ephemera 7.1 (2007): 88-106.

Jenkins, Henry. “Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars?: Digital Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture.” Publications. 2003. MIT. 8 Mar. 2010 < People/henry3/starwars.html>

“SEO & Social Media Marketing Manager.” Careers. 2010. HubSpot, Inc. 8 Mar. 2010 <,Job&jvs=Indeed&jvk=Job>



  1. samschott said,

    Hey Kira-
    Really interesting post!
    For me, the reason there are perceived tensions within immaterial labor and not necessarily within fan fiction still comes down to choice and intention. Fan culture is really for no one but the fan. On the other hand, when social network advertising is used, the choice is removed from the person performing the immaterial labor.
    Advertising, like any other field, needs to adapt to changes in popular framework. However, I think that the tensions Cote and Pybus bring up are still present because the intentions behind the creation of new techniques (at the risk of romanticizing it too much) is not “pure” as it is in fan culture. It still feels wrong to have our immaterial labor used to someone else’s benefit, even if the techniques are being adapted in a bottom-up fashion.
    In addition, I wonder if this speaks to the need for everyone to become proficient in “computer” which we discussed earlier in the semester?

  2. kiranewman said,

    Hi Sam,

    Thanks for the comment. What you said about choice is interesting, and I think there is an intuitive difference between creating fan fiction and using social networking sites. But I’m not sure it’s a question of choice; users signing up with Facebook – in essence, signing a contract – should understand that they are giving Facebook the right to use their data in certain ways. The difference might lie more in the fact that, in fan fiction, the commercial and grassroots aspects are combined (in the content itself). In social networking, the “grassroots aspect” (the socializing) and the commercial aspect (corporations profiting off it) are clearly distinct, and the commercialization need not take place for social networking to occur at all.

    That said, the comparison I drew in my post (the two “trichotomies”) wasn’t meant to be all-encompassing. Socializing certainly operates differently than cultural production. But I thought it was useful to understand social media marketing.

    Anyone else have a response to Sam’s second question?

  3. coms340 said,

    You’ve taken a nice approach here. Seeing how Jenkins’ model adapts to this other situation is a great way to analyze what’s going on — making it easier to see/consider the differences between the two. I agree with Sam, there does seem to be a fundamental difference in intention. However, I wonder if, instead of fan production being more pure, it has anything to do with the fact that one generates a tangible thing. That is, network building for advertising produces a sales channel/sales relationship (and depending on the product, this relationship could potentially cease as soon as a sale had been made), while the fan produces a film, a ‘thing’ that might potentially stand outside of this relationship between the two ‘cultures’. In the latter case, intent seems to be bound up with the film itself, fans can identify directly with it, and less so, or not at all, with its creators. (The fan gets to hang out more with C3P0, R2D2, Chewbacca et al, and the creator has a ‘calling card’ that lands him a screenwriting, directing or editing job. The grassroots element lives on with the product.) In the former case, intent might be seen to be clearly directed towards gaining personal access first, and the product/service enters the scene therewith, or thereafter. The lastingness of this intangible relationship with the ‘hired gun’ middleman once the link has been made to the company seems to be an issue. (If it lasts, it’s kind of similar to getting calendars/christmas cards from your real estate agent!)

    Do you think the fact that the social marketing guru is now a ‘waged’ labourer for Hubspot changes things? For instance, Cote & Pybus might equate the social marketer’s activity to what MySpace does when it profits by selling community networks and taste/preference data to advertisers, perhaps no longer considering it immaterial labour. After all, Hubspot is recruiting gurus based on their networking ability in general, but not their affinity with any particular movements/community. What might this do to its grassroots credibility? It’s interesting to check out Hubspot’s ‘case studies’ client list (pools & spas, weight management consulting, golf academy, immigration attorney). Would the hired guru be able to opt out of a marketing arrangement if s/he was opposed to a particular company for whatever reason (environmental impact, hiring policies, personal taste)? What would their employment contract specify? I wonder if these gurus could ever be ‘free agents’ in the sense that fan creators usually are?

    One last thought: what’s really fascinating about social media/marketing is how it’s carving out new/redefining sociocultural ‘competencies’ — as you’ve pointed out, these are clearly emphasized in Hubspot’s job advert. Networking skills have always been valued, and institutions that support a kind of networking for social/commercial advancement do exist (consider fraternities, alumni associations, business bureaus, Tupperware parties, etc.), but perhaps they’ve not been measurable in this very overt/particular way. For instance, I came across an article the other day discussing a Best Buy job posting that had listed “must have 250+ followers on Twitter” among the required skills. What I wonder is, is this new focus on networking going to be limited to the marketing sphere, or is it going to become standard practice for any type of management/leadership role? Communications technologies have turned many so-called ‘knowledge workers’ into writers, editors, researchers, publishers, designers, etc., are they also going to have to do expert PR? These kinds of requirements make a lot of people immediately ineligible, despite their other qualifications. Unlike software skills or other ‘acquirable’ professional expertise that you could soft-sell on your resume (and perfect later), you can’t fudge your Twitter history! Are we ready for this?

  4. kiranewman said,

    Professor Mitchell,

    Thanks for the comments. Here are a few of my thoughts:

    1. I think your comment about the tangibility of the product makes sense, and can complement my reply to Sam. I said that the difference might lie in the fact that fan fiction combines commercial and grassroots aspects in the content itself (as you note, “The grassroots element lives on with the product”), whereas they are distinct in social networking. Your comment about tangibility helps further explain why we are wary of corporations profiting off our social interactions: since they are intangible, we do not view them as something to be capitalized on, resulting in a feeling of invasion or betrayal when they are.

    2. Yes, I do think that we cannot deny that immaterial labor changes when it becomes paid. It is no longer a social or leisure activity, but a professional activity with a specific, economic goal in mind. Paid social media marketers certainly have less freedom to express themselves and their ideas than do social network users, or fan fiction producers. But still, I saw some positive potential in the “enormous freedom” allegedly given to the social media marketer and in the fact that older corporations may not fully understand social media; that gives young employees at least some leeway in how they interact with consumers, rather than having every advertising message and its form dictated from above.

    3. I’m surprised by the Best Buy job posting! It’s an interesting question you raise. One thing to keep in mind is that, in a few decades, the people who are not familiar with Twitter and other social networking sites will retire, and corporations will be filled with digital natives. Although we might not be able to imagine most companies requiring “250+ followers on Twitter” now, it’s much more plausible in the future. But I still think that, for jobs where such things are truly irrelevant – say, a scientific researcher position – these qualifications won’t be required.

  5. coms340 said,

    Howdy again, and thanks for your responses! I see what you mean about the grassroots and commercial elements being distinct in social networking (I’m posting pics to share with my pals, at the same time that Kraft Dinner is asking me to take the KD Pledge in the righthand corner of my screen!)… but I also feel that the distinction is lost (or the grassroots element eroded) when Hubspot’s marketer enters my scene—it feels like advertising, and no longer socializing. You’re right to have us focus on the broader trend, though, suggesting a certain from-below infiltration by social media savvies—there’s certainly a potential there to make things more social and less commercial.

    It’s interesting that this emphasis on companies needing to adapt/get with the social media program becomes a generational thing. I do hope that more youthful involvement will bring about some attitude adjustments in corporate culture. I’m less optimistic that social networking—as a communications model—is enough, or the right way, to bring this about. There’s something about the grassroots part of social networking that seems to me to be lost if the type of tasteshapers/feedback facilitators sought are supposed to blow Dunbar’s number out of the water… I’m curious, does anyone feel differently about a FB user who has 812 friends as opposed to someone who has, say, 124? I wonder if some fine lines aren’t being drawn between networking/communicating and following/broadcasting. Just some thoughts!

  6. Hello!
    I feel like a lot of people use their Facebook page to construct an image of who they want to be. If they want to seem “popular” they will add as many friends as possible. To avoid tension or the awkwardness of declining the request, most people accept, even if they haven’t said more than 3 words to this person in real life. So I feel like when people have around 1,000 friends, Facebook users know that a large majority of them are not significant relationships. But because of the vast popularity of Facebook, if someone only has around 100 friends they may be dismissed as “unpopular” (unless they are parent).

  7. coms340 said,

    Ha-ha! Being a Gen-X’er and not a digital native — I’m getting the feeling there’s no place for me in the waged social networking future, and now I learn (sigh, my numbers prove it) I’m unpopular, too! Tough crowd! (…I’m joking!)

    Did you hear that baby boomers and seniors are fastest growing groups in social networking these days? Will young digital natives still be the ones managing the commercial socializing (in terms of updating the feed or blog and building networks), or will some other details come into play? What about age specific language or cultural references?

  8. jenniepapkin said,

    I think that we look to FB numbers and judge a person’s popularity, even if they don’t really relation to each other. I check the number of my Friends and compare it to others sometime. But I think its the same thing with the actual amount of friends we have in real life. Some people choose to only be friends with a few people who they are very close to. Some people have lots of friends but they’re more casual relationships. And we all judge each other in different ways.

    I think the fact that so many baby boomers are joining facebook is a sign that maybe facebook is starting to phase out as the most “hip” social networking site. These things always change and our generation is constantly moving to the next big thing. By the time everyone else has caught up, we’re already moving on.

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