• Sunday, July 21, 2024
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Money, trolls, timewasting: the impact of social media on work

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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 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-on, 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.

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 108m) 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 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.

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 — speech recognition errors — 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.”

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.”