I Work For a Computer: Explaining Web Jobs to the Internet-Illiterate
When I was in high school, explaining the minimum wage drudge work of my successive summer jobs was pretty straight forward. I’d simply smile at my first grade teacher, elderly neighbor, or distant relative and explain — I’m a cashier, or I shelf textbooks, or I pick up used diapers in the amusement park parking lot. But everything seems to get more complicated after graduation, including, it turns out, work-related small talk. How to explain, for example, my weekend gig posting breaking celebrity gossip to a TV website to my 90 year old grandfather, who has only a basic grasp of what a computer is? Whose last brief brush with any sort of pop culture was buying me a Harry Potter book, and who will proudly flaunt this connection by working it into conversation referencing it not as a series I read as a kid, but instead as a childhood friend, as in “How’s that Harry Potter fellow doing?”
How can I describe my work as an intern managing a site’s social media platforms to my dad who I’ve been trying to teach how to cut and past for nearly a decade and is deeply troubled by Facebook’s friend suggestions (“How do they know I know Steve?”)?
When my Grandpy comes across me working at my laptop and asks what I’m doing, I normally begin a slow point-by-point translation of my position using my Generation-Y-to-the-Greatest-Generation dictionary.
“I work for a newspaper,” I’ll say.
“A news paper!”
“It’s a newspaper inside that computer.”
“On the internet.”
“And they pay you?”
The last question is something web writers and social media workers are asked by all age demographics. Lot’s of people have blogs. Their cousin in Oregon has a blog about cats, but she still has a real job in insurance. Your little cousin has a Facebook and she tweets, and no one’s paying her. And didn’t you go to school for English? Why aren’t you a high school English teacher yet?
It would be easy to get indignant about these questions if they weren’t running through my head before they were asked. More than once I’ve found myself thinking wistfully of the simplicity of my summer as a trash picker. I arrived, there was a lot of trash, I worked for eight hours, and when I left, there was significantly less trash. I never worried there wouldn’t be enough trash the next day, or had any trouble assessing my performance.
And while it would be easy to think these questions of self doubt are unique to web-writers and social media workers, I think the question of career validity would plague any Gen Yer who doesn’t have what I think of a “kindergarden job.” Sitting in my kindergarden classroom staring at the career themed wall decorations, I was very sure of what options my future held. I could be a policeman, fireman, businessman, teacher, vet, doctor, lawyer, or ballerina (I have no idea what that one was doing there). Fifteen years later though my peers and I have realized there’s a myriad of other job opportunities with new ones being created every day, but those are still the titles that can be dropped without explanation at a family reunion or a cocktail party. They’re the positions you find on the back of Life cards, the ones that are portrayed on TV shows, the ones that conjure up an instant respectable identity. Do you know what image web writer brings up? Carrie Bradshaw. And at least we have that. Social media consultants just have a hazy image of the top scorer for Farmville.
And yet we perform a service. We create content that attracts traffic, or we drive traffic, to certain sites that sponsor ads, and people click on or influenced by those ads, and commerce happens in a way I don’t fully understand because I was an English major and I never took an Econ class, and because of that money comes in, money that’s allotted to us for our part in the process. Just like any other job.
I could take the time to explain what I do when it comes up in an exchange of pleasantries but really, in short polite conversation, people don’t really want to know. So in order to be ready for the meet and greets of everyday life in a country often mocked for the weight we give the question “What do you do?” I’ve developed an ever changing business card altered with sharpie for different occasions.
On a first date I’m an aspiring writer. Have they heard of Gawker? I’d like to write for a website like Gawker. They haven’t heard of Gawker? I’d like to write books.
When I call my parents, I’m an actual writer. I write things about books and movies and Selena Gomez. I definitely do not write about condom necklaces and furries.
When I run into an old teacher, I’m a journalist. I try to carry a small notepad and pencil when I go to my hometown grocery store in case I need evidence.
And when I’m explaining my job to my grandfather, I’m a wizard. A wizard who put a newspaper in the computer, and who learned all she knows from that old beau of mine, Harry Potter.
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