A few weeks ago, when Twitter allowed users to apply for the famed blue tick verification, it seemed like every journalist and media industry worker on the app started applying for it. This was followed by days’ worth of conversations about whether or not those applications were accepted and while it started out as a bit of fun, it somehow transformed into something deeper.
Freelance journalist Zesha Saleem points out why verification became a huge issue on twitter. “Some people were really annoyed about being rejected and were trying to justify why they deserve it while others were saying none of this matters,” she notes of the different reactions she saw. Of course, part of this comes from the fact that online interactions have increased dramatically over the last two years as remote working has become the norm, and with physical social interactions also at a minimum, it seems online validation has become somewhat of a substitute for the social lives all of us were used to.
Diyora Shadijanova, Opinions editor at gal-dem, also shared her own mixed feeling when her account was verified, talking about how despite her acknowledgement that symbols such as getting a blue tick say nothing about the value of someone’s work, she couldn’t help but feel good about it. As an editor who regularly commissions freelancers, she was also quick to point out that whether or not a writer is verified has no impact on her decision to work with them.
But if getting work isn’t impacted by such ‘updates’ to our portfolios, what is it that drives the need to seek online validation. It’s not just twitter blue ticks either. The debate around finding validation online - particularly in the media industry - is linked to getting awards, having posts go viral and basically become a well known figure online. However, lately it seems that the lines between getting people to see your work, and linking those eyeballs to your self worth are getting increasingly blurry.
Saleem believes those blurred lines are the result of freelancers, and remote media workers having little to no conventional workplace support. “We freelancers can slip into simply relying on online validation as we don’t have a regular team, editor, workplace around us — that can then lead to toxicity,” she says. Online work has increased our dependence on social media as well, and oftentimes it becomes harder to differentiate the differences between sharing online for personal or professional reasons.
For Jack Ramage, editorial assistant at Screenshot Media, last year's lockdown and the stressful situation it created made it difficult for him to keep the two separate as “I’d literally put all my energy into work to take my mind off the uncontrollable and stressful situation that was surrounding me.” He adds that despite being able to work through those feelings, he firmly believes things should change. “ I think it’s a pretty toxic aspect of the industry and can seriously impact the wellbeing of freelance journalists - we should abolish this bullshit rise and grind culture,” he says.
Olivia James, who is a therapist and performance coach, believes the way in which we interact with and seek out online validation is linked to the instant satisfaction fast feedback can give us. “Online platforms give us fast feedback and our brain likes this. A post can go viral within hours. We can easily confuse online validation with tangible results like income while building a business and building a solid reputation offline can take more time and effort,” she says.
But that same feedback can make the work we’re meant to enjoy and feel satisfied by more and more exhausting. Earlier on in our careers, we start off passionate about doing work we believe in, but for online media workers - burnout can come just as fast. Saleem shares that she recently felt the need to take a break from Twitter because the constant need to be part of online discourse was becoming overwhelming. “Since then it’s helped me with not being online as much so I can go through a whole day without going on it and won’t feel a thing,” she shares.
James shares that these negative feelings towards social media are far more common than we realise. While seeing online forms of validation can create feelings of competition between individuals who may feel like others are getting a break, the emotional impact of that is often not discussed as much. “Very popular YouTubers burn out, they feel at mercy of The Algorithm, causing them to feel anxious, exhausted and depressed,” she says.
Of course it's practically impossible to separate yourself from your work in the media, particularly when you want people to buy into your values and who you are. For Catherine Warrilow, who’s worked in PR, media and marketing for over 20 years - that’s what makes linked in and online networking so interesting to navigate.“I do seek validation from others who are like minded because it helps to build my network of people who share my values - essentially by doing so, my network becomes more relevant and more engaged - as a result I know it gives me a far stronger network of suppliers, employers, advocates - and that I can offer value in return as well,” she says.
Warrilow has experienced a major shift to online interactions over the course of her work but it is the last 18 months that stand out the most and she adds, “ I know, especially from recent experience, that the more of myself that I share, the better reception I get - and that validation that many of us seek is very apparent.” Despite engaging actively online and opening up her personal life to her followers, Warrilow’s self awareness on what this validation can mean to us lets her set important boundaries - which those who are newer to the industry may struggle to do as they seek to leave their mark on the online world.
As a professional, James is quick to point out that while vulnerability may be trending, everything we do online leaves a digital footprint. For Saleem, navigating that means keeping her platforms separate. “I keep my Instagram as personal as possible so I try not to use it for journalism purposes as much as I can and my Twitter is only for work,” she shares. Ramage also shares the rules he sets for himself to make sure he doesn’t fall into the trap of letting his work define him. “My own set goals are the things that really impact my emotions - if I set a goal to land a certain commission and then land it or achieve a certain amount of commissions a month,” he says.
While awards and accolades undoubtedly feel great, allowing them to dominate what being a media worker can mean can be dangerous for early career journalists by impacting their mental health and risks reducing important media work to the number of likes on the screen. It’s important to appreciate other people’s wins and enjoy the accolades without letting them define us.
Anmol is a Muslim Pakistani freelance journalist and the founder of Perspective Magazine. Her work focuses on exploring media diversity, global feminist movements, and more.