The great museum social media manager exodus

Lori Byrd-McDevitt
Aug 7 · 7 min read

There’s a serious problem in one particular niche of the museum sector. And it’s about time someone takes notice.

Quietly, and one by one, groundbreaking leaders of the museum social media community are leaving their positions at prestigious institutions for jobs outside of the cultural sector. When announced, each has been a shocking revelation — many have graduate degrees in museum studies; they all are leaving what most consider a “dream job;” and when it comes to producing social media content, museums are an embarrassment of riches.
But is it so shocking?

At what cost?

Before we get to why this is happening. Let’s first take stock of the immense intellectual value that the museum social media community has lost over the past few years. This list includes Webby award winners, media darlings, international keynote speakers, best practice-establishing pros, and quite literally the best of the best in not only museum social media, but in social media in general.

  • Whether Ryan is putting the Royal Ontario Museum’s T. rex on Tinder or is taking a stand against diminishing social media manager pet names, he’s always one step ahead. After social media-ing so well that he was in the CBC press, he’s now working for them.
  • The pro behind the impactful Field Museum #DayOfFacts video, which was a campaign organized across the #musesocial community, Lucille also made the unshakeable Sue the T. rex weep when she departed the museum.
  • The voice of the MERL made us all liars when we say, “things don’t just go viral.” Because a sheep did. And a bat. And other things. Adam made us raise our game, right before he was poached by meme-loving Elon Musk to be Tesla’s new social media manager.
  • If you wanted a museum’s social channels to truly feel like a friend, Drew’s mastery of Balboa Park was it. And he also shared that mastery with the #musesocial field — helping us navigate Snapchat, collaborate with one another, and be better storytellers.
  • As one of the first museums on Snapchat, Alie’s creativity at the Blanton helped the rest of us get over our fears of diving in. On top of the trending topics, all-in on the puns, and in-the-know on pop culture, she’s now utilizing her genius at Khoros, a social media management software.
  • During her time at the US Holocaust Museum, Elissa turned her voice and expertise into a megaphone for true co-creation and human-centered museum experiences. She stuck around the greater museum field for three more years in digital visitor experience and education work before taking off for full-time UX work in civic tech.
  • If you’re a social media manager who isn’t intimidated by the level of hipness that is LACMA’s social channels, then you’re not doing it right. Lucy is behind LACMA’s epic moments. She is now consulting and helping spread her awesomeness around.
  • Challenging the opinion that museum visitors aren’t engaging with objects when on their phones, the National Gallery of Art’s Meagan has inspired others to take the slow looking trend virtual. She’s made it clear that an educator who’s also a social media manager is not to be messed with.
  • With the Tumblr blog Black Contemporary Art, Kimberly had already made a name for herself before the Met, and has certainly made a name for herself after. Most relevant to this discussion, her keynote at the American Alliance of Museums sparked an avalanche of crowdsourced transparency around museum salaries that caught big-time attention.
  • It’s weird to add myself, so this is me not doing that. I’ll point out one thing. After admin-ing the Museum Social Media Managers Facebook Group for six years and seeing it grow to over 4,000, I’ve seen countless inspiring projects, impactful collaborations, and social media managers saving the day. I’ve also seen many instances of gracefully handling mean customers online while simultaneously dealing with unsupportive staff.

Let’s let that list sink in a little bit. Then consider that it’s not an exhaustive list. Then consider that next week another leader in the #musesocial sector will likely make a similar announcement. Has it sunk in yet?

So, why isn’t this shocking?

  1. Burnout and mental wellbeing are not proactively addressed.

We know this one. Russell spoke for us all when he put his foot down and said, “Enough is enough.” But we need to keep saying it. Social media managers in general are known to have an unhealthy work-life balance that is an inherent vice within this role. Add the expectations of an under-resourced museum to the mix (see below), and you have a tinderbox of anxiety waiting to explode.

Things to remember: It’s not your fault. It’s not that you “just can’t handle it.”

What needs to be fixed: Employers need to take the impetus to help social media managers avoid burnout. This is especially true in museums where one individual might be juggling multiple jobs in one or may be the central point of content for many departments. I’m done with articles telling me what I should do to avoid burnout. Start writing articles sharing what they should do to help prevent it, and increase my emotional wellbeing to boot.

The prevalence of this meme is not fine.

2. It’s hard to be under-resourced and unvalued, yet overworked.

Museums have this funny problem of needing to keep up with the Joneses (other leisure time activities) but refusing to play in the same sandbox. For museum social media managers, it means keeping up with companies like Coca Cola and Disney with .01% of the budget that these monster accounts have…or sometimes no budget at all. Generally speaking, this is because museum leadership has been slow to understand the importance of digital as compared to traditional media, or the impact of social as a first touchpoint.

The lack of financial resources extends to a lack of perceived value in a social media managers’ expertise, too. It’s easy for them to call upon the “social media guru” (reminder: don’t ever call us this) when they want some cheeky idea, and then dismiss them when they bring up an industry trend that may not align with their established thinking.

Things to remember: The mix of skills needed to be a social media professional makes you a valuable asset. Your expertise is worthy of respect.

What needs to be fixed: Social media managers need to be appreciated as the gateway to our communities, the voices of our missions, and the crucial communicators in times of crisis. It is hugely problematic that they are not at the table for every decision that impacts community engagement, museum messaging, or a sensitive topic. Sadly, some team members must be reminded to not dismiss a profession that they think “anyone can do.” (It’s this mindset that needs the most help!) Respect the expertise of the social media professional as you would anyone else — is that so much to ask?

Social media managers need to be appreciated as the gateway to our communities, the voices of our missions, and the crucial communicators in times of crisis.

3. There’s work elsewhere — a lot of it.

This great exodus out of museums is not unique to social media managers by any means. It extends to every department in the museum field. So much so that there are multiple presentations about the phenomenon at upcoming conferences this year. Museum social media managers have it a little easier than others because there’s a lot of opportunity to move into a similar role within a better paying field. In fact, because of the nature of our work, our savvy digital presences’ often accidentally land us job offers when we weren’t even looking. Sure does make it hard to say “no” when you’re currently being overworked and unvalued, right?

Things to remember: You’re not ungrateful because you’re unsatisfied with your “dream museum job.” If the mission is keeping you, stay. If not, leave.

What needs to be fixed: Well, you might’ve heard this little rumble about museum wages being pretty crappy. Let’s start there. If museum jobs paid better overall, then headhunters wouldn’t have such an easy time pulling us away from the sector. The mission brings us in. That, the content, and the community keep us around for awhile. But you can’t pay the bills with rainbows and glitter (even if it’s that perfect Instagram Story gif that makes your post extra sparkly).

The arrow from “museum” to “money” is a fallacy.

Where to now?

One thing museum social media managers know — when our collective powers combine, we’re unstoppable. How many times have we decided to make something trend on Twitter, and then we just…did? And let’s not forget our museum colleagues who bravely led the charge on social media for many social justice and political issues, allowing us the opportunity to support them with museum accounts. We celebrate one another, support each other, and cry together through trying times.

None of that has changed.

In our community, I’ve gotten into the habit of saying, “Once in #musesocial, always in #musesocial!” When someone moves on from a job, they’re not leaving us. That’s what’s so brilliant about online communities. We still have our same personal Twitter handles — we just have new, unique perspectives to share.

What does need to change is the way that museum social media managers are treated. If more people take notice, and quickly, maybe museums won’t find themselves completely drained of the leaders in the museum social media community. Luckily, there are still many doing their jobs — and being awesome at it. Go send them some love, will you?

Lori Byrd-McDevitt

Written by

Online community + open culture researcher. Social media + digital marketing strategist. Teaching @JHMuseumStudies. Formerly @TCMIndy. #musesocial #glamwiki

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade