I used to be a big fan of social media marketing. Work from home! Set your own hours! Work in your PJs, put on Netflix, and keep your baby at home. So convenient! (And a little like online dating.)
Sadly, there’s also a dark side to the social media hustle of the gig economy. Writers often overlook it because we so desperately want to work from home. Flexible work hours are like the new American dream.
For nearly four years, I worked from home as a writer for a social media management agency. Talk about gig economy — I got paid a flat rate per task, regardless of the time it took to finish.
I began writing for the startup around the time they first launched, and my client load steadily increased so that in less than a year, I became one of two full-time writers.
For a long time, I thought it was a good job. But I gave it an awful lot of extra credit for being better than it really was. This seems to be a common problem for writers, and practically anyone who’s first dipping their toes into this new American dream.
Yes, the main benefit was that I got to work from home, so I didn’t have to worry about putting my daughter in daycare — which was very important to me. She was just an infant when I began the work, and today she’s almost 5.
At first, the perks seemed to outweigh the drawbacks. I could take the job with me wherever and whenever I moved. And of course, since some friends ran the company, it initially felt like they cared about me and my daughter personally. There was a feeling of job security as if somebody cared that I had a big enough workload to pay the bills. These were nice people, so I never doubted they’d treat me decently as long as I submitted good work.
Whenever a client quit, I could count on getting replacements as new ones signed up. That in itself was such a big perk that it overshadowed some of the downsides I experienced in those early days.
Like not getting paid for every task.
Businesses are using contract workers however it suits them.
I should have been wary about the self-employed nature of the job from the start. Under the gig economy, an increasing number of businesses are relying upon “independent contractors.”
In my experience, you get treated like an employee whenever it suits the business, but not when it suits you. That means you might perform all of the day-to-day work, like writing the social media content and seeking out appropriate articles for the company’s clients. But there will be no room for growth.
Despite my non-employee status, I still had managers whom I reported to. They were salaried. The writers, designers, and editors were all contractors. We All had weekly due dates and the tasks were much more commonly micromanaged than typical contract work.
Of course, we received none of the perks of an employee. No benefits. We were responsible for payroll taxes. There was no paid training. Emails and meetings could suck away your time, all for zero pay.
It was a lot like that online boyfriend or girlfriend who defines your relationship however it suits them. If you bring up possibly needing more, they claim, "You knew what this was. Don't ruin a good thing."
Content mills take advantage of creators hoping to earn a real living.
When I first began the job, our pay seemed pretty straightforward. Some of it was quite low, but I didn’t know any better. So I went along with it.
They paid out $1.25 per social media post, which meant finding an appropriate and recent article for the client and writing a brief blurb about it for Facebook or whatever platform(s) the customer used. Most clients had 5–7 of these a week. Eventually, the company took on franchise clients, and for every “sub-account” under a franchise, that $1.25 was reduced by half. Each sub-account had to use different copy in the post or blog, but the links could be the same.
In the beginning, we also got $25 per 300-word blog post. Not every client had a blog, but those who did got two each month. About a year into the work, compensation for a blog was reduced to $10 although the blog length and standards increased for better SEO performance.
Writers also received a $20 setup fee for a new client on each applicable social media platform. This task included creating the copy for profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn. They later did away with this task which meant acquainting yourself with a new client was done on your time, and all unpaid.
Initially, every client with a blog also got a newsletter. That meant that I had to go into MailChimp every month to copy and paste content from the previous month into a newsletter, and send it out after an editor approved it. Although there was a $20 newsletter setup fee, there was no monthly recurring fee paid to me as a writer for creating a new newsletter every month or sending it.
At one point, I had 25 clients with blogs. That meant working on 25 monthly newsletters for zero pay. Management didn’t understand the problem because I wasn’t creating new content, it was just copying and pasting.
What a huge red flag. It took many conversations for anyone to understand what I was talking about when I said a writer shouldn’t have to do an unpaid task. Every newsletter took at least 10–20 minutes. Multiply that by 25 clients, and I was working for hours every month for free.
After much discussion, management begrudgingly announced that writers would get paid $7 per newsletter. It was hardly a win, however. They didn’t issue backpay, and they quit including newsletters in a client’s blog package. It became an add-on instead. And then a relic, since clients didn’t want to pay for it as an additional fee.
I never thought my Christian friends would run a content mill, until I actually worked for them.
To put the pay into perspective, a client with a “full package” was paying about $850 a month (plus a $700 setup fee) for daily posts on a few platforms, and two monthly blog posts. I received about $120 of that per month. And as time went on, most clients had smaller packages between $250 and $650 per month. Writers received a fraction of that pay despite doing the bulk of the actual day-to-day work.
Editors made even less. $0.25 (yes, cents) per post and $3 a blog.
Honestly? I never thought my Christian friends would run a content mill, until I actually worked for them.
And as it often goes in online dating, I realized that the company didn't care what was best for its people.
Independent contractors may suffer if they talk to startups about their pay.
While I stayed with the company for close to four years, this last year was particularly disconcerting. It all started when I dared to approach management about the fact that our compensation for a blog was cut from $25 down to $10.
As tactfully and diplomatically as possible, I tried to explain how the 60% pay cut had made it hard to research and write a quality piece. At every step along the way, I asked the other full-time writer what she felt, and if my tone was coming across alright before I sent any email. It turned out that she agreed, and enthusiastically asked for updates.
But she wouldn’t add her own two cents to management. I naively took on all of that risk myself.
Despite the fact that I repeatedly told my boss I knew a pay bump was unlikely, and that I was sorry to bring up something as awkward as pay, it seems that I really stepped in it, so to speak.
I began that conversation in the fall of 2017, and the topic basically fizzled out within a couple months. Unfortunately, my client load fizzled out right along with it.
They quit replacing clients for me, and my workload shrunk. I asked my manager if there was something I could improve to get more clients. He told me I was doing fine, and that they simply didn’t have enough clients to go around.
Oddly enough, they hired on six or seven new writers at that time. One of the writers began taking on new clients more quickly than anyone else. As my client list shrunk, hers grew exponentially. And then I found out that she was my manager’s sister.
The situation struck my editor as odd. No one could explain to me why I wasn’t being given new clients after years of devoted service. I began waking up with crushing anxiety that my daughter and I would wind up homeless again.
I decided to speak to my friend’s husband about the matter since he was one of the founders/owners and I’d lived in his attic one summer before I became a mom. I thought if anything, he would at least be honest with me about what was going on.
None of this would have gone over well with a real HR department.
According to the owner, I was performing just fine. He said my manager would have told him otherwise.
So why wasn’t I getting new clients?
The owner chalked it up to the idea that I wasn’t grateful for the work I got. He brought up the fact that I had gone to my manager about the blog pay reduction, and said, “People probably don’t feel like giving you more work when you don’t think we pay you enough.”
Even at the time, I couldn’t help but think of that conversation as an HR nightmare. The owner basically admitted I wasn’t getting new clients because I dared to offer feedback on the pay. He went onto tell me that my manager was a saint, and that I should apologize by email for the whole blog pay debacle.
I felt like I was trapped in a bad episode of The Twilight Zone. It was beyond weird. The rest of our conversation was essentially a lecture from the owner regarding social graces. Super great for an aspie like me. He said that I needed to remember I’d catch more flies with honey, and that I needed to change my tone if I was going to work in communications like social media.
I couldn’t help but think how misplaced his words would be if I were a man. He suggested that any misunderstanding regarding my intent was always my fault, because “it doesn’t matter how you intend it if one person misunderstands you.” I just wondered why the same damn thing didn’t apply to management.
To my shame, I was scared to death of losing my job, so I did everything the owner suggested. I apologized. Hell, I groveled. I didn’t say anything that could be misinterpreted as ungrateful. I was extra sweet.
All of it felt incredibly petty, like chatting with a potential date online who decides to punish you whenever you don't do exactly what they want.
When you’re an independent contractor, they don’t have to give you a reason for giving you less work.
None of my efforts to resolve the situation helped. The owner ended our call by promising to talk to my manager and getting me new clients.
What really happened?
I began to have clients taken away. All that groveling was useless. And despite being told I performed well, it suddenly seemed like I couldn’t do anything right. Ironically, the quality of my work was called into question after I went to the owner. And certain standards being applied to me were not applied to my coworkers.
Of course, when it came to the apology email, my manager told me he was never offended and never even thought I’d been ungrateful at all. No need to apologize, he said.
Funny how nothing anyone told me lined up.
The worst thing about the whole situation was that nobody would actually come out and tell me why they were cutting down my clients. At one point management accused me of linking to a client’s competitors. Knowing that I wasn’t doing that, I asked for an example of my error. They were never able to come up with one.
As a single mom who had depended upon this work for years, I felt deeply betrayed. I asked if I should start looking for another job. No answer.
I asked another manager what I could do better and explained that I wasn’t going to be able to afford preschool for my daughter as planned. She responded that it wasn’t appropriate to discuss pay. And again, gave no answer for what I was doing wrong.
By spring, my “saintly” manager’s sister had replaced me as one of the full-time writers. That’s when I realized the gig economy wasn’t as great as it once seemed. Being a contract worker, with employee treatment only when it benefits the company sucks.
Nobody deserves a toxic workplace.
Businesses within the big economy often forget that work culture matters even when it’s online. My old company became terribly toxic, and I wasn’t the only one to notice.
The other full-time writer quit talking to me once I confessed I was losing clients after bringing up the blog pay. I suppose she didn’t want to look guilty by association.
A newish manager was increasingly snippy to the point of being plain rude. Asking a question and then chastising me for my answer. Making mistakes but taking zero responsibility with qualms about putting errors all on me and my editor. Other people noticed problems too. They questioned how Christians could treat their workers so poorly, especially a single mom.
Were they trying to get me to quit? That was a common question asked by friends within and outside of the startup.
Within a year of bringing up the blog pay, I hated working there. It was miserable. I felt like I was on constant eggshells, and in a last ditch effort, I tried to talk to another owner. The first owner’s wife, and someone who was once my best friend in town. Or so I thought.
I asked for her advice on resolving the issue and she told me it was all in my head. It was one of the weirdest conversations of my life. Since she wasn’t actually working with the business anymore, she said she couldn’t give me advice on how to interpret the dynamic there. Yet she went onto tell me that any problem I thought I was having was nonsense, and that everyone else was trying to be professional. For the first time in ages, I stood up for myself and explained that I wasn’t the only person facing or observing issues in the company. And although I told her I didn’t want the situation to come between us and would have to agree to disagree, she quit speaking to me. Quit inviting me and my daughter over for the holidays.
Instead, she immediately vented to Facebook that she was such a nice and caring person but she didn’t have a magic wand to fix other people’s lives. Twenty+ people replied that she was the best and some people just didn’t want to help themselves.
Of course, I never wanted her to fix my life. I simply wanted advice as a woman with Asperger’s on what I could do to get new clients again because it felt like everything I said dug me further into a hole. I never understood why my questions were so taboo.
So I finally decided to call it quits.
The more I began to write here for myself, the more I knew I wanted to leave my social media marketing days behind.
I realized that I’d been breaking my back to write content I didn’t even like, and the money wasn’t that good. There were no opportunities for growth. No raises, no benefits, no appreciation. A writer like myself was entirely dispensable and clearly, I was vain to believe I deserved at least $25 for a single blog.
At the end of November, I developed pneumonia that went into December. I was exhausted and miserable. And for the first time, I genuinely couldn’t finish my social media work.
It was pretty damn frightening, but I realized that the time spent writing my own stories had become much more valuable than my contract work. Not to mention it was so much more fulfilling.
So I drafted an email resignation on December 16th. Of course, I thanked management for all of their help over the years and credited the job for getting me back on my feet after my crisis pregnancy.
Nothing says “thank you for your service” like the silent treatment.
To be fair, of the two managers I emailed, the newest one responded to ask if I would be willing to stay on in a lesser capacity. I declined. She was “nicer” than expected given her previous correspondence over the past year.
But my main manager, the one person at the company who worked with me the entire time I was there? He said nothing in response to my resignation.
Is it really so hard to wish someone well after four years of service?
He never once acknowledged my email. Never said thank you for my service, never wished me well… despite the fact that I thanked him and wished him well. And honestly? That stung enough for me to help affirm that the discord was never all in my head.
Maybe he really did want me to quit.
Then again, what do I know? I’ve basically been working since I was 14, and this is the first time a boss didn’t bother to thank me when I left. We were Facebook friends too, but he quit acknowledging me altogether.
Perhaps I’m just one more millennial expecting to be coddled, huh?
At any rate, I’ve learned to value my skills and not settle for peanuts when it comes to my writing goals. Plus, I can thank that experience in the gig economy for leading me to finally select a job that pays per reader engagement. I know, I know. Perhaps I’m just one more millennial expecting to be coddled, huh? Though technically I’m a “Zennial,” we might still be presumed an overly-entitled bunch.
Oh well. I still never want to sell myself short again. Let’s face it — I used to write blogs for small businesses that virtually nobody was going to read. For peanuts. These days, I get nearly 150,000 reads a month writing about whatever is on my mind, and make more than ever before. (Ahem. Knock on wood.)
It’s a helluva lot more satisfying if you ask me.
A lot of us have settled for shitty dates and shitty jobs with people who don't value our efforts. My advice?
Start valuing yourself.