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Can you be too old to “get” social media? (Or too young to “get” wine?)


Cathryn Sloane has written a strong, passionate and incisive column on her belief “Why Every Social Media Manager Should Be Under 25.”

Published in nextgen journal, an online pub that describes itself as “the website for the ‘next generation’- our generation,” Sloane’s argument is as controversial as it is compelling. In my comment on it, I want to emphasize, first and foremost, that I accept much of what Cathryn says. She points out, for instance, that her generation (she seems to be in her early or mid-twenties) “spent our adolescence growing up with social media” in such a way as “to make the best/correct use of it [come] most naturally to us.” Because of this, she concludes, “The mere fact that my generation has been up close and personal with all these developments over the years should make clear enough that we are the ones who can best predict, execute, and utilize the finest developments to come.”

What partiquely piques Sloane, she writes, is when she sees “a job posting for a Social Media Manager/Associate/etc. and find the employer is looking for five to ten years of direct experience…”. Which makes her wonder, she adds, “why they don’t realize the candidates who are in fact best suited for the position actually aren’t old enough to have that much experience.”

She has a point. In mathematics it’s a truism that if you haven’t done your best work by age 30, you probably never will. The history of Silicon Valley is one of extraordinary invention by teenagers and twenty-something geniuses. Kids can pick up second and third languages almost overnight; the older you get, the harder it is. In many fields of creative thinking, youth is, indeed, a factor. The aging human brain may increase its powers of subtlety, power and talent in particular fields [visual artists, for example, frequently do their best work in later age], but in doing so, it often loses that brilliant burst of creative insight that may characterize the young mind.

Sloan’s essay reminds me of the trepidation I often feel regarding my own use of social media. I still find it intimidating and confusing, even though I blog, tweet and Facebook everyday. I don’t necessarily wish I were 23 again, but when it comes to social media, if I were, I would understand its intricacies a lot better than I do now. But then, I never claimed to have the qualifications to be a social media manager, or to want to be one, for that matter.

Still, I wonder why facility in the use of social media isn’t something that can’t be learned. It doesn’t seem to me to be equatable with, say, learning a foreign language. On a scale of one to ten, learning how to boil water is a 1; learning Mandarin is a 10; learning social media adequately enough to be a winery social media director is probably a 6. To put it another way, one doesn’t have to grow up in China speaking Mandarin to learn it well enough to go to work for an investment bank in Hong Kong, as an acquaintance of mine did. He mastered it enough (and Japanese, before that, when he was stationed in Tokyo) to now run his bank’s Asia division.

If social media directors should only be under 25, then why isn’t it fair to say that professional wine critics should only be over 35 or 40? After all, to do this job really well demands extensive knowledge, not only of the wines you review but the history of the regions, terroir, and winemakers (not to mention the development of a sound writing style). A 22-year old can set up a blog and start “reviewing” wine, but why would it be wrong for me to use Sloane’s argument, in reverse, and say that person simply is too young to tackle a job that requires so much experience if it is to be done right?

Just wondering…

  1. Steve,
    someone who hasn’t followed our give-and-take would think I’m patronizing you, but this is a beautiful piece of reasoning; content and frequency of posting make this (in my opinion) the most challenging wine blog out there.
    Adding my two cents: I have two sons, both deeply into social media, but my concern parallels our nation’s history, including its forms of communication, and this generation’s tendency to scorn the past by cutting-out its context; depth and wisdom don’t come by surfing shallow technological waves, but by stitching together insights and applications that gave rise to our current technologies, even as a great old vine’s roots dig into the dirt, sometimes hundreds of years and many feet into the ground. Working together is not new, but sage.

  2. Hi,

    Interesting piece. I have to agree more with you than the 20-something woman you are writing about. Social media can easily be learned (unless you need to know code… that’s a whole other issue). What can’t be easily learned is expertise in a specific subject (like wine, finance, politics) as well as the ability to connect with an audience. On the other hand, even if you are an expert in something, if you have poor communication skills it doesn’t matter how much you know, you won’t find an audience.

    And the audience isn’t dumb. They will be able to weed out the 20-something wine “reviewers” from the actual experts like yourself.

  3. I second Lara. It’s nice that young folks understand the technology so well having grown up with it but in the end you have to write something interesting on your Facebook-Twitter-blog pages to keep them coming back. If I may generalize about young folks, they don’t always have enough experience to write compelling bits that they then publish via social media. As a writer myself, I know my whole life experience helps me write well for my own social media outlets. Facility with technology does not equal having something interesting to say, which I believe is also the job of the social media expert. Content is king, baby.

  4. Rachel: Yes, content is king (or queen, as the case may be). Always has been, always will be, no matter what the medium is.

  5. A resounding “Yes” to both titular questions.
    Addendum: you can also be too stupid, too stubborn, and too rooted in a worldview that prevents understanding of both.

  6. I don’t think you can be too old to understand social media, though the learning curve make be more challenging for someone who doesn’t spend a lot of time on social media (which is probably correlated with age). We recently had a woman who oversaw social media and she was over 25 (I won’t reveal her real age). She clearly understood how to interact with people on social media. Whereas we also have a 22-year old intern who is not as social media savvy because he hasn’t spent a lot of time on there, but he has learned very quickly.

    At the end of the day, like most marketing, it is about understanding your customer. If you are a social media manager for Flipflop wines that is trying to build up a following of 25-30 year olds, I think it might be great to hire a 25-year old with less wine knowledge. But if you are an Argentine importer who is looking to engage with bloggers and other wine trade via social media, I might look for the more wine-savvy person who is excited to learn the social media skills.

  7. Sorry I don’t buy her thesis it’s the “don’t trust anyone over 30” thesis all over again, well we all know what happened when we hit 31, we were 31. I had a Macintosh Computer that the data and OS was on the same disc, but that doesn’t make me an Apple fanboy it was a tool no more no less than the MacBook Pro I’m using today, I watched and understood twitter, facebook, etc day one with older eyes that may be more discerning.

    On the other note, I know some very good 22-25 year old palates that in 20 years will make RPj and others look silly, this partially because they have great bloggers (like you) and new media to consult and move forward at a rate I never dreamed possible. I never believed you can’t teach and old dog new tricks or a young dog knows it all.

  8. doug wilder says:

    After they ‘age out’ as Social Media Managers at 25, what is the career path? Barrista? Just kidding. Age shouldn’t be an obstacle to being successful.(Look at Craig Camp of Cornerstone, holding down the #1 spot on Vintank’s Social Connect Index). I don’t know Craig’s age but I reckon he is over 40, but I do know he is passionate about connecting with social media. In the same vein, I support the idea of younger, more diverse voices in wine criticism and have mentored a 27 year old writer since 2009. Her writing style is totally different than mine but is on the right track. I don’t hold Sloane’s remarks against her as some have done in other forum discussions. I know some of the things I said when I was 25 were not the most ‘enlightened’ but then again I didn’t have the immediacy of the internet to memorialize my words for eternity.

  9. The perfect social media person is the one who fits in with your product and your customer. There is a wide range of products and customers, from rock stars to pharmaceuticals, from teens to retirement communities. Social Media is not brain science, in fact, it is more designed for the computer illiterati, than tech wizards. The more complicated things in social media are much easier than website design and functionality. Anyone who knows a product and the customer and enjoys social media can do it.

  10. In case you missed last weeks New Yorker cover…”capturing the memories”…

    Cracked me up!

  11. Morton, very a propos! Thanks.

  12. The writer of the “Under 25” article you cite buried the lead when she wrote this in the fifth paragraph:

    “The truth is, regardless of age, some people have a better handle on social media than others.”

    Maybe it’s best to start with the “the truth”, rather than burying it.

  13. Mr. Wark
    Seeing she has a BA in “nonfiction” creative writing made me realize, ahh, that’s a nice way to say she has a “social media “ degree. Wasn’t “nonfiction creative writing” called advertizing once upon a time?

  14. Steve – thanks for the RT on Twitter, and your thoughtful blog above. As a strategist and marketing by the numbers dork (not a Social Media guru), what I found most naive about Sloan’s posting was her assumption that Social Media was “social”, like, you know, for fun. Social Media is media written by Society and has just as much place in a business plan as email, direct mail or broadcast TV. It is a vehicle. And a generation can’t own it.

    Loved your analogy about Chinese and Wine…mine was cars.

  15. Best post in a while Steve and love the comments, Tom understands truth, you understand it is a 6 in scale, and Rachel and Lara understand that content is #1 whether the queen or the king …keep swimming!
    PS – and at the end of the day you still have to deplete the cases regardless of the brand.

  16. Tom, Lee, others: I don’t want to come down on Sloane and tried not to in my post. I think her basic point is correct: the younger you are the more you “get” social media. It’s almost a cartoon cliche–dad or mom asking their 9 year old how to text. And in fact if I had a winery and was hiring a SM director I’d put a lot of value on youth (although certainly not to the point of excluding everyone over 25). Ultimately, I think Sloane’s biggest error is the same as many other SM adherents: a certain amount of hyperbole.

  17. Steve,

    I’ve read a lot of articles regarding Cathryn Sloane’s post, most extremely harsh towards her. I enjoyed yours the most because you highlighted, what I believe, was her intention in her original post. It’s too bad she didn’t have you edit her piece before she hit publish. Her writing came across to me a bit bratty, which I don’t believe is what she was going for.

    Nice Job and I’ll definitely be back to visit your blog.

  18. Dear DJ Thistle, first, congratulations on a really cool name! Second, thanks for the comment.

  19. The focus of this whole debate is in the wrong place. It’s not about the social media tools (because they’ll continuall change), it’s about the experience. To be a ‘Manager’ of anything requires seasoning, good judgement, diplomacy and management skills.

    A Social Media Manager needs those skills, and may people under 25 don’t have it yet.

    Social Media tools are tools in the toolbox along with telephone tools, software tools, travel tools, presentation tools, etc..

    The article suffers from link bait (like many of Steve’s articles about social media). I wonder if Ms. Sloane thinks the President of the United States should be under 25 if they took debate class in high school.

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