Let’s Get Real About Our Personal Social Media Hug Machine, #hemktg, #hesm, #higheredsocial

Social media can be so kumbaya among higher ed marketers. Joseph Master shares his personal wakeup call, and why he’s better off for it.

By: Joseph Master

Editor’s Note:

We launched Volt nearly a year ago because we felt the higher education community needed an unfiltered, authentic source for commentary and information. This article exemplifies what we set out to achieve, as Joe Master cuts through the cozy confines of the safe spaces we create for ourselves on social media, and explores what happened when he posted some of his recent work – expecting likes and positive comments – and received a strongly worded, very public negative reaction.

Do you agree with Joe about the higher ed ‘hug machine’ culture? Is it an indictment of social media, itself? And to what extent do we – do you – accept or reject these social media norms in our own lives, professionally and personally? 

Voice your perspectives and opinions, and share this article as freely as you like. Just don’t expect universally positive feedback. 

–– Tom Kegelman, Editor in Chief

If you use the hashtags #hemktg and #hesm and follow #higheredsocial, read on. Maybe we have liked each other’s posts or tweets. Maybe we even shared them.

We could have met in real life, too.

I want to get personal about social media — and I’m not talking about the institutional accounts we manage. I want to address something we never discuss. I want to talk about how we engage with each other when we share work on our personal social media accounts.   

First, I’ll throw down three of my personal assumptions about the rules of our social media engagement:

1. Our hugs are the best hugs. When our personal social media accounts engage with each other (and I am being deliberate by saying “accounts;” not the actual two of us, because that happens in person) — they do so in what I’d like to call a “hug machine.” We employ gifs and emojis to, essentially, wrap each other in a co-dependently homogenous embrace.


2. Our village is strong. When we share our pain points, the voices of good come to our aid to share … unconditionally validating gifs. We really are totally like Katniss Everdeen when she does that three-finger salute. And, like, we share that gif almost as much as the Michael Scott one

3. Our echo chamber is safe. When we share examples of our work, we get positive feedback that caresses our egos. We retweet and share and give each other all the credit we wish we’d get from (perhaps) our actual supervisors, or faculty or — let’s be honest — our very own superegos. For the most part, this feedback is not contested. That’s because it’s positive.

So, what happens when the feedback is negative? What happens when we share work our teams produced that we’re proud of, and it is met with harsh criticism?

In a sea of ego, what happens when we get some id and it forces our superego to … for shame … make us feel guilt, anger, or just plain anxiety that we’re being called out in a public forum for work we thought we were sending into the warm embrace of the homogenous hug machine?

If you think this is the part where I share advice, it isn’t. I have none. 

What I do have though, are a few observations about a particular reaction to one of my social media posts (I am purposefully omitting the platform’s name, to maintain anonymity) that forced me to look so far inward and dissect my own intentions, my own ego, my own ability to filter out toxicity, to wonder what toxicity even means when it is affixed to @ signs, that I might have bruised a kidney.

I wasn’t prepared to get personal, or to feel so driven to craft the perfect response. I wasn’t prepared to get called out. Are any of us, really?


Here are some assumptions you might have right now about how our rules of engagement as writer and reader may have changed as you continue reading:

1. This could be a ploy to get you to connect with me. Whoa. Meta. 

2. I could be attempting to get you to find this post and give it the three-finger JLaw salute to pull me back into the homogeneous hug machine. 

3. This is getting weird. Because I’m getting personal.

The truth is: We don’t tell the truth

Why is it universally understood – but never spoken – that we’ll always like each other’s work (even when we all know it isn’t feasible that we will always like the work)? As many of us have written recently in IHE, The Chronicle and even here in Volt, a lot of what we’re doing isn’t all that different anyway. 

Using our personal social media accounts, we project images of our best selves through the pinhole aperture of the same camera obscura. We know the names and the thought leaders. We “at you” @nikkisunstrum and @lizgross144 on Twitter hoping for a like or response. We all want LinkedIn to pick up our posts in LinkedIn Pulse. And by “we all,” I mean every single person who uses those hashtags. They aren’t just for findability. They’re as much about hugs as they are about personal branding or institutional bragging.   

But back to my social media post. I shared an ad my institution placed in a prominent print publication. When I saw a comment criticizing the image I shared, I panicked. First, the individual wasn’t a known entity in our echo chamber. Second, the comment didn’t just call me out; it accused the work I shared of being unoriginal and self-serving. Third, there was no immediate gratification from the echo chamber. 

It was 6:30 a.m. The hug bunch was asleep.

This was, perhaps, my most egotistical, non-crisis since Facebook launched its relationship status feature, and it was catastrophic. I told my son, “Daddy can’t eat breakfast right now. He’s working.”

He had to eat his oatmeal with mommy while daddy paced self-centered circles around the house. 

Here’s what I did: I texted a few colleagues to see what they thought. Was the post out-of-line? I mean, did the individual even read the ad? My mind raced. I read and reread the comment as my blood pressure rose. I refreshed my phone for a solid five minutes waiting for the cavalry to come to my aid. I tweeted a passive-aggressive question about how I should respond. Of course, no one replied immediately — so I deleted it. I crafted a response. And waited to post it. The word “troll” came up. 

I am not proud of any of this. 

This wasn’t work anymore. It was personal. I took it to heart. Because the truth is, I did post the ad because I was proud of it. It was self-serving. And the truth is, as part of the campaign I’m working on, I have been posting some of the creative before it launches to gauge feedback. At least that is what I told myself and my colleagues: that it was a decent way to test the waters just in case the creative doesn’t resonate. 

But that is a lie, at least partially. Because if the presumption is that the voices of opposition will actually respond with negative feedback that will be incorporated into the work, I always knew — deep down — that they wouldn’t. I knew I’d get hugs and likes and claps and shares. At least as comments. Usually, the constructive feedback comes in DMs, right?

I wasn’t prepared to get personal, or to feel so driven to craft the perfect response. I wasn’t prepared to get called out. 

Are any of us, really?

The comment begat other comments. A few from me, too. All were impeccably saccharine. I messaged some of the commenters to thank them. Does it matter what they wrote? Not really. Because even the hugs came as projections of our best selves. 

After the hand grenade of absolute, unabashed reality was thrown, the echo chamber walled us in again. 

It was like Oz going Technicolor, and then going back to monochrome; reverting from beam-splitting points of light back to the camera obscura. 

But I cannot go back now. I want to shake the hand of the individual who commented for jarring me awake — for having the courage to throw a stone; for digging in against the opposition. One thing is clear: The commenter had an agenda. But don’t we all? It was real. It was brazen. It was a strong opinion from someone outside the usual hug bubble, with a different perspective. 

It might be the first time social media has actually mimicked real life for me.

Because that’s exactly the kind of opposition our team got before we launched the work in the first place. We focus-grouped and presented creative for months. We took our stones and they made the work better. But it didn’t bruise our delicate egos, because we expect opposition in real life. We expect it to get personal. We don’t work in an unconditionally loving hug machine. We work in an environment where mutual respect is assumed, but also one where poking holes and taking criticism from all angles isn’t just respected; it’s required. 

Still, I’m not going to stop sharing work of which I am proud. I am not going to stop using the hashtags either. I’m going to keep engaging. 

But I see you. I hear you. And I’d like to think I am better off because you disagreed. 

I’d love to talk in real life, too.

Joseph Master

Joseph Master

Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Digital Strategy at Drexel University

Joseph Master is the assistant vice president of marketing and digital strategy at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His freelance work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, television commercials, and on tiny screens across the nation. He studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. He serves on the Board of Directors for the College and University Public Relations and Associated Professionals (CUPRAP). Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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Colleen McKeone
Colleen McKeone
1 year ago

I hesitate to write as I feel it will be negative.

Tom Kegelman
Tom Kegelman
1 year ago

Hi Colleen. Please comment. That’s kind of the point of the article. Blast away.

1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Kegelman

I tried.

Liz Gross
Liz Gross
1 year ago

I watched this happen for you in real-time. I was one of the early risers that saw the soon-deleted tweet. And I’m glad you wrote this piece. Perhaps I’m jaded because I’ve been using social media professionally for over 10 years now, or because I’m a woman online, but I don’t always expect hugs in response to work I share. I get in (and start) plenty of spirited debates, and will always remember who was willing to have a respectful conversation vs who just disengages as soon as it leaves hug land. But one point you snuck in here I… Read more »

Joseph J Master
Joseph J Master
1 year ago
Reply to  Liz Gross

Thanks, Liz.

I have been thinking a lot about DMs and social norms on social media. Let’s continue that dialogue. On Twitter and in real life.

Timothy Akin
Timothy Akin
1 year ago

Great post, Joseph. If my comments on your NYT magazine ad post sparked this blog, it’s quite refreshing to see you tackle this “higher ed hug culture” on social media. We should not expect, nor do we benefit from, all candy-coated public likes and smiley emojis for work samples or other posts. On topic, constructive criticism isn’t trolling. It’s worth asking ourselves has social media devolved into an echo chamber of virtual ego strokes? Or can it be greater than that, to hear back from colleagues who might have different opinions and feedback than we are used to receiving. I’m… Read more »

Joe Master
Joe Master
1 year ago
Reply to  Timothy Akin

I was shocked, too, Tim! So much, that it really got me thinking, which got me writing.

The “thank you” was sincere. I’d love to chat in person. Maybe even collaborate on a piece.


Robert Mattaliano
Robert Mattaliano
1 year ago
Reply to  Timothy Akin

I agree that constructive criticism isn’t trolling. However, if I am correctly recalling the comments regarding the creative (an ad in The New York Times Magazine), one was something to the effect of “well, a robot or AI could have written that copy.” Arguably that isn’t particularly productive or constructive and it’s not a leap to see that someone might take that personally, particularly when stated so publicly. Cheers, Robert

Joseph Master
Joseph Master
1 year ago

Thanks, Robert.

Barron Wernick
Barron Wernick
1 year ago

Well said Joe. I’m glad you wrote this. I’d like to believe that social media can be a testing ground for new material and ideas. However, I also think there are people that expect the hug machine to keep on turning, and as you said, it’s just not how it is in real life. Thanks for sharing this story.

1 year ago

[…] at Drexel University, shares his thoughts about the “hug machine” of social media. This Volt piece discusses what happens when sharing work online does not receive praise, but instead draws […]

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