Open Letter to Cathryn Sloane

Hold Back Time, Plate 2
Hold Back Time, Plate 2 by Thomas Hawk

Well, it’s pretty much over now.

The rain of negativity landed upon you.

I don’t care whether your post is right or wrong about the best age for community managers. The vitriol expressed by many of the dissenting voices in comments and responses was reprehensible.

Some have been measured in tone, but generally you received a crash course in negative commenting and personal attacks.

See how nasty people can be when they hide behind a keyboard? Don’t be mad, many of these attackers felt threatened by your theory.

I’d like to tell you the real world is better, but it’s not. No matter what you do, you’ll experience periodic nastiness.

You’ll also meet great people who go out of their way to make you successful. There will be people who won’t finger wag, and will let you learn on your own. They can see your mistakes as the normal course of a young person gaining experience.

Perhaps you’ll have the benefit of a great rival or three, people who contend your positions, but do so eloquently and engage you in meaningful, growth-producing dialogue.

When negative threatening moments happen online, people arrive at a crossroads.

Some folks leave like Kathy Sierra. I can’t blame her given what she went through.

Others just suffer through it. Some toughen up and move on regardless, brushing off the nastiness with little thought. Personally, I’m getting to the latter stage, but it took a long time.

Whatever you do, I hope you’ll stay online, continue taking risks, and learn as you go. The great moments far outweigh the negative ones.

Besides, on or offline there will always be challenges. The winners get up, and keep moving forward.

Good luck with your online career in community management… Or wherever the road takes you next.

(Special thanks to Ifdy Perez for inspiring this letter.)


  • She locked her Twitter account within the past few days — removing any new followers from the firestorm and has completely disregarded any positive attempts to turn this whole fiasco into something beneficial for herself (i.e. the kind gesture from BlogWorld/New Media Expo to attend free of charge), the community she insulted and for a chance at having any career within this realm.  Despite being “only 25”, I find the way she handled (or didn’t handle rather) the situation more insulting to those who she offended.  She has officially made herself enemy #1 within the social media community and has sadly validated so many perceived assumptions about the millennial generation. 

    • Did it ever occur to you that perhaps angry comments like this made her feel bullied? And are you telling me that you never said anything in your early 20s that was wrong professionally, or may have rubbed people the wrong way. I’m not sure I understand where you are coming from, sorry.

      • She is 25 no?  I’m 27.  It’s simply hard for me to have sympathy.  I don’t believe my comment above was in a bullying tone whatsoever.  While I would have certainly been discouraged, I would also recognized the kind people who gave her a chance – who offered her internships, who welcomed her calmly and nicely (myself included) to “make it right” — those who gave her a platform to truly make this into a great opportunity.  I actually began getting excited for her when I saw big name publications and people attempting to give her great opportunities. I wanted the story to have a happy ending.  Social media gives us the opportunity to make wrong into right.  I guess I cannot wrap my head around making wrong into even worse when given the opportunity to do great things.  That’s all.

        • So 600 wrongs make an initial wrong right?  To me this turned into one of the ugliest scenes of incivility that I have witnessed in a long time on the inter webs.

          I’m sure she cried and feels like never going online again. How is that a win?

          She probably thought her post wasn’t even going to be read, and didn’t want the attention on that kind of scale.

          If we want people to treat us with compassion, perhaps we should start with our own words.

          • Geoff, it wasn’t just her–it was the site as well. Between them, they couldn’t have worked out that this was incendiary?

            Of course, I don’t approve of bullying (though I saw very little in the comments that came anywhere close to that), but she’s 25. She’s an adult. She wrote a public post asking (nee, _demanding_) to be treated like everyone else. She and this site (“the voice of its generation”) went looking for a fight and then cried “but we’re just children!” when they found one.

            She’s too old and too smart to get off the hook that easy for being so tone-deaf. Giving her that out takes away the very thing she was asking for in her post.

            Yeah, I made dumb mistakes at 25 (still do), but looking back, it’s hard to argue that when I deliberately insulted people, I didn’t deserve their reaction.

            The “piling on” behavior of the internet is one of the things I like least about life online, but in this case, she nailed a truth so deep that this outpouring was warranted. If she were willing to listen, she would have found a lot of great advice in those comments, not least of which would have been how to react when the day inevitably came that she’d be on the receiving end of sentiments similar to her own.

            As a member of a group that is now clearly about to be screwed by the next generation as well as the generation before us, I reject that it’s lacking in compassion or bullying to say my feelings were hurt by her post. Perhaps it will be news to her that that’s what she’s getting into when she manages social media so effectively, but really, I’m not doing her any favors to simply shut up and stop hiring millennials.

            You know I’m with you 99% of the time, Geoff, but I disagree on this one.

          •  Yeah, we’re disagree on this one.   Anytime I hear the word but in justifying treating someone poorly I know there’s a big rationalization behind it. Two wrongs don’t make a situation better, Bill.

            We want people to let us off the hook when we make mistakes, then we need to wage a more understanding conversation. Just because everyone else piles on doesn’t make a response to her demand right.

            Sooner or later someone has take the higher road, and one hopes that is the voice of the experienced one. I think by abstaining from the negative conversation, Kathryn proved experience is not better in this case.

          • Well, I guess if I’ve learned anything in social media it’s that “conversation” is only acceptable when it’s sufficiently denatured to allow sales to take place around it.
            Maybe we need a social media kiddie pool where the younguns can sling arrows to their hearts’ content. Just put some duct tape over my mouth so my cries of protest from being hit don’t bother them.
            I suppose I wouldn’t be much good at those $10,000/mo retainers since I don’t mind being on the record saying that a 25-year-old like this wouldn’t be selling me a whole lot. I suppose that’s why the experts get the big bucks. I’m probably just too old to learn.
            BTW, I go by “Will” when I do shorten my name, though I don’t foresee it being a problem since I’m not anticipating leaving a whole lot more comments here. I’ll just go rationalize on my own and save the time typing.

          • You’re welcome back whenever you’d like, Will. It’s just a differing opinion. Sorry your feelings got hurt.

          • I’m with you on the gist of your post Geoff, but just you lost me on the assumption that she cried. I mean, would you say that if this was a young “brogrammer” and come to their defense as well as you have here? 

            You’re overall post is spot on. I’m with you that all these nasty comment trolls can take a hike. Mostly likely they’re motivated by their own deeply held insecurities. It is clear this woman’s post rubbed many of them the wrong way and that doesn’t excuse personal attacks. She didn’t make it personal, but these jerks took it that way. So there’s plenty of maturing that’s needed on both sides of that equation.

            However, this errant sentence in a response to the previous comment is risky in that it belies the sense that she requires a more white gloved treatment by the online merely because the writer is a she instead of a he. 

            Just like The Buzz Bin’s post that makes the inexcusable, sexist assumption that these anonymous comment trolls are men (if they’re anonymous, how do you know that they’re men??), I would be very careful of being perceived as coming to aid of someone (online) merely because they are a woman. So, let’s not assume that she cried because that’s simply not relevant.

          • Actually, they were men. It came out that one the harassers was Cluetrain Coauthor Christopher Locke himself.

            BTW, men cry, too. At least I have when I got completely destroyed by others in some past situations.

            Have a great day!

        •  BTW, I do want to thank you for coming by and expressing your opinion on this matter. I realize it was a highly debated moment over the past few weeks with lots of opinions from various points of views.

          • Of course!  Again, I think so many people have been getting so offended simply because it has just struck one of those nerves within.  I’ve personally worked my butt off for the past 6 years to get to where I am and while the initial post angered me, I truly believed a great thing could come out of it all; great discussion surrounding the topic and a chance for her as someone who was bold enough to state her opinions/frustrations in a public forum.  I’m more disappointed than anything else — hopefully she can recover from it and move on.  Thanks for writing this piece!

  • I’m not a fan of humiliating people using social media or any other forum for that matter – and it seems that is becoming the way for many social media influencers. tsk tsk.

    •  I agree.  People make mistakes, and we all live in glass houses.

    • “Influencers”? ;) I still think you have to learn how to filter out the good from the bad. Especially if you want to work in social media.

  • Geoff – I felt very similarly two weeks ago when this all first happened and wrote a similar post ( even offering to mentor her through this situation. What frustrated me most was that this was a great example of why many young people DON’T use social media professionally. They’re scared that one naive post when they’re 22 can destroy them professionally. They’re scared that they can’t just learn and potentially making a mistake without getting personally attacked. This is an awful way for any industry to train the next generation.  Shouldn’t we focus instead on using this as a “teachable moment” for her, help her and others learn from this incident and how to move on?  FWIW, Cathryn did contact me after I wrote my post with a very sincere note that explained her rationale behind it. Unfortunately, she declined my offer to introduce her to people like yourself, Mark Story, Dave Murray, and Mack Collier to discuss the issue and author a guest post on my blog on the topic. 

    •  You’re a good man, Steve.  I really appreciate that you spoke with her, and offered words of encouragement.

      I have often blogged about the many mistakes I make. Someone who is new to the field may not be able to do that, or even think to do that. I am not even sure she should, as that’s her opinion of the recent moment. As time progresses it may (or may not) evolve.  Crucifying her online only achieved scaring her off, I am sure, not helping her in anyway.

      Off to read your post!

    • I had the pleasure of reading your article a couple of weeks ago Steve.  GREAT piece and a fantastic points of advice.  :-)

    • “…many young people DON’T use social media professionally.”And many do use it professionally well. This has nothing to do with age, Cathryn just set the conversation in the wrong direction.

  • Comments were DEFINITELY harsh, and I’m sure some were way out of line. That said, if she wasn’t expecting some kind of backlash, then I wonder how well prepared she was for the publication of that article. 

    Could we have been more understanding, as a community? Without a doubt. I just wish she would have stuck around to continue the conversation she started. 

    •  I just put myself in her shoes when I was that age, and I am sure that I would not respond or participate in anyway. I’d be licking my wounds, angry, hating the online world.

      • I was about to agree with you about how I might react and then I thought about what I was doing at 25. I was not so short-sighted and naive. At 25 I had just become the youngest News Director at a TV network affiliate  in the US.  I was also co-anchor and producer of 5, 6, & 10pm newscasts. I received all kinds of criticism, harassing and even death threats at home. I also received the love and support of the community I had just moved to.  I never once thought about hiding or leaving. Sure there was no global social media at the time, but mass media is a very public forum as well.

        I mention this, not for a pat on the back, but to provide my personal context. No one deserves a public verbal thrashing for airing an opinion unless it’s presented as a personal attack. It’s time to get rid of the attitude: “You have offended me, so now you must suffer!” Incivility and hateful personal attacks were wrong then, they’re wrong now, and they’ll be wrong in the future. In fact, we should  stand up and say that it’s wrong when it’s happening.  I didn’t then but I will next time. But my lone voice is meaningless. More of us must put down our pitchforks and help to disperse the mob mentality. Only then can we help each understand the others perspective. That’s where growth and learning begins.

        • So this shows me that everyone does not have the same perspective. And that your point about open conversations sans pitch forks is even more important so they can be conveyed, vetted, and exchanged.  Great comment, Scott.

        • I don’t think your lone voice is meaningless. Lead by example! :)

  • While I appreciate that she is entitled to her opinion, she also needs to be able to defend it. 

    Like you said Geoff, this is reality, unfortunately . She may well want to give up and she seems to have cut people off but if she has learned anything from similar fiascos online is that you win if you can turn it around. She may be young but if she’s been offered help turning it around don’t you think she should have taken it? Don’t you think she would have benefited from being part of the ensuing discussion with the people who weren’t being rude?If she thinks 25 is the best age for community managers, then she should be able to handle this sort of situation much better at her age. So I don’t think age is a fair defense.Let’s also not forget that she decided to talk about people’s abilities to do a job based on their age at a time where people are worried about their jobs/finding work and that she did so about a job in the social space.That’s going to set people off and get the social media buzz going, especially when people are working really hard to defeat this bias. Most of the people I know who get” online communities and social media and how it works are a lot older than 25. Hey at least she’s being talked about. I hope she can turn this around for herself.

    • I’ve faced such situations, and I don’t think I would defend myself in the face of such vitriol after a few fact based volleys. I think I’d turn it off and let it pass, letting my fact based comments stand on their own. Why bother engaging with people incapable of acting decently online?

      At her age, I’m not sure I’d have the stomach to even do that. 

      Let’s be clear, two wrongs don’t make a right. And if you roll in the mud with the pigs, you’ll be in trouble. They like it too much.

      • I wasn’t advocating taking on the haters. The truth is that there are haters everywhere. Especially online. I’ve said before that if you don’t have haters, you’re doing it wrong and I stand by that.  
        Part of being a good community manager is knowing how to handle a bad situation and one big rule is “Don’t feed the trolls!”That doesn’t mean you shut out the people who are offering constructive criticism and support as well as the opportunity to have a proper discussion of your opinions. I may have come to social media in 2008 and therefore with a bit of experience but nobody handed it to me. I had to work hard and figure this stuff out myself. Here she has people listening and willing to help and she shut them out. How is that helping her? Unless of course like @danielghebert:disqus  was saying she’s just an angry young grad venting her frustrations. Which helps no one.Also, don’t you think using her age as a defense undermines her whole argument?

        •  Well said, and also not disrespecting the haters in case they are right. Sometimes they are, and we just don’t realize it until much later.

  • Great post Geoff!

    I understand why she wrote the post. She’s a recent grad, and she’s having a hard time finding a job (as we all are). So she expressed her frustration in her post. Could she have expressed her arguments a bit better? Probably. But that’s really all she was doing, expressing her frustration online about the job markets for recent grads. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    But, however, some senior level marketing professionals took her post very negatively (as they probably should have), and acted out. Some were way too harsh, and entered into a realm of cyber bullying, which was completely wrong of their part. Some others, on the other hand, expressed their sincere opinion, and offered her a solution. They were angry, but they understood why she did it in the first place.

    What really got me scared however, was that people were generalizing Cathryn’s post to the attitude of every single person bellow the age of 25 :S. That wasn’t right. Being 21 myself, I was scared that Cathryn had tarnished my reputation, as I am trying to find employment in Social Media Marketing. I wrote this post in response to express my opinion – I can say, as a young Millennial, we do not all think the same way as Cathryn Sloane.

    Thinking about this situation over the past few weeks made me realize something –  Cathryn Sloane expressed an opinion that others did not like. This happens all the time. She could have expressed it better, but she chose to write the words that she did. She made a mistake, which happens all the time regardless of age. But a major wrong that happened from this situation is the over-generalization that some senior professionals made towards young Millennials. All of a sudden, because of an opinion that an angry girl posted online, we should never be hired to manage a social media presence for a brand? I don’t think that’s right, or fair. People of all ages make the same mistakes as Cathryn made. It has nothing to do with age, just like a good social media manager has nothing to do with age.

    •  Well said. And you know what?  People keep making mistakes after the age of 25, too. I know plenty of people who get fired, are reprimanded, or simply just come to understand that they made mistakes.  Find me a perfect person, and I’ll find you a liar.  It’s ridiculous.

      Of all the comments on this post, yours upsets me the most. Why? Because it shows me the vitriol intimidated more than Cathryn (assumption on my part), but other youth who are trying and may now be leery of finding work in this sector.  That’s just wrong. Everyone starts somewhere.

      Thank you for a well thought out comment.

      • Thanks for your response Geoff!

        After re-reading through my comment a few times, I think this might make a great blog post (with a few tweaks of course). I will most definitely mention this post in the article, to create a backlink to your site Geoff :)

        Now I just have to re-write it in a way to make sure I don’t offend too many people :P

    • Generalisations like this happen all the time about all different kinds of groups and people in power will almost always resist change Do you really want to work for someone like that? If this is what you’re meant to be doing, you’ll find a way in. I’m happy to help if I can.

      • I’ve had a few companies and individuals interested in me, and see my potential (even though I am young). I appreciate the companies that don’t judge by age, but by skills and knowledge.

        And I am always receptive to help! I appreciate any tips or advice from anyone! :) @danielghebert – if you want to contact me.

  • That being said I don’t really use social media much on a personal level any more and I don’t think you can look at social in isolation from management processes either.

  • A thoughful and kind letter that reflects the true humanity that we like to supress by reacting and jumping on “nasty” bandwagons

  • There are a lot of potential good, “bigger than one kid’s giant flub” conversations that could come of this, with or without Cathryn’s continued participation (which seems extremely unlikely at this point). The idea of apprenticeship and professional mentoring in social media, and tiered responsibility at the organizational level for one.

    Ultimately, you can’t have a conversation, even a perfectly civil or encouraging one, with someone who’s not participating. Personally, at this point, I’d rather see some of those bigger conversations than continue to try and coax out someone who seems like they’d rather be left alone. 

    • Hey Kat,  I really appreciate your thoughts on this, and I, too, would like to see this movement grow. I actually wrote this letter thinking she would never see it. My thinking is the value should be how are we approaching negative moments online.

  • I always find it curious when these things happen again and again.  People who make their living by advising companies how to act online, viciously attacking a peer or company for what they view as violation of some sacred “rule”. They quickly raise their #Fail flag eager to show their superior knowledge and business accumen.  The “professionals” basically teaching the masses how to skewer and flame online, and wondering where the venom comes from when they find themselves on the receiving end for something they said or a when a client missteps. It’s not only bullying it’s bad business. I think online professionals have a responsibility to set a civil tone online- to show how to disagree without personal attacks, to complain without intimidating.  I’m just not naive enough to think that will happen. 

    • Be naive Gordon! Or shoudl that be Believe? Close enough. Lead by example. That’s the great thing about social media, cream will rise!

    • I so agree with this. It’s one of the primary reasons why I rarely bash brands on this blog. I realize these types of posts drive traffic, but I see little value in them as a whole, and I think it sends a bad signal to potential clients, the ones I really want to work with, etc. 

      And so I do think some of us grow up and stop doing this, as @amoyal:disqus noted, we need to lead by example. But I also think we need to lead, not just write mundane blogs, rather write posts that interest people and compete effectively with the negative.

      • Great point about leading. Providing that balance is important, and much more effective than silently shaking my head (or cringing). 

    • What amazes me is that these social media “experts” are damaging their own reputations just as much, if not more, than the target of their attacks.  Don’t they realize that their hateful attacks get attached to their names too? Don’t they realize that they’re coming across as just badly?  Don’t they realize that potential rockstar junior employees are seeing how they treat people online and are wondering what kind of manager that person will be as well? 

      • I think the problem Steve is that they don’t think far enough down the path to realize it. Makes it harder for everyone.

  • This incident is another reminder about the need to think carefully about what we post and how it might be interpreted. Good intentions don’t always yield good results and sometimes we put not just one foot, but both in our mouth.

    What she said was foolish but those of us who are older didn’t have to slam her for it. It is not hard to write a post pointing out the flaws in her thinking without running her down with the bus.

    We all make mistakes and youthful indiscretion shouldn’t be the one that kills our future, nor should it be a reason not to criticize.

  • Hi Geoff,

    NIce article. I completely agree with you. I wish Cathryn would give it another shot. I believe at this point there are enough people out there that actually want to help her and guide. It’s a real shame.

    She recently protected her tweets so at least we know she’s been on a computer. :) That has to be a start.

    I wrote a post about her a couple of weeks ago:

    •  Very cool, my man. I am off to check it out.  Regardless of her would-be return, I think we learned something from this. I hope.

  • Thanks for the shout-out, Geoff. I’m of the opinion that angry–especially overly angry–comments don’t merit a response because when people are THAT angry, their minds are closed to reason. Why engage in the shouting contest? I’d move on and ignore the noise behind me.

    And to think that Cathryn may have read hateful/snarky/sarcastic/demeaning posts by many in the profession whom she may have admired. How sad it is to have someone you look up to, break you down.

    That said, as a youngin’ just a few years older than Cathryn, I appreciate this post and the mentorship from the pros in the field who’ve taught me with kindness and understanding. :)

    •  I concur. And when customers are angry, we have to stay factual and remove the emotion.  Otherwise we are asking for it. 

      You have been a great friend to work with and learn from, Ifdy.  Remember, learning is a two way street, and the best teachers learn as much if not more from the student.

  • So, I’ve managed, if you can believe it, to NOT read Cathryn’s post until now. There’s something about the letter C this summer that is drawing all sorts of controversy. Cathryn, Chick-Fil-A. Weird. I hope I can skate by.

    To me, the article’s main fault is that it raises a huge issue without not much support. I think she raises a really interesting point – her generation has *pretty much* grown up with social media. I remember being introduced to email and wondering why “To the family” didn’t work as an email address. Hey, we live and we learn.

    Pulitzer prize winning article it was not. 

    One could even argue that the title was link bait. Perhaps she was coached that a short, punchy headline gets a lot of blog traffic. Well, there’s a win.

    So, you have a University of Iowa college student taking a stance that anyone over 25 is going to have a better grasp of social media, and what is she met with? “You should be ashamed of yourself.” “You’ll never get hired.” And the ever popular “I’m calling this BS” line that so many 40-somethings love to use in the online world (as a 30-something I am the Switzerland of this debate. Hah!)

    The reaction to this piece speaks solely of the true lack of confidence so many people have in themselves. For anyone who wrote a post or a comment ripping this young lady to shreds, I just have to kind of say, “If she was so off, why does it bother you so much?”

    I’m perpetually surprised when I learn how old some folks are in the online world. That person who always posts about how drunk they are is 45 with 3 kids. That person who is trying to build a business and who is in their 50s is posting party pictures like they’re a 20-something. And I’m sorry to the folks below, but offering yourself as a mentor in that context comes out (I think) to be more about YOU than her. She probably has mentors, and they probably said, “I think you’re raising an interesting point here. Go with it.” 

    Eventually, folks in the social media world are going to have to make a decision. They are going to have to say, “I’m a 40-something, I’m a business person, I want to be respected. I’m going to tone down my “calling BS,” my online fights, and my party shots.” Or, they can continue to present themselves as 20-somethings, use avatars of themselves from when they WERE 20-somethings, and continue to be really bothered by this issue, which, let’s face it, will only escalate as more and more college grads join the work force.

    I just wish I had something to say about this post, Geoff. I’m comin up empty :)

    • Well you know that I was one of those voices.  It’s not that I’ve seen the light or found God as some punks like to make fun of my Zen beliefs, I just understand how these conversations hurt people. And myself.

      I am increasingly abstaining from off color conversations online that friends are waging. God bless them, but I know when I participate in these chats I am more inclined to act negatively, and act wrongly. I think we forget how easily we are influenced by our peers. 

      In that sense mindfully approaching online dialogue is becoming an increasingly important part of my day-to-day online life.

  • I wonder how many of those who commented with …ummm…shall we say vigor? actually read the piece?

    It was kinda balanced, made some solid points, and let’s face it, even if it wasnt, those who commented with …ummmm…vigor :-) should have known better. Much better. 

    But they didnt, and kinda ended up proving her point. 

    • LOL! It’s kind of hard to justify a $10,000 a month retainer for online brand management when you act like that. Whoops. Thanks for the comment, Dino!

  • This is a great post. Curious why she has so many older readers who took offense. She is a kid technically. I guess she threatens the entrenched people who maybe aren’t doing that good of a job? Very kindly of you to write this. Cheers my friend.

    •  No, if she won’t. I think she’s done with us, and I can’t blame her for that.  Right or wrong, the response was atrocious. I think it made us look bad!!!

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  • I had missed this brouhaha until I read your post, Geoff. I kept meaning to come back and didn’t until just now.

    I was taken aback by the vitriol leveled at this girl. And disgusted. I won’t lie, in the past it was fun to beat people up online. And then we all started using our real names and the game changed. The +25 group that commented did two things: 1) cry about the author’s use of ageism, and then use ageism against her. hypocrisy! 2) almost prove the author’s point that people +25 don’t get the social web. If they did, would they say such nasty things that can be tracked to their names. Looks like Cathryn made her point after all.

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