Local Influencers Talk About Building a Social Media Platform That Won’t 'Eat You Alive' | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Local Influencers Talk About Building a Social Media Platform That Won’t 'Eat You Alive'

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Published October 19, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Morgan Gold filming ducks at his farm - EVA SOLLBERGER
  • Eva Sollberger
  • Morgan Gold filming ducks at his farm

About six months ago, I briefly went viral. A 25-second humor video in which I impersonated my mother, encapsulating her unique brand of feminism, reached 2.1 million views on TikTok.

It was exciting, and then it was overwhelming. Hundreds of comments flooded in — some calling my mom an icon, others calling her a hypocrite. I found myself dreading opening the app. Because of a video I created in 15 minutes in my bedroom, I felt pressured to respond, to represent, to perform.

Everyone who uses social media experiences those pressures to some degree, whether they're trying to be an influencer or sell a product or just connect. For advice on maintaining an active presence in the rapidly evolving virtual-scape, I spoke to two local creators whose followings make mine look minuscule. How do they stay engaged, I asked them, without sacrificing their privacy and their peace of mind?

Morgan Gold is known to his followers — 2.1 million on TikTok, 709,000 on YouTube, 1.5 million on Facebook and 67,000 on Instagram — as the face of Gold Shaw Farm, a small, diversified operation in Peacham. He draws tens of thousands of likes and comments by chronicling the daily adventures of his cattle, poultry, barn cats and watch dogs, accompanied by information about the farming lifestyle that he and his wife, Allison Ebrahimi Gold, adopted in 2016.

In January, Gold quit his job in insurance to become a full-time farmer and social media storyteller. The latter involves a lot more than just producing and posting videos.

Every day, 42-year-old Gold said in a phone interview, he spends about an hour consuming other people's content — "TikTok, I've found, is the most addictive." He also devotes about a half hour to responding to viewer comments, of which he receives as many as 1,000 in one day over various platforms. "I don't get to all of them. I don't get to probably even half of them," he said.

Many influencers use assistants to help them handle the flood of engagement. But Gold sees social media as a "two-way street." "I want people who interact with my account to know that they're interacting with me as a person," he said.

In the physical world, by contrast, he's learned to set boundaries. A few months ago, Gold posted a YouTube video called "Please DON'T Visit Our Farm." Since Memorial Day, he explained to Seven Days, he'd been getting 10 to 20 uninvited visitors per week. "They're fans. They want to meet me. They want to chat."

Which Gold did — only to realize that "Gosh, I'm dedicating five, 10, 15 hours per week to just talking to people who show up in the middle of the day," he said. The visits were cutting into his farmwork hours and putting a strain on his wife.

Gold's viewers have responded "surprisingly well" to his request to keep their distance, he said. Since that video, his drop-ins have dwindled to one or two per week.

Gold said he doesn't find online engagement a burden because he feels "insanely lucky" to be able to live the life he does. "If I were to win the lottery, I would pretty much be doing the same exact thing."

But he acknowledges the downsides. "Every time you have a video that gets more than a million views, you get overwhelmed with all the notifications," he said. "Dealing with the good and bad of it all, the negative comments — honestly, that's one of the harder parts."

In a recent video, for instance, Gold discussed attending a YouTube climate crisis conference and drew the ire of climate change deniers. He has detractors who have posted their own videos critiquing the way he trains his dogs or runs his farm. "That can be a little frustrating," he said. "They're just trying to gain some clout by going after you."

Negative commenters range from those who "disagree with you philosophically" to those who "attack you for physical traits," Gold said. If he doesn't set boundaries, the comments can "create this super negative feedback loop that I think is just so detrimental to your mental health," he added. "It took me a couple of years to learn that."

Sometimes he does the "little mental trick" of ignoring negative comments until he's responded to every positive one. And "sometimes I'll actually troll back," Gold said, "which may be not the healthiest thing to do, but it's a little bit fun." For instance, he might deploy the "pin of shame" — pinning a negative or ignorant comment to the top of the comment section to let other viewers respond as they see fit.

But in the end, Gold said, it's usually wisest not to engage. "I don't think anybody has ever successfully convinced other strangers that their opinion is wrong over the internet."

Even convincing people of established scientific fact can be a challenge, Greg Wolf has discovered. Recently retired after 30 years of teaching science at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Wolf, 56, posts entertaining videos that demonstrate basic principles of his discipline. In his 15 months as an online science guru, he's amassed more than 320,000 followers on TikTok and growing followings on YouTube and Instagram.

"There's absolutely no predicting" what will go viral, Wolf said by phone. His demonstration of Bernoulli's principle, which soared to 4.5 million views? "I thought that video was going to be a dud."

There's also no predicting viewers' reactions. "We live in a world where science has come under attack recently," Wolf lamented. When he posted a video on how a drinking straw works, "all kinds of people jumped in" to contradict his explanation.

Like Gold, Wolf responds to comments himself, and he values the exchange as an opportunity to educate. "One of the things I determined early on," he said, "was that the 'wow' factor of videos was kind of cool, but people were really craving the 'Why does this work?' So, when they asked questions, I really wanted to reply with the science behind the topic."

Criticism, especially when it comes from a distrust of science, "really does go to the heart," he said. "That's one of the hardest parts of the whole creator thing."

A big concern for Wolf is balancing education with engagement. Sometimes he'll see critiques of his videos on Reddit that take him to task for not fully explaining the science, he said. But, to win the favor of the TikTok algorithm, he generally has to keep his posts to about a minute.

"I could make longer videos that go more into the science, but then those videos would never be seen," he said.

Wolf has been posting less often lately because of his retirement and a recent move to Connecticut, but he plans to return to a pattern of spending one or two hours a day on his videos. "If you're not posting regularly, you risk losing followers," he said.

Like Gold, he found himself "definitely spending too much time [watching] the platform" at first, but his self-regulation has improved. "Now I'll just get on and answer questions and get out."

Given the time commitment, Wolf said, social media creators need to ask themselves whether it's "more of a nuisance than a worthwhile endeavor to be posting." Though Wolf receives money from TikTok's Creator Fund, he said he doesn't count social media as a major income source. He's done some sponsored posts, but he's ambivalent about the practice "because I don't want to be seen as an advertiser. I just want to teach science."

While some people do make a living from social media, many more use the various platforms to support or promote another endeavor — an educational mission, an artistic practice, a business, a farm. (I'm on BookTok hoping to find a few more readers for the novels I write.) When people ask Gold which platform to jump on, he said, he tells them to "think about where your strengths are." A writer might thrive on Substack or Medium; an interviewer could start a podcast; a photographer could find new eyes in the virtual gallery of Instagram.

Gold is glad to have found platforms that suit his own strengths — and they've opened up other opportunities, he said, such as the chance to pen a novel about his livestock dog, Toby.

Wolf has seen fringe benefits from his efforts, too. He believes his viral Bernoulli video was the "spark" that led the Vermont Academy of Science and Engineering to name him Outstanding Science Teacher of the Year for 2022. "While the money from TikTok will probably never be a career for me, it has opened doors," he said.

"A lot of folks see creating content and social media as this scary thing," Gold said. "But I think, at this stage of the game, it's one of the primary ways we communicate with other humans."

He added a caveat that rings true to my limited experience with virality: "If you're gonna connect with people [online], you gotta figure out how to set your boundaries ... Or it can easily eat you alive."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Viral Spiral"