Interns in the Age of the Employment Selfie

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I don't need your brand. Photo: Twitter

Olivia Nuzzi is our latest intern antiheroine. She’s the woman on the cover of Tuesday’s Daily News, her face directly across from that of her former boss Anthony Weiner. She's there not because of any sort of sexting scandal (Weiner has plenty, but she was not a recipient), but because she was his intern and shared the tale of her four-week experience on his campaign with the paper. Compare Nuzzi to the intern whose name Weiner apparently used to refer to Nuzzi, too — Monica — and more notable than any similarities are the key differences: Lewinsky was mocked, vilified, and scapegoated; fifteen years later, "the Monica Lewinsky scandal" is still the first thing most people think of when they hear her name. 

Nuzzi, who did not have sexual (or sexting) relations with that man, is making a different sort of name for herself. That internship wasn’t simply a résumé builder or a way to get a leg up in politics, at least not in the traditional way; it’s the stuff of headlines and cocktail-party conversation. Even before selling out her boss and infuriating Weiner’s communications director Barbara Morgan into an epic rant, she may not have been a candidate for intern of the year. (Morgan, who called Nuzzi a “slutbag,” says her hire didn’t even show up some of the time.) But the intern certainly seems to have known what she wanted, as The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta writes: “It's actually rather rare to meet a young aspiring woman journalist who is as aggressively networky and career-oriented as Nuzzi. Or as willing to burn bridges.”

As proof of that, Nuzzi already has another job, writing for the well-funded website NSFWCORP. She’s using the publicity (good or bad) that she set in motion, making it clear in her Twitter bio that she is the “slutbag” of Morgan’s rants, owning the experience, and presenting an appearance of poise and self-control, on Thursday casually tweeting, “So, how is your week going?” to her exponentially growing number of followers. But then, unlike Monica, she’s been in control of her part in these events the whole time. In this age of the omnipresent Internet selfie — those pictures taken by oneself of oneself to communicate that self in a constructed fashion to the rest of the world — her method of career positioning might be called "the employment selfie." It’s not about your bosses, it’s not about the company, it’s not about the political campaign. It’s about you, and it’s how you show that self online, via social media, in the papers (if you’ve worked for Anthony Weiner), and to the world. Aligned with no one but themselves, with no real sense of visible shame, the interns have revolted. But can you blame them?

Once upon a time, interns were hired to do the work their superiors gave them for very little money, or none at all. That structure was based on a certain system, implied if not stated. Interns weren’t paid with monetary currency, they were paid in a kind of currency of trust. Trust us, the system told them. We’ll treat you like shit for a while and pay you nothing, but you can cash in those trust dollars for real money someday if you hold up your end of the bargain and work hard and do what we tell you, if you don’t mind being called “Monica” or being made to fetch coffee and you keep your mouth shut about our various indiscretions, including, in some cases, particularly in the case of certain politicians, mild or major sexual harassment.

But somewhere along the way, something changed. Coming out of college, millennials might not find work at all, regardless of their degrees or how hard they've studied. They don't necessarily expect to be as successful as their parents. And even if there is a real job to be had, why in the world would they want to stay in that one role or place forever, particularly when the bosses they work for are nearly as overworked and underpaid as they are? But while bosses may take the perspective that someone’s lucky to have a job at all, the intern who thinks in selfie terms might just feel distrustful of corporate structures, a little bit angry, and most of all, confidently self-reliant. The latter quality seems to be generational side effect of the new empowerment brought about by the Internet, a place where you can make your own platform, create your own brand, add a cute hashtag and maybe a selfie, and there you go! Maybe we can’t truly depend on the people we work for, but we can depend on us. And so, in the situation of Nuzzi and her former employer, when the Weiner campaign was no longer useful to her as an intern, she made it useful in another way, #personalbrand #slutbaggate #internpower.

In another recent example of the new employee construct, take the case of Brendan O’Connor, the “millennial fired for tweet” who lost his job working on a food truck after tip-shaming employees at a Wall Street company that placed a large order but left no extra cash for service. (His boss was not amused.) Yes, he was fired from that job, but his widely read, well-written blog post about the incident powers him forward in social and "brand" currency, and it's an investment to a future writing job. He admits, though, that not everyone can take the kind of risk he did. “I am in kind of an odd position, because I am very lucky to come from an incredibly supportive family who has the financial means to prop me up while I find my feet in this industry. Not everybody has that," he told me. "I'm working my ass off to make 'career' opportunities happen. But as I'm sure you well know, in this industry, that can take a LONG time, and not everybody has the luxury of taking these kinds of risks early on.” Writing about the tip incident, he says, “is a way of attempting to present that experience back to the reader and ask, this is something that you go through probably almost every day, and have you ever REALLY thought about it? Have you ever REALLY considered what you do and how it makes you feel? How it makes other people feel?”

It’s far easier than ever, with the Internet, to have such conversations, and that’s another key difference between what’s happening now with employment and what happened pre–World Wide Web. I see this not just with regard to jobs, but with all sorts of things people disagree with online; conversations sprout organically, mini-rants and arguments are delivered, and sometimes things change and sometimes they don't but everyone who's there can say his or her piece — and sometimes, attract quite a lot of attention for doing so. It’s also a fact that a person doesn’t tend to get noticed online, much less celebrated, for quietly doing whatever his boss tells him to do. So why shouldn’t an intern speak out, and reap the benefits, while her employer — the big shot politician — deals with the repercussions of what we can only presume was truth? Why wouldn’t a food-truck worker use his social-media skills, something for which he has, in part, been hired, to tweet his feelings on the failure of a large group to tip? When his employer doesn’t defend him, why shouldn’t he write about it? We see unpaid interns suing, and we see America's low-paid workers banding together and striking when their wages don't increase, but their bosses' salaries do. Not everyone can, and not everyone will, but in an age of empowerment and individualism, with unprecedented Internet resources, there are, suddenly, a bunch of new opportunities that go beyond the old intern model.