Twitter's Erica Anderson On What You Can't Find Online
Nearly every morning for almost a year, Erica Anderson would wake up at 5 a.m. just to click “send” on an email.
Those daily emails were for Katie Couric. As Couric’s digital media strategist, Anderson was charged with helping to incorporate social media into Couric's daily routine and reporting. Anderson says she never tweeted for Couric, but instead looked for ways the journalist could adapt what she was learning, reading about and working on to spark conversations online, which meant pitching tweets and crafting emails late into the night so her ideas were the first Couric saw each morning.
This was how Anderson launched a career that would soon make her something of a modern-day pioneer in both the television and tech worlds, using social media to transform how reporters research, share and make news.
Anderson arrived at CBS News by way of Washington, D.C. After graduating from Indiana University in 2006, she took a job in public affairs in D.C., left to cover the election for MTV News, then returned to her company in a new role she crafted for herself teaching colleagues, executives and clients (from Procter & Gamble to Johns Hopkins University) how to use social media. She quit her job in late 2009 -- “to my dad’s dismay,” she noted -- and started pitching herself to media companies. In June 2010, she joined Couric’s team, and the following February moved to Twitter, where she now focuses on expanding use of the service inside news organizations.
Anderson, who counts veteran reporter Helen Thomas among her mentors, says she did not pursue a career in technology, but rather arrived in Silicon Valley by following her passion for media.
“I started with a love of journalism and wanting to get more involved in news,” she said. “I followed the trajectory of the media industry, and here I am.”
In an exclusive interview for The Huffington Post’s Women in Tech series, Anderson shared her take on what's missing from conversations online, why social media can be challenging, and more.
You’ve done a lot since you’ve graduated from college.
I never sleep.
It seems like you’ve excelled when it comes to being proactive with your career: You know how to take some risks, but also how to pitch yourself.
I’ve always been entrepreneurial. My dad jokes that I had the largest female-run lawn mowing business in Indiana. I started the business when I was in high school and kept on building it as my summer job. I later took that entrepreneurial spirit and applied it to the world of journalism, an industry I loved that, when I graduated, was going through a tough time.
Have you experienced anything during your career in the tech industry that make you feel like things are different for you because you’re a woman?
I think one of the biggest challenges that I face is being young. I’ve had to work extra hard to earn people’s trust and get them to understand that I have an enormous amount of respect for the legacy of journalism and for the people who have come before me. We’re at a moment where it doesn’t matter if you’re young, or if you’re a woman, or whatever you are -- we need the best ideas at the table.
While I haven’t experienced distinctly unfair treatment, I have looked around and recognized that we could be doing a lot more to bring competent, capable women that we know are out there to the table.
In a grassroots way, we should continue to mentor each other and bring each other up ... Just the other day, I received an email from someone who used to intern for me in Washington, and I’m busy, but I took a moment to get back to her, to check in with her, to see how she’s doing. That comes full-circle. That happened for me.
This also happens in a structured way: At Twitter, we have a monthly meeting of women when we talk about what we’re working on, how we can support each other and larger organizational goals, such as bringing more women on board.
As someone who’s young but ambitious, how do you earn people’s trust?
I do an extraordinary amount of research about the companies I work for, from their history to challenges that they’re facing. I always put in extra hours to think through possible solutions or ideas that could be of help to them. At this point in my career I’m working around the clock because I’m passionate about what I’m doing.
What’s the best advice that you’ve received in your career?
When I moved to Washington, I was having a meeting with Helen Thomas, who has been a mentor for about four years. I asked her, “Helen, a lot of people have told me that if I want to be a journalist, I should leave Washington and go work in a small market, and then work my way back.” She just kind of looked at me and said, “Start at the top. Don’t be intimidated.” So I stayed in Washington and took my own approach to finding ways to learn, and it seems to have served me well.
What advice would you give to a woman starting a career in tech? Would it be the same advice you’d give to a man?
I think I would say to people, and especially to a woman who feels like she’s at a disadvantage, “Give someone a firm handshake, look them in the eye, and say, you don’t scare me.” That’s the advice I got growing up from my family -- that you are an equal, you are totally capable and competent, and it’s all about confidence. You belong there.
What haven’t we been able to replicate in our online conversations that exists in our offline interactions?
Patience. There’s a new standard for immediacy, but there are some stories or pieces of information that you can’t get in 140 characters and that you can’t get in a millisecond.
SOUND BYTES: Erica Anderson on...
Her indispensable gadget: Her iPhone
Her favorite app: Twitter and Instagram
Her favorite account to follow: His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, Dave Winer
Her "required reading" recommendations: Donald A. Ritchie, "Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps," Timothy Crouse, "Boys on the Bus," Helen Thomas, "Watchdogs of Democracy?: The Waning Washington Press Corps and How It Has Failed the Public" ("I recommend anyone who has a life not to read any of those," joked Anderson. "But those are important books.")
What are important things for people not yet comfortable with social media to understand?
It’s not that scary and it’s not that different. The way I’ve appealed to traditionally-trained journalists is to point out that it’s basically taking your interests, relationships, and the way you practice your craft, then thinking creatively about how you apply that to social media.
What do you think is the biggest challenge people face when it comes to social media?
Social media changes what privacy means and what relationships mean. There are a lot of things that are wildly intimidating about it, but that’s one of the reasons that I was attracted to this field. I think we have an opportunity and a responsibility to recognize that changes are happening: There’s a cosmic shift in the way communities, on a person-to-person level, and governments interact and communicate.
What do you see as the next big idea in tech?
I think in a few years, journalists and technologists will be synonymous. I can’t sit here and predict what the next big idea is going to be, but I can say that I think news will become more real-time because journalists are going to take it upon themselves to embrace, learn about, and improve the technology in their field.
Do you catch yourself thinking in 140 characters?
Sometimes, it’s just fun. Brevity can be great. But I’ve had so many mentors that tell me, “Erica, you can’t only get sound bytes of information.” I work hard to create a sense of balance in my life where I consume everything first on Twitter, but I allow it to lead me to other information, and that I take the time to consume the longer piece so I can understand the context of why an issue matters.