Social Norms in the Digital Wonderland

We have so many discussions surrounding how our communication and empathy have been altered by digital culture and community.  We’re still trying to define it and understand our own behaviors in this rapidly evolving hot digital world.  But it isn’t tangible and there aren’t unspoken, yet understood social norms to guide us through it.  So, maybe it is a digital wonderland where everything we once knew is now quite possibly, the opposite.  Do social norms exist once we are interacting in a digital community?  How could we possibly uphold them, if they were even defined, when there is no physical context in which to shame someone for not conforming?

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Mad Hatter Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland 

Photo source: Getty Images

Barry Thatcher, in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010, p. 175), discusses three human threshold values that identify what humans usually negotiate within cultures.  Although there are more, these three tend to cause the most dilemmas in cross-cultural contexts and are the most connected to different uses of digital media.  The author asserts that cultures vary in the way that they handle these dilemmas, there usually is a yin/yang balance but also tension in which side is predominate… And that is what defines each cultures’ unique cultural integrity.

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Photo source: Getty Images

The first is shared across all cultures.  It is the dilemma of the “I” relating to others or to a group.  We are familiar with the American preference for individualism.  However, on the other side of that is collectivism.  This is when individuals see themselves as highly dependent within a social construct or community.  This is a cultural view holding social or family groups at higher importance than the individual, the “I”.  Collective communication patterns emphasize interpersonal relationships, social hierarchy, social leveraging, group identities, close personal space, and writer-friendly writing patterns. (Spilka, Ed., 2010, p. 176)  Can’t we see our digital interactions as both “I” and “We” driven?  Of course, but does it have the same construct as our traditional physical interaction?  It doesn’t seem so.  The rules seem to flip-flop a bit.

 

The second commonality is that all cultures make and enforce rules, but the reason they are created and the flexibility of their enforcement varies.  The universalist cultural approach is to establish the rules defining what is right to all individuals, regardless of social standing.  The communication patterns associated with universalist protocols include strategies of fairness, justice and equality.  However, the other approach is the particularist culture.  This approach is such that the rules and decisions are applied depending upon relations and context.  Thus there are specific sets of rules for each social relationship.  While both cultural types exist within physical construct such as the universalist culture being more applicable to countries such as the U.S., Western European countries, and Canada and the particularist culture more applicable to Latin America or Asian countries, how do these cultural communication types change when we interact online?  (Spilka, 2010, p. 177) Are Americans so universally standard in their digital world interactions or do they become more particularist, becoming more involved with individuals because of the anonymity our digital world offers us?  Could this be why people develop such strong digital relationships with people whom they’ve never met face-to-face?

 

Lastly, all cultures negotiate public/private sense of space.  This is the idea that human interaction is a degree of involvement across different spheres of life, and this usually involves some sort of divide and trust factor. (Spilka, 2010, p. 177). There are two different approaches to this, according to researchers.  Those are: diffuse or specific cultures.  A diffuse culture is usually collective; involving friends, coworkers, and other social acquaintances.  These are relationships that tend to involve aspects of your personal life, at times overlapping sections.  On the other hand, diffuse cultures can be those of high conflict, mistrust, and competition.  Quite the opposite, specific cultures are those of high public trust and ease that allow for relationships to exist within their own spheres with little crossover with others.  It favors more collaboration because the competitive piece is not relevant.  At what points do we interact collaboratively within our digital world and, then when do we behave more as in a diffuse culture.  I see the social media aspect of our digital world to be much more diffuse.  In one respect we are interacting as friends, but then also competing at who has the best life (from a digital perspective, at least).

 

All the aspects of communication and culture that are difficult enough to navigate in the traditional sense, seem to be at times upside down in the digital wonderland.

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Photo source: Getty Images

The Challenges of Addressing Digital Audiences

Effectively addressing digital audiences is a critical function of being a technical writer. However, our authors this week demonstrate how difficult this task can be. Not only are audiences fragmented in a digital space (as Bernadette Longo points out in chapter 6), but there are many cultural practices and barriers that prevent us from communicating to everyone adequately (as Barry Thatcher shows in chapter 7).

Besides fragmentation and cultural barriers, I would argue that algorithms also create challenges for technical writers to adequately construct, address, and engage with digital audiences.  

Constructing Audiences

There are many algorithms that can make it challenging to form a digital audience. For example, Google’s algorithms can make it challenging for users to find your content. In order to rank on the first page, you have to follow rules and tackle specific key terms. I’ve learned that in order to get my articles to rank, they need to be over 1,000 words, mention the keyword more than once, link to multiple websites, have the article be linked on other websites, be published on a Google trusted site, be shared by others, have numerous pictures, and the list goes on.

Search results for best IoT platform

If you follow these rules and algorithms, it can be quite easy to rank and gives users a means to find your content. However, these rules don’t make it easy to address audiences effectively. I have found myself spending so much time trying to meet the requirements (such as saying the keyword more than 50 times), that I wonder if I’m actually creating helpful content for users. The search results are also so competitive and manipulated that you have to write sensational headlines and more just to get noticed. I’m not saying it’s impossible to write SEO (search engine optimization) content and not have it be helpful, but it certainly presents a challenge to content writers to construct and address digital audiences effectively.

Addressing Audiences

Tom Johnson, a well-known technical writer, states that writing good documentation can be challenging because it can feel like your writing to the “absent user”. That’s because documentation platforms provides little or no measurable means to track how users engage with your content. Of course, as Tom Johnson points out, there are numerous tools that can be used to gather knowledge and feedback of how users are engaging with your documentation — surveys, web analytics, plugins, etc.

Google Analytics — An example of web analytic platform. Source: freeCodecamp

Even though we have these tools, I believe Tom Johnson makes a good point that digital spaces (like documentation) don’t inherently give us many tools to understand how users engage with our content. I find this same challenge when writing a corporate blog. I know users are visiting my content due to web analytics and other marketing tools, but it can be difficult to know if the content is addressing their actual needs. In a digital space, the best means to get feedback from users is from surveys, but even this can be challenging because users are usually flooded with so many different forms of digital communication. And when users do take surveys, they can provide general, or extremely non-specific feedback.

No matter how you cut, the web (by design) does not give technical users many helpful ways to address their audiences. They must go out of their way to interact with end users and get feedback. I believe this is why technical writers have to train themselves to become more customer and UX-driven. Without these practices, technical communicators cannot be effective at their job.

Engaging Audiences

Algorithms can also make it challenging for digital creators to create engaging content. For example, have you ever searched a simple question on YouTube and can only find 15 minute long videos that take forever to answer the question you searched? That’s because YouTube’s algorithm favors longer videos, which forces creators to prolong their videos to meet these arbitrary requirements. That means creators could be spending more time trying to extend their video length, rather than creating  quality content that actually helps users with problems.

What to do?

While specific rules and algorithms can limit technical writers, they can be easily overcome. In the end, it’s the job of the technical writer to be aware of these rules and continue to find ways to communicate effectively despite them. It’s the reason why we are hired. We’re expected to not just know how to address audiences effectively, but know the algorithms that effect us from being able to communicate adequately.

Am I an Important Cultural Worker?

In Ch. 6 “Human + Machine Culture” by Bernadette Longo in Spilka’s text Digital Literacy, the definition of culture is easily broken into acts that include and exclude (p. 148). In order to feel part of a culture, whether that’s a college campus, a church, an ethnicity, or a city, one must draw borders and agree upon the boundaries of that community. This seemingly innocuous task is exclusionary. While it’s pleasant to believe in the democratizing force of the internet, we have learned in previous readings that the barriers to inclusion still exist, for rural areas, low-income areas, elderly populations, etc. From these last chapters of Spilka’s book we’ve also learned that cultural differences can exacerbate communication problems. Yet, we connect online despite these boundaries, contradictions, and limitations. Longo asks, “Can virtual social connections established within a human + machine culture satisfy our human need to connect with other people?” (p. 148). The answer seems to be no, not entirely, but they can alleviate some of those exclusionary tensions and we can work to draw a wider net around our culture(s).

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Cultural Communication Differences, courtesy of meetus@US

 

Longo also makes clear that as technical communicators or anyone who works with language, we have the “power to invite people in” because we are “important cultural workers” (p. 151-52). Because Longo deconstructs the idea that the online culture is universal or homogenous, she forces us to question how to make the communication tools we produce accessible to all in order to extend the cultural boundaries. As producers, we have the privilege and responsibility of deciding whose culture and knowledge will prevail, and historically we have erred on the side of science and logic do the effect of decimating other histories and cultures (p. 153). We prioritize the rational, the technique while subverting the imagination, nature, art, and pathos (p. 158). I went into the liberal arts because of those subversions, but I’ve immersed myself in logic, technique, and intent. Just as our society has evolved to prize the extrovert, the loudest, and most gregarious, it doesn’t mean that those people always have the best ideas. Does the same mentality apply to technical communication? Do we fall into the fallacy of doing things the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done them? I buck against the notion of free-flowing and “flowery’ help design menus but I’m basing that mostly on my own cultural training and preferences.

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Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous, courtesy of Thesaurus.plus

I know I have been guilty of the worker (or user) as victim trope when designing technical documents in my early years (p. 159), but Longo illustrates that try as we might users will figure out their own ways to use our documentation, oftentimes not in the way we intended. People are ingenious and impatient. Doesn’t it behoove us to give them the benefit of the doubt, ask for their input, and design with their usability in mind rather than assume we know better than they do because we know more about the product than they (presumably) do? As usual, I will apply this to my current position as an educator. When I started teaching, I was terrified that students would ask me a question that I didn’t know the answer to and that I would have to admit that I didn’t know. I shake my head at how naive and pompous that now feels. Of course I don’t know everything, and my students’ experiences enable them to see content from entirely different perspectives than my own. Isn’t that richer? The more I’ve let myself stop being the primary keeper-of-knowledge and made my classroom collaborative and interactive, the more engaging it has become for all of us in the room.

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What it feels like during many mandatory professional development meetings (sitting and getting), courtesy of techlearning.com

 

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Control freaks unit!, courtesy of Psychology Today

I’m a planner and a bit of a control freak. I like to know what’s coming and I like to steer, but sometimes I learn more (and my students learn more) when we put the planner down and see where we end up. In Chapter 7: “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” author Barry Thatcher asks technical communicators to return to the tenets of purpose, audience, and information needs, but also to organizational strategies and style preferences (p. 190). Perhaps that means that we have multiple forms of the same content but tailored to the audience. Maybe that means audiences can design the best content solution to fit their needs (though I don’t know how that’s engineered or executed well)? I am very much for examining our own cultural biases and ethnocentrism, but I acknowledge that it’s hard, dirty work. Just as jurors can never be completely objective (nor can any human being), it’s hard to set aside our own inherent cultural upbringing and fully understand or appreciate that another culture does it completely differently. Even as a I read the case study of the US vs. Mexican communication differences, I found myself automatically preferring the Western style. To me, it just made more sense.

Perhaps we start there. We stop to analyze why and to realize that people from other cultures feel equally justified in finding their way the “right way.” If communicating effectively came easy, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching ourselves how to do it. It doesn’t. Human beings are complex. Digital audiences are complex (p. 221). Blakeslee (Ch. 8) recommends we keep researching and applying what we learn, and we keep asking ourselves the hard, uncomfortable questions. That’s where the growth lies. As one of my favorite poets and late-great songwriters wrote,

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).

Digitization Here, There, and Everywhere

I enjoyed this week’s readings, which challenged me to analyze several components of digital communication from various angles. Though all four chapters were thought-provoking, I think I was most intrigued by Chapter Eight, titled “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age”.

Reaching the Masses through Technology

It goes without saying that, in modern society, we rely heavily on technology while actively using it to communicate with audience segments of various sizes and demographics. In fact, there really isn’t a way to efficiently contact the masses in bulk without the help of technology. After all, even spammy snail-mail would require technology for mass printing.

Marketing Land

Image courtesy of Marketing Land

Technology aside, a general communication approach and style is contingent on several variables, including but not limited to:

  • Subject(s) – Sender(s) AND receiver(s) of message
  • Situation – What is the intended message and its purpose?
  • Setting – Where are we and what is our method of communication?

We communicate uniquely specific to these (and other) variables. Simply put, we cannot communicate with everyone via the same methods. Instead, we must be cognizant of or subject(s), situation, and setting while applying the appropriate communication approach.

This same mentality most certainly applies within our techno-ciety as well. Though it would be perfectly convenient to use the same digital platform(s) to communicate with people from all walks of life, this simply isn’t possible. Thankfully, there is no shortage of platform options.

It Starts with Social Media

Inner Ear

Image courtesy of Inner Ear

Social media, in its ever-growing nature, allows for efficient, effective communication with the masses. Accordingly, it continues to be the primary means of digital communication in our tech-niverse. However, with countless social media platforms available, it is important to devise a game plan (content strategy, if you will) to determine the appropriate platform(s) for each type of audience.

In devising a content strategy, I believe this is best achieved through market research. Sure, these days, a search engine would produce endless results on such a topic. However, instead of trying to create a “perfect” content strategy (spoiler alert: not possible), use your research as a general guide to determine what has and hasn’t been successful in the past for other technical communicators relying on social media.

Measuring Your Success

You’ve now invested time, effort, and (quite possibly) money in your social media campaigns. Therefore, you owe it to yourself to make sure your communication efforts are effectively reaching your intended audience(s). Accordingly, you should closely monitor your communication process along way.

The Media Online

Image courtesy of The Media Online

Throughout your technical communication journey, it is important to track audience engagement. Such tracking acts as the proverbial ‘pulse’ on your content strategy. Most commonly, engagement can be monitored through page follows/likes, direct messages, posts, comments, shares, and other such notifiers. Also, there are many available ‘extension’ platforms (several of which are free) that dig down deep into page analytics as specific as link-clicks and page views.

Community Trends, Chatbots and More

As we begin to move forward our human relationship, with technology (the machine), is beginning to bound us into certain communities. This whole idea of being a part of something, whether we want to or not, is beginning to set the stage for what’s next with the relationship between humans and machines.

online communities(Source: Google Images)

After reading the text, this week, Spilka stated throughout Chapter 6 this priority of, “Because I sense that there are human relationships beyond my machine and because I can communicate with other people in a virtual environment, together we will form some kind of community and culture based on those relationships and communication” (Spilka, 2010). We are all striving to be a part of what’s in front of our screen, whether we are searching, lurking or participating in conversations on social media, discussion boards and forums and even asking “Google” for our next answer.

Spilka goes further to highlight that both defined and undefined communities have boundaries. The author states, “In order to form a community, some people have to be included and other excluded” (Spilka, 2010).

In this blog, the author mentions the 5 important online community trends for 2018.

1. Platform Convergence
2. Automation of Community Management
3. Blockchain Technology
4. A Rise in Ideation Communities
5. Data Will Lead to Actionable Insights
Natasha, the author of, The Five Important Online Community Trends for 2018, says, “Online communities, on the other hand, offer an online ‘get-away’ with trustworthy, relevant news and the potential to create real involvement.” This was an interesting note in which the author relates these online communities, to a user’s ‘get-away.” While I began to consider what Natasha was exactly referring to, it made me realize why she coined these communities as “getaways.”

These ‘getaways’ are becoming the focal point to more than what Spilka notes in Chapter 7 as norms and rules pertaining to “Universal and particular” approaches to online environments (Spilka, 2010). They are becoming the basis for companies, advertisers and other users who are hoping to learn more about a product or service in which someone has shared their own experience with. Essentially, individuals are using these online “communities” to make their products better, share their own experiences and allow for a continued discourse between members of a company, individuals who share common interests with this product or service and for a stronger relationship between each of these “particular” communities. Even as we begin to associate ourselves as a product user, designer, or even a member of a certain company we began to “belong” to that network or community in a sense. Further, Spilka makes the connection that these “online communities” in which users share their feedback are not only helpful for the companies, brands and other individuals/potential customers, but also for technical communicators. Spilka states, “The digital environment gives writers more effective mechanisms than ever for obtaining this feedback. It also helps writers interact with and respond to readers: they can even respond immediately to readers’ needs. And, of course, writers can use reader feedback both to enhance their understanding of readers and to improved documents” (Spilka, 2010).

Take a look at this blog which mentions 23 different ways online communities are making an impact on a customer’s experience, not only for other like-minded customers, but also for the company and organization.

In all of this week’s context pertaining to communities, technology and how we “belong” to each of these communities whether we classify ourselves as part of a community or not, these interactions and our presence are shaping the future. It’s interesting to discover that Microsoft currently has a bot framework in existence which can referred to as, “Microsoft Azure.”

microsoft bot framework(Source: Google Images)

As technology continues to advance, do you see these communities “online” becoming stronger, weaker, less frequented, etc.?

Additional question that pertain to these “online” communities include:

  1. Will we be communicating more with chatbots?
  2. Will we be communicating more with actual people behind the screen?
  3. Will we be communicating with something completely new that’s never been exposed of before in these “online” communities or what will the “new online” era resemble?

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(Source: Google Images)

 

Resources:

Spilka, R. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication: 21st century theory and practice. New York: Routledge.

Looking at Digital Literacy Through Different Lenses

Research Participant Lens

During my senior year in college, I worked with the electronic company, Magnavox, as a human participant in several research projects they were conducting to get a better feel for what their audience needed/desired with regard to installation instructions.  In each instance, I would be put into a room, alone, with their boxed product and asked to simply set it up based on the instructions in the box.  I was also asked to make edits to the instructions that I felt would help me, the user, to understand them better.  At the time, I was in it for the $100 paycheck I received after each task was finished.  However, looking back I realize that I played an important role in their consumer feedback!

In Chapter 8 of “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication” (Spilka 2010), author Ann Blakeslee discusses the subject of, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” by conducting five case studies with technical writers from three different companies.

The findings from the five case studies, as a whole, support a problem-solving and contextualized approach to audience in digital environments in technical communication.  In particular, they suggest that while technical communicators may not know their exact audiences, the complexity of the product and the typical environments in which the product is used provide them with guidance in understanding their prospective readers.  Digital audience adaptation, therefore, requires a problem-solving approach that allows writers to identify and analyze their audiences and to learn about their audiences’ contexts and uses for documentation (p. 204).

Her research showed that, “writers have always used a set of heuristics and strategies for learning about their audiences and addressing them specifically.  (Her) findings support the continued use of such heuristics and suggest some specific ones for learning about and addressing digital audiences…some of (which) depend on or are facilitated by digital technologies.” These include:

    • targeting specific users and situations as a way to respond to and address audience needs;
    • developing personas;
    • Interacting with users;

Returning to my experiences with Magnavox, I can see that they put the first heuristic into practice.  However, the last three were not applicable/necessary.  Once I began my work of assembling and wiring the electronic devices, I was left alone (watched through a two-way window) and no help was offered.  I also did not receive any response to my feedback from those conducting the experiment.  As a matter of fact, I was instructed to put my feedback in a box on the table and leave the room when finished.  I picked up my check from the receptionist on my way out.  My only “response” from Magnavox was when I was contacted and asked to participate in the next round of research (I always assumed that meant I did well and my feedback was helpful).

Looking through this lens, I see the importance of giving feedback as a customer.  I like the idea that my voice will be heard, and more so, that someone may actually be listening.

Technical Writer Lens

Just a year after my research work with Magnavox, I began my own career as a Technical Writer for the small water heater company that I have written about several times this semester.  At that time, we didn’t have online documentation (2001), but as the writer of their print documentation, I often felt the need for audience feedback.  Much like Blakeslee’s case study writers from Tax Soft and Secure Net, my company prevented me “from having direct contact with…customers” (p. 208).  Most of my feedback came from the customer service representatives who would field calls from the (usually irate) customer and pass it down to me.  As case study participant, Amanda, said, “…we have to deal with it after the fact and so basically we have to find out from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (p. 209).

I am not sure if I have shared this before, but my husband currently works for this company at which I was employed in 2001-2002.  It is no longer the small water heater company it once was as it was purchased about 10 years ago by the largest water heater manufacturer in the world, and now employs eight technical writers across the United States.  My husband is the Engineer/Manager to which the four writers at his facility report.  Of course, him being the “boss” keeps me from being able to return to work there as a technical writer (can you even imagine working for your spouse?), however, it also allows me to stay informed and have insight on the way things have changed since I worked for them as their only writer 16-17 years ago. In discussing this chapter with him, I asked whether the company had gone to any kind of digital communication.  He told me that they have, but only in the form of a searchable PDF file of the use and care manuals and installation instructions on their website.  None of those are set up in a way where the “user can access and go directly to the parts pertaining to them” (p. 205) or use them as “walk-throughs” (p. 206).  My husband also sits on the board and is acting Chairman of the ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) committee, and, with further questioning, he reminded me that the safety standards (such as ANSI and CSA) require that certain warning labels pertaining to appliances be visible at all times in a written format.  That means that the documents cannot be easily taken apart and sectioned in a type of digital, click-what-you-need format.  If the information appears without a certain safety label in close proximity, the company stands liable should any harm be done or death occur.

While my husband’s company does not put a lot of written literature online due to standards issues, they do produce instructional videos such as this one A.O. Smith Water Heater Pressure Relief Valve for consumers looking to better understand or make small repairs to their water heater.  In fact, they have an entire website dedicated to water heater education called A.O. Smith University. They also have a section where they do live, recorded videos and they allow customers to text them questions during the show to be answered live.  Not exactly top of the line in digital literacy since the customer would have to know when the live show is being held and tune in at just that time to have his questions answered, but it is a start.

Looking through this lens, I see the challenges some companies and writers face when trying to keep up with the ever advancing technology and digital literacy.

Consumer Lens

As a consumer in the digital world, I like instant gratification.  Last week, I received an automated text message at midnight that I was almost out of data on my cell-phone.  How can that be?  The bill just cycled!  Several years ago, I would have placed a phone call to my cell phone provider the next morning and discussed the issue/options.  However, for this instance, I grabbed my iPad at 12:04 am and went to the Verizon app where I instantly began an online chat with customer service.  The representative was able to direct me to the portion of the app where I could see my usage where I realized that I had done a 5-hour live Facebook video the night before while on data.  OOPS.  Regardless, I chatted with him for over an hour while watching Criminal Minds on Hulu and painting my fingernails. I also made a bowl of noodles and called (loudly) for the dog who went outside at one point and hadn’t returned.  As the consumer in this situation, I preferred that hour long chat to a 15-20 minute phone call because it was convenient.  At the end, I received a customer satisfaction survey.  I marked each item accordingly and went back to watching my show on Hulu with a new, unlimited data plan for my next oopsie.

Looking through this lens, I certainly appreciate a heavy online, night or day, presence from the companies with which I do business.  I see the importance of understanding digital literacy and of a company putting it into practice.

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Image from Helpsocial.com

Step One of the Communicator’s Ultimate Goal

Getting an audience is hard.  Sustaining an audience is hard.  It demands a consistency of thought, of purpose, and of action over a long period of time.

– Bruce Springsteen

For communicators, reaching the audience is the ultimate goal, and doing so means gaining their attention and connecting with them so that communicators can teach, help, motivate, inspire or inform them.  Getting to this ultimate goal can be a challenge.  It’s not enough to understand a process and be able to document it.  It’s not enough to have a tremendous vocabulary and the ability to wield a grammatical sword.  The first step towards achieving this goal is for a communicator to know who the audience is. Then when connection has been made, we must keep the doorway open.  This is what it means to reach an audience, and it might be the single most important skill for any communicator.

All too often communicators make the mistake of generalizing an audience.  The nature of the digital age makes generalizing easy.  The machines we use  to make and send messages are often what we see – not the people we’re sending the messages to.  Bernadette Longo tackles this issue in her chapter of Digital Literacy for technical communicators titled, “Human + Machine Culture”.  She writes the following:

When I work at my computer, I may feel that my primary relationship is between myself and my machine (Longo, 2010, p. 147).

Her chapter focuses on culture and community within digital communication, and how it directly relates to technical communicators.  Within this context, she defines culture as follows:

In this understanding of the term, “culture” refers to the way in which people relate to each other within a particular social context – how their values, beliefs, assumptions, worldview and so on are manifested through everyday actions and decisions (Longo, 2010, p. 149).

A community can exist without it being a social network.  Howard Reingold, in his book Net Smart, describes this difference.  Online communities are networks where people can go to communicate, but a social network is where people establish and cultivate relationships.  Reingold writes,

To me, the difference between an online social network and a community has to do with the quality, continuity, and degree of commitment in the relationship between members.  This comes down to whether participants care about each other and are willing to act on their feelings (Reingold, 2012, p. 163).

So, with social networks, it’s easier to get feedback and get to know an audience.  But, with communities, this can be a challenge.  To illustrate, we’ll take a look at a specific type of community – company intranet sites.  These are the hubs where information is posted for internal customers, or employees of an organization.  Companies often have many sub-groups within their organization, each of which has its own culture.  Communication is going in one direction – out to the audience.  This can make it very difficult to determine what and how to post on the company intranet site.  In this type of network environment, it’s easy to generalize the audience.  Having a deep understanding of an audience is crucial for making connections and reaching them.  Blakeslee writes,

Abstractions and generalizations simply are not sufficient for addressing our audiences effectively in digital environments.  What writers need, instead, is a full, accurate – and contextualized – understanding of their audiences.  One way to acquire this, which was addressed by all writers from my cases, is to interact directly with members of our audiences (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 220).

The first step in reaching the audience is using some tried and true ways to learn more about them.  There are 4 common heuristics used by communicators in identifying an audience.  They are as follows:

  • targeting specific audiences
  • creating personas
  • interacting directly with the audience
  • gathering feedback from the audience, and applying it

Let’s take a brief look at how these four methods can help to identify an audience.

Creating personas helps to understand general groups within an audience, such as specific generations.  The following is a persona I developed for a presentation I did on the communication styles of the different generations in the current workforce.

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created by Lisa Rohloff

One of the best ways to understand a specific audience is to conduct focus groups.  This is a great idea for large organizations that have many sub-groups.  Meeting in person with individuals in a focus group can be of tremendous help for communicators and their audiences.  It is a way to break down barriers, identify roadblocks, and make a truly personal connection with an audience.  Valuable feedback can be obtained from focus groups.  Using surveys is another good way to get feedback.  Personas, interacting directly and gathering feedback are all ways that can help drive towards targeting specific audiences, and coming up with communication strategies that work.  Blakeslee writes,

From all this research, we can move beyond speculation and guesswork and develop a more coherent, substantial, and comprehensive approach to thinking about and addressing digital audiences (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 223).

Reaching an audience is more than just knowing how to write or create pretty visuals.  It’s more than being a subject matter expert or knowing how to document a process.  It starts with knowing your audience and making a connection with them.  To do this, there are several methods that work such as, creating personas, interacting with people, obtaining feedback, and targeting specific audiences with specific messages.  Once the audience is clearly identified, communicators can move on to the next step – creating messages that will reach their audience.

Viewing China’s Social Credit System Through a Cultural Lens

Hong Kong street

A street in Hong Kong from Getty Images

In Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Barry Thatcher writes about understanding digital literacy across cultures. He points out that ethnocentrism about the way digital media will be used is common in U.S. research and theory. Thatcher advises technical communicators to consider the cultural aspects of a technology’s audience. He discusses the difference between individual vs. collective, universal vs. particular, and specific vs. diffuse. Thatcher uses China as an example of a collective culture. He writes that collective cultures “emphasize solidarity in relations, the common good of the group, and little need to focus on individuals.” By contrast, the U.S., Thatcher explains, values individualism.

An interesting case to examine how audiences view technology through a cultural lens is China’s social credit system. Recently, I read an article about China’s plan to monitor and rank its 1.4 billion citizens according to a social score in a system that punishes and rewards them for their behavior. Alexandra Ma of Business Insider reports the system is expected to be fully operational by 2020, but millions of people are already part of pilot programs.

“Like private credit scores, a person’s social score can move up and down depending on their behavior. The exact methodology is a secret — but examples of infractions include bad driving, smoking in non-smoking zones, buying too many video games and posting fake news online,” writes Ma.

Ma reports that local governments in China monitor behavior, and millions of Chinese people with low social credit scores are being punished by:

  • Banning them from travel and hotels
  • Blocking their children from the best schools
  • Preventing them from working in state-owned businesses
  • Putting them on blacklists for getting government contracts or credit cards
  • Slowing their internet speeds
  • Confiscating their dogs

Those with good social scores, according to Ma, get more matches on dating websites, discounts on energy bills, and better interest rates at banks.

Reaction to the system seems to depend on cultural values. Simina Mistreanu in an article for the website Foreign Policy explains the system is meant to promote trustworthiness in China’s economy and society. On the website What’s on Weibo, an article by Manya Koetse compares media coverage of the social credit system on Chinese online media versus Western media. Koetse writes that in Western media the social credit system is described in dark ways such as Orwellian, dystopian, chilling, or creepy. Chinese reaction is more positive. A citizen is quoted saying, “I feel like in the past six months, people’s behavior has gotten better and better. For example, when we drive, now we always stop in front of crosswalks. If you don’t stop, you will lose your points. At first, we just worried about losing points, but now we got used to it.”

These differences in the way Chinese media and Western media cover the story may be based in our cultural views. In China, the collective good is paramount, but in the U.S., we value individual rights. Most Americans would view a social credit system as an infringement of our freedom even though in the U.S. we do have systems that monitor the behavior of people and companies. We have financial credit scores, but they are mostly private and only accessed by authorized people and companies, and many states, such as Illinois, have banned the use of credit reports for job applications. The federal government maintains a no-fly list; however, it’s only for suspected terrorists. State and local governments have sex offender lists…only for people convicted in a court of law. Businesses may be rated through organizations such as the Better Business Bureau and websites like Yelp and Amazon, but these are not created by the government.

In my opinion, China’s social credit system is an interesting idea, but it would never work in the U.S. Americans would not want the government to have too much control over our lives. Furthermore, people would figure out a way to get around it and abuse it. Overall, its potential negative effects far outweigh its benefits.

Recruitment and Digital Audiences

Recruitment and Digital Audiences

Blakeslee in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” describes technical communication as it interacts with user-centered design, or UX. As communicators, it’s ingrained in us to keep the audience as the forefront of creating any materials, both in writing and design, so that the audience engaging with the material can process it easier, quicker and more intuitively. However, with the shift to digital communication, specifically digital reading of documents, it’s critical that we re examine if the audience has changed. Blakeslee says, “The thinking here is that technology potentially makes our writing accessible to a much broader audience than before” (p. 201).

UX

Anything published on the internet could essentially be accessed by any user with a computer. These users have different identifies, cultures, languages, preferences, etc. So how can documents, which are published online, be written with a specific audience in mind? Can they be written for a specific audience? What boundaries are in place to create these communities.

These questions from Blakeslee reminded me of recruitment materials I utilize at work. As a reminder, I work at UW-Madison in the Mechanical Engineering Department. There has recently been a major push to create new online and in-person accelerated Master of Science programs for our department.

Download the PDF here.

We have a variety of target audiences for these programs, but one of the target audiences in international students. We partner with a number of schools in India and China and they are some of the student we aim to recruit into these programs. I don’t work directly with creating or distributing recruitment materials, but our graduation admissions office does and I am included in many of these meetings. In the early stages of discussing partnerships with schools and these programs, we knew immediately that we would have to adjust our materials to fit the international audience. Some of these adjustments included re-ordering information on the flier so international tuition rates are listed first and selling not only the program but the City of Madison and the State of Wisconsin as well. Whereas with resident students, they likely already know about the State of Wisconsin and City of Madison. Additionally, it was important to adjust the language so that it fit the skill level of the international students.

To test these materials, we started with developing personas, as Blakeslee discusses, but really found the most value out of interacting with readers. As Blakeslee says, “another valuable heuristic for learning about and understanding reader needs is interaction, especially with actual readers” (p.208). We at UW-Madison are lucky to have a number of international students who are from the universities in India and China that we are partnering with, so we have access to these students who are already on our campus. The design team developed the materials and then tested those materials in a session with volunteer students from these partner universities to watch how they read and understood the information. (Thank goddess for free pizza, it really brings the graduate students into a room!) By watching these students process the information and having a discussion with them it was easy to make changes to the document based on that specific audience.

It may sound like an ideal situation, and maybe it is, but it worked. We have had positive feedback from the materials we have sent to these universities and our enrollment numbers from students at those universities coming into our programs continues to grow. So  yeah, it’s difficult to keep the audience in mind when publishing documents for the whole world to see, but in reality there are almost always going to be some type of restraints on the community of people you are targeting with messaging. For us, it was retraining the target audience to international mechanical engineering students who were possibly interested in a masters degree. Knowing those boundaries narrowed the audience, even though the information is published on a public facing website for the world to see.

Making Sense of Maps, the Internet and the User…

Our experience on the World Wide Web (WWW) is mapped out, but what does this really look like and how is it played out?

internet and web mapSource: http://comprivacy.web.unc.edu/current-privacy-laws/the-internet-and-the-world-wide-web/ 

As technology continues to advance and our access and usage of the information readily available becomes more frequent we are creating traces for the internet to mock or even predict what we want to see. Being followed, mocked or even clicking on specific content whether you are looking for yourself or someone else begins to create a pattern of browsing history, whether for the good or bad. What you click on can help brands and organizations use algorithms and your browsing history to predict your future actions or show you content you are more likely to engage with based on your search history!

Even web developers are using mapping techniques. Spilka states,”When designers create sitemaps, their attention becomes focused on document features or virtual space as a type of information design: organization becomes an invention strategy, a method of arrangement, and a way to increase the likelihood that the information will serve audience needs and correspond to user assumptions and expectations” (Spilka, 2010). As you can see their a players behind the screens who are helping websites be more efficient at predicting what it is that they want their users to “use theirs site” for. Web developers are using the world wide web to better fine tune their audience and present them with the information they hope to see. In congruence with what the web developers are doing, site notifications are a new visual you may begin to notice when you click on a site.

Here is what a website notification on Google Chrome looks like.

notifcationsSource: Google Images

This notification may prompt the user to click “allow” or “block” in order to continue to see notifications that pertain to this site. If the user proceeds with clicking “allow,” this will enable the website you selected “allow” notifications for to send you any related updates.

If you are an individual that didn’t even know this existed or typically select, “allow” to remove the notification from what you are trying to look at. Check out the fowling link to see what notifications you have that pre exist and how remove these notifications, if interested, or what to do in the future: https://www.howtogeek.com/288946/how-to-stop-websites-from-asking-to-show-notifications/

Going further, Spilka reiterates this, “Becoming a mapmaker means selecting and arranging pre existing information in order to assist a user in learning something or accomplishing some task, often with visual extra-textual display of the data” (Spilka, 2010). So, is this trend becoming to invasive for our searches on the internet or is it aiding us by providing us with the information we are most likely to engage with depending on our internet searches and interests?

Teaching Take-aways Concerning Digital Literacy

 

CollaborativeWriting

Collaborative writing, courtesy of KQED

This week we tackled Chapters 3-5 in Spilka’s 2010 text Digital Literacy. Working backwards with Chapter 5: “Content Management,” the chapter’s author William Hart-Davidson reassures us that technical communicators should not be so fretful about their profession since the proliferation of content management in the digital age will make their jobs more valuable, not less. However, he shares that “in an information economy, more workers will write” (p. 129). So while content management will alleviate some of the fears of job loss that technical communicators face, they must accept that more people in their organizations will write. In some ways, this gives technical writers even more to do; as in, do they become the gatekeepers of all communication? Realistically, they cannot. With an already-expanding job description, technical writers cannot manage all the tasks of content creation plus content management in a silo or as a solitary member of the team. They need help, which is where educators can help to reinforce the need for strong writing skills, across disciplines. Quotes like those help reinforce for my undergraduate students that they all need better writing skills, no matter what profession they are going into. If “communication is why companies operate,” then all workers must be better communicators (p. 135).

Blackboard

LMS like Blackboard offer educators chances to act as technical communicators again. Courtesy of AppAdvice

As I read chapters 3-5 of Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010), I realized that as the instructor/content manager of multiple Blackboard shells for multiple classes, I am acting as a technical writer for the classes I teach. With a background in technical writing, I hope that I am skilled at thinking about usability, audience needs, and communication when I create those shells, but putting myself in the mind of a technical communicator can possibly allow me to see the areas where my students struggle, particularly important for online courses. In Chapter 4: “Information Design,” authors Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski explain how “technical communicators are well situated to contribute to the development of information spaces and to advocate for users needs in emerging digital spaces” (p. 105). My primary job as an instructor is to help my students understand and apply content, so it is in my best interest and theirs to give more consideration to how they use our digital spaces. Much of what the authors cover in this chapter aligns with what we discuss when reviewing audience analysis and writing purposes. The same tenets apply to critical literacy.

Salvo and Rosinski made me ponder how I apply the notions of granularity, mapping, signposting, metadata, and pattern language in my classes. Over the last several years, our college has created and mandated a standard template that all instructors must use in designing their Blackboard (like D2L) shells. The left-side navigation is all the same, and there are standard buttons we must all use; however, we can customize the design (colors and flair) of the Blackboard shell, add buttons, and arrange the content within the shell as we so choose. When this change was first proposed, there was faculty outcry about academic freedom, but the changes were user driven. Our students had complained about the lack of consistency from instructor to instructor, course to course. Looking over the shoulders of students as they try to find information helps me see where more or fewer signposts are needed. The authors caution that we shouldn’t expect users to remember a virtual space’s ambience, so adding in additional maps and signposts could be helpful (p. 12).

Signposts

Signposts, courtesy of Hillcrest Primary School

Finally, with Chapter 3: “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” author Dave Clark highlights three main theories we can begin to apply to the “rhetoric of technology” to better understand it, or to assess the “broader implications” and “potential influence” that technologies have on how we communicate (p. 87). This chapter inspired me to create an assignment that asks students to analyze their expectations of, experiences with, and performance of a certain tool, say Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. I’ve formerly assigned a rhetorical analysis of a piece of writing, but asking students to perform a rhetorical analysis on a tool of communication may be valuable to them and could reveal some real benefits and issues with those tools.  

No doubt that new technologies and tools will carve new avenues of consideration for technical communicators and educators and will affect how we talk about and practice the rhetoric of technology. Just as the World Wide Web had to outgrow its ugly baby stage to reach maturation, all new tech tools will force societies to determine their best uses, standards, and rules. Again, the overarching theme of all of these three chapters seems to be to remain flexible and open to change, and to consider the hows and whys of what we do and how to do it best.

What’s in a Blog?

Have you ever noticed what makes you continue to read a blog or bounce after the first few moments?  Is it the blogger’s words?  Too many, too little, too boring, too complicated, or completely irrelevant to your search?  Or could it be the layout?  Overly cluttered or not broken up with images?  The appeal of a blog is unique to each individual.  So, how can a blogger create a product appealing enough to gain traction?

Paper on vintage typewriter with words blog typed on paper

Photo source: Getty Images

Throughout the Communication Strategies for Emerging Media course, we learn how to create relevant and appealing blogs that embody the ideal structure and flow for effectiveness. Blogging, like all forms of technical communication, has its own style and character.  What’s done on Twitter or Instagram, doesn’t have the same appeal or value in a professional blog. I’ve learned through this course and then analyzing my own interaction with blogs, that the simpler is better.  I’m much more likely to read something all the way through if it is concise and not overly wordy.

 

Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (Spilka, Ed., 2010) offers good technical writing practices that apply well to blogging platforms.  Granularity is a term used in technical writing that explains effective digital spaces should have a balance of text-based information chunks and multimedia applications.  However, depending upon the audience, the way that is done is not always the same.  We must understand our audience and the message we are trying to deliver. Granularity furthermore, has three levels of magnification to consider: microscopic (close perspective), mesoscopic (middle perspective), and macroscopic (far perspective). The microscopic perspective involves aspects such as text size, font, paragraph placement and length, and white space.  While mesoscopic and macroscopic perspectives consider broader matters such as, multiple document delivery over various lengths of time. (p. 111)

 

Mapping or blog arrangement are also very important to audience appeal.  An overly cluttered blog without a clear content menu leads to audience uncertainty or distrust.  Organization is a strategy that can build blog appeal and reputation.  The content itself should be clean and well arranged.  However, a blogger should also consider ads or the minimization of, also in the mapping schema.  No one likes to try to read a blog with ads blinking all around the content.

Simple web flowchart or sitemap with space for your content or copy.

Photo Source: Getty Images

Ambience is a critical factor in all works of art and design, including digital communication.  Ambient design allows the audience to to understand the purpose and content of a blog.  The design should be created in a way that this perspective can be gained by only a quick glance.  This allows ease of use and guides the audience through the blog interaction. (p. 120-121)  Furthermore, this overall design strategy establishes trust and audience comfort, which are crucial in a popular blog.  Images are important in creating the intended ambience.  To choose the correct supporting images, it is important to have a well defined blog purpose and to understand your desired audience well. Aesthetics are also very important to creating an appealing blog site.

IMG_0042

This is a photograph of mine, with some filter experimentation.  It creates a unique feel that could be appealing in certain blogs involving photography, art, or even cats.

 

Folksonomy is also known as social tagging, social indexing, tagging, etc.  It is a method by which content can be created and managed, via tags, to categorize the content.  (p. 118) This method of tagging and categorizing content is done all over social media, the Web, and in blogging.  As we write our blogs, we choose the categories/tags we want connected to our content so that it appears in relevant user searches.  Aside from administrative blog tools, we can also accomplish this via hashtags which are trackable throughout social media (if our blogs are shared to those platforms) and the Web.

 

As technical and digital communication advances, we also make changes to improve the functionality and appeal of our blogs.  While blogs are still very relevant, vlogs are quickly gaining attention.  With that in mind, it will be interesting to see  how the technical communicator roles develop should consumption of media become more video based.  The technical writing practices could shift into video production.  One could argue that they already have…

gettyimages-912895022-170667a

Photo Source: Getty Images

Content Management and Leadership. Content Playbooks? Content Leadership?

This week’s readings revisited a number of concepts that I’ve learned throughout the technical and professional communication program.

Chapters 2, 3, and 5 essentially summarize that technical communicators should not just view themselves as writers, but also rhetorical tool experts, information designers, and content managers. It was a solid review and there were actually some things that caused me to stop and think more deeply about my own role as a technical writer.

Content Management Perspectives

For instance, Hart-Davidson makes an argument that there are three perspectives for creating and managing content in Chapter 5.

  • The first perspective is making texts — this is the dirty work, the actual writing we do for clients, users, and customers.
  • The second perspective is creating and managing information assets — from my understanding, this is the process of making content reusable and “evergreen”.
  • Lastly, (and this is the part that made me think more deeply) Hart-Davidson argues content mangers should design and manage workflows and production models — this last perspective focuses on the responsibilities of those who are involved with content management in an organization context.

Hart-Davidson elaborates more on this third perspective later in the chapter:

“Here, technical communicators take on supervisory roles at the level of a team . . . They study how people work to create and manage information and they then look to make improvements.”

After reading this, I started to ask myself, “How do we do that?” Particularly when we’re not always in leadership roles to manage how other people create and manage information? The answer sounds simple, but I’ve found it to be rather difficult in some instances.

The Content Playbook

For example — this week, my team conducted our monthly content calendar review to discuss what will be published in the month of November. This meeting included my directors and other marketers. During this meeting, me and the other content manager started to discuss our process for creating and publishing new content. As we were explaining this, my director suggested that we make a “content playbook” that basically describes the process of how we publish content.

Now, this isn’t the first time my director has asked for something like this. He has briefly brought up a similar request months ago. However, I haven’t acted upon this request because it sounds like a waste of time. Not because I feel it is a bad idea necessarily, I don’t think anyone will actually use it. Immediately, my content management brain kicks in because I think, “Who is going to read that?

Should I be spending time creating a playbook for something that (that I feel) no one will read? At my work, there are only two content managers (me and another writer on a separate marketing team). I feel he would be the only other writer who would benefit from something like this. However, after reading this week’s readings, I may be feeling differently.

Content Leadership

If I was to put on my managerial content marketing hat, or as Hart-Davidson describes ” study how people work to create and manage information and then look to make improvements”, I would have a few recommendations.

One thing that I wish the other writers would do is amplify the content they have created. Once they publish an article on the company blog, they do not try to republish it on other websites or share it that often enough on social media. Earlier this week, I was listening to a presentation about why content marketing fails and the podcasters mention that writers often fail to ask this simple question during the content creation process:

why-content-marketing-fails-47-638.jpg

I do not feel the other writers ask this question. Typically, I’ve chosen to just do my own thing and not worry about the process in which they publish content. But, our readings this week have got me thinking more about it. How do you lead others to write and manage content effectively? How do you become a content leader and inspire others?

Content Management Revisited

Like I mentioned before, the readings this week got me thinking about the content playbook. If I created a content playbook that describes how to amplify your content, would that change anything? I’ve shown my colleagues the results and statistics of amplifying their content, and that still doesn’t seem to change anything.

But maybe it’s not that simple. In the same presentation that I mentioned earlier, they suggest that content marketers don’t try enough. If their efforts fail, they should try again. Maybe I should at least try this content playbook.

I’m interested to know what you guys think. If your director suggested you write a content playbook. What would you do? Have you already done it? Do you feel others (have or would) use it? What are other ways you manage the content and information in your own organizations?

The Yin Yang of Technological Advancements

Since I have been out of the field of technical communication for the last 15 years, this week’s readings framed my understanding of some of the changes that have taken place since I left.  It seems there has been a major shift to all things digital.  While I have no work experience in the field to share and relate to this week, I did find that I was able to relate my direct sales experiences to those of my mom 25 years ago.  Much has changed, and the shift has seemed natural and easy.  As a matter of fact, I am quite thankful for many of the changes and I am beginning to see that, while I have not been a professional writer over the last 15 years and I have not had experience with the changing publishing software, I have certainly kept up with the changes in digital and social media by virtue of simply keeping with the times.

Twenty-five years ago, my mom decided to begin selling Mary Kay Cosmetics on the side to supplement the income from her full-time retail management job.  Message-in-a-bottle-party-invitation-idea-Add-a-handwritten-noteI was fourteen and she would often enlist my help in handwriting her party invitations that she would give to friends in the mall where she worked.  She personally handed out each invitation and answered any questions the guest may have.  She also asked that each one RSVP if they planned to attend.  The night of the party, she would usually have each person that RSVP’d show up, occasionally with a friend, but not often.  In the end, she had a small circle of friends who purchased their make-up from her.  After a few years, she lost interest in the business and became more active in her full time career and that was the last I heard of direct sales until I was an adult, married with children, who had decided to put my career on hold.

As soon as I entered the world of direct sales, I knew much had changed since the days of helping my mom with her Mary Kay party invitations. My business is done almost completely online.  My invitations are events that I create on Facebook through my business page and share with my customers or give to my party hostesses to share with their friends and family members (see section “More on Facebook Events” below for my thoughts on this aspect).  My actual parties are done via my phone camera and broadcast as a Facebook Live video.  Gone are the days where my mom would spend hours cleaning the house and baking treats for her Mary Kay guests.  I go into my office, put a photo screen behind me to block out any mess from the day and keep my video background clean and focused, and hit “go live.”  I am also not limited to an audience of my friend circle and their friend circles.  My reach extends across the US as people share my video with their own Facebook friends and family.  While I find myself having some nostalgia for the “old way” and that “personal touch,” I admit that my business is much more successful than my mom’s because I am able to reach so many more customers due to the way I use social media to conduct my business.

I am also constantly looking for ways to use social media more effectively for my business.  As things continue to change in the world of technology, I often find that something that “worked” for me last month has stopped drawing the same response or interest.  That is when I go searching for answers online.  Check out this blog post I recently found:  42 Facebook Post Ideas from Businesses Who Know What They are Doing.  Fellow Students – I think it could also be helpful as we begin to write our final papers for this course.

More on Facebook Events

Facebook Events seem to be the social media preferred way to invite people to do almost anything.  It is simple in that the host just creates an event, fills in the details, and invites most of their Facebook friends list with the click of a few buttons.  To see just HOW easy, check out this quick YouTube Video on How to Create a Facebook Event. The drawback?  Those invitations have lost that personal touch in a way that seems to be affecting the outcome of the event.  While wedding and graduation invitations are still sacred and more personal (usually snail-mailed), I receive about fifteen invites on Facebook each week to join a direct sales online party, to come to a friend’s child’s birthday party – even to attend our family Thanksgiving dinner!

In chapter 4 of Spilka’s “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication,” authors Salvo & Rosinski discuss Johnson’s (1998) research and ask us to,

“Consider memos, parking tickets, wedding invitations, white papers, and reports for decision making: each of these genres carries part of the message in visual design and physical presentation.  The design indicates a range of possible responses to the text.  One can accept or decline an invitation…Johnson reminds technical communicators of the power of inherent design and presentation: while innovation is possible, it comes at a cost.  Innovative documents man not carry with them clear boundaries for readers” (p. 108).

This paragraph resonated with me especially as I considered the part about how, “One accept or decline an invitation…” (p. 108).  Facebook events are so impersonal and so generally disregarded by most people that, often, invitees will click “maybe” on an event and never show up.

Maybe they never intended to show up, maybe they had some interest and lost that interest before the event, or maybe they forgot.  Whatever the case, Facebook events are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to any kind of RSVP or guest count abilities.

In my business, I will create an event for my customers who wish to host a party.  That event links me with their friends so they can invite and I can share what this party is all about and how they can go about shopping.  While this method of inviting is convenient (most of my hostesses live across the country), they aren’t always the best method when it comes to getting friends interested and to actually attend the Live party.  So many hostesses will complain after the party, “My friends said they were coming and only x showed!  I can’t believe it!”  Well, I can.  It happens every time.

Another ongoing issue with Facebook events is that sometimes the invitees never see the invitation.  Recently, a dear friend invited me to her son’s birthday party via a Facebook event.  I never saw the invite.  She called me a week after the party saying that they missed me and I was totally clueless.  Technology is awesome, but nothing beats getting a small, hand-written birthday party invitation in the mail.  It shows me that I wasn’t an afterthought to my friend – or part of her, “I’m in a hurry, click, click, click” guest list, but instead I am a treasured friend for whom she made time and gave an effort to invite.

While I am appreciative of technological advancements for business purposes, I wish it wasn’t also taking over in regard to the way we communicate with true friends and family.  Where are we going to draw that line?

Content Management: Simply Complicated

I enjoyed this week’s assigned readings from Rachel Spilka’s “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication”, which I found to be quite thought-provoking. However, between the three chapters, I was most intrigued by Chapter 5, William Hart-Davidson’s “Content Management: Beyond Single-Sourcing”.

Hart-Davidson defines “content management” as “a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (p. 130). While this basic definition accurately summarizes my general understanding of content management, I appreciate how Hart-Davidson thoroughly explores the process while detailing its evolution.

Content Management 2

Image courtesy of Das Tor News

As Hart-Davidson explains, a Content Manager has many responsibilities, making him/her an integral cog within an organization. However, before a Content Manager can take on such responsibilities, a content strategy must first be devised and implemented, preferably by the Content Manager AND his/her colleagues. If this crucial first step is skipped, the content will not maintain consistency with regard to format/style, organization, or placement. Sure, the organization’s decision-makers may provide free rein to the Content Manager, allowing him/her to make executive decisions with regard to content. However, I have firsthand professional experience that suggests this could greatly backfire.

Just over two years ago, I was hired as a Content Editor for a reputable pipe & supply company on the south side of Chicago. Though a Content Editor is not the same as a Content Manager, the former belongs under the proverbial umbrella of the latter, with the two sharing several of the same responsibilities. In my role as Content Editor, I was responsible for creating and maintaining product descriptions/navigation for this company’s new eCommerce website. However, having not previously worked in the supply chain industry, I blindly stumbled into this role without a clear blueprint in place.

Regardless, having received minimal direction, I did the best I could in this role, having surprised myself and others with how well things turned out. However, despite some positive feedback from my colleagues, there were several others who were displeased with my product layout. Accordingly, this layout was reworked several times over by me and others as we aimed to create something that everyone would be satisfied with. Unfortunately (but perhaps not surprisingly), this did not happen.

I have to imagine that no work-related project will ever appease all employees within an organization, regardless of how much time and effort goes into it. However, I firmly believe that, had my colleagues and I worked to establish a blueprint that (most of us) agreed on, this product layout would have required far fewer redos thereafter. In other words, had we actually executed the first step, the subsequent steps would have been far smoother.

Content Management 1

Image courtesy of GetRedtie

In summation of Chapter 5, my general takeaway is that the larger an organization is, the greater the amount of pressure on the organization’s Content Manager. While this may seem like common sense, I do think such an individual’s performance could “make or break” an organization’s, productivity, workflow, results, and bottom line.

The Hidden Gem

It’s 8:10 am on a Monday morning at XCorp.  Knowledge workers are making their way up the stairs to their respective cubicles – backpacks strapped on and coffee in hand.  Stacey, a Data Analyst, revs up her computer, logs on and checks her calendar for the day.  She has a 9:00 am meeting with an IT manager in which she needs to present some data analytics on an IT project that is being implemented  this week.  So she gets right to work gathering the data she had collected the previous week.  She spends the next 40 minutes gathering her files, finding documents on the project site, and asking her co-worker, Jon, for the excel book he has been working on.  As she enters the conference room at precisely 8:58 am, Stacey realizes she’s missing an important document.  Apologizing for the delay, she opens her laptop, searches for and finds the document.  The meeting starts at 9:10 am after an hour of information gathering. 

This story is an example of something that happens all too often.  An article in LinkedIn  shows that knowledge workers are spending up to 8 hours of a 40 hour work week searching for information.  A survey of over 300 knowledge workers in the US and UK, revealed that it is taking workers a significant amount of their time to find information.  In his description of the survey results, Bernstein writes,

“It takes workers up to eight searches to find the right document and information, according to 80% of respondents” (Bernstein, 2013).

Knowledge workers have become masters at creating all sorts of content; they create presentations, single point lessons, graphs and diagrams, spreadsheets, newsletters, memos, and much more on a daily basis.  Often a great deal of effort is spent on the creation of these materials while very little is given to how they will be managed.

Enter content management.  Having a good content management system in place can be one of an organizations best attributes.  In the book Digital Literacy, William Hart-Davidson provides a definition of content management when he writes,

“The term “content management” generally refers to a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted, and styled for delivery” (Hart-Davidson, 2010).

In our quest to understand the role of a technical communicator, we can think about content management.  Technical communicators have a unique set of skills that makes them perfect for CM.  So what are some of the specific skills technical communicators have that make them perfect for a role as content manager?  Hart-Davidson describes these when he writes,

“The following are three perspectives, or categories for creating and managing content.

    • Making texts – here texts are understood as more or less coherent wholes sometimes called “information products” or “information types;” these are the genres that a particular organization makes for its clients, users, and customers, and its own members or workforce.
    • Creating and managing information assets, defining relationships among these, and specifying display conditions for specific views of these – an object-oriented world view prevails in this perspective, ideally balancing the interests of users/readers with those of content producers; unlike the text-making perspective, the focus here is on ensuring that all the elements are in place to make text-making possible, scalable, and effective for all those involved.
    • Designing and managing workflows and production models – the third perspective focuses on the roles and responsibilities of those involved in content creation and management, including users in some production models; within organizations, this third way of seeing offers a managerial perspective; across organizations it incorporates the interests of partners and clients (think, here, of a supply chain)” (Hart-Davidson, 2010).

These are all skills in which technical communicators are masters.  Many organizations have CM issues, and many organizations have technical communicators who are not being leveraged to help with the organization’s CM.  If they have the skills to successfully manage content,  and they know how to use the CM tools that are available, why aren’t more organizations seeing technical communicators for the value they can provide them in regards to CM? Perhaps technical communicators are the hidden gem we’ve been looking for.

Make Video an Essential Part of Design and Information Architecture

Presentation of a video channel of laptop. Light blue background with tall buildings of the city. Modern technologies for business. Flat design. Vector illustration

Presentation of a video channel on a laptop. Source: Getty Images

As video usage and video views continue to grow, so does the importance of making video a key part of digital design. A Forbes headline from June reads “Video Marketing in 2018 Continues to Explode.” Consider this statistic from the article: more than 500 million hours of videos are watched daily on YouTube. In a 2018 survey that Hubspot conducted, 81% of businesses reported using video as a marketing tool, which is up 18% from last year’s survey.

Video Placement Guidelines

Despite the increased profile of videos, many people still place them at the bottom of emails, hide them in links, or forget about them altogether. A 2015 article by Stjepan Alaupovic for OnlineVideo.net has some practical guidelines for the placement of video on websites:

  1. Use a simple video player that viewers are used to seeing such as YouTube or Vimeo with a video play button to provide a visual cue to users.
  2. Place videos above the fold (in the top part of the screen) and in a prominent spot so that viewers see them easily.
  3. Enhance search engine optimization (SEO) with good metadata including a description that includes the word video and a verbatim transcription.

Recently, my own firm was redesigning our website. When the plan for the site was presented at a meeting, video was not part of it. Not only is video a product of most agencies today, it is essential for capturing an audience’s attention and presenting information in today’s digital environment.

Video Gallery or Library

In Chapter 4 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication on information designMichael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski discuss the need for technical communicators to consider “findability” of documents and information. Today, users want to be able to find information in many formats including video. Websites should have a video gallery or library that is linked in a tab, card, or area of the homepage that is easy to see. Videos should be organized by category and playlists. Descriptive thumbnail images are useful, too.

Many organizations spend time, effort, and money producing videos, but they fail to consider where the video will be placed online, how it will be seen, and why users will view it. I recommend starting any video project by completing a video creative brief that lists a series of questions that should be considered. One of the most important questions to answer is “where will this video live online?” Below, you’ll find an example of a video creative brief.

Screen Shot 2018-11-03 at 3.35.26 PM

Video Creative Brief by Angie Myers

 

 

The story of the broccoli recipe

While reading the Salvo and Rosinski “Information Design” chapter a note that was written by a previous borrower of the book stuck out to me, the note said “F***ING CREEPY” and was written next to a paragraph that describes the following scenario.

“Imagine that a father with children sent the request for “broccoli” into a search engine, and imagine how his results might be improved if the search engine recognized that he was, first of all, at a home computer; such recognition might adjust the parameters of the search. Add that he is searching from a computer located in the kitchen at 5pm, which the terminal knows  because all telephony connections are blocked between 6:30pm and 8:00pm by the user’s request. So the database search interface now restricts the search term “broccoli” to recipes that take an hour or less to prepare. The same search from the same place made on another day at 6:00pm would eliminate all the recipes that take longer than 30 minutes to prepare.” p. 123

broccoli.jpg

Image from https://www.thespruceeats.com/sauteed-broccoli-482862

I don’t think we are too far off from this scenario being real. Marketers know more and more about where we are, what we’re searching, buying, researching than ever before. As technology improves, there are more checks and balances being worked into systems to allow users to choose to block access to personal data. But this example illustrates the potential that search engines can, and often are, using information that is readily available (read: collected by the engine itself based on our habits) to provide more relevant search results for users.

Think of sponsored ads for a moment. When was the last time you were reading a news article or browsing the web and had an ad show up that was for a product you’ve been considering purchasing? Earlier I was browsing American Eagle for new fall sweaters. I ended up not purchasing anything, and left the web page. About an hour later I clicked on an article on CNN that was about young voter turnout. And sure enough, the advertisement on my screen was featuring the American Eagle items I had just previously looked at.

American Eagle

Image from CNN.

Because of my browsing history, the advertisers knew that I was looking at American Eagle, was interested in purchasing something, and ultimately didn’t. So I’m the perfect person to show their ad to. To test it, I had my friend pull up the same article to see if she got the same advertisement, she didn’t. Her advertisement was a DSW ad highlighting winter boots.

So is scenario of the broccoli recipe the future? If so, what role will technical communicators have in creating that online space? And how will this changing landscape redefine what a technical communicator is? As Salvo and Rosinski say, “Effective technical communication has never been simply about writing clearly, but rather, about effectively organizing written communication for future reference and application” (p. 123). As the technological world continues to grow how will all this information be managed and what check and balances will be put in place for users to restrict their machines from knowing all the information presented in the broccoli story?

Technological Adaptation & Appreciation

As Rachel Spilka explores in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, technology is all around us, even when we’re not consciously aware of it. It goes without saying that we live in a technologically dominant world. Therefore, in this endless digital cloud that is modern society, it is our responsibility to accept technology as a dominant, driving force that is here to stay. As advanced and impressive as technology currently is, in accordance with history and current trends, technology is sure to continue its growth at an increasingly rapid pace.

In an interesting foreword within this same literature, JoAnn T. Hackos provides a brief exploration of this ongoing technological journey. Along the way, we must remain fluid and flexible in adapting to technological changes, for better or for worse. Also, it is in our best interest to appreciate technology for its various benefits in helping to improve our lives.

 

Technological Adaptation

Technological Adaptation

Image courtesy of Technology & Leadership blog

In accordance with the inevitable, rapidly growing phenomenon that is technology, it is imperative that we adapt and adjust along the way. This is especially important in work settings, with nearly all companies implementing some form(s) of technology ranging from basic to advanced. Furthermore, such companies rely heavily on said technology in ensuring smooth workflow and sustained success.

On the flipside, technological glitches and defects can temporarily (or even permanently) impede a company’s workflow processes. For example, I think we’ve all been to a fast-food restaurant that, at that very moment, experiences technical issues with its electronic payment processors. Most commonly, it seems that credit/debit card readers become exhausted and require resting periods during business hours. As a result, during those times, businesses are unable to process credit/debit card payments, instead accepting cash payments only. These types of glitches interrupt business workflow while preventing revenue, as would-be customers turn around and leave. After all, these days, the vast majority of consumers relying solely on electronic payments, often even via mobile device (ex: Apple Pay). In fact, partially as a safety precaution, it seems fewer and fewer people carry cash with them at all anymore.

In work settings, we cannot strictly reap technological benefits while unrealistically expecting glitches to never occur. Instead, just as we must adapt to technological enhancements intended to improve workflow, we must accept inevitable setbacks as they occur, ideally while refraining from becoming agitated or hostile. In fact, it is wise for all of us to practice and perfect a “Technological Difficulties Spiel” to use when addressing colleagues and/or clients while working through such glitches.

 

Technological Appreciation

Technological Appreciation

Image courtesy of Smartereum

It’s safe to say we’re all guilty of occasionally (or often) taking technology for granted, regardless of which generations we come from. Through its ups and downs, I strongly feel that we should appreciate technology as a whole. After all, it does help to make our lives easier through automation of otherwise mundane, time-consuming processes. Such automation helps to ensure efficiency and accuracy with these types of processes.

To put it in perspective, when you’re using technology to complete a task, try to imagine how that very task would have been completed prior to the initial implementation of technology. To take it a step further, imagine how that same task would have been completed during technological infancy, before significant advancements had been made. Perhaps some of us bloggers are “seasoned” enough to remember how such tasks were manually completed pre-technology. However, there’s a younger generation of users that were born into tech-society and have been surrounded by it ever since. Technology is all they know, so they would struggle to consider life from a pre-technological perspective.

Regardless of which generations we come from, or what we de/don’t remember about past technology (or lack thereof), it is important for all of us to maintain an appreciation of technology, its past achievements, ongoing progress, and future enhancements, the latter of which are sure to amaze.

The All-In-One Position

I titled this week’s blog post to encompass this week’s reading from the Digital Literacy For Technical Communication and the focus on the profession of technical writers. I felt in each of my experiences at different companies the position, “technical writer,” has been loosely defined.

Technical Communicator

In Chapter 1, the roles and requirements for what this field contain are laid out in a neatly organized grid showcasing the changes from early 1970’s to current. In the 70’s a technical writer’s role included, “Wordsmithing the technical specifications so that they would be useful as reference documentation by trained personnel.” Now, fast forward to our current year, a technical writer role may consist of “Designing large databases of technical content and providing that content. Overseeing the creation and publication of user-created content.”

Dicks said, “Work processes that once took one to two years have been condensed and now take three to six months. Through the capabilities that technology provided, technical writers have become their own designers, illustrators and production assistants, and with the assistance of spelling and grammar checkers, their own editors, too.”

Dicks’s statement above is a solid interpretation of what the technical writer profession may look like for some, especially those who may play multiple roles in their organization.

In my own experience, I’ve held a few different jobs after graduating with my Bachelor of Science from UW-Madison in Communications with positions that are directly related to the fields of marketing and communication. Not surprisingly, in each of these positions and departments from the various companies, I spent roughly half of my days sending emails back and forth to individuals inside and outside the company. In addition, to the constant correspondence across the organization, I contributed to the marketing and event promotions for the respective company. While contributing to the multitude of duties one must complete to promote an upcoming event you can begin to visualize content, materials, video items, etc. that all go into an event. With this, as someone who works and helps lead an organization in the marketing and communication department it’s not uncommon for me to help print, create PDFs, update website content, add logos, sponsors, event detail to various promotional material in Adobe Creative Suites, help edit or review video, and lastly disseminate all of this either online or at the event.

Although my role now does not contain the keywords, “Technical Writer,” in my job description or even my title I am constantly contributing to the various tasks and key elements a technical writer’s responsibilities encompass.

One individual shares their own experience with technical writing and offers a few takeaways in their blog titled, “How I Broke Into Technical Writing – And Why You Should Too,” including:

  1. There will always be work
  2. You learn as you go
  3. The work is straight forward
  4. It’s a lucrative option

Technology and Technical Writers

Another blog, For Technical Writers, The Future Looks Bright,” begins to illustrate the field of technical communication in a positive way explaining why the future for those who undertake this profession may have a bright future.

While I think both of the blogs listed above do a great job on illustrating the needs and demands of the technical communicator profession, they also share personal anecdotes of first-hand experience to help argue their main point. As technology continues to change, new individuals enter and leave the workforce, it only allows for me to stop and ponder, What this field will look like in the next 20 years and what will the necessary skills for someone to work in this field resemble?

Web 1.0 to Web 2.0: A Brief Evolution of Technical Writing

We are currently in the Web 2.0 World Wide Web era.  It is a concept that was developed by Darcy DiNucci in 1999 and then popularized by Tim O’Reilly.  It is the idea that the internet we engage with now is participatory of social in nature. The date of full Web 2.0 is not exactly determined.  However, we do know that this change occurred in the mid 2000s.  Prior to participatory web (Web 2.0), Web 1.0 is considered a one-way exchange of our information.  While users could search and engage somewhat over the World Wide Web, the information was pushed or projected to the user.  Even most question and answer or company managed chat forums were moderated by the company or organization source.  There were limits to the amount in which users could actually interact with each other or companies.  Web 2.0 introduced World Wide Web users to social media platforms, blogs, and other interactive technologies.  Wikipedia Web 2.0

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Photo source Wikipedia

The change in internet user engagement also effected technical writing professionals.  The traditional static content of books and Web 1.0 content, now needed to be an interactive, living document.  Digital advancements in technical writing during the Web 1.0 era included creating microgenres of content such as Frequently Asked Questions or online forums and also the PDF that allowed content to maintain its intended form for printing.  Fast forward to Web 2.0, and technical writers are finding themselves becoming technological experts.  Some of the ways technical writers have had to evolve their knowledge and specialties are: learning the digital publishing software tools to create user friendly and accessible content, understand web content and be able to use those platforms to create user-engaging content such as embedded maps, videos, calendars, etc., and to also be able to create engaging micro-content for webpages as opposed to writing long documents or novels.

In additional to content creation and management for general World Wide Web users, e-learning has also opened up many opportunities in technical writing.  In Rachel Spilka’s book, Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010), she references that in 2008, the Society for Technical Communication (STC)’s Instructional Design and Learning Special Interest Group has grown significantly and 20% of all STC members belonged to it.  Some technological knowledge required by technical writers in this field include: authoring tools used to create e-learning content such as Dreamweaver, Flash, Captivate, and Illustrator, learning content management systems (LCMS), and learning management systems.

Many other specialty avenues exist for technical writers thanks to the development of Web 2.0.  Although the transitions over the most recent decades have been an uphill battle at times, technical writers have also gained the ability to diversity their career and have more interaction with content consumers.  Web 3.0 is beginning to be rumored about.  This will mean much more Artificial Intelligence involvement into our World Wide Web.  It will be very interesting to see how the technical writing career field evolves involving Artificial Intelligence.  Could it mean more new opportunities or could Artificial Intelligence take over some technical writing roles and responsibilities?  I sure it won’t be long before we begin to transition to Web 3.0 given the rapid advancement of internet technologies.

Aging Gracefully in Tech Comm

MiddleAge

Happy middle-aged people, courtesy of Daily Express

This past year, I turned 42, and I’ve had to start admitting that I’m now “middle aged.” Gasp. Forty was harder than I thought it would be, and I’m trying to age gracefully, but I hear poet Dylan Thomas’s ghost whispering to me, “Do no go gentle into that good night!” I get the same feeling every time I read about the evolution of the technical communication field. Practitioners and textbook authors seem positively anxious about what’s happening in the field, and I would argue unnecessarily so. Each field goes through growing pains, and as a former technical writer and a teacher of writing, I’m less concerned about what we call it and more concerned about what we do and how we continue to evolve gracefully within the profession.

When entrenched in any field of study or interest, it’s important to understand its history. The historical timeline that R. Spilka (2010) chronicles in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some obvious changes that have occurred in the last several decades. Changing social norms, technologies, and business practices have had the largest impacts: more women are writers, more work is online, all technical communication work is done using technology, and as a result the skill set that technical communicators need has expanded. This is true of most professions. My mom taught in a two-room schoolhouse. She didn’t use a learning management system (LMS) to display course content or let students and parents review grades online. As a twenty-first century instructor, I use an LMS daily, most of my classes have computers, and we’re offering many more online courses. The profession changes, and so do we as practitioners.

When I graduated in 1999 and shortly after was hired to be a technical writer for an internet-based start-up company, I wished that my undergraduate degree had prepared me more for the technical aspect of the field. I had used Word to write essays, but that was about it. I had to teach myself some HTML, graphics, and the new-at-the-time RoboHelp program. Spilka notes that when the internet bubble burst a few years later, more employers were looking for the technical communicators who had those technical skills (p. 37). Teaching myself those skills was good for me. It made me more motivated and confident, but it would’ve been easier to transition quickly into the field with more computer software and technical skills.

At my first writing job, I was a lone technical writer in a group of computer software engineers. As I moved on to my next writing job, I would start to mimic some of the changes that emerged from Phase 3 to Phase 4, according to Spilka. In the early ‘00s as the Internet became part of our workplaces and households, my work broadened to include website copy, marketing brochures, both print and online, and working within a team of writers for multiple clients. By this time, the Internet and the websites on it had a less rinky-dink and a more professional appearance. Internally, we developed standards guides that we distributed throughout the company and expected everyone to adhere to. Rather than just seen as “translators,” we were included in design and

Google

Early Google landing screen, courtesy of Telegraph

marketing meetings. Quite honestly, I liked it better that way.

Spilka caps off the second chapter of Digital Literacy by writing, “technical communicators’ work is undergoing significant changes at a rapid pace” (p. 75). He later admits that all industries are.

No longer is it enough to just be a writer. Technical communicators (aka symbolic analysts) must be Jacks and Jills of all skills and must keep those skills up-to-date with the changing needs of the market–as must most employees in this information age. The largest take-away from these two first chapters is the need for technical communicators to keep demonstrating their value, and that means their dollar value. With the threat of downsizing and globalization, the author posits that technical communicators must muscle their way to mission alignment and administrative recognition. It seems like this shouldn’t be necessary, but I suppose it is. 

Spilka ends Chapter 2 with “While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication profession, it also promises the kinds of challenges and rewards as such periods always yield” (78). That’s right, Dylan Thomas! We won’t go gently, but go we must.

Dylan Thomas

Seductive Dylan Thomas, courtesy of Literary Hub

 

 

 

P.S. Googling images of middle-aged people is an exercise in humility itself. It results in a lot of Truman Show-esque couples in weirdly smiling embraces.

 

 

 

How To Show Management Your Value As A Technical Communicator

Chapter 1 and 2 of “Digital Literacy For Technical Communication” focuses on the history, the role, and the value of technical writers. Chapter 2 can feel like a downer because it discusses how the role of the technical writer can be vague for managers. In fact, Dicks writes “Technical communicators need to worry about how they are perceived and evaluated and whether they might be likely sources for being reengineered and either either eliminated or outsourced” (64). 

I have felt these worries myself at times. After a copywriter left the company, my manager decided to hire a different role versus hiring a new writer. It made me wonder if he didn’t see the value of having two writers on his team. Dick outlines his four points for how technical writers can still show their worth in today’s companies. In my post, I’m going to discuss how I show my value to my managers and company. I’ve discussed iterative design enough in my previous posts, so I’m going to leave this skill out of the list (although I heavily suggest gaining design skills as a technical communicator). 

UX Expert or User Advocacy

UserTesting’s Company Logo. Source: UserTesting.com

I believe technical writers have a better understanding of the company’s customers than most employees in a organization. That’s because technical writers have to think about the needs of the customer whenever they write a blog post, a case study, documentation, etc. This puts technical writers in a prime position to lead UX (User Experience) efforts in a company.  

I commonly contribute to UX discussion, especially in regards to the design of my company’s website and products. However, it is not enough to simply know UX. In “Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited“, UX professional, Steve Krug, states that most believe they know UX regardless if they have been trained or not. 

As technical writers, that means you must become versed and trained in UX practices. Back up your assumptions about users with usability tools. I am currently designing a usability study using a research tool called UserTesting. With this tool, I plan to run 10 unmoderated tests that will help me understand how users feel about my company’s website. I am also running a survey to better understand user’s direct feedback about the company. Through these efforts, I am showing my company that I can lead my company’s UX efforts. I am bringing consistent value by helping them gain more insights about our customer base.

Content Strategy

Source: EngageContent.com

I don’t think I need to discuss how content strategy works because most of us already know it. But I do believe we possibly underestimate the value of this skill. In my experience, I’ve run into two types of writers in companies — those who just want to write, and those who strategize and write. I totally understand just wanting to be left alone to write and not focus so much on the strategy part. Content strategy takes away time from writing. And most of the time, the content plans you put together can be hard to stick to. However, you will gain respect from your colleagues if you do spend time putting this strategy together. 

I realized the value of content strategy after interviewing marketing directors. I’ve been interviewing directors a lot because my company is currently looking for one for our marketing team (this person would essentially become my boss). One candidate asked me some interesting questions after our interviews. She was extremely interested to know how I spend my time as a writer. Based on her questions, I could tell she was trying to figure out if I was a writer who just wrote, or if I was willing to be content strategist as well. This caused me to reflect on other questions director candidates have asked me, and they are always asking me about my content strategy. Even when I meet with my non-marketing director, he is asking me about my content strategy. 

Even though content strategy isn’t my favorite thing in the world, I’ve learned that many see tremendous value in taking the time to spin up a plan.

The Bottom Line

You may be feeling that this list is extremely marketing oriented. Like Saul Carliner’s history of the technical writer in Chapter one of our readings, my list has a personal dimension to it. There are still many ways technical writers can add value to their company through other means: programming, documentation, product management, etc. I would love to hear how the rest of you have found ways to bring value to your company, organization, or even to yourself, in your profession. 

The Constantly Evolving Role of a Technical Communicator

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Angie Myers shoots a video with SWE Past President Jonna Gerken. Photo credit: SWE Public Relations Manager Jenny Balogh

As manager of digital media for my client, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), my role is constantly evolving as I oversee content development and marketing communications for the society. Instead of simply creating content primarily by myself as I would have in the past, today I must find ways to help my clients work together to develop their own multimedia and share it through a variety of communication channels.

Today’s media environment demands a consistent stream of content provided in a variety of ways at a low-cost by a reliable source in an authentic voice. To meet that need, those of us who work in technical communications today have to be resourceful, lifelong learners. In Chapter 2 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, R. Stanley Dicks writes that user-centered design, collaborative technologies, and user-generated content are transforming the jobs of technical communicators.

“Rather than the relatively limited contributions of writing and editing in narrowly defined and conceived technical communication jobs, future jobs are more likely to require that communicators engage in the more complex symbolic-analytic work involving not just developing information but also managing, reconfiguring, disseminating, and customizing it for a diversity of audiences and in a diversity of media” (Dicks, 2010, p. 75).

As I encourage SWE to embrace the organization’s communications strategy, I am always looking for ways to help create content and share it through social media. I ask SWE members, sponsors, and staff to write blogs, do Facebook Live posts, and record videos as well as podcasts. When I request their contributions, I facilitate the development of content by explaining any processes or tools involved.

Using Collaboration to Create Content
Using collaborative technology is an essential aspect of developing content in today’s workplace. For example, to write marketing emails, SWE now uses Google Docs. First, I write copy in a Google Doc that is concise and includes multimedia such as videos and images. Next, I share it with coworkers who are involved in program(s) being promoting. They proofread and edit the document directly. Finally, it is viewed and approved by the organization’s leadership. We all have access to the same, updated content that is saved indefinitely in Google Docs to use again at a later time.

Recently at SWE’s annual meeting, I shot video interviews with SWE members who were taking part in programs such as the SWE High School Leadership Academy, Collegiate Leadership Institute, and Academic Leadership for Women Engineers. Prior to the conference, I asked SWE staff who oversee those programs to help me develop questions and select participants for video interviews. After the interviews were recorded, I sent the video files to a transcribing service so that I have a verbatim transcript of what they said on video. Next, I will create a written script of the edited video so that my team can create video graphics and the content can be easily approved to make sure the video includes all of the pertinent information. When I publish the video on YouTube and in a blog post, having the transcript will improve search engine optimization (SEO) and make the content accessible to a broader audience. Using a transcript also makes it easier to pull out quotes while sharing video and podcasts on social media.

Transcribing Videos and Podcasts
For anyone working with video or podcasts, transcribing, captioning, or subtitling can be a time-consuming, labor-intensive and costly task. Transcription services in the past cost a fair amount of money, which made them too expensive for some projects. Fortunately, I have started using Rev.com. It costs $1/minute for transcribing, and the transcripts come back within hours of uploading the content. The service has been around for a few years. The company’s FAQ page says it employs workers in the U.S. and some overseas after business hours.

Using a service like Rev.com is a good example of finding a new solution to a communication problem, which is one of the primary functions of being a technical communicator today. I am always learning new processes and technology in a constantly evolving communications landscape.

Change is Good!

This week’s reading was very nostalgic for me!  During the last semester of my senior year of college, I began an internship with a software company where my role was to work with RoboHELP to develop online help for their medical software.  In May of 2001, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts in English with a focus in Technical Communications and went to work within the next three months as a Technical Writer at a small water heater manufacturer in Tennessee.  I was quickly trained on using Freehand10 to create and edit their use and care guides and installation manuals.   During this same time-frame, I had a local bank contact me and offer a freelance project to re-write all of their training guides.

I remember recommending Macromedia Freehand10 and they actually purchased the software and I did the work transferring all of their documents in the new program.  I cringe a little now when I think of that.  I was new to the field, and I had no idea how much software would change over the next decade.  In my defense, Freehand10 was a great program for layout and design work when compared to their previous software choice, Microsoft Word. It made page layout so much easier by having each part in an easily movable “box” – text boxes, photo boxes, etc.  It eliminated that (still present) issue with MS Word where everything adjusts itself to the next page the second you close and re-open or print the document.  In “Digtal Literacy for Technical Communication,” Chapter 1 writer Saul Carliner says that, RoboHELP was… “later sold to Macromedia which was sold, in turn, to Adobe” (Spilka p. 37)  Today, Macromedia Freehand10 is a thing of the past – and had been replaced by Adobe inDesign – at least at the water heater company where I first learned the ropes of Freehand10.

Failure to Evolve with Changing Technology

In 2003, I put my career on hold to stay home with, and later home school, my two sons.  The oldest graduated in 2017 and the youngest will follow in 2022.  As I begin to consider re-entering the work force in my field, my biggest worry has been whether or not I will be able to learn the new technology.  Last year, when my oldest graduated from our home school, we participated in a co-op style graduation ceremony with a local home school group.  Because of my background as a tech writer, I was asked to create the graduation programs using inDesign and get them sent off to the printer.  I was able to get a copy of inDesign and I set to work – only to realize (very quickly) that my learning curve was going to take a bit longer than the time I actually had to reach the deadline on these programs.  I had to ask a friend who works in the field to do the layout for me and then I was able to plug in the photos and information.  It was disappointing to me and added fuel to my fears of whether I am going to be able to survive in this field given how much the technology has changed over the last 15 years.  Initially, I chose to work toward my masters degree in hopes that I would somehow get back up to speed with regard to technology as well as everything else.  Unfortunately, that has not been the experience thus far.  “Digital Literacy…” Chapter 2 author, R. Stanley Dicks says,

For academic programs in technical communication, a primary issue is the extent of training they need to provide.   Most academic programs have limited resources to purchase costly publishing software; especially prohibitive financially is complex enterprise software like content management systems.  More significantly, the purpose of an academic degree is to serve the student for decades after graduation by providing durable skills and knowledge.  Technology skills and knowledge are perishable, often outdated within five years.  On the other hand, employers expect students to develop skills with publishing technology as part of the education process, so avoiding technology altogether in the academic curriculum is not an option.  Each program has to find its own balance (Spilka p. 47).

Distance education has made it even more difficult for students (like me) to learn technology skills as part of the education process as it is impossible for me to utilize any of the software that may be available on the UW Stout campus because I am in Tennessee.  Likewise, it would be quite costly to purchase a personal copy of each software that I may want to learn, and, as I found out quickly when trying to work on the graduation invitations, difficult to teach myself these new programs.  I hope that employers will take this into account as I return to the work force and allow for the training I will need to get technologically up to speed.  The good news is that I have stayed current on using technology when it comes to e-mail and social media, and I do tend to learn new programs easily when I have the time to “poke around” with it.

A Whole New Way to Work

In his section on “Distributed Work,” R. Stanley Dicks says that, “Improved communication technologies mean that workers can collaborate without being co-located (i.e. without being in the same physical space, such as an office” (Spilka p. 73).

In the early 2000’s, when I was working in the technical communications field, the idea of “working from home” was not quite yet available.  Although my company had considered this and was beginning to consider the idea, technology had not yet advanced to the point where my they felt comfortable allowing it just yet.  Now, my husband works for this same company as an Engineer Manager and he often holds meetings with company executives across the globe.  He went into work at 6AM last week so he could have a teleconference with the folks in Japan!  Had this been an option to me, I may have never had to put my career on hold to raise my kids; perhaps professional parents in 2018 can now have the opportunity to simultaneously do both!

 

Who Am I?

Since the 1970s, the role of the technical communicator has changed drastically.  This change has been caused by the increasing role of computers, and by the shift from publishing in print to publishing online.  Technical communicators have had to ride out the new waves of increased automated production, evolution to desktop publishing, the new Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.  These changes happened rapidly and technical communicators have had to learn to use new tools, adjust to a different mindset in their business, and determine what their value is in this new digital age.

Because their role has changed so much in such a short time, they’ve experienced something of an identity crisis, and so have their coworkers and organizations.  In chapter 2 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, R. Stanley Dicks writes,

In many organizations the main culture and mission are dominated by those other groups of professionals, who often do not understand exactly what communicators do, or how they do it, or how they add value to the bottom line. (2010, Spilka)

A few years ago, I experienced this technical communicator role confusion first hand.  After applying for a job as an Administrative Assistant, I was offered a position as a Business Analyst.  At first I was confused by this.  Then I was told that, based on my writing experience and my desire to do some technical writing, I’d be a perfect fit as a Business Analyst in an IT Project Management Office.  I was then told that 50% of my work would consist of technical writing.  Translation:  the company needed an IT technical writer and I had just enough writing experience to qualify for the job.

I really had no idea what being a technical writer entailed, but I was about to learn.  I began working with a Cyber Security expert who had several technical degrees, and with other IT Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).  My job was to write user instructions for the new anti-virus software that the organization would be using.  I was honest and told them I had no IT experience.  They were okay with that because they wanted me to learn from the SMEs and then write the instructions in a way that the average non-IT person could understand them. It was a great experience, but some of the SMEs told me I was not really a technical writer in the true sense of the title.  So, I thought to myself, “Who am I?”  When people would ask me what I did for a living, I’d say something like, “My title is Business Analyst, but I’m not really a Business Analyst – I’m more of a Technical Writer.”  Looking back, I can see that nobody I worked with or for really knew if I was truly a technical writer either.  They had a need and I filled it.  Then they called me a Technical Writer.

Since that time, I have perked up whenever the topic of Technical Writer comes up, particularly in the Master of Science in Technical and Professional Communication program I’m in.  The book Digital Literacy for Technical Communication provides the best explanation of this role that I have ever found.  But, more than that, it goes on to help readers understand why there’s been some confusion around this role.  I’ve learned that the following changes throughout the last few decades have contributed to the fluctuations in this role:

1970s Technical Writer 

  • write instructions, draw illustrations, edit product specifications and create reference materials and user manuals using typewriters, pens and paper

1980s Technical Writer

  • Mini and personal computers are beginning to be used
  • Customers receive technical support through service contracts
  • more 3rd part software is being used by companies
  • Word processing and desktop publishing are available

1990s Technical Writer/Communicator

  • Role splits into two:
    • Software Engineer – design and create interactions, and
    • Technical Writer – documents and provides instructions
  • Personal Computers are the norm
  • Internet is used and many documents are published online as opposed to on paper

2000s Technical Communicator

  • Web 1.0
  • Web 2.0  technologies have given us the tools to do much of the work ourselves

    “When billions of people came into the possession of digital computers and Internet connections, however, a new mode of production began to emerge…the means of both production and distribution were no longer limited to capitalists when the workers themselves could own these same means” (2012, Reingold).

  • Increase in content published online
  • interactive capabilities of computers
  • Content management systems
  • Social networking
  • eLearning
  • Learning Management Systems (LMS)
  • working as part of a cross-functional project team that collaborates with digital media
  • Flexible work schedules and working remotely

Technology has evolved quickly, and we’ve had to evolve with it.  Sherry Turkle described this rapid evolution well.

“This networked culture is very young.  Attendants at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure.  This is human” (2011, Turkle).

With all these changes, it’s no wonder there has been some confusion as to what a technical communicator is.  However, the role is still hard to define because the job description for this role can vary by organization and needs, and because the atmosphere is still changing.

“Technical communicators are now in a similarly disruptive, revolutionary era when several aspects of their work are changing at the same time… The methods we use for managing projects are changing, in some cases quite radically.  the tools and methods for developing, storing, and retrieving information are also evolving rapidly.  While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication discipline, it also promises to provide the kinds of challenges and rewards that such periods always yield” (2010, Dicks).

As long as we continue to evolve along our technological journey, we can expect roles such as technical communicator to continue to change.

 

Being Your Authentic Self…Online?

This week, I read Constructing and enforcing “authentic” identity online: Facebook, real names, and non-normative identities, as written by Oliver L. Haimson, Anna Lauren Hoffmann. I found this piece to be quite interesting and informative, offering Facebook insight I hadn’t previously given much thought to. This article explores the contradictory balance of authentic y and discretion. The general expectation is that Facebook user accounts should display the exact, full names of their respective users. However, many users view this expectation as irrational and unjust, due to the negative consequences that have resulted.

Throughout Facebook’s 14-year history, this aforementioned authenticity has backfired for many users who did not exercise discretion with their posts. Sure, we could easily make the ‘devil’s advocate’ argument that there must be accountability with the users, who should ensure that they aren’t posting content that could be offensive and potentially damaging. However, those same users could argue that, if Facebook wants users’ accounts to reflect their authentic selves in display name, shouldn’t their accounts also reflect their authentic selves with regard to personality, interests, and viewpoints? Furthermore, isn’t it hypocritical, contradictory, and disingenuous for Facebook users to not post directly from their respective minds and hearts?

Regardless, in our technological society, we have made significant progress since the term ‘2.0’ was coined more than ten years ago. By ‘progress’, I mean we no longer imply that platforms have an original, ‘boring’ version followed by an improved, ‘fun’ version. Instead, we are trending away from a black-and-white view of technology as bad and good. As a result, we are trending towards a more open-minded approach to software development and implementation. For example, these days, a development team is unlikely to ask such questions:

  • What types of functionality and navigation could we seamlessly build into this software?
  • What’s the coolest layout for this type of software?
  • What’s the fastest method for implementing this software?

Instead, a development team is more likely to ask the following types of questions:

  • What types of functionality and navigation would most likely be preferred by this software’s user base?
  • What type of layout would be most helpful for users of this software?
  • If we begin developing our sprint enhancement list next week, what is a potential timetable for pushing this enhanced software into a beta environment for testing?

Technology continues to evolve across the globe, making the term ‘2.0’ obsolete and archaic. Instead, every day, developers are gathering user feedback to continuously fix bugs, implement enhancements, and improve the user experience. Software can no longer simply be ‘fixed’, as the process is ongoing.

 

References:

Is Lurking Here To Stay?

When is the last time you opened a text message, snaphat, or Facebook direct message or perhaps any other messaging service that involved the use of social media??

Are you familiar with any of these screens?

IMessage

text message screen

Snapchat

Snapchat

Facebook Messenger

facebook messenger

Think about this for a minute, you may have your device right next to you as you multitask and read this blog post.. But, let’s pause. The use of social media and the sending and receiving of messages offers a user to lurk and/or participate. Lurking is defined by Webster Dictionary as, “To lie or wait in concealment, as a person in ambush; remain in or around a place secretly or furtively.” This term can be witnessed all across social media as a user who scrolls through their feed, catches up on the activity, but chooses not to comment, like or engage in anyway with other’s posts/reactions, etc. While this behavior is becoming more second nature and acting as an easy way for users to catch up on other’s lives, is it also becoming second nature for users to leave messages unread, unopened, or is it creating more of a craze for users to constantly check in on these platforms to see if their friends have read, opened, or even received their message?

A recent study cited in Net Smart even indicates, “People’s happiness is influenced by how happy their friends, neighbors, and coworkers are.” Is this another study, that’s showing our behaviors are similarly attributed to what our friends are portraying in their news feeds and could this be a stretch to link this to our own behavior, moods, and attitudes based on what’s read, kept and opened in our own messages?

What is Lurking?

Kushner refers to this idea that even though many have social media profiles and use the platforms consistently, not all of the users are participating, instead some are more or less monitoring the activity feeds. You can read more about this in Scott Kushner’s full article on, Read only: The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0.

What social networks mean to us?

Rheingold refers to social cyberspaces as, “Whether they emerge from email, blogs, hyperlinks, instant messages, or tweets – are small-world networks, because they are electronic extensions of human social networks.” Rheingold goes further and states the commonalities of social networks and the impact it has on each of us, as individual users. He says, “What we hold in common is a commitment to examining and examining whether we are fooling ourselves, or losing out on something vital through the way we use media.”

 

Taking all of what was said, interpreted, examined and re examined by the author, my perspective and social media today are these issues above contributing to what Rheingold refers to as the, “social dilemma.” The social dilemma is defined by Rheingold as the following, “Social dilemmas are the conflicts between self-interest and a collective action that all creatures face in daily life – situations in which a lack of trust in the potential cooperation of others prevents individuals from acting together in ways that would benefit everybody. Social dilemmas arise over the consumption and provision of resources.”

Are we contributing to a social dilemma in our society by using the term, “lurking” or is this something we can today classify as a fad, in which, will eventually fade away??


References

Rheingold, H. (2014) Net smart: How to thrive online(1sted.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

The Power of Online Activism

I began an internship/volunteer role with a county-level political party this week.  My role is to build reach and produce content for their social media platforms.  I expect to experience the extremes of all online activism in the next few weeks.  My interest in online activism began a few years ago when I realized impact of quick spreading information.  As much negativity that comes with it, it is also does help to educate and rally people together.  I am now calling it digital canvassing.  I thought I was clever creating the term, but it actually does exist and has become widely used, especially leading up to the 2016 election.  The power of social media tools for facilitating political participation and protest also open the door to use social media as surveillance, repression, censorship, and trolling. Since the introduction to Web 2.0 into our political climate, we’ve seen a rise in issues related to cyberbullying and trolling. (Preface: A decade of Web 2.0 – Reflections, critical perspectives, and beyond). The more volatile our political climate becomes, the more we see how the internet, especially social media, enables individuals to show the cruelest versions of themselves.  However, we also get to see the best by stories and communications of support, cooperation, and collaboration.

 Embed from Getty Images

Howard Rheingold, in Net Smart, discusses convergence culture depends upon what Pierre Lévy calls “collective intelligence”, in reference to Wikipedia.  This idea “refers to a situation where nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given member knows is accessible to any other member upon request on an ad hoc base.” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 159) This type of collaboration goes well beyond Wikipedia and has been studied in many different social situations.  In an interview with Lévy, Rheingold asked about “the skills needed to participate in and instigate collective intelligence activity.”  The answer exhibits the way we interact on social media platforms or through blogging. It is a creating a “synergy between personal knowledge and collective knowledge management.” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 160). Our collective intelligence is used in online activism.  It may be part of its foundation.  The positive desired outcome is the sharing information to create a likeminded group and to gain members.  However, we’ve also witnessed the ability to troll each other in these interactions which then becomes divisive.

Many users see social media as an especially negative venue for political discussions, but others see it as simply “more of the same”

Merriam-Webster defines power as (entry one of three), “1a(1): ability to act of produce an effect, 1a(2): ability to get extra-base hits, or 1a(3): capacity for being acted upon or undergoing an effect.” (Power)  Understanding that by definition, power is capacity to elicit effect, conveys that power should not necessarily be considered a positive thing.  The power of online activism is its capacity for producing effect, positive and negative.  Since our immersion into Web 2.0, online activism, especially political, has become a daily, sometimes hourly bombardment.  Before the Web, especially, Web 2.0, we were able to limit our political driven activism exposure to television commercials (usually only aired near elections), some print materials, or door-to-door canvassers. Now, we can’t run away from it. Now, is the power of the online activism encouraging our political engagement and encouraging us to vote, or is it deteriorating our moral so severely that we chose to not engage at all?

 37% of social media users are worn out by political content

Is freedom of speech, in coordination with online activism, creating a healthy functioning collective intelligence?  While this could be argued to great lengths and we still wouldn’t all agree, is that the point? The opening line in an article in Forbes discussing the internet and activism states, “How we choose to act in extreme circumstances helps to define our character.”  The article goes on to easily explain how quickly we can find our own collective in the digital world.  From joining Green Peace to save the world or to join a terrorist organization, it is easy to find your own collective. (The internet and the next generation of activism) We’ve had conversations resulting from blogs this semester surrounding the idea, ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say it at all.” At what point are our words creating divisive online activism and actually causing great harm?  I anticipate this question only becoming more difficult to simply answer as our interaction with online activism grows. I think it is better to kind and if you can’t be kind, be silent.

 

Web 2.0 and Online Identity Formation

Our readings this week got me thinking about identity-formation, of all things. In “DIY videos on YouTube: Identity and possibility in the age of algorithms” Wolf describes how watching DIY videos can play a role in identity-formation – they can help us asses if we are capable or confident enough to do a task on our own. However, DIY videos aren’t the only activity that can influence our identity; there are many online activities like video games and social media that can also influence our identity.

“You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!”

World of Warcraft – A raid group taking down Vaelastrasz the Corrupt in Blackwing Lair Source: MMO Examiner

In chapter four, Rheingold discusses how World of Warcraft (WoW) can influence our identity and can be seen as a good job training simulator. He says this because players must complete tasks collaboratively with other players if they truly want to engage with the game’s content. I’ve had similar thoughts about WoW because I played this game a lot growing up.

When I played the game, I use to raid hardcore (as they would say). My alliance guild (25+ people) would raid four nights a week and complete high-level dungeons to obtain the best gear and loot. In some cases, we were the first on our server to kill a new raid boss, which comes with its own bragging rights and rewards. These accomplishments don’t carry much merit in the real-world, but completing these collaborative tasks gave me a lot of skills that can be carried over to a work environment.

If I’ve ever felt like I couldn’t do something, I’ve caught myself thinking – “If I’m capable of organizing a raid to kill Yogg-Saron on heroic mode with no guardians, then why can’t I do this job interview or [fill-in-the-name] task?” This might sound silly, but playing World of Warcraft has given me confidence that I can accomplish great tasks and goals in my own life.

I’ve seen how WoW has affected my friends’ lives too. For instance – my guildmate created a bot in the game that would collect valuable materials for him (without him having to be at his computer). Creating this bot required that he learned coding, programming, and many other skills because it required modifying the game. He was eventually banned because creating bots is cheating, but the video game allowed him to refine his engineering skills. He is now a software engineer at a software company in Silicon Valley, which is a very fitting role for him.

I’ve also seen how WoW can destroy lives. There is a stigma that playing online video games means you have no life and are worthless. I’ve seen many of my guildmates get caught up in this lie and often view themselves as worthless and feel they can’t accomplish anything in the real world. To me, it’s incredibly interesting how one game can influence our identity and personality so much.

Lurkers are destroying online collaboration participation. Really?

The value of lurkers, commenters, and creators Source: Lurkers Anonymous

Rheingold discusses how the web has been primarily formed through collaborative efforts of many users. Kusher repeats this sentiment in “Read only: The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0,” where he explores how lurkers pose a threat to this collaboration and participation. At the end of the article, he states: “[lurkers] are the remainder of human activity that fails to conform – deliberately or otherwise – to the capitalist logics that drive Web 2.0.”

I agree and understand his argument, but I don’t agree with the tone that pervades the article and seems to negatively blame lurkers for destroying online participation. I rarely participate in social media activities and discussions, but I would not call my lack of participation as deliberate; I often just don’t feel any desire to comment or be part of the discussion.

However, I feel there are often good reasons to not participate online. I feel companies and social media platforms have ruined participation because they use information you provide (through a simple like or watching a video) as a means to target and influence your behavior through ads. Any information you put online also stays online, permanently – why would I want anyone to be able to pull my information up so easily?

At the same time, I often worry this passive majority isn’t participating where it truly counts. They may not share articles that expose corruption in the real world. They are not vocal when they need to be (like during elections and other highly political times). And social media platforms are doing a good job of making false participation – such as liking a video –  seem more significant than it actually is. We cannot confuse easy participation as real participation.

Where we have been, and where we are going with Web 2.0

Our senators seem to be the only users who don’t understand how Web 2.0 works.

I feel the majority of these articles summarize the main benefits and problems of Web 2.0 accurately. The main difference between when Web 2.0 was coined, and now, is a majority of users know what Web 2.0 is (except our senators, apparently). Your average user understands the danger of the web – we don’t click on random ads, we understand that there are bots trying to talk to us, and we know how our behavior on the Internet is used by others. However – as Reingold points out in chapter 6 – your average user does not know how to use the web mindfully (such as knowing how to use privacy settings and more). Going forward, privacy is going to be more of an issue than before.

I feel web regulation will also be a huge factor going forward. We can see this happening currently, with big tech companies having to testify in front of congress and more. Just the other day, I saw an article explaining that there will be a new California law that states chatbots must disclose that they are bots before continuing a conversation. I feel this is important because even though we are aware that there are bots on the Internet. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know when a bot is speaking to us, especially when it comes to sharing news articles.

I personally don’t know how far these regulations will go. I believe some regulation is necessary, but I also worry about those who will take advantage of the current fear in the political climate and make unnecessary regulations to control the Internet for certain parties.

Forming Virtual Communities with DIY YouTube Videos

woman using laptop for home repair

Howard Rheingold writes about collective intelligence, why social networks matter, and how using the web can make you smarter in the last three chapters of Net Smart. The ideas and information discussed in these chapters apply well to First Monday’s 2016 special issue that focused on critical perspectives of a decade of Web 2.0.

The Meaning of Web 2.0
The term Web 2.0 was invented around the turn of the century as the dot-com bubble burst, and it was popularized in an article by Tim O’Reilly in 2005, What is Web 2.0. O’Reilly and his colleagues realized that even after the dot-crash in 2001, the web was more important and useful than ever. New applications and websites were being developed and deployed with increasing frequency and having far-reaching implications on the integration of technology in our everyday lives.

Screen Shot 2018-10-14 at 4.51.28 PM

As the chart shows, instead of creating personal websites in Web 1.0, people were blogging in Web 2.0. Instead of only consuming published content that transmitted information in one direction in Web 1.0, people were participating in Web 2.0 by developing and contributing content themselves creating two-way, interactive information transmission.

Do-It-Yourself YouTube Videos
For First Monday’s special issue on Web 2.0, Christine T. Wolf writes about “DIY Videos on YouTube.” Do-it-yourself videos on YouTube are good examples of user-generated content that illustrate the ideas outlined by Rheingold including collective intelligence, social networks, and how using the web can make you smarter. Wolf describes how YouTube has blurred the line between expert and lay person. Knowledge is shared among peers, and social groups are formed. In fact, YouTube content creators refer to themselves as YouTubers and as members of a specific community of YouTubers. In Chapter 4 of Net Smart, Rheingold refers to these characteristics of the web as mass collaboration and virtual communities.

In her article, Wolf focuses on the home improvement community. As Rheingold states, members of a virtual community seek to learn from each other as well as teach each other. Do-it-yourself YouTube videos are educational, instructional, and social. As Wolf suggests, they combine “personal, social, and economic realms of everyday life.” She also examines how algorithms shape social networks and in the case of YouTube, they affect the videos that are presented to the user, and in turn, what the user watches affects what additional videos they are shown, and which videos similar users are shown.

Wolf explains that the subject of home repair emerged during the data collection phase of her study. Of the 21 participants in the study, 20 reported using DIY YouTube videos to complete home repairs. I can relate to this because as a woman who lives alone, I have also used DIY YouTube videos for home repair. I have used videos to help me replace the knobs of my bathtub faucet and the seat of my toilet. Recently, I watched a YouTube video to figure out why my home intercom system started to make a nonstop humming sound. I was relieved to be able to fix it myself without having to spend a lot of time and money on it.

Effects of Virtual Communities
During interviews with the study participants, Wolf found that watching DIY YouTube videos affected:

  1. Information practices – subjects questioned the relevance of other media such as books
  2. Self-efficacy – subjects felt empowered and more confident in their abilities
  3. Credibility – subjects used common sense to assess the credibility of the information in a video (Rheingold refers to this as crap detection in Chapter 6 and other chapters.)

In Chapter 5 of Net Smart, Rheingold addresses the impact of a virtual community on users when he discusses social network analysis. He writes about the data that show if your friend’s friends are obese, unhappy smokers you are more likely to be obese, unhappy, and smoke. Likewise, if you are in a DIY home repair YouTube community, you are likely to feel capable and self-reliant. Being in a virtual community also offers social capital that you can use when you have a specific question. You can contact one of the YouTubers in your community to ask for help or advice.

It is important to use the five literacies that Rheingold outlines in Chapter 6 when viewing video content on YouTube: Attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network smarts. Wolf concludes, “Through everyday information practices, people are continually made and remade through their exposure to ideas — these ideas shape identity making by influencing perceptions of what is or might be possible.”

Information Power in a Network Society

twitter-292994__480

The term Web 2.0 was coined in 2004 by Tim O’Reilly.  In 2005 he defined the term as follows:

“…the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform:  delivering software as a continually updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an ‘architecture of participation’ and going beyond the page metaphor of Web1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.”

O’Reilly provided us with a positive and exciting definition.  We were at a stage in our information journey that most of us couldn’t have predicted.  Later, in 2009, O’Reilly added the following to his definition of Web 2.0:

“the Web as platform, the harnessing of collective intelligence and taking advantage of the wisdom of the crowd, the importance of data (calling in the next ‘intel inside’), and the end of the software release cycle, among others.”

But, as time went on and more and more people became active on these platforms, we learned about the pitfalls and dangers that were lurking.

In June of 2016, Nicholas Proferas wrote a paper that brings to light some of the pitfalls and dangers for users of WEb 2.0 technologies entitled, “Web 2.0 User knowledge and the limits of individual and collective power.”  In it he provides his overall assessment of how knowledge power is largely in the hands of the Web 2.0 purveyors and that is isn’t always accurate.  He brings up some great points, such as the fact that Wikipedia has difficulty getting enough contributors and the ones they do get are 90% male.  So there is a gender gap in the Wikipedia contributor population.  Many people don’t trust Wikipedia as a source because anyone can add and edit the information.   Porferas goes on to discuss how platforms are constantly changing and users aren’t always aware of the changes or know what they can do to keep up with them.  Many users don’t understand the technology they use, and it can be difficult to figure out how to keep information safe while using it.  In addition, users have little control over the information they produce and publish, and although privacy policies are made available, they are often vague.  Proferas writes that the purveyors of these platforms have the ultimate information control.

While Nicholas Proferas overall assessment of Web 2.0 is mostly negative, and he highlighted how it inherently creates a situation where knowledge power is in the hands of those who administrate the platforms, Howard Reingold, in his book, “Net Smart How to Thrive Online,” takes a different approach.  He shows how our information society has transformed into a network society, largely because of Web 2.0 technologies.  Reingold takes us on a journey that began with cave men drawing on a rock wall, and it continues through the present.  He makes a key stop at the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press five hundred years ago.  Prior to that time, 30,000 books existed in Europe.  Within 50 years of this amazing invention, ten million books existed!  This single machine made knowledge sharing easier, and people’s knowledge grew exponentially as a result.  This was the beginning of humankind recognizing and labeling ourselves as an information society.

With our evolution into a Web 2.0 world, we’ve evolved again.  According to Reingold, we’ve gone from being an information society to a network society.  A network society allows for more than just information sharing; it allows us to connect as human beings at a whole new level.  Reingold writes, “Online networks that support social networks share properties of more general network structure as well as the specific properties of human networks.”

Although Reingold does address the pitfalls and problems that exist within this Web 2.0 world (such as identity theft, and the unwanted use and mixing of our creations), he provides a healthy, more balanced approach that also shows the amazing new benefits.  He gives the example of a man whose son had cancer.  The man networked online with a whole group of people – doctors, nurses, friends, family, other parents who had a child with cancer, and more.  As a result, he gained a valuable support system that provided him with knowledge, friendship, emotional support and even money that the group had raised.

So, although this new network society we have available to us through the Web 2.0 world holds some possible dangers, there are many benefits as well.  It isn’t going away, and those who learn to use it responsibly can enjoy the benefits relatively safely.

Talk to Me!

In this week’s readings, I made a connection between Howard Reingold’s talk of “Net Smart,” Scott Kushner’s article, Read Only, The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0, and my personal business – specifically my Facebook Live Videos.  Kushner says that, “…Consumer habits research reveals that a wide swath of the social media user base lurks: these users read, watch, and listen to content, but they do not contribute any of their own.”  Reingold reminds us of these “invisible audiences” of which we must always be aware (p.235).  In my business, I am acutely aware of the invisible audience or the lurkers.  When I hit the live button, I can literally watch my viewer count go up and down throughout the live show.  Often I will have lots of conversation moving in the thread, but it will be the same handful of people responding to me and corresponding with one another during the live video.  I may have 40 viewers, but only 10 people talking.  And of those 40 viewers, very few will remain constant throughout the video.  Many will click on and off of the video to do other things on the internet (or offline); some will simply tire of the live video content and leave prematurely.  Lurkers may feel unsure of what is going on in the video and prefer to watch quietly so they do not ask any questions that seem silly or insignificant.  I have built a group of viewers that are very accepting of new faces, but that have also gotten to know one another on a personal level and that choose to Facebook friend one another outside of my videos.  I am sure that can be intimidating to those who lurk – but I count on the interaction between those connected viewers during my lives!

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Showing live viewer count in the gray box at top left

Why I Work to Increase Viewer Interaction – and How

Facebook operates on a series of algorithms and one of those is that live video interaction/participation directly correlates to how much exposure Facebook gives your video.   Kushner says, “At the end of the day, it is still the eyeballs that matter to Facebook.  In this case, participation becomes ornamental, and the forms of easy participation that today serve as gateways to increased participation may sink into platforms’ ever more sophisticated boxes of content-targeting tools.”  Reingold says that, “if you tag, favorite, comment, wiki edit, curate, or blog, you are already part of the Web’s collective intelligence” (p. 148).  Later, he reiterates, “Participation can start with lightweight activities such as tagging, liking, bookmarking…then move to higher engagement…” (p. 249).  While I realize that people have many reasons for only watching (or lurking) on my videos, I try to stimulate these passive forms of interaction by often calling on my viewers to click the hearts when we open an oyster.  I may say, “Give *insert name* some love and let’s see what color she gets for that gorgeous Caribbean Shore bracelet!  Start those hearts!”  Sometimes even the most passive lurker will add to the anonymous heart collection.  Likewise, I discourage mad faces and my admins will block people who come onto my videos giving mad faces as this is often a tactic of trolls to get their buddies onto your videos.  They, too, know that interaction drives up viewers.

As an extension of my live videos, I run a VIP Group for my customers/viewers.  Joining is completely up to them – I do not put them into this group myself; they must request to join.  During days that I am not live, I (or my admins) will put up interaction posts – for the sole purpose of eliciting interaction from my group.  It is a tool to keep my followers interested in me and what I am doing;  I am showing my active members that I have not disappeared just because I am not on a live party.  I am also working to bring my lurkers out of hiding (on the live videos) by getting them more comfortable in the VIP group first – as it has proven to be a less intimidating, slower-paced setting.  Here is an example of an interaction based post that was amazingly successful!  You likely see these all time on Facebook whether in a friend’s feed or on a business page.

Screenshot (93)

And notice that, just as Reingold suggested, I am not only asking my customers to participate, but I am showing a “reciprocating cooperation” (p. 149) by responding to each comment they make on my post, in some way.  I am furthering the interaction by interacting back.  I never realized how important that small detail was until I joined the VIP page for a very successful make-up gal.  She would ask a question and hundreds of people would respond, but she never uttered a word.  It was obvious that she was not trying to connect with us but simply working to keep the algorithms ever in her favor.  It is a delicate dance to make Facebook like you by keeping your viewer responses up while also making sure to not seem like you are posting ONLY to keep your viewer responses up.

My Rule Looks a Little More Like 60-20-20

Kushner brings up Neilson’s work on participation inequality and his idea of a “90-9-1 rule” and describes it as being “where 90 percent of users lurk, nine percent ‘contribute from time to time’, and merely one percent ‘participate a lot and account for the most contributions.'”  In my personal experience, I have more of a 60-20-20 rule.  60% of my nightly viewers tend to hop off and on all night, never speak, and mostly just help to make up my viewer count.  20% of my viewers actively participate by commenting on the pearls during my live videos and placing orders with me which forces them to speak in the live feed as they choose their oyster and answer any questions I may have about their order.  The other 20% are my tried and true viewers.  These are the core of my business as they are the ones who will share my videos often, talk back and forth to one another, click the hearts for me if they see the viewer count go down, open an oyster to get the party going, and purchase from me almost nightly.  These are the people that I count on completely.  If you average that out – I keep around 40 viewers per night.  The math says that 24 of those viewers are passive lurkers, eight are contributing from time to time, and eight count for the majority of the contributions.

A Little Appreciation Goes a Long Way

After reading “Net Smart,” I have realized that I am doing a lot right in terms of networking.  I have always found that the best way to increase participation on my videos and in my group is to give my viewers and customers a reason to interact.  The simple/fun posts help keep the thread boosted to the top of their news feeds and thus keep my VIP group in the forefront of their minds even when I am not live, but that is not enough.  Reingold says, “Small talk nourishes trust.  Trust lubricates transaction” (p. 251).  I allow and encourage my customers to connect with me on a personal level by sharing parts of my life with them.  It makes me “real” and thus helps to establish trust with them.  For instance, I have talked on my live videos about my oldest son moving away and how hard that transition can be for me at times.  I also share my accomplishments with them – making sure to let them know that my business accomplishments could not happen without them!  For example, I recently received a gift from my leader for having sales of over $250,000 in 20 months!  That is their accomplishment as much as it is mine!43163659_442960506107975_6164844036310958080_n.jpg

Just as they celebrate my triumphs and tragedies, I celebrate theirs.  Some of my customers know that I am a Christian and they will ask for prayers in the video.  Many keep in contact with me via Facebook messenger and some have sent me friend requests on Facebook.  I try to make sure my interactions are not just organic reach but are personal and connected.   Most importantly, showing customer appreciation is key!  A little bit goes a LONG way to keep customers coming back and loyal.  We all need to feel valued and appreciated.

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DIY, with Help from the ‘Bots

Allergens_GOT

Stark wisdom, courtesy of imgflip.com

After this past seven weeks of reading, I’ve come to a “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality about my involvement in the digital world. Reading Rheingold’s book Net Smart urged me to start using my social media platforms in a more interactive way, including creating my first Twitter account. To put this new digital immersion to the test, I thought I’d try to elicit some advice from Facebook friends by asking for allergy remedies. Pollen counts were high in Wisconsin this past week, and I was suffering, so I took to Facebook for advice. Because I so seldom post, I wasn’t expecting much of a response, but I had about 10 people comment. The jokesters in my life recommended scotch or gin with a dose of “wait it out”, but several other friends offered real advice and remedies. One such recommendation was the use of essential oils. Intrigued by that option, I decided to delve further by Googling “how to use essential oils for allergies.” This led to several DIY videos and articles.

Small-World Network, Old-World Coffee Klatch

By calling out for this allergy help, I was doing what Rheingold called collaboration and cooperation, “humans solv{ing} problems collaboratively” (p. 149) wherein “virtual communities are technologies of cooperation” (p. 151). I directly asked for help in an effort to learn something, knowing that small talk like this builds trust in this virtual community. I used my “small-world network” where network implies a “sparsely knit/loosely bound” community to seek advice. Twenty years ago, I might have asked two or three friends (aka coffee klatch) the same question face to face.

CoffeeKlatch

Coffee Klatch, courtesy of Hubpages

By asking my network, I received answers from Duluth and Houston, from men and women, from young and middle aged. I diversified my answer, and at the same time, I broadcast that answer to other people in my network or “personal learning network” (Rheigold, p. 229).

Using Rheingold’s analogy of “gardening” in the online community, I thanked all the contributors, responded directly to a few, and ignored the ones that were off-topic (p. 166). When someone in my network poses a similar question in the future, I will use my “social capital” and look for ways that I can contribute to the discussion (Rheingold, p. 212).

I know it when I see it, but who showed it to me?

Decades ago, the idea of obscenity or pornography was defined by a federal judge as broadly as “you know it when you see it.” As Christine T. Wolf writes in her June 2016 article “DIY Videos on YouTube: Identity and possibility in the age of algorithms,” online credibility is often judged this way by viewers, including me. My common sense credibility detection involves:

  1. How many views has the video gotten?
  2. How many subscribers does the video producer have?
  3. How is the video titled and tagged?
  4. How is the video shot (professionally/amateurishly)?
  5. How credible do I perceive the speaker to be? Does the speaker tell me?

Like the participants in Wolf’s study, I employed CRAP detection, but I didn’t give much thought to how or why specific videos appeared in my feed. She notes,

The particular mechanics of the platform — the how and why of what videos are presented to them — sink into the background. Given the central role media like these videos play in constructing notions of self, ability, and confidence, the seeming invisibility of the platform — particularly the algorithmic sorting that provides a heavily customized experience — raises concerns over the potential power algorithms wield in shaping social realities” (Wolf).

My “how to use essential oils for allergies” search resulted in videos by yogis, doctors (of natural medicine), beauty gurus, mommy vloggers, and people selling essential oils. I have a YouTube account, a Facebook account, and a Google account. Of course, my reading/watching habits are being shared across platforms. I would like to test what my search results would yield when I am logged out of all those accounts, on a public computer or friend’s computer.  I strongly suspect the results would differ.

Act, or Be Acted On

My biggest take-away from this week’s readings are the need to stay ever vigilant, skeptical, and curious. Rheingold’s closing remarks caution readers, “If you aren’t an actor in a democracy, you are the acted on” (p. 242). That applies to voting, consuming, and prosuming. I can use his advice to realize that even my search results are curated by invisible forces that I should consistently question. However, I’m also heartened by the notion that Web 2.0 is dismantling some of the hierarchies of knowledge that have been in place (Wolf). With YouTube, I can DIY just about anything I wish to. And it is building confidence. My husband and I have replaced a sink, fixed a toilet, and restarted a flaky water heater, tasks we probably wouldn’t have even attempted in the age before YouTube. That’s empowering. The next time a household DIY comes up, we just need to ask a few more questions as we evaluate the videos we’re watching. If nothing else, I might start doing a few out-of-the-norm-for-Amery searches to see if I can throw off the prediction-bots. 

Does arranging a Holiday Party require collective action?

Scott Kushner, in his article “Read Only: The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0,” discussed the idea that social media requires participation yet, in reality most social media users don’t participate. This non-participation online is referred to as lurking, which is that these people receive online communication but they are not contributing. This concept of non-participation reminded me of Rheingold’s discussion on “collective action” in the online world. Rheingold separates collective action into three categories: cooperation, coordination, and collaboration (p. 153).

Cooperation and Lurking

This idea of lurking from Kushner’s article I believe fits into the “cooperation” category of collective action that Rheingold discusses. Lurkers are social media participants, who use the applications and learn about what other people are doing, celebrating, and posting but who do not leave a trace that they have seen the content. Think of Facebook for a moment, on my account I have 1,000+ “friends” who I am connected with via the app. These friends are posting status updates throughout the week, yet when I am scrolling through the app I only engage with content from some of my closest friends, which is probably around 5% of the content I see on my feed. In this example, I am cooperating with the online world, but I an not coordinating or collaborating in it. This goes both ways, for example in the last status update I posted on Facebook I had 145 people engage with it, of my 1,080 friends that is only 13% of my connections.

Coordination and Collaboration

I think that Rheingold’s concept of coordination and collaboration in the online world play into each other a bit. Back to my Facebook example, coordination comes into play in various parts of the application but especially in the Events sections of the application. Facebook makes it easier than ever to coordinate an event with your friends. Every year over the holidays I host a Christmas Party in my hometown for all of my high school friends, and each year I organize this party through a Facebook event. I enter the description, invite all of my friends, enter in the time and location, and boom – the invitation is sent. From there, my friends are able to RSVP (yes, no, maybe) and comment on the event page. Each year, on the event page, the first post (from me) is a poll that reads: What day is everyone available? Day with the most votes will be the party date. My friends can vote on the poll for when they’re available, and I look a few days later to select the final date. This event tool is incredibly helpful is helping coordinate with my network. If there is a location change or time change, I update the event and all attendees are notified.

Mosinee Christmas_Use

Although I think this example fits most strongly into the coordination bucket, I think there is Rheingold’s concept of collaboration at play too. Although it is limited to a small group of people, everyone is collaborating when they are completing the poll that is available in the group. As everyone participates in the poll, it becomes clear what day of the week works best for everyone and their collective answers help me make that decision.

Whether you’re lurking, cooperating, coordinator or collaborating online, you’re still participating. I haven’t run into a friend who doesn’t have a Facebook account where I need to go offline to talk to them about the Christmas Party, my friend group knows to expect this invitation as the holidays are approaching. I wonder if there will ever be a time where mass groups of people will stop tuning into social media; stop participating all together. If so, I hope there is another tool I can use to coordinate this event as easily as I currently do. So is this a from of collective action according to Rheingold, I would argue yes. In this particular example, there are very few individuals who are lurking as it’s encouraging group participation and most of the group is engaging with the event invite. 

Blogging: Balancing Accuracy and Authenticity

As bloggers, we aspire to create content that reaches the masses. We hope to craft a message that appeals to a specific persona. Over time, we expect to build an audience in the form of a loyal following. However, to do so, we must first establish credibility and trust among those viewing our posts.

Informative Blog

Image courtesy of LEENTech Network Solutions

To establish and maintain credibility among our viewers, we must appeal to our intellectual side while creating content that is factual, accurate, and helpful. Such content should be supported with quality sources, such as books/textbooks. A truly credible blog post likely wouldn’t cite other blogs as sources. However, this becomes a catch-22, since we’d rather not cite other blogs for our blog posts, yet we hope our blog will gain enough credibility to be cited by others.

Compu-Heart

Image courtesy of Iconfinder

To establish and maintain trust, we must appeal to our emotional side while creating a blogger persona that our audience can truly identify with. Our closest followers would feel like they know us personally, as if we go way back. Those who can identify with us will feel compelled to read our content regularly, in hopes of obtaining advice that would truly speak to them, thanks to the similar nature of the two sides. In other words, such a success story might feature an audience member saying “I can’t wait to read Jeff’s blog post this week. I really get that guy, as he and I are quite similar. He offers frequent advice very specific to my current life situation, which I obviously appreciate.” Perhaps this success story sounds a bit too fairytale-ish, but it should serve as a general aim for bloggers looking to identify with an audience while the former gains trust from the latter.

To simultaneously sustain credibility and trust among our audience, we must find and actively implement a balance of information and emotion within each blog post.  To borrow a cliché, we must find a “happy medium” for our content. In a perfect blogging world, a blog would be informative while sounding like it was written by a human being instead of a robot.  Easy enough, right?

Teenage Participatory Culture

We live in a participatory culture that is constantly demanding our attention and interaction. Teenagers are highly engaged in this culture and could be setting the expectations of social media engagement. A 2005 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project referenced in Howard Rheingold’s book, Net Smart, 87% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 were online. (Rheingold, 2014)  A more recent study by Pew Research Center, conducted in 2018 of teens ages 13-17, found that 95% of teens own or have access to a smart phone and that 45% say they are online on a near-constant basis.  Furthermore, those teens recently polled have gravitated to other social media platforms rather than Facebook.  Pew Research Center: Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018

 

correct pic

 

Facebook is no longer the predominant social media platform for teenagers, not even close.  While adults seem to be using Facebook still more frequently, I’ve noticed that changing.  Personally, I have started using YouTube and Instagram more than Facebook. My social media platform engagement change began because of my daughter.  However, I quickly understood the gravitation towards Instagram and YouTube.

 

Teenagers and now adults are becoming social media producers in many different ways.  We are constantly engaged in this participatory culture. In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold defines participatory culture as, “one in which a significant portion of the population, not just a small professional guild, can participate in the production of cultural materials ranging from encyclopedia entries to videos watched by millions.  And it is a culture populated by people who believe they have some degree of power.” (Rheingold, 2014)  One big outcome of this participatory culture is that web participants then become curators.

 

By the creation of media, consuming it, sharing it, and critiquing it, every web participant is actively engaging in this participatory culture.  There are many benefits or rewards to being involved in social media. Pew Research Center also questioned how teens are currently using social media but also questioned about the negative impacts.

 

participatory culture risks

 

From the data, it is obvious that there are some strong positive effects, but also some very serious negative effects.  To what degree is this participatory culture then more harmful than helpful? According to Howard Rheingold, those in these participatory cultures believe they have some degree of power.  (Rheingold, 2014)  However, from the Pew Research Center data, bullying and/or rumor spreading is the main concern of 27% of the teens who reported mostly negative experience with social media engagement.  This doesn’t indicate that the receiver of bullying feels that they have any power. To that point, in Howard Rheingold’s definition of participatory culture, I would change the part that states these people feel that they have power (in general) to interaction in our participatory culture gives us the illusion of power.  That’s not to say that individuals don’t actually have power in certain interactions, at certain moments.  However, to the degree that our culture changes, it opens up new ways to cause harm. Even the most influential celebrities get harassed and bullied on social media.  They have power in one aspect but then zero in the next.

 

Participatory cultural effects in our digital age create new challenges and I have a lot of concern for teenagers being able to cope with this constant interaction.  Considering 95% own or have access to a smart phone and 45% of them are online on a near-constant basis, according to the Pew Research data. The new technologies necessitate an adult understanding in order to help teenagers navigate in our participatory culture.  And to help us adults, too.

 

 

Keep Your Feet

“It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door.

You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet,

there’s no telling where you might be swept off to.”

J.R.R. Tolkien

The modern digital world can be both wonderful and frightening.  We have this wide world of digital opportunities in which we can participate, but there are dangers on the road.  For our journey to be successful and safe, we must be aware of the pitfalls – be mindful – keep our feet.

feet

We’re all at different stages of our digital journey.  Some are just starting out, hearing about new opportunities and either reluctantly or curiously stepping out onto this road.  These travelers might be familiar with some digital mediums such as email and smart phones.  Then there are those who are at the front of the pack.  The have every new device possible and regularly engage those devices to participate in social media, access information, and order products.  All of us are at some point along this road.  But, wherever each person is at, there is one thing we all need to do – we need to keep our feet.

In chapter 3 of his book Net Smart How to thrive online, Howard Reingold writes, “In the world of digitally networked publics, online participation – if you know how to do it – can translate into real power” (p. 114).  He goes on to write, “Done mindfully, digital participation helps build a more democratic, more diverse culture – a participatory one” (p. 75).  Being a participant in this world can provide faster ways to communicate with those far from us, inform us of happenings across the globe, provide us with a library full of information and much, much more.  But this real-time access to people, products and information brings with it some possible bumps in the road.

As with any new path in life, there are many amazing and wonderful gems, and there are also dangers.  Two of the pitfalls of this digital world are 1) being “always on” and, 2) accessing incorrect or propagandized information.  First, let’s examine being on all the time.  It has become an issue in classrooms, business meetings and even the dinner table. People are absorbed in their devices instead of focusing on the people and activities they are involved with.  Reingold studied this aspect of digital life and wrote, “The attention shift that has been taking place among students for some time now is propagating far beyond the campuses:  all people and media are available all the time, and in all places, but relatively few people appear to use ubiquitous informational access and social connectivity politely and productively” (p. 36).  So, as people are connected to social media on their devices, they are disconnected to what is going on around them.  This leads to another problem – multitasking.  Many studies have been done on multitasking, and the majority of psychologists agree that it doesn’t really work.  Our brains can only truly focus on one thing at a time.  So, if a student in a classroom is bouncing back and forth from Facebook to email to what’s going on in the classroom, they are most likely not fully engaged in any one of those things.  There are even studies that suggest this is unhealthy for our brains and well-being.  Reingold writes, “Continuous partial attention can hamper opportunities for reflection and authentic social connection as well as threaten personal health and well-being” (p. 58).

Another pitfall to consider is the fact that we can’t trust everything we read on the internet.  Because there is such a plethora of information out there and anyone can add to it regardless of their credentials, some of it is inaccurate, misleading or comes from sources we don’t realize.

The good news is that there are some ways in which we can keep our feet as we walk on this road.  First, we can practice mindfulness.  We can choose to be aware of our own tendencies to multitask.  We can choose to not text and drive, choose to turn devices off at the dinner table or at meetings, and choose to fully engage with the people around us.  There are also some simple ways to make sure the information we’re accessing is true and from credible sources.  Here are some of those ways:

  1.  think skeptically
  2.  look for an author and check their claims to authority on the subject
  3.  check the author’s sources
  4.  see what others are saying about the author
  5.  Review sites and see if anything doesn’t seem authentic about them
  6. Remember that some of the information on the internet is crowdsourced.  It doesn’t come from one source that is easy to find.  So be sure to investigate all sources.  In her book Superconnected, Mary Chayko wrote, “This sharing economy has complicated copyright matters.  Lots of information on the internet and digital media is prosumed, crowdsourced, and remixed – created collaboratively by producers and consumers alike, sometimes in large batches” (p. 78).

This digital road we are traveling together is wonderful.  It offers us amazing opportunities to connect, learn and grow.  But, there are also stumbling stones, so we must take care to keep our feet.

Reingold, H. (2014). Net Smart: How to thrive online. Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press.

Chayko, M. (2018). Superconnected:  The internet, digital media and technosocial life. SAGE: Los Angeles.

 

The Role of the Blogger

Rheingold discusses the role of the blogger and the power of participation in chapter three of “Net Smart: How to thrive online.” This chapter, along with our other readings, caused me to reflect on the role of a blogger and their ability to influence action through participation.

The Power of Connective Blogging and Being Human in Markets

Rheingold discusses how connective blogging creates communities where people can comment, think critically, and influence action by sharing like-minded information. In the Cluetrain Manifesto, Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger argue that “markets” (bloggers, etc.) are able to do this because they speak in a human voice. They also argue companies often fail at this because they try to convince others they are human with lip service.

Most companies blog about their product or service and expect consumers to engage with it. They fail because they do lip service – they contribute to a conversation in order for you to buy such product or service. While this works to a certain degree – it is not the most effective way to create and influence action because most readers know what these companies are doing. Companies can create discussion, cause others to think critically, and influence action by being human.

Being Human Means Being Educational

Source: The Modest Man’s Website

The Modest Man is a good example of a blogger being human. Brock, The Modest Man, focuses on helping short men “dress better and ultimately feel more confident.” People actively watch his online videos, leave comments on his blog, and seek him out for fashion advice. Brock is not only able to get users to actively engage with his blogs and videos, but he was able to influence a men’s clothing company to change their sizing options after posting a positive, but critical review of their service.

Brock was able to have this effect because he has a human voice – he doesn’t post YouTube videos and blogs because he is trying to influence his audience to buy a certain product or service. He is blogging because he genuinely wants to provide helpful, educational information for those who are interested. When your focus is being educational, versus trying to influence a user to buy a certain product, you are more likely to gain a user’s trust (which Brock has done). The information he provides is authentic, truthful, and human because he is honestly trying to help men dress better, regardless of the product or service.

Being Human Requires Being Authentic

Source: The Chicken Whisperer’s Website

The Modest Man is similar in many ways to the Chicken Whisperer. Joe Pulizzi, author of Content Marketing Inc., loves to use the Chicken Whisperer as an example of a blogger who has gathered a large audience by posting educational content about raising chickens. However, it’s not that he just posts educational content – he demonstrates authenticity through his content.

For instance – his website and branding is slightly boring looking, but it helps provide authenticity. There isn’t shout outs to other brands, he doesn’t look like a executive who is trying to take your money, and most of his call-to-actions link to content and not products. This looks like a blogging information source that someone could trust and share with other users. His blog is shared because users respect and trust the information he provides them.

Being Human Means Being Trustful

Source: Realtime API Website

As a content marketer who works for companies, I often have a disadvantage because my content will automatically be seen as biased if I post anything about that subject matter on our corporate blog. One way I’ve remedied this is by creating third party microsites to publish and share information about a subject matter unbiasedly. For instance – my coworker and I created a microsite called realtimeapi.io that helps users build realtime APIs. All information we publish on this website is helpful for anyone who wants to build a realtime API and doesn’t focus on a single company or product. Whenever I create websites like this, I disclose that I work for a certain companies so users can trust and be cautious of the content. But websites like this also allow me to discuss a certain topic (like Realtime APIs) more generically and be more educational, and not force users to only look at my company’s product or services.

I believe connective blogging requires having a human voice. A human voice requires being educational, authentic, and being trustful. Companies typically fail at these three things because they only want to focus on their product and come off as biased. I believe companies must learn from connective blogger’s transparency and educational content to be truly successful in content marketing.

Put the Phone Down, Filter the CRAP, and Hit it Big!

Social Media is more than just a distraction to some.  The reading this week made me really step back and evaluate myself with regard to my own level of distraction caused by my response to the notifications from social media and e-mail.  I spent and entire day being acutely aware of my habits in a way that I had not previously, and here is what I discovered:  I am a social media addict with unchecked OCD!

Each morning, my alarm sounds (on my phone) 15 minutes before I have to get out of bed.  This is purposeful because it allows me to silence the alarm and spend those 15 minutes waking up while scrolling through my e-mail, text messages, missed calls, and of course my Facebook business page/messages.  I have been known to stay in bed doing this for 30-45 minutes, often missing my opportunity to shower and beginning my day with a coating of dry shampoo and body spray.  On days when I do have time for my  shower, I take the phone into the bathroom with me and will often prop it against the wall at the top of the shower so that I can be sure to not miss any important messages or phone calls.

When I am out of the shower, I check my phone again for the temperature and the daily weather so that I can get dressed accordingly.  By then, it is usually time for me to wake up my youngest son to begin his day (we home school).  I often Face Time him as his wake up call, you know, to save those 10 steps I would make to his bedroom.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon as a slave to the pings and bings of notifications.  If I am waiting on an important call or email, I find my (actually diagnosed) OCD pattern of checking every few minutes rears its ugly head.  I will admit that, often, this pattern does not change when I am in the car driving.  In his book, “Net Smart,” author Howard Rheingold notes that, “Texting while driving kills…(and) the fact that anyone would risk life and limb for an LOL is a clue that something about texting hooks into the human propensity to repeat pleasurable behaviors to the point of compulsion” (p. 45).  ACK!  He is right!  Try as I may over the years of driving with my son’s in the car and teaching the boys to drive, I still can’t say that I am 100% cell phone free while driving.  texting and driving

My brain knows I need to be, but something almost uncontrollable begs me to check that phone at every ping.  And, turning the volume off doesn’t change that desire to check.  In fact, it almost sends it into hyper-drive as I worry that I have missed something imperative!

Most evenings I work my business by doing online Facebook parties to open oysters and sell jewelry.  During this time I am totally plugged in – working while checking a barrage of private messages, keeping up my online presence, and reading/responding to live comments as they come through my feed.

To finish my day, I lay in bed and scroll through Facebook or read articles online that interest me until I get tired enough to fall asleep.  I can’t even speak to how many times I will be reading through an article or a friend’s Facebook timeline only to find myself in the circle of links and clicks that lead me to chase a white rabbit down the social media rabbit hole.  If you aren’t sure what I mean about the rabbit hole, here is a great article I read recently after a night of chasing that rabbit for about 3 hours:  Following the White Rabbit Down the Social Media Rabbit Hole

Fine Tuning my CRAP Detector

In Chapter 2, Rhinegold points out that, in order to be smart in our use of the internet, we must learn to filter out what is true and what is false.  Rhinegold says, “Don’t refuse to believe; refuse to start out believing.  Continue to pursue your investigation after you find an answer.  Chase the story rather than just accepting the first evidence you encounter” (p. 78).  I am going to take a second here and get really personal in an attempt to give an example of a broken “CRAP detector” (p. 89) and the toll it took on my quality of life for over a year.  I mentioned above that I battle OCD.  My OCD doesn’t come in the form of counting or repeating steps for fear that something bad will happen.  My OCD presents itself with health anxiety – I am a hypochondriac when I allow my mind to take off in whatever direction it chooses.  Rheingold assures us by saying, “What person doesn’t search online about their disease after they are diagnosed?”  After my youngest son was born (15 years ago), I went through a severe bout with my OCD/hypochondria where I determined from Dr. Google that I was dying from a brain tumor.  I lost a good year of my life with worry and anxiety, but I was too afraid to see a doctor or mention these concerns because I just knew I could not handle a horrible diagnosis in my fragile mental state.  According to the internet, I had every symptom.  I was dizzy, I felt my speech was stumbling and slurred at times (even though friends and relatives had no idea what I meant and had not seen/heard any issues when speaking to me), occasionally my vision was blurry and I was experiencing flashes and floaters.  I was feeling like I was in a memory fog and often felt clumsy and off balance.  I often would run to a mirror and stick my tongue out to see if it went straight down or off to the side -Google told me to try that.  Unfortunately, Dr. Internet failed to tell me that brain tumors generally affect one area of the brain at a time.  So, if I had blurry vision caused by a tumor in my brain, it would be located behind my eyes (most likely) and symptoms would all be related to that one tumor in that one place.  A tumor behind my eye would not cause me to have slurred speech, a foggy memory, or to lose my balance unless, of course, it was metastatic.  It took me a year and a Lexapro prescription to tune my crap detector enough to realize that I had been feeding my unfounded fears by seeking worst case scenario CRAP on the internet.  I am happy to report that I continued with that Lexapro prescription and I no longer live my life in fear of dying from whatever Google diagnosed illness I may have.dr google

Working to “Hit It Big”

In Chapter 3, Rheingold begins to discuss meaningful ways that we can participate in social media.  Because social media is such a great tool in my business as a network marketer, I can’t just decide to unplug completely.  Instead, I can make small changes to the way I operate on social media (perhaps beginning with locking my phone in the glove box when I drive).  My inital interest in this graduate course came from my desire to learn how to better present myself online and how to be intentional in my participation on social media.  Reingold reminds us that, “The good news is that learning to participate effectively online (like learning attention and crap detecting skills) is a matter of mindset and practice – and the payoff can be big.  Knowledgeable online participation can help you land a job, find a mate, organize a movement, or sell a product or service.  As citizens, professionals, and consumers, we hit it big, manage to get by, or fail utterly in large part because of our ability to connect and converse with others by way of digital networks…” (p. 114).  I am ready to do what it takes to “hit it big!”

 

 

 

“This Change Isn’t Minor, and It Isn’t Optional”: Becoming Multi-textual

Several years ago, my co-worker invited me to watch Daniel Simons’ “gorilla basketball” clip that Rheingold references in his book NetSmart (p. 45), a clip on selective attention that asks viewers to count the number of passes between basketball players. I watched the brief clip and didn’t noticed the gorilla. I was intent on the task I was given; I was selective with my attention. The same co-worker uses this clip in her College Success course to illustrate how we can tune into and out of the items we deem most important.

GorillaBasketball

Gorilla Basketball, courtesy of https://gorillabasketballvideoaln.wordpress.com/

We’re Being Augmented, not Damaged

The thesis of Rheingold’s first three chapters from NetSmart is that we can train and improve our attention, a task that will be necessary to thrive in this technology-drenched era. As someone who practices yoga regularly, I was eager to read more about how paying attention to my breath (something we do all the time in yoga) could help me  hone my attention even more. I also felt validated to read about “email apnea” because it’s something I have seen my husband do when answering work email from home; he momentarily stops breathing (p. 45). Mostly though, I was heartened to read that rather than harming us, digital media could simply be augmenting us (p. 40). The past several weeks’ readings have made me worried, but Rheingold’s book offers some concrete steps for us to facilitate the augmentation that is happening to our brains already–hopefully for the better. 

A Digitally Literate Democracy

These chapters offer copious opportunities for noteworthy catch phrases that describe our new world: “volume control,” “attention-deficit culture,” and “artificial sense of constant crisis” (pp. 55, 56, 57). We recognize these symptoms and look wearily at the repercussions they have on our ability to communication and connect. However, what made me the most hopeful was how Rheingold compared digital citizenry to literacy. We are not born readers, and even the great philosophers Socrates and Plato both feared “the written word and its effect on us”, particularly for its loss of control over knowledge (p. 60).

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Socrates & Plato

They feared that just because more knowledge would become available to more people that did not mean that the people would understood that knowledge. The owners of that information also lose their ability to translate the knowledge to suit their purposes. We see this today with our plethora of media options, cries of fake news, and echo chamber preferences. We know now that literacy was a democratizing development; I am hopeful that digital literacy will be, too.

Pay Attention: A How-To

We touch on the methods that Rheingold lists in Chapter One in classes I teach, and I’m happy to use the suggested toolkit in future classes and help students understand that there is a connection between mindfulness and improved grades (Hall Study, p. 68).

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  1. Be mindful by “paying attention on purpose” (p. 65).
  2. Ask, ‘Have I drifted?” (p. 73)
  3. Meditate (or at least focus on breathing) 10-15 minutes a day (p. 71)
  4. Give yourself meaningful chunks of time to focus on one task, uninterrupted. Turn off technology during that time (p. 75)
  5. Decide what types of tech tools you use at home, where and when, such as “no screens at the dinner table”)

Crap Detection, AKA Information Literacy

In my classes, I ask my students to be skeptical, not cynical. When they do research, I ask them to use a worksheet titled “CRAP,” which is an acronym for currency (how recent), reliability, authority, and purpose/point of view, which is precisely what Rheingold deals with in NetSmart’s Chapter 2. I’m happy to integrate the triangulation technique (find three sources that agree) to their researched assignments as well as some of the websites he recommends: https://www.snopes.com/, FairSpin, and FactCheck.org. He writes, “Information literacy is the answer to growing information pollution” (p. 89). This is a helpful metaphor to use, especially when he frankly asks, “How much work is it to check three links before believing or passing along information” (p. 91). It’s not, Mr. Rheingold. You’re absolutely right.

Participation Points

Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet about the power of introversion, admonishes educators who promote participation points that often go to the loudest students, not the most knowledgeable or most thoughtful. She must be excited by the potential that digital participation has for the quiet kids. Rheingold reminds us that “young people are using digital participation tools for learning and creating” not just socializing (p. 117). Need to learn how to fix your specific brand of toilet? There’s a YouTube video for that. Have a question about the Civil War? Google it. In the scant few decades that the internet has been alive, we have created an unimaginably large database of knowledge, accessible now and for free (mostly).

I’ve taught literature for several years, and it wasn’t until teaching it online that I fully got *almost* all of the students to contribute to the conversations about the texts. It’s entirely too easy to stay quiet in a face-to-face class. It’s pretty easy to let the loud or the smart (or in some cases both) kids who’ve read all the material do all the talking. The participatory culture of the digital world, while scattered and sometimes shallow, allows for instant depth and connectivity. Rather than read an article in the newspaper, drink my coffee, and forget about it, I can read the article, read about the author, click to find out where Azerbaijan is, and understand more fully why there are tensions there.

FCO 394 - Nepal Travel Advice Ed3 [WEB]

Where is azerbaijan? Courtesy of Google Maps

Rheingold ends the chapter with, “Attention literacy is reflection. Crap detection is analytic. Participation is deliberate” (p. 145).  Understanding the intention behind his NetSmarts will help us evolve into this more digital world and become better citizens for it.

The shape of networks

 

“Networks have structures, and structures influence the way individuals and networks behave.” – Rheingold, NetSmart pg192

Rheingold in NetSmart Chapter 5, Social Has a Shape, discusses what social networks look like. He says, “Imagine a circle with seven billion dots on it. Now draw just a few random connections between dots and other dots in other parts of the network, crossing to other parts of the circle instead of restricting the connections to immediate neighbors.” (p. 193). This idea of connections and what a social network looks like got me thinking about the six degrees of separation.

six degrees

beyonceThe six degrees of separation idea is essential that everyone in the world is only 6 degrees or steps away from knowing someone else. You can find a “friend of a friend” six times over and be connected to anyone else in the world, any one of the 7 billion people on our world today.  (Yes, that means I am only six “friends of a friend” away from knowing Beyonce). 

The connectedness is shrinking the world. No longer are the only people that we know physically located as our neighbors. We can stay in touch with people who move across the country, those people can introduce us to other people, and the world continues to shrink.

So what?

What does this connectedness mean for us? Think about it in terms of looking for a job. There are many people who get hired in their positions because of their specific skill set, but there are also many people who believe that it’s “who you know.” As these networks are growing, and the world is shrinking, and you’re only 6 degrees of separation away from any other person, it becomes very likely that you can leverage your connections to get a job interview.

Wisconsin

When I was applying for jobs a few years ago I was applying to different positions around the UW-Madison campus. I had worked at UW for 2 years and was ready for a new challenge so started looking specifically only on campus. I was in my coworkers office one day, and he received a text saying “Do you know Brittney,” he replied with a photo of me sitting in his office. Turns out, the person who was hiring my position had worked with him at a previous job. My coworker had positive things to say about me, and had enough social capital with this other person he used to work with to get me an interview. Would I have gotten the interview without his recommendation? I don’t know. But it definitely didn’t hurt to have him connected to a network I was about to join.

When you get down to it, it seems overwhelming to try to visualize what a social network looks like. We all have a lot of Facebook friends and Instagram followers so identifying where all of those connections are can be difficult. But in this chapter, Rheingold does a great job of explaining the nuances of this shrinking world.  

 

You’ve Got 6 Seconds to Make Your Point

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In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold writes “self-control along with the skillful use of attention, participation, CRAP detection, collaboration, and network awareness through social media ought to be taught to future netizens as early as possible.” Rheingold wrote that in 2012, but it has never been more relevant than it is today.

Paying Attention to a Screen
The first chapter of Net Smart is about attention. As a professor, Rheingold is frustrated by all of his students looking at their laptops and smart phones while he is giving his lectures. Instead of expecting students to shut down their devices, he decides to teach them about attention. He also discusses mindfulness and being aware of how you direct your attention, not just how you spend your time.

I’ve noticed in meetings these days no one seems to mind if you are looking at your laptop or your smart phone. In the past, it was considered rude or unprofessional, but today it is expected that you bring your laptop to meetings. Often, we use them to take notes, or we plug them into a monitor to show the group a visual presentation. As long as you are paying enough attention to know the answer when someone asks you a question, being distracted by a screen is acceptable behavior…at least it is in my workplace culture.

In my personal life, it’s a different story. One of the reasons I liked my boyfriend early on in our relationship is that he gives me his undivided attention. When I am around, he never spends time looking at his phone or paying more attention to the TV than me. If that ever starts to happen, I’ll know something has changed for the worse in our relationship. If you truly care about someone or something, that person or thing has your attention. If you don’t really care about it, you can easily find something digital that’s more interesting and holds your attention.

Shrinking Attention Span
Rheingold’s teaching about attention reminds me of the Ad Council’s #SheCanSTEM campaign to get young girls interested in science, technology, engineering and math. My client, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), is one of the nonprofit partners participating in the campaign, so the Ad Council gave the Society videos to use on social media. Some of the videos are only 6 seconds long. You can watch them on SWE’s YouTube channel.

In one that features SWE member Lisa Seacat DeLuca, a girl asks Lisa, “What do you do for a living?” and Lisa replies, “I work at IBM in our Watson Internet of Things Division.” The girl reacts by saying, “That’s really cool,” and the video ends. (I guess if you don’t know what the Watson Internet of Things Division is, you can always Google it.) Go ahead and watch the video below…after all it’s only 6 seconds.

Allison Fleck reported in Ad Week in May of this year that a survey of more than 300 brand marketers and agencies found that the 6-second video format is the most effective ad type for digital media. Of those surveyed, 81% said that 6-second ads are effective or very effective. According to Ad Week, 53% of advertisers use 6-second ads, and in two years that percentage is expected to climb to 77%.

In a May article in Ad Age, Krishan Bhatia, executive vice president of business operations and strategy at NBC Universal, attributes the success of 6-second ads to “lower attention spans.”

In an Ad Week article from last year, Jake Malanoski, a customer acquisition director, explains that shorter is better because “if somebody hasn’t heard of you, they are not going to give you the time of day.”

What do they want from us?

For this week’s reading the idea of what has happened and what is to come are concepts circling my head.

For example, in 95 theses, #89 of the Manifesto states, “We have real power and we know it. If you don’t quite see the light, some other outfit will come along that’s more attentive, more interesting, more fun to play with” (Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger, 2001).

Apple vs. Microsoftapple v microsoftAre you following me yet? From the theses this reminded me of the constant back and forth between two of the largest technology companies capturing today’s market; Apple and Microsoft.

Have you heard of the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses?”

As Microsoft creates or launches a new product, Apple has already begun working on their next product creation, launch or technological advancement to do exactly what is stated in #89 of the Manifesto and that is to introduce something more attractive to the consumer (Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger, 2001).

However, this made me realize that the consistent battle between Apple and Microsoft may in part be due to us, the consumer . . .

But, wait!

#93 of the Manifesto does remind us of this → “We’re both inside companies and outside them. The boundaries that separate our conversations look like the Berlin Wall today, but they’re really just an annoyance. We know they’re coming down. We’re going to work from both sides to take them down” (Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger, 2001).

In the Long Tail, the authors note the following statement about consumers, “Unlimited selection is revealing truths about what consumers want and how they want to get it in service after service, from DVDs at Netflix to music videos on Yahoo! Launch to songs in the iTunes Music Store and Rhapsody. People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what’s available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble” (Anderson, p.3).

Maybe consumers are being guided by the source?

In The Long Tail reading the author dives into this idea about profitability and how Netflix and Amazon are beginning to monetize the market. The author said, “But Netflix, where 60 percent of rentals come from recommendations, and Amazon do this with collaborative filtering, which uses the browsing and purchasing patterns of users to guide those who follow them (“Customers who bought this also bought …”). In each, the aim is the same: Use recommendations to drive demand down the Long Tail.” (Anderson, p.26)

This begins to point out the notion of companies paying attention to consumer behaviors. Companies like Netflix and Amazon are noticing our likes and dislikes, but are they taking advantage of the consumer, or just helping the consumer enjoy more or what they already like?

In a recent CNN story, the contributors highlight how it’s not just Facebook who is spying on its users, but others are doing it too. This leads me to another question of if Facebook could be the one to blame for disclosing information related to consumers patterns and behaviors. Could it be that Netflix and Amazon were able to track some of our searches, likes, comments and unfollows on social media platforms like, Facebook?

facebook spy

What is the hangup with current internal communication workflows?

The content from this week’s readings focused on the presence of communication within the technical and professional communication profession and the usage of social media. While much or the information provided an examination the current field of technical and professional communication it also offered insight on the scholar and resources behind this reasoning and laid the foundation for what “we” the audience could expect in the future.

One item I found to be of particular interest this week was the technical and professional communication field being explored in certain places, such as cafes and coffee shops. In particular, this article offers some insight as to the growing market and dynamics of coffee shops.

In a world filled with technology, cords, business meetings/gatherings all taking place on the road it’s no wonder many coffee shops and quick stop shops are taking note. As the use of communication through the means of technology continues to expand and play an even greater role for personal and business consumption it only provides a small glimpse into the future of all professions. Blythe, Lauer and Curran said, “’As Yancey (2009), the Revisualizing Composition Study Group (2010), and the Stanford Study of Writing (2008) have articulated, trends in digital tools and handheld technologies have made our lives all the more converged, synergistic and complicated’’(Blythe, Lauer and Curran, 2014). After reading this article multiple times, I was drawn to this phrase which highlights our current demand for technology, the use of it and how it’s actually perceived in the workplace and beyond. As one can only attest to, the power and use of technology with the field of communication is vital to send content, provide updates and alert the appropriate stakeholders, peers and anyone else who may be of interest. However, the caveat I found with this statement from the authors is one that I experience day in and day out. This recurring problem in the field of technical and professional communication is the constant flux of new and innovative programs, apps and systems of storing and sharing information. While some provide valuable resources for multiple individuals to access from any device such as Google docs, etc. it does not help the issue of cross communication between other programs like outlook, exchange, Asana, Slack, Smartsheet, etc.

Here is an article, which rates the 9 best business programs for internal communication.

workflow software - zinc

While many of these programs are valuable in their own unique ways, only some can provide cross communication and sync information and data between each other.Check out one of the newer business platforms which aims to solve this solution. Have you heard of Zinc? This program is very similar to slack.

What are your thoughts on the growing need and demand for a full communication system or integration between multiple apps, calendars and programs in your place of work?

Technically Speaking On Technical Writing

To be honest, I found this week’s readings to be rather troubling and discouraging. Granted, it’s possible that I’m overthinking the content, which may have quickly taken my brain to a place of angst and frustration. However, as I digest and reflect, my general takeaway is that social media is slowly but surely pushing the technical writing profession towards irrelevancy.

Technical Writing

Image courtesy of Campus Commerce

This notion rings similarly to that of blogging ultimately replacing journalism, a topic we covered previously. However, that topic was hardly troubling to me for two reasons. For starters, though I appreciate and enjoy quality journalism, it’s not a field I specifically aspire to enter. Second, I feel like this ‘blogs are the new beat’ trend has been progressing for several years now, so it’s something I’ve come to terms with. Though often unqualified to create and publicly share written content, bloggers do have a voice, as projected through the web.

Robot Journalist

Image courtesy of Springer Link

However, as one who aspires to build a career in technical writing, I am heavily disheartened by the thought of social media overshadowing and/or replacing technical writing. With the latter requiring a combination of intense focus, natural skill, and endless practice, it seems unfair for any unqualified yet self-proclaimed ‘social media specialist’ to take over and hog the spotlight.

While a ‘quantity over quality’ approach is seemingly becoming the status quo of web content, I’m also seeing a ‘speed over quality’ approach, which may be more frightening than the former. Traditional journalism emphasizes that it is far more important to publish accurate, credible content than it is to be the first to break a story. However, social media seems to contradict this age-old approach, with users racing each other to post something even remotely coherent and believable. This is partially because posted content can be edited a later time. However, this approach is rather transparent, with users largely taking into account their own egos, as opposed to the best interest of their audience.

Save Technical Writing

Image courtesy of OwlGuru.com

Will technical writing ultimately be negatively impacted by social media, just as journalism has been impacted by blogging? Say it isn’t so, fellow communicators!

Out with the Old – But Wait a Minute!

In this week’s readings, we take a look at how social media has changed and, in some cases, re-defined the role of a Technical Writer.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading through the research collected by Blithe, Lauer, and Curran in their article, Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World.  They point out that the job title of “Technical Writer” seems dated in this current Web 2.0 world, and the authors quote Bernhardt (2010) in saying:  “Our graduates are getting jobs, but it is becoming ever more difficult to say just what kind of jobs are out there and what kinds of skills they demand” (265).

I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in English with a Technical Communications concentration in May of 2001.  My first job out of college was a Technical Writer position with a local water heater manufacturer.  I was the sole writer at the time as the position had been created not long before I came on board and had only been filled prior to myself by a graphic design/CAD operator who had some writing aptitude.  I recall applying for positions and many companies having absolutely no idea what a Technical Writer was or what I could possibly do for their company.  I can’t even count the number of times I was asked if I was, “some kind of secretary.”  To say that our field has progressed by leaps and bounds since then is an understatement and, perhaps, social media has  played a role.

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Some of the data that I found most interesting from the Blithe, Lauer, and Curran study was that most writers responding to their survey seemed to be under the age of 40 and the authors, “…admit that the survey results give us a more reliable picture of what younger alumni are doing, and a less reliable picture of what older alumni in advanced positions are doing” (270).

am-i-qualified-enough-to-apply-to-this-job

So, what does this suggest for someone like me – someone who graduated in the field 17 years ago, took a great deal of time off, returned to graduate school, and will graduate and return to the field in the next few years as someone in the over 40-years-old category?  While I feel that my current job with Vantel Pearls has helped me to gain some social media skills and aptitude, I question whether it will be enough – or whether I will be skilled enough in the advancing trends in social media to prove competitive with my younger colleagues vying for the same positions.  I had better get to work learning these social media nuances!

But – Where is this Headed for the Social Media Illiterate?

In her article, Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South, author Bernadette Longo states that, “We in technical communication applied our expertise in what Maggiani (2009) described as ‘one-to-many’ communication” (p. 23).  “In contrast, …Maggiani argued:

In a social setting, the skill set of the technical communicator grows.  The ability to successfully apply these skills, however, become more transparent.  Ultimately, though, while the line of authorship blurs, content would become richer, deeper, more useful, and would include multiple ownership or collaboration.  A collaboration through social media, properly undertaken, results in the truest form of audience-centered content” (p. 24).

During my time as a technical writer for the water heater manufacturer, we went through an issue where I was only receiving feedback from the engineer and the voice of the user was not being heard when it came to the manual design and content.  We tried bringing in representatives from the customer service department to help bridge the gap, but it never was quite enough to make the voice of the people fully heard.  I left the position in 2003, but a few years ago, they decided to use social media to allow customers to give feedback on the usability of their current manuals.  Much has changed since this was done and the manuals have become much more novice user friendly with actual photos (rather than CAD art), larger print, online access, etc.  – check it out:   Residential Electric Water Heater Manual – Photos/online. While this social media outreach was successful, some voices were still not “heard.”

Longo speaks mostly to the way that social media is not available to everyone around the world (in developing countries) the way that it is here in the US.  But, she fails to mention that many people in the US still do not have access.  I know families in my area who still live “too deep in the woods” or “too high in the mountains” for internet providers to be able to connect them to a line – or cell phone tower signals to be able to reach their remote locations.  Then we also have to consider age as well as expense when it comes to constant connectedness.  My mom is almost 70.  She has a cell phone but feels she can’t afford monthly internet access on her fixed income.  She doesn’t own a laptop or PC and she uses her cell phone date for anything she may want to do online.  While that does mean that she is “connected,” she does not have the benefit of a a large screen or keyboard, and some companies have very unusable mobile websites.  As social media takes center stage in the lives of the current generations, some in the older generations are being left behind.  My momma would much rather make a phone call or go by and visit someone than to go find them on social media or send them a personal message through the messenger app.  As a human, that matters to me.  When we are discussing peoples’ “voices being heard,” I don’t like to think that we are phasing out the elderly and the poorer people and nations.

confusedcomputer

I suppose you could say that, in my advanced age, I am accepting change a lot more slowly than I once did.

Ambient Awareness: A Replacement for Social Connectedness?

Ambient Awareness is a social science term Clive Thompson used in his article, Brave New World of Digital Intimacy, to explain the new constant online environment we communicate and interact in.  This enables us to maintain weaker social connections in an incessantly overwhelming digital environment.  Facebook was the frontrunner in this form of digital interaction but it has developed to now include microblogging, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  Ambient awareness also considers the narcissistic.  tendencies for people to think that every single little thought or occurrence in every moment of their life necessitates a social media post of microblog. This awareness and behavior weakens social ties and further creates an ego-centric mainframe where the social media user is not so concerned with what is going on in other’s lives but rather the importance of their personal posts.  Are loose connections or acquaintances preferred over the deeper connection of the past?

Embed from Getty Images

Wikipedia further defines ambient awareness as an awareness propagated from relatively constant contact with one’s friends and colleagues via social media platforms. Wikipedia Ambient Awareness 

It would seem that the constant connection created a deeper disconnect or even devalued the meaning in social interaction.  It’s as if we don’t even
“see” each other as human beings but rather view these interactions as transactional.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes that evolutionary structure of social networks limits us to 150 meaningful relationships at a time, despite the rise in social media.  In the following TED Talk, “Why the Internet Won’t Get You Anymore Friends”, Robin Dunbar argues why social media doesn’t give us the expanded social connectedness that it promises.  He makes you question the quality of communication done on social media platforms.  Loose connections are the substance in social media communication.

 

 

So, how ambient awareness and the brain’s inability to have larger numbers of truly meaningful relationships effecting our workplace collaboration?  Clive Thompson goes on to further discuss in his New York Times article that ambient awareness allows us to maintain weaker social connections that actually create more common ground in workplace collaboration because the ongoing updates build the social context for collaboration.  B.J. McNely, in the October 2001 publication, Informational communication, sustainability, and the public writing work or organizations from Proceedings of the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (1-7), further explains that social media practices such as micro-blogging, as discussed in this post, are not seen as formal work, but rather the informal communication that happens alongside the work.  In this context, ambient awareness seems complimentary to the workplace by creating an informal way to collaborate that still builds trust and understanding.

 

While loose connections are viewed to be harmful to our social interaction, they do in fact have value in certain situations.

 

 

 

A Great Divide

As I study emerging media and how it has changed the communication landscape, a question emerges:  Does emerging media help humanity to be more connected or does its existence create a greater divide?  In her article published in Technical Communicators Quarterly entitled, Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South, Bernadette Longo writes, “Even when we do include input from users in our design decisions and revisions, we should keep in mind that the majority of people in the world still do not have access to devices that would allow them to participate in this design community equitably.  Yet, our actions still affect the lives of people without access, for example, the miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo who dig with their hands to give us rare minerals for making smart phones and other mobile devices.”   So, with all the wonderful new ways to communicate, feel connected, do research, and increase our awareness of what’s happening in the world, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that most of the people in our world do not have the ability to access publicly available online services (PAOSs).

In contrast to those miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, knowledge workers across the globe are using PAOSs for many tasks, both personally and professionally.  These tasks include developing associations with others, researching, and sharing personal information.  They regularly access Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, Skype, Google Maps, etc., to learn and communicate on a global level.  In their article, Technical Communication Unbound:  Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices, Tony Ferro and Mark Zachry report on the results of a survey of professional technical communicators and their use of emerging media.  They wrote, “On average, participants reported using PAOSs for work between 20% and 27% of their workweek.”

While, in some societies, emerging media is a significant part of work and personal life, in others, it is virtually non-existent.  Does the fact that less than half the population of the world doesn’t have access to PAOSs cause a divide between them and those who do have access?  How does this affect our world, how people vote, what they know about the world, how they communicate and how they feel?  More study needs to be done on this.  As the various webs of social media grow and become more complex, those who have access continue to grow, learn and communicate while the majority of people cannot.  They can’t Skype with a relative who lives far away, have instant access to global headline news or do research online.  They are living in a world that is decades behind those who have this wonderful access.

Although a divide exists, there are some promising trends happening globally.  Statista.com is just one resource for information that can shed light on how many people across the globe are active with emerging media.  One study shows that in 2010, about .97 billion people had a social media profile.  But, by the year 2019, it is estimated that this number will grow to about 2.77 billion.

Number of social media users in billions

social media (1)

https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/

When we consider the fact that more than 7.4 billion people live on the Earth, it’s enlightening that less than half the population is active on social media.  While activity on social media is just one indicator of a person’s overall use of PAOSs, this still help to put our connectedness (or disconnectedness) into perspective.

 

 

Creating Agile Communicators: Teaching Writing with ICTs

This week we read several scholarly articles on the technical communication field, where it’s going, how it’s defined, and how it uses social media. As a writing instructor, my major take-aways from the readings by Ferro, Longo, Blythe et al, and Pigg include:

  • The need for more collaborative writing
  • The need to understand the importance of emergent technologies
  • The need to understand how writing will change because of those technologies
  • The “need for social and communicative agility” (Ferro, p. 19)

Ferro asks, “how do we teach students to write in forms that do not exist?” (p. 20), while Longo argues that “teachers must understand their roles as mediators and integrators of ICTs [information and communication technologies]” (p. 23). While I don’t specifically teach technical communication, this question and assertion can guide what I do in the classroom to ensure that my students are prepared to communicate well in the 21st century.

We can start by using the  ICTs that students use in their personal lives. As a department, we’ve recently struggled with how to address the issues of “fake news” and the broadening complexity of information literacy.

lib-info-lit-chart

Information Literacy, courtesy of Otis.edu

Now that ICTs allow us to tailor our news feeds to show only what we want to see, how do we promote a more comprehensive analysis of news and information? As teachers, we tend to shun the use of social media in our classrooms, but perhaps we are fooling ourselves while simultaneously doing our students a disservice. Recent links on this blog indicate that fewer students are using Facebook, but we why not integrate lessons using Instagram, SnapChat, or blogs? Some may bristle at the notion of interacting with students this way (it’s too personal, too gimmicky, too much extra work), and we will have to embrace that once we’ve finally figured out how to use a certain ICT, “those darn kids” will be on to the next one. However, incorporating more ICTs in the classroom could make the classroom more relevant to the current technological climate as well as help students become more agile in the future technological climate.

Using ICTs can help students understand the concept of audience better. Longo’s article “Using Social Media” emphasizes that users have become producers. One common complaint of composition students is that they feel their writing is “just for the teacher” and that the notion of a real audience is therefore false. If educators can create content that supplies student writers with a real audience (even better, a real audience of their peers) perhaps they will invest more in the content they create? If they are already composing SnapChat group chats and YouTube videos, asking them to write a five-paragraph essay for their instructor can feel archaic and pointless. By using social media, “we can design documents that are more explicitly responsive to audience needs” (Longo, p. 24). Using social media in the classroom provides educators a way to “recreate a professional setting where [students] learn about users directly” (Longo, p. 31). This real-life writing assignment provides immediate feedback for students from a larger audience and can allow them to carry that writing portfolio with them relatively seamlessly.

Using visuals is increasingly important in communication. Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article, “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” reports that surveyed technical communication alumni are increasingly responsible for visual communication (not just written communication). We are largely a visual society, and though the uptick in emoji use makes some of us nervous

HieroglyphsEmojis

How far have we come? Are we just circling back around? Courtesy of Steemit

(me included), visuals help to contextualize the written word and ensure greater reader comprehension. The social media applications that younger people are using are more visual (Instagram/Snapchat), but visuals will not replace the written word. Learning how to use both well cannot be a detriment.

HieroglphHumor

Source: Medium.com

Students should practice critical thinking as often as possible. Blythe et al recommend that technical communication students should be “exposed to situations in which they must choose the best channels for communication”, that they should be “exposed to a wide range of technology that will facilitate that process”, and that they should be “versatile with multiple media” (p. 281). I’m no longer a technical writer, but one of my most bemoaned complaints as a new technical writer in the early ‘00s was my lack of technical training. My college classes taught me how to be a better writer, but I had to teach myself how to use the technology. Aligning technology with communication is training students, no matter what their final profession, to be skilled in all forms of communication: audience analysis, visual communication, and content creation.

Creating better communicators across disciplines serves all of us. As more and more of us become both producers and consumers (“prosumers”), embracing the changes in teaching and technologies keeps our work interesting and makes our global world a more interactive and understandable place.