What does it mean for a technical communicator to be a literate user of social media?

The questions Dave Clark asked in the beginning of his article just came from my heart: “What does it mean for a technical communicator … to be a ‘literate’ user of Twitter?” (Clark, p. 86)

Does it mean just to be proficient with the tool or also to have a deep understanding for its roots and learning how the tool shapes linguistic activities?

He answers it with: Yes, all of the above. These questions couldn’t show my inner struggle any better. Privately, I am not much into any social media. Professionally, I am always intrigued in new programs and tools, as I am in social networking. However, I have to find out the practical side of them. I have to be able to use them for my work. Otherwise, I consider them to be ballast, overload. If my work requires me using new gadgets, new platforms, I am all for it to get my work done. But if it just blows up my work, if I am not efficient in reaching professional goals, then I got to stop it.

Hughes “emphasizes not the tools themselves, but their creative design, implementation, and use” (Clark, p. 89). I think that is the key feature why people adapt to new tools. Using them they magically can fulfill a desire they might have had just subconsciously. The desire to connect with others is old as humans are. We are social animals. Most of us like to socialize. Social media seemed to fulfill a desire to do so even when we seem to have no time to do so in real time. However, like with many other trends, humans seem just go for it with the wide-open throttle. It takes a wise man to keep it in a moderate volume. Situations like the breakfast table with parents on their Smart phones and children complain about not connecting with their parents should be an alert to think. In this sense, I mean literally stepping back, shutting off everything and thinking about what is important in life. We went through these phases with other new technologies and got them mostly under control after a few years of hype. So there is hope, we will do the same with social media. It should be a supplement to, not a replacement of real life. It should support not undermine our real life.

However, I know to become literate in something New you have to spend some time with the New. That is part of the process. Also, it is important to keep updated, especially when being a freelancer to know about new developments, to being able to accommodate your customers. That’s why I am so thankful for this course. However, it is not just about learning the technical parts of it, e.g. like to use it. The emphasis for professionals in our field should lie on the critical approach and the assessment of the “broader implications” (Clark, p. 87). Clark defines the term ‘rhetoric of technology’ as “the coherent category of literature that addresses specific concerns of technical communicators” (Clark, p. 87). In the following he introduces different approaches in this relative new research area. To me it would be worthy to dig deeper in this topic – just to make sure to explore the academic point of view on digital literacy from different angles.

Qualman to me delivers a very practical approach. I caught myself thinking pretty often what does all this have to do with technical communication. I get it that the boundaries are getting more blurry. However, me coming from the pretty traditional background of writing manuals, I never considered myself to be in that (marketing) branch of technical communication. I am not saying at all that reading Qualman wasn’t relevant. It is very interesting to learn about all the new ways of advertising and how companies can use social media to boost their products. It just seemed to me that both chapters were targeting the advertising industry more than our professional field. Somehow Clark’s introduction of what social media means for technical communication seemed to be more appropriate.

Please proof me wrong. 

Posted on October 21, 2012, in Literacy, Social Media, Workplace. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Britta, first of all, I’m not addressing the main question you present at the end of your post – Sorry, I got sidetracked thinking about your earlier mention of freelancing. Kind of like how online students have to be self-starters and look for opportunities, freelancers have to be on the lookout for new technologies to use in their work. They don’t have bosses or company policies being implemented to require them to use new or more efficient tools – it is up to them to investigate the need to find what will work for their situation. It is in the best interest of freelancers and other business owners to keep themselves technologically literate, because many customers might are likely looking for the latest and greatest product, which they could automatically assume requires the latest and greatest tools. Once they invest in the tool or technology itself, they must either invest their time to learn to use it, or pay for classes, whereas someone working for a company or organization would likely be sent to a class paid for by their employer or at least be given time to learn to use the tool during work hours. Yet another reason that working for oneself is not as easy as people think it is!

  2. Hi, Britta. I think your comments about social media being “a supplement to, not a replacement for real life” are right on. Social media is at its best when it can enhance our existing relationships rather than replace them. You articulated that well!

    I can see your point about Qualman highlighting the advertising industry. I don’t think that necessarily means it’s not as appropriate for technical communicators and their work. A few years back, I was fortunate to attend the 2010 Lavacon Conference on Digital Media and Content Strategies (http://lavacon.org/2010/). For me, one big takeaway from that conference was that technical documentation is marketing; it’s just a post-sale service or part of the product itself. I think social media can still play a role in determining how technical communicators write and what they write about, it’s just a matter of picking the right toolset and strategy for the job. For example, a technical communicator might not post how-to information on a social media site, but maybe they could use the inquiries and problems users talk about on social media to determine what they include in their supporting documentation or help materials. That said, I definitely agree that Qualman’s examples are more toward the marketing side of the spectrum, it just takes more imagination to draw the line to technical communication.

    • Great example you gave there, Lana, about using the problems users talk about on social media to improve help materials. Made the connection back to our profession – even though I am well aware that technical writing is just one small part of our field. Thanks.

  3. You mention some real concerns about technology and social media that I have in relation to education. As a teacher, I’d like to be able to stay current with technology and continuously engage my teenage audience, but I can’t just give something a try because it has a high coolness quotient. It also has to be effective. Not only does a tool have to be effective, it has to be practical–as in easy enough to learn that it’s worth the effort. To find out if a web tool is an effective teaching tool I have to put a lot of time into it. Well, time is tough to come by. I can see some great possibilities for incorporating online learning environments into my classroom; I just need a 32 hour day to accomplish it all.

    • So true, we have to spend so much time on learning new tools and technologies. Before you know it, nobody uses them anymore. I am always thankful for those good old technologies – like creating PDF’s – that stick around for a while. Our time in that sense is just almost too fast-paced.

  4. Good post, and I liked how you worked in the Clark text. I think you might have been the only one to cite it. For some reason, I just had a hard time connecting with it. The one part that really stuck for me was similar to yours. Technology isn’t important in and of itself, it only matters if it has meaning to the people that use it.

    Like the part where Clark was talking about a CMS implementation where the vendor thought it was a perfect tool and the people that needed to use the tool thought the training and the tool itself were no good (p. 94). I’ve seen that same thing where I am.

    When we get a new tool (Flare or a new XML editor like oXygen) and the early adopter types think it is great and the new technology sort of speaks to them, but for others the new tools just seem to add complexity to their day to day work and they hold no value. Can a tool be both great and awful? Maybe a big part of it is in applying rhetoric to technology to persuade users of its value so it can actually BE valuable.

    • Actually, I have seen it happening, too, now that you mention it. Or look at any apps, if they don’t work probably or look awkward or need a degree to understand them, they are out of the tablet. Sorry.
      I like your last few sentences. That would be a great challenge to persuade users of a tool that seems awful so that they value it for its greatness. Rhetoric can do magic. However, it has to prove itself also in the long-run.

  5. I’m so glad you shared your opinions about this Clark reading and highlighted how in comparison to Qualman it discusses more about the field of tech comm and less about the marketing/advertising side.

    It’s been revealing to me my 4 years at Stout to discover the types of jobs our PCEM undergrads get, which I think fall more onto the marketing/PR side of the fence than manual writing. We no longer offer a Rhetoric of Technology course, so I’ve changed up my undergrad Rhetoric course to include a focus on tech, but next Spring in 720 Rhetorical Theory, you’ll get a chance to learn more about the historical implications of rhetoric upon the field. We know the majority of our MSTPC students are working professionals, but if any of you choose to go onto a PhD program, you’d need to be more familiar with that theory.

    Just in case anyone was getting ready to register… 🙂

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