Monthly Archives: November 2012

Trusting Online: Finding Common Ground

To me, it seems a huge coincidence that one of this week’s topics is “trust.” As I wrote last week, my wife, Jody, found her grandpa’s missing Purple Heart, which he earned during World War I, on an internet site honoring soldiers who were wounded or killed in action. Jody wanted that medal back in the family, so she asked Mr. Maier, the man who runs the site To Honor Our Fallen, if she could buy it back.

According to Carina Paine Schofield and Adam N. Joinson’s paper “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” “Trust is the willingness to be vulnerable, based on positive expectations about the actions of others.” My wife and I felt pretty vulnerable this week, but on Saturday, when I was in Michigan, I received a tearful call from my wife that she was holding her grandpa’s medal in her hand. It was back in the family.

Purple Heart, Jody’s grandfather

Last Sunday, when Mr. Maier told us he would send the Purple Heart back to us if we covered his investment in the medal and research surrounding it, we were put in a tough position. Mr. Maier did not operate a store, he had no reputation as a seller, and we knew of no recourse if a transaction went badly. Should we trust him? If we did, were we being foolish?

Schofield and Joinson’s article identifies three dimensions of trust including “ability,” “integrity,” and “benevolence.” We weren’t really worried about his ability; shipping a package with delivery confirmation is easy enough.

Mr. Maier’s “benevolence” was a concern that needed some thought, though a week ago I wouldn’t have considered calling it that. According to Schofield and Joinson, benevolent companies and organizations look out for their customers’ best interests and do not exploit them. Jody researched average prices paid for Purple Hearts and found out Mr. Maier was actually asking less than what a lot of other people make in selling these medals. Considering the emotional attachment we had expressed for this family artifact, he could have asked for more money. But he didn’t, and we were starting to trust him because of his benevolence (and the research Jody did–trust doesn’t need to be blind).

Still, we wondered about Mr. Maier’s integrity–whether he would actually follow through and send us the medal after we paid him. In retrospect, it was his “benevolence” that helped us believe in his integrity. Since he wasn’t asking for as much money as other people were asking for these medals, maybe that indicated he would be fair with us and keep his end of the deal. Also, the nature of the website he ran showed benevolence; he was not collecting Purple Hearts as a for-profit venture. He was using them and the information he researched about the recipients to share online as a memorial to veterans. Didn’t we have to trust him?

Yes, actually, we did. If we didn’t trust Mr. Maier, there was no way the medal would be back in the family.

And the reality is that he trusted us, too. He trusted that my wife’s account of how her grandfather was wounded, her memories of the man, and the significance of the medal were sincere. He trusted that we wanted the Purple Heart, not so we could turn a profit with a different buyer, but because it had meaning to us.

So we all trusted. And even though we never met Mr. Maier or talked to him or saw a picture of him, I don’t think we are complete strangers. Through Jody’s emails to him, he was given a glimpse of some of what we value–history, connections to family, and remembering the sacrifices made by our elders. And through the work of his web site and traveling Purple Heart memorial, he shows us that we have a lot in common.

Ethics and Privacy

Both privacy and ethics are important considerations for anyone using technology as a communication tool. Indeed, these concepts apply to the general public, as well as to specific groups such as technical communicators. Perhaps the demographic of people who are especially impacted by privacy and ethics  are those who are relatively new to technology. That is, people who are new to the internet (i.e., an inmate realesed after 20 years) may not always realize how much information they are giving out when using the internet, and how easily that information may be used negatively against them. For example, while all the credit card companies, banks etc., claim their online security is fail safe, hackers consistently prove otherwise. Those same individuals who are not aware of online risks involving identity theft and other scams may also not realize that the record of their email messages exist in cyberspace forever. Thus, they may not realize that what they write needs to be ethical—especially when the email generates from a workplace account.

 Chapter 9 in Digital Ligeracy For Technical Communicators by Steven Katz and Vicki Rhodes and the article, Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online by Paine and Joinson shed light on these topics. While Chapter 9 was fairly dense with academic, philosophical, and ethical jargon, the notion that technology creates new ethical considerations for communicators is an important concern that should be taught to new employees that are expected to participate in technological communication mediums. One of my first real-world experiences with ethics and technology took place a few years ago when I was involved with a professional class in an industrial setting.

This class was designed to teach employees about email etiquette and was the result of inappropriate email use on company time. Several employees were essentially carrying on personal conversations about weekend activities and so on that was inappropriate for this work setting. In addition, these employees did not understand the blind copy function of their email system, and were thus, at times, accidentally emailing information to clients that also were inappropriate.

happygolegal.com

 This problem was two-fold: 1) the employees failed to consider their workplace ethics of being professional at all times, and 2) these employees did not understand the implications of email as a communication medium. Whereas these employees could have probably talked amongst themselves face-to-face about these topics during lunch or breaks, it was not appropriate to use the organization’s email for such conversation, which they did not understand. This problem may have been avoided, had this company made clear their expectations of workplace email use. Moreover, companies may benefit from addressing their ethical expectations—if these expectations are not promoted and taught to employees, than the ethics will be nothing but a basis for discipline after a rule is broken, rather than a means to prevent issues from arising in the first place.

Issues of Trust and Control

Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve gone from not generally making purchases or otherwise disclosing personal information online to regularly doing so. I’m sure this is the case for many people—online purchasing and using the Internet for social networking has required us to become more comfortable with it, or retreat. In this week’s reading “Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online,” Carina Paine Schofield and Adam Joinson examine the complex relationship between privacy and trust and our resulting willingness to disclose information in an online environment. A lot of what they covered seemed like common sense to me. Perceived privacy contributes to trust; both are necessary for us to be willing to disclose information online.

Schofield and Joinson’s explanation of the different aspects of trust stood out to me as being particularly relevant to my own evaluation of a company’s online presence. I think I regularly (if subconsciously) make judgments about companies based on the following.

  • Ability, or the knowledge or competence of the company and its ability to handle my information appropriately.
  • Integrity, or the belief that the company is honest, reliable, and credible.
  • Benevolence, or the extent to which the company is doing right by me.

It’s almost common sense; I wouldn’t do business with someone face-to-face if I didn’t think they were competent and capable, honest and credible, and were taking my interests into account. Why should it be any different online? Admittedly, the stakes are higher in many ways online. After all, we’re leaving behind information about ourselves that doesn’t go away—ever.

I think that’s why providing users with a sense of control is especially important. Schofield and Joinson explain, “…where possible, users should be provided with control over whether to disclose personal information and the use of that personal information once disclosed” (p. 26). When we can decide whether we “prefer not to disclose” answers to certain questions, or whether we only populate the required fields, we maintain some degree of control. (For me, being able to indicate that I don’t want to receive email offers is one control option I greatly appreciate!)

Maintain some degree of control over information reminded me of the fiasco with Facebook’s privacy policy changes a few years back. Basically, Facebook changed their privacy policy, and users freaked out about it. Facebook addressed the issue a blog post, explaining in a forthcoming and straightforward way that on Facebook, people own and control their own information. This response illustrates that Facebook recognized that control (even if it’s perceived control) goes hand-in-hand with trust and privacy. By addressing users’ concerns in this way, I think Facebook did the best it could to mitigate the damage done to its users’ trust in it.

Does it take today a whole web 2.0 to raise a child?

As of now I have to admit I never thought really about the ethical dimensions and effects of digital technologies. Of course, throughout our studies we learned about ethics in technical communication. But that is about it. Therefore the article Beyond Ethical Frames by Katz and Rhodes was actually interesting – even though it was in parts hard to understand.

Then doing some further research, I found Howard Gardner’s view on ethics with emphasis on education, but still relevant to our topic.

In this interview he states

“The former lag between behaving morally toward people you know and behaving ethically towards people in the community whom you don’t know that’s been lost. People once they go into digital media will be part of much larger communities. The only question then is do they behave as good citizens or not.”

That to me made the perfect connection to Schofield’s and Joinson’s article Privacy, Trust, and Disclosure Online.

There is the saying it takes a whole village to raise a child. In today’s world will that extend to an even larger digital community? How do children learn about how to act ethically on the Web 2.0. For us it seems already so much more blurry. One example I mentioned in a previous post is the privacy issues with photos. The difference between actual and perceived privacy has to be taken serious. How do parents and teachers keep up with these developments? How do we teach our children the right values, when it seems we ourselves are sometimes lost?

Information Society

Do you remember this band from the 80’s?  There’s no real relation between this and the article, Privacy, Trust and Disclosure Online” by Schofield and Johnson. but they included the following quote, so I couldn’t resist:

 

 

At no time have privacy issues taken on greater significance than in recent years, as technological developments have led to the emvergence of an “information society” capable of gathering, storing and disseminating increasing amounts of data about individuals. (p.16)

The focus of the article is on personal privacy and all the various aspects of that, such as psychological, physical, and interactional (p. 14), but one area that really impacts us is organizational privacy.  By that I mean, the ability of the employees of our customers to retrie ve and share information without exposing it to our other customers (their competitors).  We would love to implement the kind of communication that social media provides, but our customers are very concerned about keeping their proprietary information away from their competitors.  Even just letting other customers see the kinds of questions they are asking could give away some key competitive details.

It is hard enough to really understand the difference between your actual privacy and perceived privacy as an individual, but I think it is probably even harder for people to make decisions in this area when they are making them on behalf of their employer. This might be the single biggest obstacle to implementing social media in business to business (B2B) communication.

The New Professional’s Guide to Interoffice Email Etiquette

In chapter nine of Digital Literacy, Rachel Spilka discusses the changes email has had on the workplace and the interactions between the people employed by them. Spilka explains (p. 241),

So pervasive and necessary are the uses of digital technology, that organizations and the people within them can be understood to exist almost literally in the digital realm… where our social and business interactions are carried out via email, video, podcasts, smartphones, Web sites and webinars, social media, listservs, wikis, and blogs.

With this phenomena the new standard, it is surprising that newly-hired professional’s aren’t given a guide of sorts on the intricacies of interoffice communications: most specifically the office email. I am not speaking of the entry-level basics of writing respectful, on-topic, spell-checked emails though. I am referring to the more nuanced happenings that we experience within email communication. And, more specifically, especially when we are emailing in an attempt to elicit a response from someone – most especially when that someone happens to be your superior.

I first noticed my dependence on the simplified, professional email approximately seven years ago. I was a newly-hired creative director working for a rapidly-growing company. The general manager, my direct supervisor, was the man with the answers… for everyone. He enjoyed this function, but as such was constantly bombarded with emails and unwelcome office drop-ins. To avoid being lost in his email inbox or shooed from his door, I utilized a very simplified email writing technique. The following rules will be of no surprise to tenured professionals, but let’s just consider this a quick overview of Interoffice Email 101.

The precursor to this email technique begins with a few simple rules:

  1. Always send an email if you can.
  2. Only call if the matter is urgent and incorporates multiple employees, and if you must call…
  3. Never leave a voicemail.
  4. Only drop-in the office if it is an emergency set to adversely effect the company budget.

When a question has lesser importance it moves down this hierarchy of communication techniques, with the least intrusive being the email. Email holds this place of honor due to this ability to be handled at the recipient’s convenience, rather than the requestor’s demand, as is true with a phone call or office visit. Once email has been determined as the communication medium of choice, other rules come into play:

  1. Only send one to two emails to your supervisor per day.
  2. Fully analyze the situation prior to sending the email and even then…
  3. Only ask the most important questions.
  4. Questions of highest importance are listed first
  5. Ask no more than a total of three questions.
  6. For each question provide the least amount of back-story possible.

More than likely this technique was not thoughtfully contrived for any professional, but rather achieved bit by bit through small successes and failures in communicating with overwhelmed supervisors. In my experience, following these self-imposed rules meant that my emails received a quick response, while other managers were not as fortunate. The higher-stake here, of course, is that without answers other managers could not move their departments efficiently toward the next task… and we all know what happens to managers of inefficient departments.

Resistance is Futile

We are the Borg. Resistance as you know it is over. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.

– The Borg

At work my employee computer ID is QA4268.  If someone logs into our CMS and wants to search for something that I have created, they can’t use my name, they have to know that QA4268 is me–or that I’m QA4268.  Hmmm . . . now that I think about it, that is a teeny bit disturbing, which brings me to the article, Beyond Ethical Frames of Technical Relations, by Steven Katz and Vicki Rhodes.  In it they state, “Have you ever noticed how some systems or procedures at work–say, a time tracking system, registration process, or evaluation procedure–are more adapted to themselves, more focused on their own efficiency and operation, than on the human being who is the ostensible object or user?” (p. 235)

They even follow this quote up with a specific mention to most CMSs and how they are often guilty of this–the one where I work is no exception.  The software has all the technical capability that we require and is capable of fully delivering on everything we ask of it, but in many ways it ignores the requirements and limitations of the people that need to use it.  For example, almost all the information about how information is related to each other is presented in lists or tabular reports.  While this does provide all the detail, people are visual beings that work best when they can visualize relationships.  The CMS asks us to bend people to the machine rather than bending the machine to the people.

The problem, as Katz and Rhodes, describe it is that you can’t separate people and technology when defining processes, procedures and tools.  More and more we are merging with our technology (both literally and figuratively) to become some sort of hybrid.  Katz and Rhodes point to examples like automatic spell-checkers and Bluetooth headsets as examples (p. 240).  The point, as I see it, is that we need to view the relationship between people and technology more holistically.  When we say that we want to implement a CMS, we can’t just select a tool and then throw people at it.  Instead of a CMS we should be implementing a CME (Content Management Ecosystem).  To get the most out of these technical relations, we need to make sure that the technology complements our people and that our human skills fully exploit the capabilities of our technology.

RUN! (Week 12)

While reading the Paine Schofield and Joinson report, the term “survival of the fittest” came to mind.  It seems that rather than having to be fast enough to literally outrun bears and lions, we now need to worry more about the safety of our non-physical identities.  We must protect ourselves from theft of our time, money and ideas, along with voyeurism, forwarding of information detrimental to our professional lives, and personal attacks of any number of other types.  Those who manage to stay in control of their own privacy are those who are fast and smart enough to keep ahead of the “bad guys,” or those who just happen to luck out.

That’s me… the one on the right. Probably shopping.

My husband and I have a friend who will NOT make a purchase on the internet.  In the past, if something he wanted to buy was only available online, he would come to our house, I would order it online with a credit card or PayPal, and he would reimburse me on the spot.  I never thought anything of it – in fact, my husband and I both think he’s kind of silly for being so “paranoid.”  This friend has never had a bad experience with privacy or technology, but he is a generally untrusting person and really, this is probably a responsible way of thinking.  He is, perhaps, one of the “fittest.”

Our family, on the other hand, buys nearly everything online.  Santa Veach has been doing all of her shopping at Amazon.com and Walmart.com and a variety of super-fun specialty stores, having a grand old time flinging debit and credit card numbers left and right across the virtual abyss.  I don’t think twice about it.  We don’t hold anything back on our very active Facebook accounts, except for things that I obviously can’t share because of security concerns at work (not that my friends would care, anyway.)  Our son has had a Facebook account since he was six years old, as do many of his school friends, although they all use false birthdays in order to allow the registration.

We are ripe for becoming victims of some kind of privacy issue or identity theft, but even acknowledging this fact does not convince me or my husband to back off from being so open and “out there” online.  It is just too convenient to have whatever I buy show up on my doorstep, even though I’m giving out sensitive financial information with every transaction.  It’s too much fun for my husband to always check in wherever he is on Foursquare, letting everyone know he’s not home and giving them a rough estimate of how long he’ll be gone.  Our 9-year-old HAS to have a Facebook account because everybody else on Earth has one, and he wants to show everyone the picture of the fish he caught, even though he’s in the age group most susceptible to identity theft.  I suppose sacrificing our privacy is a price we are willing to pay for the benefits we receive from our technological adventures.

A Digital Veteran’s Tribute

Purple Heart

My apologies if what follows relates to nothing in particular from this week’s assignments. It does, however, relate to all the best that the web can do for us. It is also all I can think of right now because the story has reached its digital climax today. If people are worried about losing meaningful connections to those around them because of an over-reliance on internet technology, here’s a Veteran’s Day story about reconnecting.

My wife’s grandfather, born in 1894, was 23 years old when he joined the United States Army and served in France during WWI. In October of 1918, at the Argonne Forest, his unit came under attack, killing everyone but him. Though he had been shot in the thigh and through the hand, he was able to kill the enemy sniper that had destroyed his unit. After spending two months in a French hospital, he returned to the United States and was discharged from the service in April of 1919. He returned to his home in Bark River, Michigan, and the quiet life of a farmer.

In 1941 he was awarded the Purple Heart, and for many years after that, the medal sat on top of his dresser, underneath the portrait of him in his military uniform.

After his death in 1980, my wife’s grandmother needed to move to a smaller place, and as is typically the case, Items are given away. The Purple Heart went to my wife’s uncle. Years went by, as they always do. My wife’s uncle died, then his wife died, and eventually their son moved out of their house. When the house was being cleaned out, the Purple Heart could not be found.

That was a number of years ago. Every once in a while my wife and her mom talk about her grandpa, their memories, and his service. They share what little information they have, but are always left with the sadness that his military artifacts have probably been sold, with little thought of how costly they were to earn.

Enter a technological Veteran’s Day miracle. This morning, my wife was at the computer, again trying to find more information about her grandfather. For some reason, she searched images this time, found a picture of a Purple Heart, and followed that link to a site honoring wounded and fallen veterans. There was an entry for her grandfather, and the medal pictured beside his information had his name engraved on it.

The owner of the site collects Purple Hearts, researches the individual who is named on the medal, and posts the information and available pictures as a veterans memorial.

Jody, my wife, contacted the man who ran the site, told him the family’s story, and said that she would like to be able to buy back the medal in order to give it to her mom. He normally does not do such things, but he was touched by Jody’s words, and the Purple Heart is coming home.

Here is a connection to family that was lost–most likely sold. Through the internet, that connection can be re-established, at least to some degree. It is truly amazing to think what individuals can do and who they can touch as a result of digital technology. When my wife’s grandfather left the military, he could not read or write. He left his mark, an “x” on his discharge papers. He also left his mark on his family, and to a degree, the democracy we benefit from today. And sites like the one my wife stumbled across today are sharing that mark with the world.

Culture Clash: Being Everything to Everyone

Once you have fully investigated your audience and considered their various cultural needs and preferences, you can fully comprehend how screwed you are and how utterly futile your attempts to please them will be.  Given that most if not all technical information is delivered via the internet now, you just can’t presume to know where your audience is coming from–literally or figuratively (Blakeslee, p. 2o1).   And, even if you could narrow down the geographic location, your quest could be further hampered by differences in gender or the device used to retrieve your content, as Kenichi Ishii describes in his article, Implications of Mobility: The uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life.

All the authors that we read this week–Blakeslee, Ishii, and Thatcher–talk about how important it is it understand the differences between your audience segments, but unless you have a lot of time or a lot of writers, you have to make compromises.  In fact, unless you know for sure that your audience is from a Particularist or a Universalist culture (Thatcher, p. 177) you are going to make some people unhappy.

According to Thatcher, a universalist approach, “. . . the default approach is to establish rule that define what is good and right regardless of the social standing of the individual” (p. 176).  While in a particularist approach, “. . . the default approach is to apply rule and decisions depending on relations and context” (p. 177).  So, as a technical communicator I can either choose an approach that treats everyone with respect regardless of their standing in society or a company, or I can try to write 12 versions of the content to reflect where each individual sits in the pecking order.  Thank you very much, but I’m writing it once.

I like the idea of respecting cultural differences, but the internet is dominated by the universalist, western cultures that created it.  The world understand the voice of the internet and has come to accept it.  I would even venture to guess that that universalist voice has started to change the cultures of the people that use it.  Perhaps that is why some governments (China, Iran, (formerly) Egypt) fear it so much and seek to control it.  Maybe people that are addressed with respect regardless of their standing start to demand that from others within their society.

Here’s another problem I have with the idea of bending our writing style to suit the expected audience:

  • We don’t often know the audience for certain.
  • The audience often exists in many countries.
  • What if we add another customer later that comes from another culture?
  • If we use different styles for what we write, how do we reuse content to single-source new deliverables?

It surprises me that some of the articles mention that more and more content is delivered on the internet which means that we have no idea how or where it will be used, but they still advocate spending a lot of time investigating the audience.  How are we supposed to do this exactly?  The internet may not be a culture in and of itself, but it does have a voice and set expectations.  How about we just go with that and spend more time creating better content.

I liked how Blakeslee described looking at the roles the audience members play to ensure that content meets the needs of that  ROLE.  I am 100% behind performing task analysis to create role-based content.  I think that makes way more sense than trying to figure out how you should write a procedure differently for someone in Mexico as opposed to someone in Germany.  If we can’t understand the user, we should focus on the use.

The Complexities of Audience in a Digital Age

It became apparent when I started my current job as a technical communicator that pinning down audience is no simple task. Working for a national student loan servicing company, the team of writers I work on creates deliverables for various audiences such as schools, lenders, borrowers, the U.S. Department of Education, and internal employees. Distinguishing between these audiences is relatively straightforward, but distinguishing sub-audiences within them—actually knowing whom I’m writing for and what they need to know—is something I have struggled with from day one.

Prior to taking this course, and even prior to this week’s readings, I hadn’t fully recognized that a great deal of the complexity I experience in my job today is because of society’s evolution into the digital age. Furthermore, the challenges I encounter at my company are not unique to my company or its industry at all; they are largely universal challenges that technical communicators are encountering throughout the world. Ann Blakeslee’s chapter (“Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age”) in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication illustrated many parallels to the challenges I encounter every day.

The Internet allows for the dissemination of information on a scale that has never been seen before. Our writing is often available to anyone who is online and looking for it. While this broad audience is an overwhelming thought, it doesn’t necessitate that we write for everyone at once. Blakeslee explains,

“While technical communicators may not know their exact audiences, the complexity of the product and typical environments in which the product is used provide them with guidance in understanding their prospective readers” (p. 204).

Basically, we can use information we know about the product and where/how it is used to make judgments about the audience. This is something many of do without even thinking about it. For example, I can assume that users of one of my company’s online applications are employees in a school’s financial aid office. Along with that, they are extremely likely to have a moderate level of knowledge about student loan disbursements. This makes it much easier than writing assuming a global audience with next to no knowledge about student loan disbursements—not to mention it makes for more useful documentation.

But learning about the audience beyond this, is where I think the biggest challenges lie. For me, this has largely been knowing precisely (or even generally!) what the audience needs to know and even better, a ranking of the tasks they must perform in the tool. The best way to get this information (obviously) is straight from the audience through interaction and/or feedback, which is not an easy (or even possible) task for many of us. Blakeslee’s case studies sounded so familiar I could have been one of them! Unfortunately, in my position I am not able to get direct feedback from the audience on the content my team writes. The main reasons for this are:

  • The privacy of the customer. Any time there is financial information involved, privacy becomes a concern.
  • My time and the customer’s time, or lack thereof. My company’s customers are widespread making travel not feasible. Also, many schools, for example, are under-staffed and under-funded; asking for their time would quickly become an inconvenience for them.
  • Existing roles and processes are hard to change. Moving beyond the customer service and sales staff having all outwardly facing contact with customers is difficult and requires the buy-in of management (which is not super likely given the first two bullet points).

Virtually all of these were mentioned by the participants in Blakeslee’s case studies. In my case, we have made efforts to obtain information about audiences from sales and customer service staff. Often, they are able to tell us what confuses users and when/how they use a tool. While it’s not as good as interacting one-on-one with members of the audience, it’s better than nothing!

With communication technologies evolving at incredibly fast pace, it is certain our interaction with the audiences we write for will continue to evolve and improve. I am incredibly interested to see how this aspect of technical communication changes in the coming years.

Cultural expectations

In an era of increased written communication mediums, (i.e., email, text, instant message) oral communication seems to be dwindling. Indeed, this notion has been reinforced by both Erik Qualman in his book Socialnomics, and by Sherry Turkle, in her book Alone Together. Barry Thatcher, in his essay Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures in the book, Digital Literacy for Technical Communicaiton sheds light on the fact that this argument is less true in what he defines as collective cultures (i.e., Mexico) as opposed with individualistic cultures (i.e., USA). In essence, people of certain geographical locations may have different expectations regarding the need to develop personal relationships through face-to-face meetings and conversation prior to utilizing mediums such as email as a communication tool.

Thatcher notes, “Orality, though, seems to have a much weaker role in individualist cultures, perhaps relegated to expressing personal opinions and beliefs, but certainly not the backbone of society, as orality can be in many collective cultures” (180). By retaining the expectation of oral communication, collective cultures seem to have a more personal, and less objective tone compared with the very objective tone of individualist cultures. In many cases, I have never met the people I email in a face to face setting, nor do I know these people on a personal level. Thus, the communicaitons we share are, by default, solely professional in nature.

In every technical writing class or journalism class that I have ever taken, I have been taught separate out personal information and include only objective information crucial for the reader to understand the message. As a result, the communication pattern is typically serious and impersonal. This practice of objective writing is also true for the workplace writing tasks I am involved with. Other than indicating how I am involved with the project being discussed, I share no other information about myself, and I do not expect my readers to share any of their personal information.

Thatcher stated, “Instead of a dumbed-down readership level, collective communicators tend to complicate their interpersonal dependence as a way of stating the purpose of the communication and their involvement; this creates writer – friendly document design patterns” (176).

An additional difference between the individual and collecitve cultures is that the colelctive culture has an expectation of stating authoritative relationships as part of the personal style whereas the inndividual culture does not. Thatcher notes, “As exemplified in the two EPA emails, the U.S. email demonstrates strong individualism focusing on one reader and that person’s reading needs and processes, while the Mexican email is much more collective, focusing on interpersonal relationships, and especially on authority” (176). As a technical writing student, I make efforts to consider my audience. However, it seems that despite the best use of audience analysis techniques, there will always be cultural differences that cannot be accounted for. And, in certain cases, technical writers, perhaps even in the future, may need to participate in real-time conversations to maintain cross cultural client relationships and successfully transfer information.

Social Media Strategy: Working within your Client’s Culture

I was at a conference on Thursday and was fortunate enough to hear Scott Jameson, Marketing Director for Realityworks, speak on the company’s social media strategy. The interesting part of this particular strategy is that it only loosely involves social media.

In chapter seven of Digital Literacy, Rachel Spilka delves into the intricacies of cross-cultural communications: namely the different social sensitivities across continents. This is a very important and nuanced topic. While I am not comparing this lofty topic to the development of Realityworks’ social media plan, they certainly do have some similarities. Not only does every country have a culture, but every region also. Even every little town and suburb have their own mojo. Why wouldn’t we think that every company and client isn’t just as dynamically unique – even if it is true only in the minutia? But there are times when that minutia changes how a region, town, or client base functions at a base level. This is where we, as communicators, need to be in the know.

A high school student holds a Realityworks’ baby-simulation doll.

If you are not familiar, Realityworks is best known for their baby simulation doll. Schools all over the nation and world are purchasing these life-like dolls and their accompanying software to aid in teaching high schoolers, in a very memorable fashion, what types of life-changes can occur post-baby. Really doesn’t this type of unique and interesting product make for the perfect marriage with social media? So what is the problem? Where is the culture issue? Well, if you didn’t pick it up yet, you are missing the point – just like I did. Mr. Jameson explained how while listening to their clients they learned that most schools block access to social media sites. (And crash goes the social media strategy.) This is a culture issue that is critical for Realityworks to be aware of: It changes how their clients’ function and deeply effects how they browse online.

Mr. Jameson explained that Realityworks does still maintain active presences on most social media sites. He explained that they aid in building public awareness and media interest. However, the purchasers of their product needed more. After some focus group sessions it was learned the clients were begging for information. More information. Detailed information. They had questions like: “How do other schools do xyz?” and “Are grants available for such purchases?” Mr. Jameson felt the perfect solution was a Realityworks’ forum that allows users to talk about their purchases and the programs they build around them. This solution allows for:

  • all potential buyers to be able to access information, even while they are in the school building itself
  • social-media-style sharing of information
  • users to share details about how they manage the programs
  • users to share their opinions and related stories
  • potential buyers to see others’ experiences

For Realityworks a forum serves them and their clients better than any Facebook page or Pinterest post ever could. (Of course the forum really is a type of social media, but one I have not personally considered previously.) The important thing here is that Mr. Jameson really listened to his clients, learned their culture, and adjusted the company’s social media strategy to best serve them.

Cross-cultural communication: Let’s start at the beginning

Obviously, any topic concerning cross-cultural aspects hits home for me. It is always interesting to learn new dimensions – especially when it is related to our professional field. That being said, Spilka’s chapter “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures” was a great read. Then I tried to find information how German technical communicators would see this development. Unfortunately, the only article really relevant came from a UK author – and from 4 years ago. At least it is published in the tc-world, which is an online magazine published by the tekom (the German equivalent to the STC).

Choosing media strategically for cross-border team communications

To bring another aspect into this discussion, I have to disagree with many authors who categorize Western cultures on one site of the cross-border work and cultures from Asian, African or South American countries on the other side. Even within the entire Western cultures (U.S. and many West-European countries) the cultural differences are larger than first thought of. Look at you and me: we experience differences in our cultural upbringings.

  • Small ones – like different expressions for the same feeling. For example, Americans sit on cloud 9, when they are happy. Germans sit two-doors down on cloud 7. Thank God for Cloud computing.
  • Bigger ones – like the use of social network sites. Concerning the relations of communication media and communicative situations, to many Americans being on Facebook is a daily or even hourly way of connecting with others. Germans just started out using it. The majority of my friends in Germany are not Facebookers.

The three values, Barry Thatcher describes are a great way of analyzing the differences between two cultures. The question is how often do we actually take that extra step and do this kind of research about other cultures. I believe the biggest obstacle we (all earthlings) have to overcome is our mindset. The old question and attitude about being superior to others has to be eliminated out of our way of thinking. Being proud of your country is one thing, feeling superior to other countries is a different story. If both parties can settle for tolerance, we will conquer any upcoming challenges. I guess what I want to say is that even though this topic concerning digital literacy is very interesting to know and to explore, I believe that is one of the last steps we have to undertake. First steps first. Pankaj Ghemawat states in his TED talk: “Actually the world isn’t flat”.

So, we might have to rethink our approach when it comes to cross-cultural communication, no matter if the means are digital or not. Let’s start at the beginning.

Facts schmacts, but not culture schmulture. (Week 11)

I found Ishii’s research to be informative, but somewhat… I don’t know… predictable?  For example, on page 358, he offers figures demonstrating that tweens and teens are less socially skilled than adults.   It seems that that is a basic attribute of people in these age groups – it’s largely physiology and brain development that humans generally develop more social skills as a result of maturity and life experience.  Also, the discussion of adolescents using text messaging and mobile phones to keep their social interactions away from their family seemed fairly obvious.  Perhaps it was worth investigating because Ishii is from Japan, where family seems to be more sanctified than it is here.

Anyway, the topic of differences in the use of technology based on culture is an interesting one.  While I haven’t seen differences in “niceties” as demonstrated in Spilka’s examples on pages 172 and 173, I have definitely noticed differences in how people from different cultures view the urgency of e-mail messages.  At work, we have a small percentage of foreign military sales (FMS) contracts, and under my title of contract administrator, I am the main point of contact for our customers.  In one case, I have been trying to obtain some necessary information from a Brazilian customer whose product requires an export license.  Our time zones are only an hour or two off and we could logistically speak on the phone, but I don’t speak Portuguese, and the contact person at that company writes much better English than he speaks, so he corresponds via e-mail only.  I remember learning in an earlier college course that people in Central and South American countries rarely see things as urgent, and are not pushy because pushiness is considered rude.  Obviously, any statement about the people of an entire continent is a generalization, but our Brazilian customer certainly makes a case for this generalized statement.  Every time I need to send an e-mail requesting information, it takes at least a week or two to receive a response.  This is very unusual in our industry, as customers generally want their products as soon as possible.  In drastic contrast to the Brazilian customer is our customer in Japan.  Regardless of the subject at hand or the urgency of the issue, it is unusual to wait more than 20 minutes for an e-mail response.  Likewise, if they do not receive a response to an e-mail they have sent within an hour, they begin sending “second requests” or forwarding it to other contacts they have at our company.

Oh, hello, Mr. Japanese Customer. I see you flew to Wisconsin because it took me an entire hour to respond to your e-mail.

Yeesh.

In looking for evidence in the internet of how widely intercultural business communication is addressed, I found there is a website that offers guides specifically geared toward business communication unique to several individual countries, as well as guides for just about anything else in a country that is influenced by the surrounding culture.  I can see how this could be of high value to industries involving a lot of interpersonal communication or where customer service in the traditional sense is of a high priority. In general though, it seems the nature of my particular industry trumps our respective cultural traditions, at least in part.  There is a basic, professional, courteous-yet-firm “voice” used that is fairly universal, at least in my limited experience.  When it comes down to it, we all just want to get our work done without having others walk all over us and the company we represent.

The Human + Machine Culture and The Metaphor of the Ring

As I read Bernadette Longo’s “Human+Machine Culture” in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I couldn’t help thinking of Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More of Technology and Less of Each Other. It seems an obvious connection to me–both authors address the issue of whether virtual social connections are meaningful enough to satisfy our need for deep, real relationships.

In Longo’s second sentence she writes that as she works at her computer she senses that “other people lurk behind my screen–and I want a relationship with those other people, even if it is mediated by the machine that is a physical manifestation of the virtual relationship.” Near the end of her chapter, Longo writes, “Turning back to my computer, I ask myself why I simultaneously love it and distrust the community it enables. What is it that I desire in this relationship; what is it I fear?”

“Lurk”? “Love it and distrust…”? “Desire”? “Fear”? An odd choice of words I thought. Something was nagging at me, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I needed to have another look at Turkle’s book to see if I could figure out what dark cloud was causing this trouble. That’s where I found it.

Part of Turkle’s book talks about always being connected, always having our mobile devices with us, and always checking them. She mentioned cyborg experiments in 1996 where people walked around campus with computers and transmitters in their backpacks, keypads in their pockets, and digital displays clipped to their glasses. One of the test subjects claimed to feel quite powerful, but there were also “feelings of diffusion.”

Diffusion! That’s it! In The Fellowship of the Ring, book one of The Lord of the Rings, before he leaves the Shire for good, Bilbo Baggins says to Gandalf that he feels stretched out and worn thin. Diffused, perhaps? The Ring (online technology) can leave a person feeling stretched thin and diffused.

Turkle and Longo are both talking about a fear not unlike what happens in The Lord of the Rings. Just as the Dark Lord Sauron and the Nazgul can see young Frodo when he puts on the ring, Google and Yahoo! and company can see Longo when she’s working at her computer. That explains the lurking feeling.

What of the love and distrust and the desire and fear that Longo wrote of? Isn’t that very much the way Gollum, Bilbo, and Frodo feel because of the Ring? None can really part with it completely. Gollum is driven mad by his desire to regain his possession of the ring, Bilbo leaves it for Frodo, but only with great prodding from Gandalf, and Frodo can only let the Ring go when Gollum bites his ring finger right off. They all loved the Ring, couldn’t completely trust anyone else because of the Ring, and took care of the Ring as the Ring made them more dependent on its seductive power. Are we too impressed by the seductive power of the internet?

Turkle explains the love and distrust and the desire and fear through the story of Julia, a 16-year-old girl who loves texting her friends, distrusts her own judgments about her emotions, desires comments from her friends, but fears not getting an appropriate response fast enough. During the interview with Turkle, Julia even mistakenly refers to her phone as her friend. Kind of the way Gollum refers to the Ring as his Precious.

Turkle writes, “Always on and (now) always with us, we tend the Net, and the Net teaches us to need it.” If we forget our real relationships and communities because of our virtual communities, then Longo and all of us have good reason to fear and distrust.

One Net to rule them all, One Net to find them, One Net to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.

Behind the Times?

I usually think of myself as pretty on top of it when it comes to social networking and being technologically savvy. As part of that, I recognize that it’s important to maintain an online presence that is attractive to current and potential employers. I’ve maintained an account on LinkedIn for years now, and update it semi-regularly with my professional experiences and development. Rich Maggiani and Ed Marshall’s article, “Using LinkedIn to Get Work,” made me feel like I am doing a lot of things right. Then I read chapter 8 of Eric Qualman’s  Socialnomics…let’s just say it made me feel a bit behind the times.

I’ve never considered creating a video resume—it’s just not something that ever occurred to me. In my current position, I’ve reviewed resumes of applicants for open technical writing positions and have looked at personal websites and LinkedIn profiles, but never a video resume. I have to wonder if it would add as much value as Qualman claims. He states,

“Recruiters can quickly screen through potential hires in minutes versus all the guesswork associated with traditional paper resumes” (p. 226).

I can’t imagine that a video resume removes as much of the guesswork from the hiring process as this implies. Hiring managers still have to read between the lines and figure out what candidates are really about. After all, a video resume (like a paper resume) is created with the intention of shining the best light on the applicant. It’s essentially a commercial designed to make the applicant look good. (Maybe it’s the technical communicator in me, but I think I’d rather read a professional document about a person than watch a commercial for them.)

Job searching and recruiting varies greatly by industry. I’m just not sure video resumes in particular are the best fit for technical communication. Perhaps Qualman is assuming the advertising industry, which would probably work a lot better for this type of format. Other tools such as professional profiles and personal websites seem to be a much better fit for technical communicators. The ability to display and link to work samples is also invaluable, but probably more beneficial to some people than others. Many communicators who work in a corporate environment write proprietary information for their company and can’t share work samples at all, let alone make them publicly available on the Internet. Again, this may be a better fit for advertising or even freelance writers.

Despite seeming focused more on job searching and recruiting in a marketing or advertising field, much of what Qualman highlights can be applied to technical communication. I’m curious, though, would you find video resumes much more helpful than traditional paper resumes when it comes to hiring a technical communicator?

LinkedIn: Leveling the Playing Field for Workers

I think I like LinkedIn even more than FaceBook.  From 9 to 5, there is no site that is more useful than LinkedIn.  I think that what a lot of people miss is that LinkedIn isn’t just a job search site.  Yes, you can create a resume-like profile and actively search for work, but it is more than that.

As Maureen Crawford-Hentz stated in Erik Qualman’s book Socialnomics, “Social networking technology is absolutely the best thing to happen to recruiting–ever” (p. 228).  I’m not a big job hopper, but I like to keep my options open so I used to load my resume to the usual job sites.  Occasionally, I would get an email from a recruiter, or I might check the listings on the site, but that is just about all I ever got out of it.  I checked those site maybe two or three times a year.

On LinkedIn, however, I check it two or three times a week.  Not because I’m looking for a job, but because I want to check-in on old colleagues, or see stories that are related to my skills and interests, or post a question to one of the groups that I’m a part of.  It doesn’t just connect recruiters and job seekers, it connects like-minded professionals with each other.  And, the recruiters get the benefit of seeing all that interaction and can use LinkedIn members to help them to recruit the right person.

A couple of months ago I got a message from a recruiter about a job that wasn’t really right for me, but I knew someone that was a perfect fit so I talked to her and gave her my friend’s info.  She called him, and within a week he had an interview.  He was actively looking for a job the “old-fashioned” way and never saw this lead, I wasn’t looking at all and it found me, and I found him for the recruiter.

Also, as Qualman points out, job seekers also have the power now to get inside information about potential employers.  If I don’t know someone that works for a company, there’s a pretty good chance that I know someone that knows someone.

For the important relationships in our lives–family and friends–social media could be responsible for decreasing the depth of our relationships, but it actually increases the depth of most professional relationships.  In the past I would have had zero relationship with most of the people that left the company I work for, so any connection is an improvement.

As we have all probably noticed, there isn’t much in the way of corporate loyalty.  Layoffs are a regular occurrence and sites like LinkedIn can help to level the playing field for employees.  If companies can walk away from their employees  at a moment’s notice, it’s only fair that employees should have the same freedom.

Disconnect?

About one year ago I discontinued my monthly cell phone contract with AT&T. I now have a Tracfone that costs  $30 per month in prepaid minutes (significantly less than my former contract). I can access the internet from my prepaid phone, but I don’t, because it is a small flip phone and the screen is too small to be useful for browsing the web. Everyone I know owns a smart phone with a touch screen, cool apps, and a large enough display to make internet use worth while. This obvious trend is verified by chapter 8 in Erik Qualman’s book, Socialnomics. Within this chapter is a brief section titled: Mobile Me that indicates that people are becoming more and more dependent on their mobile devices at an alarmingly fast rate.

Having used my basic and inexpensive flip phone for the past year, I have found that neither my social life nor my professional life changed much. My friends sometimes give me a hard time because of my “old” technology, but ultimately I am not less happy as a result of having a basic phone. However, I am saving a lot of money every month. One aspect of new mobile devices that I am not comfortable with is the GPS tracking Qualman describes: “This works on the GPS in the phone to locate your friends and tell you exactly where they are,” (216). I have absolutely no desire for anyone to be able to track me. If I want someone to know where I am, I will tell that person where I am going, and I expect that person to trust me. I can see how this type of technology may be helpful in certain emergency situations; however, I would rather retain my privacy.

Sometimes I feel that I may be too anti-technology (despite the fact that I use what technology is necessary for my academic and career success). At the same time, I feel that we, as a society, need to be cautious of a citizenry that is completely dependent on technology. For instance, Qualman mentions that fewer real-time interviews are being conducted by journalists because of technology (215-216). The result of this trend may lead to lost opportunities to truly get at the heart of an important news story. Part of the art of journalism is being able to ask on the spot questions based on interviewee responses and body language—to find out the whole story. Imagine how happy politicians would be if they never had to answer a real-time face to face question.

Maybe Henry David Thoreau had it right in his expirement and book Walden. Such an expirement would be  more drastic, and perhaps more meaningful given today’s real vs. virtual worlds.

“I love Walgreen’s!”: Referral-based Marketing

Just this week I was fortunate enough to run across a prime example of referral-based marketing: There was a glowing review for Walgreen’s Pharmacy from an acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook. In true social media form, her review was commented on and expanded by several other friends: Said one female, “I [love] Walgreen’s!”

Now, it just so happens that not two weeks earlier I had a horrible experience at the very same Walgreen’s: After nearly giving the customer in front of me the incorrect dosage of her prescription, the pharmacist asked me for information about a new type of antibiotic I was picking up for my son’s ear infection. (Seriously!) In addition my also-sick five-year-old and I were fortunate enough to get to wait 45 minutes to experience these exchanges. I was unimpressed to say the least. I told my husband about it, I complained to my mother, I even told a few friends, but (prior to today) I did not rant online. I never thought to.

Even with my terrible experience my friends’ exuberant posts made me think twice about my local Walgreen’s. Considering my initial reaction was to never step foot back in d**n store, I am forced to come to terms with persuasive power of the opinions of those in my social network! This leads me to wonder what type of power a negative comment has on a business’s reputation. In Socialnomics, Erik Qualman states (p. 205), “Heck, if there isn’t 5 to 10 percent negative noise around your brand, then your brand is either irrelevant or not being aggressive enough in the space. The quickest death in this new Socialnomic world is deliberating rather than doing.”

I have to say I see Qualman’s point here. There are so many things in process online, that a few negative comments are unlikely to be able to reverse all of the positives that happen with socially-connected marketing efforts. Case in point is the example Dr. Pignetti has shared that involves a poorly handled online interaction by Progressive Insurance. Although the negative press is rather intense (and understandably so), the largest initial problem with the occurrence was Progressive’s canned response. Had Progressive been monitoring their Twitter feed more closely and responded in a prompt way to dispel the idea of their lawyer representing the defendant in the accident trial, they may have even been able to shine as a caring and connected company. (I am extending the benefit of the doubt here in hopes that Progressive indeed did not have the defendant’s lawyer on payroll.) No matter how you view this terrible incident, for better or worse it is likely that Progressive (and other companies like them) will see far greater benefits in social media marketing than the sum of most negative press.

What does globalization do for us technical communicators?

Longo’s definition of “community” was actually an eye-opener. Nowadays, in the age of globalization many people talk about how the world gets smaller, how we become closer to others from around the world, how communities are not just physical distinguished from each other by location, but how we can form so called global communities, and how we might aim for a world English. Actually, I believe Longo’s explanation makes more sense, a universal community is a not logical. This term contradicts itself.

She quotes Lyotard:

“The only way to construct a universal community is to deny local histories and culture”.

To then come to the conclusion:

“Instead of finding ways to empower people through their localized expertise and worldview, a universal community promotes the idea that knowledge is common across localized groups”

We all have this arrogance in us (at least to a certain extent) that we believe the culture and community we are raised in or choose to live in is superior in many aspects than the next one. I don’t consider this necessarily a bad behavior. It is part of our patriotism, our feeling being included in some sort of community. The urge of belonging to any group is what drives us to meet our socializing needs. I actually believe that we (on average) do way better in this context than our ancestors from 250 years ago. Colonialism just left such a bad aftertaste. In today’s world we have to and we do communicate before we judge. We listen before we speak. To my understanding human + machine is actually a great initiator for this movement. We have the technologies today. So we might as well use them to connect with each other and more important to learn about each other. We still own the (sometimes very strong) feeling of belonging to one specific community. But I believe society changes in being more tolerant and respectful to other communities out there. However, technology cannot overpower cultural differences. It rather should help us to negotiate and to tolerate cultural differences.

Ian Goldin gave in his TED talk Navigating our global future an overview where we (all earthlings) are heading.

Coming back to my previous posts about the role of technical communicators, I am still trying to fit more puzzle pieces in that picture of where our profession is heading. After listening to Ian Goldin’s TED talk, and then going back to Longo’s article I believe she is right when she states

“Technical communicators are on the front lines of these decisions about inclusion and exclusion, especially in human + machine virtual worlds.”

Combining both thought processes I believe, we technical communicators have the ability using our background knowledge in communication to be an important part in the development of society in whatever industry we choose to focus on working in. We can help facilitating this process.

What LinkedIn means to paranoid employers (Week 10)

I’ve worked for the same company for seven years.  Before that, I worked at my previous employer for eight years.  It should be fairly clear that I’m a stable, loyal employee.

Our company had to lay off 50% of our workforce in June of 2011.  It was a terrible day, because we are a very small company and our employees are a pretty tight bunch.  I joined LinkedIn around that time to keep in touch with those who were let go and to see what kind of new jobs they subsequently found.  Somehow, the senior company management caught wind that I had a new profile on what they considered to be a job-search website, and they questioned me about it within a few weeks of my joining.  Why was I looking for a new job? Did I need to talk? Was there a particular individual layed off that I disagreed with?

At least I got a free therapy session out of the deal.

Considering that was over a year ago, they are likely over it by now and realize I was honest in my reasoning behind creating an account on LinkedIn – that I simply cared about the people who were let go and wanted to see when they found new employment.

Apparently, a lot of people are annoyed by LinkedIn, judging by the 44% statistic at http://amplicate.com/hate/linkedin .  Of course, this link should probably be taken with a grain of salt, since it seems to be a message board for complaints.  Their complaints are relevant, though, especially those involving incessant e-mails from the company.  Since joining LinkedIn, I get e-mails several times a week asking if I know certain people or telling me I should update my profile.  To be quite honest, I’m hesitant to add contacts or add details to my profile because then the newly-added contacts receive e-mails telling them I’m expanding my network or that I’ve updated my information. My employer’s paranoia has made me paranoid, and I’m worried that another red flag will be raised and I will be considered “on my way out the door” at work.  Maybe this would have a positive impact, and I’d get a raise or added benefits if they don’t want to lose me, but it’s probably more likely that I’d be considered disloyal.

The benefits of LinkedIn are fairly obvious to those actively looking for work or who work on a consultant basis.  Those individuals need to create a large network and get the word out about their skills and what they can offer as an employee or consultant.  Those of us with steady jobs, though, need to understand that from some employers’ perspectives, LinkedIn looks like a great website for headhunters and people “exploring their options.”  Industries involving aspects of security requirements, employees in whom companies have invested time and money to train, intellectual property concerns and the like foster employees with incredible value, and they obviously don’t want them to go anywhere.  I suppose LinkedIn could be seen as a threat to companies wanting to retain their workforce.