Monthly Archives: September 2014

FrameMaker conversion to DITA

Digital Literacy for Technical Communication was written specifically for me! Many items described in the first two chapters—recent introduction of Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA), structured authoring and reuse, implementation of a content management system (CMS), transition of job and team titles, and participating in agile development methodology—affect me directly.

Job title and team name transitions

Digital technology has personally changed my job, job titles, and team name in less than two years at Hewlett-Packard. In July 2013, I started as a contract technical writer on the Technical Publications (Tech Pubs) team.

Four months later, I was converted to a full-time employee and my job title was replaced: information developer. Around this same time, my manager decided that our team would be called Information Development (Info Dev).

Last May, our division was restructured and our team name changed for a third time; we are now called Content Development and Delivery (Content). Moreover, since I managed the FrameMaker conversion to DITA project, I plan to renegotiate my job title at my annual performance review next month to information architect.

We also work on small teams (based on our product offerings) that incorporate the agile development methodology.

FrameMaker conversion to DITA

This past year, I championed a project—including tracking and documenting the entire process—that converted our FrameMaker product library into DITA.

What is DITA?

In Saul Carliner’s chapter “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”, he describes DITA as an XML-based architecture that divides content into small, self-contained chunks of information that can be reused into several different communication products (pg. 42).

The highest structure in DITA is a topic: a single XML file. DITA has three main topic types: concept, task, and reference. In her book, Introduction to DITA Second Edition: A Basic User Guide to the Darwin Information Typing Architecture, Including DITA 1.2, JoAnn Hackos defines the three topic types with questions:

  • Concept: What is this about?
  • Task: How do I?
  • Reference: What else? This information may also include APIs, error messages, or command line reference lists.

All of the DITA topics can then be assembled, prioritized, and collected into a DITA map—basically a Table of Contents.

High-level process

Our FrameMaker conversion to DITA process included the following high-level steps:

  1. Evaluate and select an XML editor. We looked at MadCap Flare, AuthorIT, XMetaL, and oXygen. After much debate, we selected XMetaL.
  2. Conduct a content inventory to identify and prioritize which FrameMaker books to convert. In addition to documenting software, we also document hardware, and decided to keep these guides in FrameMaker—it’s static content that does not change very often. We also decided to keep our legacy software releases in FrameMaker and only converted the latest version.
  3. Clean up the source FrameMaker files as much as possible before the conversion to ensure that just the right amount of information was included within a given Heading. Not all of our existing content was consistently structured to contain one concept, one procedure, or one set of reference information. We determined that the PDF generated from FrameMaker would be our source of record to verify that all content was correctly converted.
  4. Create and run a Mif2Go script to convert every FrameMaker Heading into its own DITA topic. The script also attempted to accurately transfer every paragraph and character tag in FrameMaker into the respective DITA <element> tag. Our library of approximately 1,000 pages (in PDF) converted into more than 4,000 DITA files (topics).
  5. Using the PDF generated from the FrameMaker source file, open the DITA map (and then each DITA topic) to verify that all content was properly formatted. This step took a significant amount of time to do as all 4,000 files needed additional clean up and validation.
  6. Use WebWorks to generate output for a DITA map. We created custom stationery files (specialized CSS) that transfers every DITA <element> into a specific look and feel (i.e., paragraph and character style). We have two types of output: PDF and HTML.
  7. Implement a content management system (CMS) to store all of our DITA files. We selected SDL, and our team training on how to use it starts tomorrow!

Read the rest of this entry

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Technically… it’s not “outsourcing”

I just recently started a new job at an ecommerce web design company in my hometown, Philadelphia.  It’s a startup environment and even though I am starting at the bottom of the food chain, there is a ton of room for advancement and growth – which has me excited and accepting of the low starting salary.

It seems pretty “American,” a few young guys in an office near downtown Philadelphia, working at making it as ecommerce web designers.  It’s the new American dream – the successful tech startup.

Here’s the kicker; neither of them are web designers and neither of them have a background in web design.

This company either pursues a client lead or a client calls in, they hear what the client needs for their site, they send a scope of the project and an estimate of the cost (never less than three grand) to the client.  If the client says yes, the company contacts their design team in Pakistan and voila! in a few weeks you have a website “homegrown” with good ol’ Philadelphia web designers.

It blew my mind, really.  All of the design and SEO is done in Pakistan!  It’s actually my job to edit blog articles and social media posts that are written poorly in English and make them sound more “American.”  Yes, this does fit the entry level description of a technical writer, but it still makes me uncomfortable that the bulk of the work is outsourced, or, as the company describes it “created in collaboration with design teams in Pakistan”.

Dicks’ discussion in Chapter 2 makes me think about my current job.  Yes, they hired me because they needed me but I realize that I really do need to prove it to them that I am valuable to the company and that I can prove to be an asset to their operation.  All they need is to find someone in Pakistan that has excellent mastery of the English language as well as knowledge and understanding of American culture and I would be out of a job!

A Rose by Any Other Name

After reading the first two chapters of Digital Literacy by Carliner and Dicks, I find myself thinking that their entire premise is flawed.  Each refers to a Technical Communicator as a job title and not a skill.  By doing this, they have contradicted themselves in their message or are at least naïve in their conclusions.

Carliner summarizes the impact of digital technology on technical communicators.  He explains how changing technology impacted technical communicators negatively and forced them to take on new job titles or alter how and what tools they used to complete their work.  He also alludes to the shrinking market for technical communicators.  I disagree.  The same technical communicator, by job title, may be someone such as a web designer.  Instead of constructing information bulletins for easier interpretation by the end user, they are constructing a website to enhance the end users experience during their visit.  He continues his negative outlook by stating “However, those who develop and produce content have been facing dwindling work opportunities.” (p44)  Just two pages earlier he contradicts this statement when he quotes Shank 2008 “e.g., the home page of newspapers changing every 15 minutes”. (p42)  Wouldn’t a website which changes content every 15 minutes create more opportunities?  I believe this would especially be true with a content provider that needs to be clear and concise with their information and would require a professional that was capable of executing this effectively.

Here is a perfect time to insert the argument that technical communicators document or convey scientific, engineering, or other technical information.  Surely you can’t document the changes in technology and how it impacts technical communicators over the last thirty years and assume that the definition of what a technical communicator is would remain static to the old industrial mindset.  Clearly a technical communicator is anyone who effectively addresses the arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, and tone (Kostelnick and Roberts) when presenting persuasive or instructional information.

Dicks goes on in the second chapter to go through changing business models and their negative effect on the job outlook for technical communicators.  Again, in the 1982 definition, he would be correct.  However, I reiterate my opinion that “technical communicator” is not just a job title, it is a skill.  The general contradiction I find in this chapter can be summarized by Dicks himself “… many communicators are seeing the nature of their work altered considerably.” (p75) I would argue that the communicators are the ones altering their work to fit their new environments.  On page 60, Dicks highlights the problem of value added for technical communicators.  Except for sales people’s production measured in dollars and a manufacturer’s production in units, how does any employee justify their value added?  Marketing, management (except for sales and manufacturing units), lab workers, IT, and engineers are all examples of employees that must adapt and evolve to show their value to a company.

If the two author’s purposes were to inform, they should have allowed the context of the technical communicator to evolve with the world in which they work.  If Dicks and Cauliner were trying to persuade, they did a poor job in my opinion and their work is more apt to gain a following in the next Yahoo article of five ways technical communicators jobs are changing.

The Sympathetic Graphic Designer

A great, comprehensive summary of the wide variety of skills needed to be a good designer. No doubt you'll find many of these same skills on a list for technical communicators.

A well designed, comprehensive summary of the wide variety of skills needed to be a good designer. No doubt you’ll find many of these same skills on a list for technical communicators or find you use them often in your own work.

Although I’m not a technical communicator who uses primarily writing and language to transmit messages, I think of myself as a technical communicator of the visual variety (with a penchant for writing). As a graphic designer, my work and industry are closely related to that of the technical communicator, and we likely share many of the same challenges and experiences in our careers. In The Effects of Digital Literacy by R. Stanley Dicks I was especially struck by the similarities in the current state of both of these related industries.

What inspired me to return to school was my own experience losing a job to overseas outsourcing. I worked as a copy editor, and later in the graphics department (advertising design) for a newspaper group based in La Crosse, Wis. I loved the work, so demanding and fast-paced, with often incredible pressure and high stakes (complete with meager compensation). My coworkers were some of the most intelligent and creative people I’ve had the pleasure to work with. The newspaper group produced three daily papers, several twice weeklies and seven or eight weekly newspapers in addition to additional special interest, seasonal and advertising publications, and I was proud to work for the press, which I had always revered. The newspaper industry, however, is in a state of crisis as the cost of producing a physical paper becomes an untenable business model when many adults find news from free online sources or from television or radio. In early 2012, the company outsourced all advertising and graphic design services to a contractor in India and later that year moved nearly all copy editing positions to a central location in Madison, Wis. These types of changes are, to me, an effect of digital literacy. As the culture shifts to assimilate new technology, industries (and individuals) who can’t or won’t change are left behind, becoming obsolete.

I definitely identify my work as being of “symbolic-analytic” nature, described by Robert Reich (in Dicks’ words) as those who, in the post industrial world, “analyze, synthesize, combine, rearrange, develop, design and deliver information to specific audiences for specific purposes.” (pg. 54) These high-level, creative tasks require an ever-changing, flexible and innovative outlook not everyone possesses. As manufacturing moves overseas, and our industries begin to do the same, I truly believe that us technical verbal and visual communicators will need to work to stand out as individuals working in collaboration with other professionals in the new support economy style (pg. 58) as opposed to in-house, departmental type positions common in the industrial age.

In my graduate work, I’d like to look at how graphic designers and design students can learn to acquire a wide range of communications skills, such as writing, to make themselves more valuable and flexible communicators, and what other skills might be beneficial to the constant skills evolution required in the possible support economy. This article gave me some insight and avenues to explore further.

Staying Abreast of Trends

When reading Digital Literacy for Technical Communicators (Spilka, 2010), what struck me was the concept of assumption mentioned in chapter two, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work.” Author R. Stanley Dicks gives an overview of the technical skill involved in technical communication, and it’s rapid evolution with rise in the digital age. He states that “It is too easy to look at the latest trends and assume that all workers will be doing those new, different tasks in the near future” (Spilka, 2010, p. 51). Technical communicators see the fundamental process of their jobs changing rapidly. When this happens, a shift in work production ensues. Is this due to the time adjustment for learning new technical processes? Perhaps, but Spilka states that it should be remembered that trends “…largely have to do with the tools and technologies associated with the discipline, and not with the core competency skills that the discipline continues to require” (Spilka, 2010, p. 52). Perhaps a core skill for any technical communicator is the ability to adapt quickly to shifting trends.

For educators, the shifting trends can be especially problematic when deciding what aspects of curriculum to change, and which resources to seek. Are the trends universal or isolated to a niche aspect of technology? Are there enough resources to adequately teach fundamental skills? These questions, among others, face educators in technical communication. Spilka acknowledges this and says that educators can “…continue to develop internship and cooperative education opportunities and to encourage their students to take advantage of them” (Spilka, 2010, p. 76). This kind of cooperative relationship between educator and student allows teachers to keep track of changes in the nature of technical communication.

In the concept of emerging media, however, are there sufficient opportunities for students? Will educators follow up in order to know what emerging trends will face their future students? These are all questions I found myself asking when reading this week’s work.

We add value! Don’t outsource technical communication!

I was struck by R. Stanley Dicks’ article (chapter 2 in Spilka’s book), particularly how technical communicators must always be defending their role in the company. I can see how sometimes management can wonder what “technical communication” really is, especially when it touches so many other aspects of a company–why can’t technical communication fold into the other departments and eliminate the formal technical communication job title?

This has happened, with technical communication splitting into two general tracks, “design and programming of information databases and the other focused on providing content for these databases” (Carliner, ch 1 in Spilkea’s book, p 29). User Experience experts, information design, documentation divas, information technology, all have cuttings from technical communication. So why not eliminate the formal technical communication discipline when it’s grafted into all aspects of a company already?

In my opinion, no. we need technical communicators–we need us! While there are aspects of technical communication in other disciplines, technical communicators have the vision and distance from one particular area to consider the implications of audience.  We are the users’ advocate first and foremost, and our whole goal is to see how we can get and retain users. While IT and other areas greatly contribute to this end goal, it’s in the company’s interest to keep technical communicators around, and in house to successfully reach as many audiences as possible.  Back in Dicks’ article, he writes that the workers with the most value are those that “analyze, synthesize, combine, rearrange, develop, design, and deliver information to specific audiences for specific purposes” (p. 54). That’s how technical communicators add value.

Innovative Challenges

I began reading the first couple chapters of Rachel Spilka’s “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication”, and the concept that first struck my attention was the concept of “innovators, the majorities, and laggards”. For those of you who missed this, she explained the innovators as the group of people who are the first to adventurously try new technology. In my mind, I imagined people like myself. I’m the first in line to buy the new iPhone, I join every new social networking site I hear about, and I’m never concerned with stability.

The second group she defined was the majority. These are the people who wait for a few versions of the technology in question to be released to ensure all major defects are worked out. I immediately imagined my parent’s generation; if it’s too fresh and new they assume it’s a fad. New technology needs to exist for a while before they are willing to try it; they are also more likely to try if their peers are starting to do it. The last group she defined were laggards, the people who reject new technology altogether and argue for the tried and true.

Holding off on this concept and moving into Chapter One, Spilka mentions that American hospitals are light-years away from the digital age. They still use paper charts and files, and only 8 to 11% of hospitals use electronic systems. She argued that their “lagging” is counterproductive as using electronic health records can “improve efficiency and help reduce deaths and injuries caused by medical errors”. However, I disagree.

Going back to the previously mentioned concept, perhaps medical professionals are laggers for a very good reason. We can agree that there is no new technology that doesn’t come with its share of bugs and/or catastrophic malfunctions. Do hospitals really have room to test drive new systems? Experimenting with a digital version of patient charts and records, would be risking major errors. This sounds too much like recklessly playing with human lives. Heaven forbid the system crashes, or a system error switches patient information. We might have a heart transplant going to a patient with a broken arm, or a stroke victim on his way to dialysis.

It sounds incredibly risky to me. Please let me know what you all think.

Doctor

Online Transparency is Credibility

I was first introduced to the dynamics of company Facebook pages back in 2011 while working for a bottled water company named Crystal Rock. I was randomly searching for my co-workers online when I found they were all following the company page. Upon viewing the page I noticed many lovely costumer compliments as well as irate complaints. There were even terrible customer posts signing out individual customer service representatives they were unhappy with. I noticed under many of the compliments and under each complaint, the Crystal Rock administrator gave a very thorough and professional response. Many times the administrator would describe the solution/corrective actions they planned to take to ensure the complaint was handled there on the page.

My initial reaction to this was “Why would the company keep this visible?”, I imagined it must be incredibly bad for business. When I got to work the next day I asked out communications specialist and she told me this was promoting credibility through transparency. The fact that Crystal Rock had complaints and left them visible for the world to see after publishing their plan to correct the issue made them in a sense human and that they cared about customers. If they had left the comments unanswered the page would have appeared poorly maintained, but the responses showed no shame, no pretense, and that Crystal Rock always wanted to do right by their customers and each customer voice mattered.

This concept has been taken a step farther when encountering companies who do the opposite. There are many Instagram companies who provide awful customer service, and when customers complain on their pages the comments are deleted and the customers are blocked. These customers often resort to resources like Yelp and other review forums to publicize these instances. Before I purchase anything off Instagram (or any online company) I study the reviews thoroughly. Sites such as AliExpress that have public complaints that resolve the issues are more likely to get my business, however companies that have customer complaints about being blocked and deleted for expressing their dissatisfaction will NEVER get my business. This is nothing I have ever thought twice about, but when I heard it from the Crystal Rock communications specialist it clicked.

In my opinion, companies can promote credibility and transparency with customer blogs and feedback. Both positive and negative helps. Consumers aren’t always expecting perfection and are often forgiving if they feel companies actually care. Company pages as described are definitely ways to promote business.

Rainbow Looms YouTube video producers

My younger son is 8-years-old, is in third grade, and likes to make Rainbow Loom bracelets. I found him the other day in our office watching YouTube instructional videos on how to make a starburst bracelet. He had all of his supplies on the desk and was following along to the kids in the video. If he needed more time, he would pause it or rewind it. Moreover, he quickly figured out that the videos on the right navigation were related to the main one that he was watching and that he could quickly find additional bracelets to make.

Jack Molisani notes in his article that social networking is for everyone and that “anyone with a video camera and a YouTube account is a video producer.” This statement rings true to me as my son has also asked me if he could make his own videos to teach kids at his school how to make Rainbow Loom bracelets. YouTube is “instructing current customers” (my son) and is also “developing new customers”, which are all of the classmates that will go to YouTube to check out the videos.

While fads come and go, the medium is here to stay. For example, it may not be popular to make Rainbow Looms in a few months, but whatever the next fad is, I’m sure they will be using YouTube.

Let’s complain about the Internet… using the Internet

This is one of my favorite things in the world: people complaining about the Internet via the Internet.  I love it when Facebook users post angry status updates every time Facebook makes another privacy-invading change or UI disaster.  They complain and yet they adapt to the changes because, if they want their voices to be heard, they must remain on the network that allows them to be heard.

In this debate, Mr. Keen is this exact kind of person. complaining about the thing that he hates, while using that exact thing.  It’s like complaining about how much you hate peanut butter as you slather another layer onto your bread.

I view this debate from a more philosophical point of view as opposed to technical.  Humans created a technology that has both advanced and hindered society.  Mr. Keen feels as if this technology is more of a hindrance than a boon.  Yet, Mr. Keen runs a blog with hundreds of readers, taking advantage of this very technology.  He claims that the Internet is best used for activities such as research and the sending of information.  What he does not say is that his blog is not contributing to these tasks at all.  His place in the blogosphere is a waste of space, a waste of the infinite Internet.

This debate of technology is a great example of the flaws of humanity.  We are able to have excellent debates, gain followers, make enemies, all while we contradict ourselves.  We are intentionally unintentionally (yes, I said that) hypocritical but somehow the validity of our arguments still stand.

Additionally, we also learn a lot about narrowmindedness – which I am not using in a negative light.  Mr. Keen claims that the Web is used solely for the distribution and consumption of pop culture, consumerist things.  However, he comes to this conclusion by searching the Top 6 blogs.  Of course the top anything blogs will be associated with pop culture because, well, that’s what makes it popular.  It is unlikely that anyone could kind valuable information on the Internet without doing a fair amount of careful research.  It was once a popular idea that the Earth was flat, this does not make it right.

So, yes, I agree that the Internet is littered with virtual garbage, but that does not mean, with careful digging and a good cleanup crew, treasure cannot be found.

People as Products

People gather around a common idea. This is why, according to Boyd and Ellison, social sites thrive among smaller groups and communities dedicated to a similar interest. When reading their work, it immediately made sense as to why Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm changes continually. In order to best service their primary customers (companies advertising via Facebook) and consumers, Facebook’s primary goal must be to study consumers first. Where people gather to share, ingest and produce ideas depends on what each group prefers and finds passionate. This kid of digital narcissism (Keen and Weignberger, 2007), is precisely why similar patterns of behavior are studied in order to utilize the underlying beliefs of niche groups.

The brilliance behind this kind of marketing is, I feel, that individuals feel specialized when, in actuality, they are part of a mass product. If individuals do not have to pay for a product, I would suggest that they are the actual product. In the case of social media, individuals are the product, and their behaviors are analyzed to deliver best marketing information to the shareholders (i.e. companies).

Andrew Keen is not invited

While reading the debate on Web 2.0 between Andrew Keen and David Weindberger I became quite emotional.  I wanted to reach through the screen to shake some sense into Keen, I almost yelled at my computer, and I definitely shook my head at every Keen response.  I couldn’t help but see how my previous blog “power to the people” was reiterating his points albeit from the opposing point of view.  I maintain the opinion that the internet and the communication that it allows between people offers individuals and society a greater benefit than the previous model that restricted widely accessible information to “gate keepers”.

Keen believes that allowing anyone to comment on published information is a negative.  It allows anonymous users to post negative comments and clutter.  Don’t opposing viewpoints spur conversation that has the potential to lead to a greater understanding of the subject?  He states “the culture business is ugly.  It rewards talent and punishes those that don’t have it”.  He must be referring to Kim Kardashian.  Keen points to the fact that Gore and Reagan having the top two non fiction books on NY Times Best Seller list disproves opinions of the media being a left/right wing racket.  How can two books on a list even speak to that?  It would seem that the country is almost split 50/50 on their political affiliations.  Wouldn’t it also be reasonable to assume that both viewpoints be on the list?

My biggest problem was when Keen was referring to the top 6 blogs (I’m still shaking my head).  Does he honestly think that the same person that read the autobiography on Einstein couldn’t be the same person reading about their iPhone on a blog?  Given that technology is such a big part of our lives, wouldn’t an “intelligent” person also want to read about the products that are coming out, not just technology geeks?  He alludes to wanting his kids to read books from the non fiction list over blogs about how to kiss.  Isn’t having the option to read both non fiction and articles on miscellaneous knowledge better than only having the option to read one of them?  Andrew Keen argues for the old way we received our information because he was on the inside looking out.  Now he must produce a quality product that the masses want to read and he is unhappy about it.  I can only hope he has a social network where he can find like minded individuals to talk about the good old days.

 

 

“Feathers Together” in Social Media

Boyd and Ellison’s “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” article articulated that social network sites are created for subgroups or niche communities. When boyd and Ellison wrote that social network sites are designed around people, not topics (p. 219), I experienced an aha moment. For what is a community without similar beliefs, and where best to find gaggles of other geese that share the same interests than online?

So really, social network sites are a way for people to gather and share experiences that others can relate to. For example, if, say, I were interested in crocheting monstrosities of detailed afghans and no one in my immediate physical community shared that passion, I could find support and inspiration for projects online and belong to a crocheting community without having to physically move to the crocheting capital (wherever that may be).

This ties into what Jack Molisani wrote about in his article, “Is Social Media For You?” when he emphasized the need to network and get your brand online. To follow the crocheting example further, if I wanted to be an active part of that community, I would need to brand myself as a crocheting guru or creator or something, and one way to do that would be to microblog, or Tweet and build my reliability and expertise online.

Technical Communication & Social Media

Technical Communication and social media seems to be the trend many organizations are following. Using social media platforms to store and update technical documentation is much more convenient, user friendly and accessible than the traditional manuals. Since most social media sites are compatible with mobile devices, this makes technical documentation that much easier for users to access.

Intermediate Blogger

I’ve had some experience with my personal Tumblr blog, and briefly with Blogger during an undergrad class. However, I’m far from one of those people who can gain thousands of followers. I’ve worked with WordPress during projects with freelance clients as well as classes in this program. I am very interested in learning more about blogging as I know it is an extremely marketable skill.

Social Media and Communication

While an older generation may lean with a bias towards Hurley and Hea’s assertion that a student’s professionalism or credibility is lowered when using social media platforms freely, the permanency of posts is not an observed fear among millennials such as myself. This, perhaps, is due to the sheer volume of content created on media platforms that emerge other than the largely viewed (i.e. Facebook/LinkedIn/Twitter) platforms. Hurley and Hea do a good job in outlining ways which students should engage, even if on a superficial level, social media.

Companies which are able to maintain tone while engaging a social media audience do well. This is especially true when technical patois is translated to every day terms, crafted in a way which engages an audience.

Personally, I feel that whether or not technical communicators like or want it, social media is the primary way in which communication is conceived and consumed. Learning how to manage and navigate the trepid waters of new media will be crucial for any technical communicator not because it is a fashionable means but because it is the primary means in which audiences relate and look for new information.

Always a Blogger

Growing up as a digital native, blogs were ubiquitous with self expression. Whether the short-lived Xanga bubble, MySpace catastrophe or the matured Blogspot and Blogger platforms, the form of blogging as always lived within my own social sphere. In a sense, digital natives have lived in a world where self expression lends itself to some form of microblogging. Thus, digital natives may associate themselves as a perpetual blogger.

Professionally, blogs have also been integrated in my life. As the managing editor for a university, I oversaw organic and non-printed copy development for online usage. This meant blogs, specifically hosted on CMS platforms for branding control, were part of the editorial and content calendar. Apart from blogs hosted on a privately developed CMS, I’ve worked with other third-party sites and currently have my own WordPress cite. Although I am still developing my coding skills, I am interested in WordPress themes which allow me to access and change the CSS so that I can customize the cite to meet my needs.

Power to the people

What is the relationship between technical communication and social media?  Hmmm. Well, what is technical communication and who are technical communicators?  The Wikipedia definition of technical communication is “Individuals in a variety of contexts and with varied professional credentials engage in technical communication.”  To me, that would mean that journalists are the biggest group, followed by teachers, scientists, historians, lawyers and news anchors.   Wikipedia then goes on to say “ The Society for Technical Communication defines the field as any form of communication that focuses on technical or specialized topics, communicates specifically by using technology or provides instructions on how to do something.”  Wait a minute, that would mean that almost anybody could be a technical communicator?

In the not-so-distant past, a person looking for information on a specific topic would be limited to the library, newspaper, or in person communication to gain knowledge on that topic.  A person could also subscribe to any number of print publications specializing on the topic they were interested in.  Given the definition above, although anyone could be a technical communicator, only those given a voice could be heard on a grand scale.  This would limit technical communicators to the people with titles in certain professions that the publishers deemed worthy of voicing their work and/or opinion.

But, then the internet changed things.  Albeit slowly at first, the last decade experienced an explosion in emerging media and began to upset the balance, pull back the curtain, dethrone the information totalitarians. Today, we as “regular people”, have a voice.  Today, we all have the ability to be technical communicators.  I can’t help but ask myself if this is a positive development.  Do I really want Joe Blow invading my Facebook news feed?  Do I want the idiot next door to be able to reach a wide audience and preach about the benefits of not cutting your grass?  The answer is obviously “no”, but that is the wrong way to look at it.

Although the less than desirable viewpoints can now be broadcast beyond sewing circles, it also allows truly gifted and inspiring people access to the masses.  Even though the message from the article “Banal Bohemia:Blogging from the Ivory Tower Hot-Desk” was as follows, it made me think that the “professionals” can no longer recklessly or irresponsibly communicate without consequences. The professionals’ content is being pushed by newcomers, their accuracy is being scrutinized, and their topics are even being altered by the readers.  This change is a huge benefit for the average person.  Now, articles and publications are clearer, more concise, and more relevant than ever before.  This improved content is also being offered for free on a seemingly infinite number of platforms.  Society no longer is bound by the will and motivations of the few.  The power now belongs to the people.

 

We don’t need more content. We need content that does more.

more content more problems

We have laptops, tablets, smartphones, e-readers, and new devices keep emerging. We are connected, and we use our devices to go online. Mobile devices and Web 2.0 technologies are here to stay. Hurley and Hea mention that this phenomenon has “allowed for more user interaction, especially opportunities for user-generated content.”

Social media cannot be controlled, it can only be prepared for. Because we have so many devices, we have an enormous amount of social media content, and the content is everywhere: LinkedIn, YouTube, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Klout, Tumblr. For a technical communicator to be successful with social media, the authors state that he/she must “engage with” (be proactive), “rather than merely respond to” (be reactive).

Last year, I attended the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive festival in Austin, and I noticed a common theme in social media: the importance of content strategy. We don’t need more content; we have plenty of it. We need content that does more. This is exactly what Hurley and Hea mean when they claim that social media use in professional contexts results in “the potential to promote active engagement, encourage people to work in groups, provide opportunities for feedback from a wide audience, and connect people to others who are knowledgeable in a host of areas.”

Similar to the principles of good writing, a good content strategy for social media is about having clarity, purpose, and focus. The first step in getting there is to perform a content audit.

WHAT

Once we perform a content audit, we can create a social media strategy. The strategy can also include calls to action (back to our website/app/product/experience) that enable us to engage with our users and to get feedback. Participating in social media isn’t enough, we must have a plan in place as to how we are going to use it.

An important thing to remember about social media is that it’s not about being a superhero nor a mastermind. Ideas can come from anyone, and the more participation, the better the result. Hurley and Hea summarize it best by saying that technical communicators can “become an effective peer … one who provides the right information at the right place and at the right time.”

Social media can indeed coexist with successful communication

Elise Hurley and Amy Kimme Hea were spot on when they said that their students were reticent to use social media for work or business because “assumptions about professionalism and credibility seem too high a price to pay for use,” referring to the permanency of posts. I appreciated how in the article, Hurley and Hea outlined how they walked through steps to help their students understand how technical communication and social media can and should coexist.

While Chris Pirillo (# 10 tip) said to be true to an individual blogger’s voice, the advice applies to technical communicators for a company as well. Companies will have a strong online presence partially by maintaining consistency in both their design as well as their tone and way of blogging or conveying information. Weaving all information through links on different social media platforms helps the company’s reach grow as well.

On a personal note, I avoid social media platforms. While I do have a Facebook account, I do not have the app on my phone, so I find that I look at it fewer and fewer times a week. In this way I do not fit the standard Millennial profile. Perhaps I am like Hurley and Hea’s students, and still need to be convinced that intentional social media messages can be beneficial for my brand, and not be a liability down the road.

I hate blogs… or do I?

Before I read the readings this week, my only exposure to blogs were two blogs “friends” were writing.  The first was a blog by a work and Facebook friend who had twins.  I read the first three entries and couldn’t care less about the two kids pooping or the two of them dressed the same and propped up in a staged pose to look cute.  The second was a blog by a friend who had moved to England due to her husbands job that is titled “Our crazy life”  The highlight of the first four blogs was her ranting and raving about their second grader not being enrolled in grade school and every school administrator that could help was on holiday.  A holiday, as she explained four different times, occurs when someone in England is on vacation.  YAWN.

As I worked my way through the readings, there were a few light bulbs and a few “I knew it” moments.  While reading Why We Blog, the author listed several different blogs.  Huffington Post, I read a couple of articles from that site on Facebook.  Some were good, most were not.  TMZ, I have that app on my ipad.  Who doesn’t love to check in on what the hollywood crazies are doing?  Mashable is a new app I just downloaded that gives me RSS feeds instantly without going to the websites.  I love that!  Perhaps I don’t hate blogs.

Just when I thought I had misjudged blogs, I came across Julia from Blogtrax in Academic Blogging as New Literacy.  “Although I am writing with a group of people in mind, I am always hoping for more like minded people to listen and join in”.  HA, I caught them.  Blogging is just people that want to get up on their virtual soapbox and develop an audience that agrees with them.  After patting myself on the back, I quickly thought about it further.  Like minded people, like when I Google “framing a corner” or “how to wire your basement” and it brings me to a DIY blog/forum?  Am I not searching for like minded people to share ideas and give feedback?  I have reluctantly retracted my previous stance of disdain for blogs and have reserved my judgement.  Perhaps I didn’t realize what falls under the blogging umbrella.  Perhaps there is a whole new world out there and I haven’t reached the end of the internet after all.

Blogging. It’s grown on me.

I think at first, blogging had a negative connotation due to many people using it as an online, public diary. Now, there’s still that genre, as well as any other type of information mecca one might seek. I’ve thought about blogging. And haven’t because the dedication to come up with something readable every week or day or month is daunting. And I would have to inevitably choose between quality or quantity.

For work, I publish mini blogs about our product portfolio and keep the tone professional and in line with our company’s branding. I am an avid fan of one blogger who posts great recipes on her My New Roots page. They’re delicious.

I found the “Why We Blog” PDF useful in that it organized thoughts I’ve had about blogging into readable points. For example, why bloggers are motivated–why someone would invest a huge amount of time to create a blog.

Social media’s opportunities and pitfalls

social-media-humor-12

Connection in some ways, disconnection in others

Like I mentioned in my first post, I see social media as a double-edged sword. One the one hand, it allows for targeted and mass communication like we’ve never seen. For organizations with something to sell, and people with something to say, there’s no other platform of communications that allows for a bigger, quicker reach or can be more specific in directing viewer demographics. The costs of running an online campaign can be relatively small, and the digital revolution’s impact on advertising waste can have a great impact on the environment. Finding people already predisposed to a company’s product has never been easier, and it’s often the case that individuals seek out connections with companies and organizations they like out of their own volition, as opposed to the traditional pursuit of consumers by companies.

On the other hand, social media can be very unforgiving, and technical communicators often need to be able to anticipate the many viewpoints and user experiences of not only their consumers, but of all social media users. An insensitive or ill-informed post can cost years of marketing and public relations work, and sully the image of even a long-standing, respected brand. Careful consideration of social media use is vitally important. While it’s easy to reach and connect with people, it’s just as easy to turn people off. It only takes a click for a consumer to connect and disconnect.

I’ve often felt social media applied to me in a personal way with similar pros and cons. If I’ve got something to say, and I want to reach most people I know, I go to social media. For the effort, there’s no more efficient way of inviting people to a party, promoting an event or business I enjoyed (or warning about one I hated), and sharing experiences and staying in contact with colleagues, friends, family and acquaintances. Conversely, I feel that it has disconnected me from people I should be closer to, or at least made me lazy in my efforts to connect with the most important people in lasting, beneficial ways.

I’ve often hesitated to use social media in a professional way, but Hurley & Hea’s study, along with prodding from professors, has opened my mind to the possibilities that social media can offer. Even while exposing my work to criticism (which is actually a good thing, I do recognize), and myself to less sense of privacy, social media can offer connections to job opportunities and future work l’d otherwise have no way of getting in touch with. The practice of crafting my own social media presentations can only help in future job and instructional practices.

But while I recognize the many benefits of social media, much of it still feels foreign and forced to me. It’s not an activity I’ve naturally taken to, and more or less joined social media venues out of peer pressure. I don’t like feeling as though I’m only doing something because other people are, or to stay in touch with people I’ll likely never see again in my life. I need to find my own place in this vast sea of information and personalities. It will be a journey for me to integrate social media into my life in more meaningful ways.

The Digital Scarlet Letter

Blogging is difficult. It is difficult to come up with an idea and to then execute it. Blogging also takes a lot of time. My personal experience with blogging was uneventful. I found myself writing, rewriting, editing, and then never posting. I doubted whether anything I wrote was unique. What would people think of me? Would they judge me? And then how would I get followers? And God forbid, what if someone stopped reading my blog? I was so weary. Because of this, I never blogged. Instead of blogging, I like to Pin things on Pinterest (3.7k pins to date) – recipes, fashion, inspirational sayings in beautiful typefaces, and anything Kate Moss.

I don’t have a personal blog, but I do like to look at other people’s blogs, especially entertainment blogs. My guilty pleasure is celebrity gossip and the snarkier the better. When I’m bored, I go straight to TMZ or Jezebel. I’ll read basically anything that makes fun of celebrities. And depending on the post, I’ll skip it entirely and head right to the comments. I’ve never posted any comments myself, but the petty, sarcastic comments make me smirk. Rumor has it that TMZ will start letting readers post audio comments.

Out of touch celebrity lifestyle blogs

I find celebrity lifestyle blogs hilarious. Gwyneth Paltrow has gotten a lot of criticism over her blog that she launched in 2009 named goop. The main areas are: Make, Go, Get, Do, Be, and See. In her “Make” section, she dishes up recipes completely devoid of diary, meat, sugar, anything processed, and so on. She’s also been accused of posting meals that would cost more than $300 to make. You can also shop on her blog for $1,500 shoes and $800 earrings.

Blake Lively launched her lifestyle blog, Preserve, over the summer. The reviews of her letter from the editor crack me up. Being a celebrity married to Ryan Reynolds isn’t enough, as Blake is “hungry for experience.” You can also buy a $7 bottle of ketchup on her blog.

I am hungry, though… not just for enchiladas.

I’m hungry for experience.

The Digital Scarlet Letter

We are now in the era of the Digital Scarlet Letter. What this means is that information published is not revocable. So the stupid things that are posted online will be there forever. Hurley and Hea mention the growing concern of “reputation management” and that “it’s a great leap for students to think of social media as real texts worthy of their composing talents and time.” Have celebrity misgivings a la Anthony Weiner and Alec Baldwin tainted the idea of using social media in a legitimate, meaningful way? Maybe, but it’s not stopping anytime soon. Now that social media is so common, the latest trend is to do something extreme for attention. Samantha Goudie stumbled onto the football field, blew a .341 on her breathalyzer test, was arrested, and tweeted “yolo” from jail. Before she deleted her Twitter account, she had more than 20,000 followers.

Last year public relations specialist Justine Sacco was fired over her racist Tweet.

Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just Kidding. I’m white!

Justine Sacco

And if a post goes viral, is ignorance, joking, or sarcasm an excuse to get off the hook? Is an apology enough?

Technical Communications & Social Media: Digital Frenemies

I don’t remember the first time I heard the term “frenemy” used in conversation, but I do know that I immediately took a liking to it and could instantly apply its meaning to several people and aspects of my life.  Frenemies are the people you love to hate; the coworker that has great ideas but poor execution; the friend that loves to party with you but doesn’t invite you to the next event. Frenemies are sweet and sour; you’re not a fan of either part of them yet you still give them your time anyway.

Social media itself is a lot like a frenemy.  You spend a huge portion of your time posting statuses, pictures, videos, and stalking your ex from high school, only to be reminded that the dude who bullied you in middle school is now making six figures and drives a Cadillac.  You get mad, jealous, green with envy and yet you keep scrolling, posting, and soaking up all of the negative vibes in your newsfeed.

Yet, you are a consumer just like the rest of us, and you utilize social media because “everyone” is on it.  Businesses owners, media outlets, musicians, artists, politicians – you name it – realize that the majority of people are not taking the time to search websites, but rather click on links posted through their social media newsfeeds.  Writers are then employed to master the art of social media writing in order to compete for the attention of consumers.

On their off days, those same writers check their social media profiles to be faced with the same information that they are paid to flood into social networks.  They are more conscious of the pitfalls of social media and thus “play it safe” when posting to their own social media profiles.  Even though they regularly utilize social media in their daily lives, they realize the devastating things that could happen if the wrong material was seen by the wrong person at the wrong time.

This good/bad dichotomy between writing and social media is what creates the Frenemy Effect.  Communication between consumers and companies/entities has never been easier and more direct since the emergence of social media .  However, companies have never been under so much close scrutiny since the emergence of social media and consumers have never been more invaded with advertorial content.  Social media does not create a clear line between “editorial” and “advertisement” content; there is no sense of what is honest communication and what is an attempt for consumer attention.

It will be interesting to follow social media trends to see if these lines between advertising and honest communication continue to be blurred or clear distinctions and honest intentions shine through on social media.  For now, I will remain a cautious, yet avid user of social media.

Musings on my soft underbelly and social media

Blogs and social media have always been a bit of a double-edged sword for me. While I love debate, differing opinions, human connection and technology, I often feel like I don’t have much worth putting out into cyberspace, ‘cause I’m really nobody of special ability or insight, so who would even care? Right? Plus, like reservations students had in Hurley & Hea’s study in The Rhetoric of Reach, it’s forever out there, a piece of my intimate self. In a way it’s like a tattoo… I think they’re cool, I kind of want one. But how can I commit? Overly cautious, one might say, and I’d have to agree. I have reservations about being in the spotlight, putting myself out there for critique. That apprehension has never been worth the potential positive returns.

This is a hangup I’m consciously trying to move past. My current DIY personal improvement. All my life it’s seemed as though I’ve got a little mental project for myself (usually to get over something that I’m tired of being held back from) and this is it for now. Going back to school for an advanced design degree, critical eyes are everywhere and they’re nothing if not gleefully honest about their feelings. I’m determined to become comfortable exposing myself and my ideas and work to potential criticism and use it to improve, on my own terms. I’m deliberately showing how flawed I am, just to see what happens. Should be interesting, I think.

My experience with blog and social media in general has been mostly work-related, or simply as an observer and reader. I’ve created a few blogs in the past with intentions of using it in a diary-like fashion or as on online portfolio, but it was never an activity I was able to generate much excitement over. I’ve participated in Facebook (will you be my friend?) more than any other platform, but am getting into Pinterest (my mother is more of a Pinterest expert than I am, I think that says something) and am learning more about Twitter through my work. I currently contribute content to the UW-Stout University Library’s Blogger page, Facebook and Twitter accounts. I encourage you, especially as writers, to join these pages, there is such a wealth of resources available from the University Library.

As a graphic designer, my job has always been to craft messages. Writing goes hand in hand with the visual. Responsibilities to maintain social media and blogs often falls onto designers, at least in part, so I plan on becoming more blog-literate and active throughout this course, to take advantage of the opportunities these connections can make, both professionally and personally.

 

It was the best of blogs. It was the worst of blogs.

Of all the different social media platforms, blogging is by far my favorite.   One of my first blogs was through Xanga and was likely named xxdisenchantedxx because, I, like millions of other tweens at the time, was convinced that having the letter “x” in one’s screen name or Xanga URL marked me as an individual.  My Xanga was about nothing in particular and utilized more like a diary.  It is highly likely that I penned hundreds of digital pages about music and how nobody understood me.

As I matured, so did my taste in blogging.  I abandoned my woes and complaining on Xanga to LiveJournal, where I focused a lot of my blogging on showcasing my creative writing pieces and poetry.  I was a member of several writers groups and made a lot of cyber friends.

For some reason I can’t really remember, LiveJournal became dull and my interests started to veer into darker areas.  I became obsessed with the occult and the New Age movement, which led me to Vampirefreaks.com, a website geared toward the goth subculture.  There, I discovered a passion and love for body piercings and tattoos and found many other people interested in New Age religions such as Wicca.  I chronicled my experiences in my spiritual search through my blog hosted on the website which helped me connect with other like-minded people.

Again, time passed and the community of VF started to change into a meeting ground for teenage girls obsessed with sparkling vampires.  I decided it was time to move on to Blogger.

I started and stopped several Blogger blogs, each about specific topics: music news, Wicca, guitars, and poetry.  During this time, I was involved in a ton of extracurricular activities in school, worked a part-time job at a restaurant, and had a long-term girlfriend.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to blog; I just didn’t feel like I had the time for it.

High school ended and college began, giving me even less time to manage a blog.  I tried to keep up with at least a personal blog through Blogger, but that ultimately fell into the blog graveyard.  In my sophomore year, I was introduced to Tumblr, which had me hooked faster and harder than any other blogging platform I had used in the past.

Tumblr was and still is the perfect social blogging platform.  It has the quickness of Twitter, the connectivity of Facebook, the customization features of Xanga, the blogging features and simplicity of LiveJournal and the community closeness of Vampirefreaks. I haven’t looked back from using Tumblr as my primary blogging platform for my personal blogging of my interests because I find it to be the most perfect blend of social media and blogging that is available right now.

I am still plagued with the starting and stopping of specialized blogs; I just can’t seem to find a topic and stick to it.  More importantly, I can’t seem to make the time to actually blog consistently.  Currently, I am veering a step away from Tumblr and am currently working on a professional/academic blog powered by WordPress, which, after using Tumblr for so long, am finding to be incredibly frustrating and not user-friendly.

I plan for my professional blog to feature posts about technical writing and how it is important in closing the technology gap (which I have deemed to be a global crisis).  I found Joshua Mann’s article to be particularly useful as I plan posts and create a blogging schedule and strategy for my professional/academic blog.  I also enjoyed the little tip about becoming an affiliate to generate some extra money using the blog.  Monetizing a blog is something I had previously thought about, but did not know how to begin.

I suppose that is enough of my rambling for now.  I’m looking forward to this course so I can directly what I’m learning to my own blog to make it as effective as possible.