Monthly Archives: October 2015

My Relationship With LinkedIn

I love LinkedIn. I visit her regularly, usually sneaking away from my work monitor to check her app on my phone. I’m addicted. But LinkedIn’s like a flirty little hooker – teasing me with options and promises, but only if I pay up front. She is, what Jonathan Zittrain in Smart Technology – Future Employer or Job Destroyer calls, an “owned platform” that supposedly promises “abundance.” But Andrew Keen, referring to Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, says abundance hasn’t happened – it’s just an illusion on a platform that everyone uses. So what? It’s how we find jobs and stay connected and updated to industry happenings. Yet Keen asks, “to what extent do you need a platform” (33:56)? What extent? It’s where I go; it’s expanded my options. Or has it?


Well, it turns out these owned platforms actually make our world smaller, and the platform itself harder to escape. We become reliant on LinkedIn to help us find connections, information and jobs – to the exclusion of other resources. That’s a problem with solely using technology, the Internet, and these “pay for more” networking sites. Plus, it’s expensive. As Zittrain states, “If everybody uses it, it’s going to take a larger cut” (39.56). Which is what really annoys me about LinkedIn. She lets me look around, and browse some resources, but she doesn’t let me look as good as I am to prospective employers, colleagues, and a plethora of professionals who could mentor me or connect me to others. Do I even look good enough; am I creative, relevant, and clear on the benefits I offer…everyone? In Using LinkedIn to Get Work, Rich Maggiana and Ed Marshall (2010) describe a LinkedIn profile as “a living document of your professional life” (p.32). Yikes. And while I think I’m projecting well and tons of people are admiring my skill set, one look at my weekly up/down searched statistics shows that clearly I’m not being “seen.” But I want to be seen!


So she tempts me. Every day. She knows I like the look of her and that I wonder about her “premium services.” Don’t I want an open profile, expanded search options, and to know who’s checking me out and ranking me? I can have it she whispers, if I’d just fork out that teeny-weeny, recently increased price of $30 or $50 a month. But there’s more, and it’s not even a whole $1000 dollars annually. Makes my pulse race, which is why I can’t stay away. In Net Smart, Harold Rheingold (2014) states, “Our hormones reward us for information seeking and social contact…” (p. 246). And he advises that we “regard search as a process of investigation…instead of searching to find, search to discover” (Rheingold, 2014, 248). LinkedIn shows me a “selective audience,” one made of up people similar to myself, but without premium services, I can’t access the broad audience of network contacts that makes LinkedIn valuable. Which means I’m not succeeding at the purpose of LinkedIn. It’s become a second Facebook and I’m a passive spectator.

In Who Owns Your LinkedIn Connections, Dorothy Dalton states, “What is clear is that network contacts are a currency with significant value to anyone as a job seeker.” And I need more. So I guess it’s time for me to follow Maggiana and Marshall’s steps to be successful on LinkedIn: write updates weekly, list awards and conferences, and make sure my profile is set to full view. None of which makes me more searchable…


So she wins. I guess I have to pay up


Impact of technology on jobs for the mentally disabled

After watching the Debate about technology and jobs between Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain, there were a number of topics that peeked my curiosity in this 60 minute video.  One, in particular, was this idea around how technology is taking over a number of different jobs within our society.  One thing Zittrain came across in his own research was the idea of: if a robot could do something a human could do, than ultimately it was beneath a human’s capacity to do that work.

But is it?  One of the things Zittrain noted was that if technology does impact a person’s role, it is also important that there is meaningful work for people.  But what if this is meaningful work for some?

mental impairment1

I have an uncle who has down syndrome (DS), which is a type of physical and mental impairment.  Although the developmental delays vary significantly between individuals with DS, it can hinder their capacity of “contributing” to society.  My uncle, for example, has the development that an 8-year-old would have.  Nonetheless he is able to work.  I would say, however, that type of work while meaningful to him could potentially at any point be performed by technology.

So what happen to the dissemination of unskilled labor then?  If we take that away and replace unskilled labor with technology, do we take jobs away from individuals who are elderly or have mental disabilities?  In their article on Technology, Society and Mental Illness, Harvey and Keefe found that technology does in fact have an impact on populations that include the elderly, those with mental illnesses and disabilities.


But, can individuals with mental illness (or even the elderly) strive in this “human+machine” culture that Longo refers to (in Digital Literacy) – against the claims made by Harvey and Keefe?    One of the most fascinating things about my uncle is his own ability to use and adapt to technology.  He can play Wii games and find his way through levels upon levels.  Does he struggle with some things?  Sure – but if he were living in this digital culture would his online counter parts know he was mentally disabled?

In fact, in her article titled, What effect has the internet had on disability, Aleks Krotoski argues that physical impairments become non-existent in the virtual world.  Without having the stigma assigned to them, those with disabilities have the opportunity to flourish online.

This idea aligns well with the information the Longo provided in her chapter on Human+Machine and the importance of investigating and understanding how this human and machine culture works and how it is not equal to the “human+human culture”.  In a human to human culture, as Krotoski found, those with mental or physical impairments are chastised, but in an online virtual environment – when it comes down to humans plus machines – those individuals have the opportunity to participate in society without human barriers.

How do you feel the Human+Machine culture might impact the elderly or mentally disabled populations?  As technical communicators, how do we account for communication to these audiences if they were in fact online participants?

Valuing and Protecting Our Internet Community

He “ruffled” me from the start.

I have been obsessively returning to this post, trying to edit the length and the “insane person on a mission against cyber crime” tone.  There have been so many revisions that I am starting to think maybe I AM a crazy person who takes the topic too personally.

Chapter 6 of Net Smart disturbed me, or rather the first page and a half did.  While I realize Rheingold’s objective was a broad discussion about internet privacy and security, and not specifically cyber crimes, the comments he did make about it were unsettling to me.  He made security invasion seem like “par for the course,” that to some extent, we should shrug off and accept it (239).

“Internet Invasion” IS a home invasion.

Internet security and data-surveillance (or “dataveillance” as Rheingold refers to) is often approached from the direction of how network users should protect themselves.  While their social media usage may provide a possible entryway for their privacy to be violated, it shouldn’t be mistaken for an open door.

There is a duality to our life.  We reside in two very real communities:  the “real world” and the virtual world.  Our cyber “dwellings” should have an assumption of safety like our physical dwellings. I would be horrified if someone entered my home uninvited and proceeded to rifle through my file cabinet, taking any document of interest.  I can’t imagine anyone suggesting that it was “to be expected.”

Guaranteed security and protection is hard to come by.

Rheingold–and many others–have no hesitation suggesting privacy violations on the internet “are to be expected.” He passively responds by telling us, “While not advocating collective surrender on the legal and judicial front, I do suggest that your best individual defense at the moment is know-how…. You will still be surveilled.  But at least you can be informed.”  I imagine if Mr. Rheingold had the same low expectations of “real world” security, when the stranger enters my house and takes the documents from my cabinet, he might say something like: “You could call the police, but let’s consider getting a locked file cabinet instead and maybe hiding the more important documents under your matress. It’s probably best to accept that things like this happen.”  I get the feeling this is when he might give me a fatherly pat on the hand.

Rheingold also mentions “privacy advocates” and how we can’t depend on them to protect us because they lack the financial and political resources to act on our behalf.  Advocates?  How about having faith in law enforcement to protect?  I realize they are busy fighting “real world” crime.  And yes, I know tax dollars are always being fought for.  But, we wouldn’t suggest the police department conserve manpower by only fighting crime in half of their local communities. We also seem happy to utilize legal and judicial means to seek fair punishment for crimes that we don’t even suffer personal harm from.  We take corporations to the “judicial mat” when we discover they have lied to stockholders about their business practices.  We force politicians, in judicial hearings,  to share humiliating details of their inappropriate personal affairs.  The guy on the other end of the computer, who is scavenging for an innocent person’s personal information, will certainly inflict personal harm to his victim.

Although I am not about to high-five the politician with a mistress, I care more about my neighbor’s identity theft causing her bank account to go into overdraft.  As an extension of either of our communities, cyber or “real world,” we need to care and be cautious that our language reflects the concerns of our neighbors.

A few years ago, I received harassing legal threats, sent from a supposed lawyer, threatening legal action.  The initial communication was sent through the mail.  He demanded I respond via email.  As the “lawyer’s” address turned out to fictitious, but they personal details of mine, I wanted to report it. I contacted the The Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Center.  They sent me to my local law enforcement.  The local police department sent me to The Federal Law Enforcement and Security Arm of the U.S Postal Servicewho also said it was not their jurisdiction.

In my situation, law enforcement was so busy identifying which “community” had responsibility that I wasn’t protected like a citizen of any of them.  When the majority–those who connect via the internet and in-person–stops diminishing their voices by endlessly discussing user responsibility and the futility of trying to protect our internet “neighborhood”–than the agencies set in place to protect us, will be compelled to evolve as well.  Then they can share responsibility for protecting citizens that are part of multiple neighborhoods.

Is it a Small World After All?


What do the Queen of England, a cabbie in New York and a second grade teacher in Italy have in common? No, this isn’t the beginning of a bad joke. A solution truly exists. Believe it or not, but they are all related by six degrees of separation. In other words,everyone in the world somehow connected through a chain of six people. This connection demonstrates the “small world phenomenon” coined by Stanley Milgram.

Milgram’s Experiment 1976

In 1976, Stanley Millgram conducted an experiment in which he randomly selected 300 participants in the Midwest to deliver an information packet to a stockbroker Boston. The only rule was that they had to send it to one person who they think would get the package closer to the destination. While only 64 of the 300 packets actually made it to Boston, they found that on average “path length” was 5.5. This led them to conclude that six steps connect everyone, and the small world phenomenon was born.

Milgram in Cyber Space

Fast-forward twenty-five years and several studies have demonstrated that this phenomenon remains the same. For instance, a 2010 study by the New York Times discovered that five steps connect 98% of people on Twitter. Similarly, Jure Leskovec and Eric Horvitz examined 240 million users for the average path of an instant messaging service, Microsoft Messenger. While the results of their study found that the average path length was 6.6, a number slightly higher than Millgram’s study, the results are shockingly similar. In his book Net Smart, Howard Rheingold states, “Social cyberspaces… are small world networks because they are electronic extensions of human social networks.” In other words, these networks of smaller networks closely mirror the connections in our everyday lives.


However, can we generalize the connection between online and offline contexts? Online, people may be more apt to try because the consequences are lower. Because they can hide behind the protection of their screens, perhaps they were more likely to take on a bolder persona and reach out.

Additionally, the extent to which instant messaging is a marker of a relationship may be blown out of proportion. Next, I believe the term “relationship” may have been too loosely defined. While I can strike up a conversation with my garbage man, does that really count him as being within my social network?  I think a similar offline study would need to be conducted to make stronger generalizations to compare Millgram to Leskovec and Horvitz.

Even more, the low completion rates of both studies should be noted. In Milgram’s study only a handful of letters made it to the target in Boston. Likewise, Leskovec and Horvitz. had to examine a staggering large number of participants to yield a small result of successful messages. Whether the reasons behind participants behavior stem from low motivation or a lack of connections, it is a broad claim to base an entire theory on such shaky evidence.

Lastly, USA Today found an unpublished archive sent to Milgram that revealed indicated low-income people’s messages didn’t go through. Subsequent studies investigating by Milgram found a low rate of completion as well as a social divide between racial groups.

Judith Kleinfeld, a professor psychology at Alaska Fairbanks University, went back to Milgram’s original research notes and found something surprising. It turned out, she told us, that 95% of the letters sent out had failed to reach the target. Not only did they fail to get there in six steps, they failed to get there at all. Milgram was a giant figure in his world of research, but here was evidence that the claim he was famously associated with was not supported by his experiments.

Rather than living in Milgram’s small world, we are living in a world where a select few elite and well-connected individuals reign. The rest of us are living in a “lumpy oatmeal” world looking through rose colored glasses.


In sum, there are a variety of reasons why we want to buy into the small world phenomenon. Perhaps the desire to feel connected to others makes us want to believe. Or maybe we want to believe in this urban myth for our own sense of security. Whatever it is, I think it needs to be reevaluated again. While our networks may reach not farther than we think, maybe it’s not a small world after all.


How do I collaborate?


While reading chapter 4 of Rheingold’s “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online”, I found some difficulty relating to the mentioned online collaborative communities illustrated through online gaming and Wikipedia pages.

If I had to categorize the bulk of my online activities, I would fall mostly in Ito’s “hanging out” situation defined on page 118 in chapter 3. I’ve never been interested in WoW or online gaming in general, and I certainly don’t “geek out” with any obscure Internet subculture. I understand concept of online collaborative communities, but it’s very difficult for me to translate this into my own life.

After thinking long and hard about this concept, two arenas came to mind: Linkedin and my job.


Although I absolutely do not frequent Linkedin the way I do Facebook, Insta, and SnapChat, I have a profile and have used the site while doing freelance assignments. The section on page 155 labeled “What Cooperation Theory Teaches Us About Life Online Today” could be the Bible for success on Linkedin.

At my current job, many of my coworkers are remote, and most of our daily assignments don’t come from a particular manager. There’s typically a collective interest (ex. Getting new products on the website, creating size charts) that can’t be completed without the collaboration of many people. These rules also strangely apply to this situation, as all of our interactions are online.

  1. Balance Retribution and Forgiveness. When you’re inquiring about a job on Linkedin, soliciting services or requesting a connection, do not harp on uninterested/untrustworthy people. If they don’t reciprocate or cooperate, try someone else and leave them alone. This rule also applies in the workplace, when people aren’t cooperating the way they should be, leave them alone and try one of their colleagues or their manager. In both situations, the “tit for tat” method maintains a healthy environment and prevents bad blood.
  1. Contribute publicly without requiring or expecting any direct reward. Public contributions make others more likely to help you in the future, it inspires others to contribute, and it builds team morale in both situations. There are many groups in LinkedIn that resemble forums, and active participants are what makes them thrive. People in the workplace also remember those who help them out, and will always return the favor.


  1. Reciprocate when someone or some group does you a favor. This ties into rule 2, and is what makes this dynamic work.


  1. Look for ways to seek a sense of shared group identity. At work, this is done by default as people are in different departments, and we’re all familiar with one another’s responsibilities. On Linkedin, this is done by one’s “connections” and groups they’re members of.


  1. Introduce people and networks to each other in mutually beneficial ways. The “connections” feature on Linkedin takes care of this for users. At work, this is done by using the cc feature on emails, and including people in conference calls.


  1. When progress is blocked by social dilemmas, create institutions for collective action. When it comes to Linkedin, the “report this user” and “block” features handle most social dilemmas. In the workplace, personal issues can be talked out or reported to HR in serious situations; it is unacceptable for work to stop due to a “social dilemma”.


  1. Punish cheating, but not too drastically. As with any online community, other participants are quick to publicly and privately call out bad behavior. If the issue persists, they aren’t afraid to report or block the offending user. In the workplace, minor offenses are addressed or coached by management. However major offenses are taken to HR, and may result in suspension or termination.


How do your relate to online collaborative communities?

Communities and Committees: Mindful Contributions Win the Day

In this week’s reading of Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart, we learned about the importance of collaboration and the attentive nurturing of one’s social network (online and offline). As I read the assigned chapters I was surprised by how Rheingold’s advice for managing our online communities almost perfectly mirrored my work week meditation on successful participation on committees.

This past week I excitedly attended my first meeting as a member on a committee. I can see you rolling your eyes. Keep in mind that I am an enthusiastic people-person with five years professional experience under my belt – which is enough for me to feel like I can meaningfully contribute, and not so much that I’m jaded about committee work. Also, graphic designers don’t often get to weigh in on college-wide policy. I sat at the long U-shaped grouping of desks admiring my coworkers’ professionalism, and keyed up to be able to represent the marketing point of view. I did get to add some good insight to the conversation, but I also contributed at least once when I didn’t necessarily need to, resulting in me feeling like I added more confusion than productive information. Over the course of the week I spent some time thinking about committee participation, college communication in general and how an individual can best use her experience, connections and insight to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. As it turns out, some of my conclusions were almost exactly the same as strategies that Rheingold shared in his discussion of etiquette while online networking:

Pay attention before you join in. (p. 163)

Rheingold’s first tip urges folks to remain a wallflower for the first couple days while checking out a new community. The culture, expectations and general vibe of a community might not be apparent at first look. It makes sense for the savvy web-citizen to take some time to assess the true nature of a community. If it is a bad fit for whatever reason, then everyone is better off – the individual and the community – not to force the relationship. Additionally, watching and waiting helps the prospective member understand what she is can uniquely contribute to the community.

In a committee situation, it’s less of the question of whether to join but what to contribute. Hopefully any new committee member was selected to provide a very specific skill or knowledge. My challenge is that in my eagerness to contribute I am tempted to join-in as soon as I think of anything to add. Instead, I should pause and absorb what is being discussed without the pressure to pipe up at the first opportunity. Just like in online communities, it’s important to understand the context of the issue being discussed, the tone of the conversation and the roles of the other committee members before joining in.

Assume goodwill. (p. 164)

This is crucial in any situation where text is the primary medium of communication. Any time I receive a potentially snarky email from a coworker I step back and remind myself how easy it is to misinterpret the tone of email without the aids of body language and a person’s audible tone of voice. If I still can’t get out of my head that the email is hostile, my next step is to call or visit the coworker in person to discuss. If there is a problem, usually a quick conversation human-to-human eases the tension. Most of the time, rather than malice having been the cause of the nasty-gram, it’s confusion or ignorance of processes, both of which are situations that I should be jumping to remedy.

Jump in where you add value. (p. 164)

I was talking with someone outside of work who I know has been on many committees, and I mentioned how all of my colleagues in the meeting were so well spoken! I couldn’t have presented those facts in such a natural way. I was nervous that when it comes time for me to step up to the plate I will embarass myself. The woman I was chatting with pointed out that my coworkers’ eloquence most likely came from intimate knowledge of the subject they were speaking about. When it comes time for me to share my expertise, I will find myself able to be speak with authority.

In the end, this all relates back to attention management. Overexcited hastiness can be just as harmful as detachment and disinterest. Step back, breathe and take it all in before making a move. Assume that coworkers mean well despite tersely worded emails. Calmly “ask friendly questions” (p. 164) until the matter is explained and resolved. Every person on a committee or employed in a company is there because of a specific skill or point of view. Keeping that unique attribute in mind can help inform when that insight is needed.

I’m sure looking back on this post I will be tickled by my enthusiasm for committee meetings, but I truly am looking forward to the next session, especially now that I have these strategies in mind.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Long Tail

In “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson argues that, online, we have more access to and more demand for mx368167477_3d965b3b31_o.png.pagespeed.ic.RxYn8bXJYmBuYRY-5lurore niche, less mainstream “micromarkets” of media such as movies, books and music than we ever did in the physical world. In other words, demand is shifting from the head of the distribution to its tail (image to the right). Businesses can actually make money selling these types of relatively unpopular media. Today, you don’t need a megablockbuster to make money, but you still need to make a big impact to capture enough of the market share.

Film streaming services like Amazon or Netflix offer viewers both mainstream content and “off-the-grid” documentaries and vintage movies in large numbers. I, for one, never watched TV until Netflix came along.

I was bored with the silly, inane offerings on the major TV networks, deciding instead to rent movies from Redbox or other similar service. But once I was turned on to Netflix and I had access to so many great, offbeat moviethCSOW8G9Ds and TV shows, I was hooked. Mini-series like “Top of the Lake” and “The Killing” became my go-tos. I could always find something interesting to watch, even if it was just endless “Law and Order Special Victims Unit” shows. Paired with Amazon, you have a seemingly endless list of options, because what one doesn’t have, the other one does. For example, the other night I was looking for the original 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (image to the right). It was nowhere to be found on Netflix, but there it was on Amazon, and minutes later, I was watching it. That film had a cult following in the 1970s, when it first came out, but I doubt it’s one of their most downloaded movies now; still, like Anderson stated, if just one person watches it every so often, it can be profitable for Amazon to keep it among its ranks. Likewise, I recently watched the film “Helvetica,” about a single font, for a class assignment; no doubt it was a niche documentary, but there it was on Amazon.

The other advantage Netflix has over the main TV networks is that you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. Of course, you can do that to a certain extent with DVD, but services like Netflix and Amazon give you instant viewing at any time of day or night. So when I sit down at night after the kids have gone to bed, I can watch my detective shows that wouldn’t be appropriate for them.

The content on Netflix and Amazon is much easier to find than any content on TV. I have cable (the only reason I have it is so the kids can watch their kids shows), and I hate scrolling through the channels looking for something in particular. Most of what’s available is really junk viewing, and you have look and look to find what you might want. On Netflix and Amazon, a search function allows you to type in exactly what you want and, voila!, there it is. I’ve always complained about too many bad choices on cable, but perhaps its just the way the material is uncurated and disorganized.

Distribution graphic source: Ilya Grigorik

Movie Hits Are Taking a Hit: Shifting from Mainstream to Streaming Media


The film and TV industries have always been competitive for sure. You have your A-listers, your B-listers, and so called D-listers. The A-listers starred in hit movies and TV shows. Period. The B-listers did made-for-TV movies and some pretty good, if not short-lived TV shows. And, the D-listers, well, they popped up here and there. I’m noticing all that is changing now and I’m not the only one.

A-listers are appearing in TV series and mini-series. B-listers are appearing in movies—good movies, but no one expects them to be hit movies as blockbusters are few and far between. This applies to music and books too, but I’m a movie buff so I’ll mostly stick to what I know best.

Is This All There Is?

In days gone by, our means of accessing content (whether video, audio, or print) were limited. We went to a movie or drive-in movie for, uh, movies. We listened to the radio, groovy records, and later CDs for music and the like. And, we read daily newspapers, monthly magazines, and the latest from the book-of-the-month club.

What you found from those distributions channels were what executives (with the help of media experts and a lot of market study) thought would make the most money. Anything outside of this realm was more difficult to find. (Thinking about if from the other end, if you were the artist, it was difficult to produce because the market couldn’t reach you very easily.) I remember studying aspects of this as an undergrad in various mass communication courses.

But, the reason we see fewer hit movies isn’t because our preferences have changed; it’s because we are finally able to indulge our preferences.

Changing Channels

It’s not that big hits and mainstream content are going away entirely. The reason seems to be our ability to access streaming media—it’s easy. From the content producers end, it’s easier and more affordable to put content online even if you don’t have a robust following yet. The big hit producers are having to compete with these “alternative” content providers. To do that, they have be “in the media” their competitors are in.

A sentence from Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart (p. 251) gives some insight into this process:

“Social media are permitting people to seek support, information, and a sense of belonging from sparsely knit, loosely bound networks as well as the traditional densely knit, tightly bound groups.”’

Those loose networks can be thought of as non-mainstream, alternative content providers and their enthusiasts. So, it’s not that our tastes have shifted, but we’re finally able to access more of what we’ve always wanted to access. Chris Anderson explains it this way in The Long Tail:

“But most of us want more than just hits. Everyone’s taste departs from the main-stream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we’re drawn to them. Unfortunately, in recent decades such alternatives have been pushed to the fringes by pumped-up marketing vehicles built to order by industries that desperately need them.

Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody. Not enough shelf space for all the CDs, DVDs, and games produced.”

I would say it’s been more than recent decades though. It’s too vast a subject for a blog post, but if you look back on the history of mass media and go back just before it began, you’ll find what we call “niche” content today.

Someday soon, I believe that idea will fall away and we’ll just talk about the latest content whether it comes from big-house publishers or sole (and soulful) artists. Someday soon, we’ll watch the Oscars and hear: “And the Oscar for best documentary goes to that woman over there who filmed the entire thing on her mobile phone.” Very respectable.

Netflix and Long Tail Economics


Whenever I open Netflix or Amazon Prime, I notice a large amount of algorithm-fueled recommendations curated and tailored for me. Sometimes I find them helpful, but it makes me wonder: do I actually want all of those recommendations, and are they even necessary? According to the writer Chris Anderson (2004), in The Long Tail, these are part of Long Tail economics – a new age of digital entertainment that’s opened audiences to a greater variety of entertainment, and companies can now make money on more niche products rather than purely relying on hit movies, music, and books.


Making recommendations based on previously watched films benefits me because it exposes me to movies I might not otherwise see, and yes, the more I find, the more I like. But I wonder – how much of a movie do I have to watch for Netflix to generate the recommendation? What if I turn it off after 20 minutes? And the recommendations aren’t just on the streaming service. I get DVD’s I didn’t place in my queue. Has anyone else noticed this? Is Netflix ensuring my queue is never empty? And at what point will there be a need and option to do as Howard Rheingold (2014) asserts with Facebook – “…use…privacy settings to consciously control your boundaries to the degree…it allows” (p.233)?


(System Architectures for Personalization and Recommendation by Xavier Amatriain and Justin Basilico on TechBlog.)


Personally, I find there’s an overwhelming amount of entertainment material online. Just scrolling through my Netflix account and selecting a movie can be time consuming and frustrating. So while the digital world has virtually unlimited amounts of space for storing, selling or streaming media content, I still have a limited number of hours in the day to consume it. I understand that companies must compete for our time and attention, and to be successful, they must collect and analyze vast quantities of data about their clients. But their motivations may not be transparent. As the past few years have illustrated, protecting our privacy in online media use can be difficult to achieve, and is anything really private? And our collective culture is becoming more fragmented as we’re consuming media that purely fits within our niche interests. The drawback to this is that our cultural and daily connections may suffer.


While Long Tail economics revolutionizes how businesses do business, the effects on social media are less clear. In general, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram dominate the market while smaller companies struggle to find an audience. And in the way we use social media there may not be an audience for every story, as ones that are positive and arousing are far more likely to be shared or retweeted. For example, news stories designed to make a reader angry or inspired are far more likely to be shared on Facebook than neutral stories that evoke fewer emotional responses. With the political debates, has anyone else noticed more “us versus them” rants?


The sunny ideas explained by Chris Anderson about Long Tail economics are great in that they show that media is evolving, audiences have greater choices, and we are exposed to less mainstream movies, music, and stories. However, Long Tail economics fails to take into account the complexity of our digital media, which may be reflective of our previous patterns of media consumption. When TV was first invented, there were only a few channels, and frankly, I didn’t mind having just four. As we technology advanced and more channels were added, that meant more choice. At one point I had access to over 600 channels and the time it took to just scroll through the guide was ridiculous. Then I realized the law of diminishing returns for me was 84 channels. So as Steve Jobs observed – “focus is about saying no” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 246), I cancelled the rest. Now I surf less but on more options, and I benefit by the changes in which businesses like Netflix attract and keep customers. As a matter of fact, I intend to benefit from this strategy by re-watching House of Cards, Luther (one of the coolest detectives ever, oh and there’s that serial killer chick), and Sherlock on Netflix – right after I finish scrolling through my recommendations. That could take a while.

Communicating virtually through virtual communities


As I think about the idea of communities, I think about growing up and the vast array of community-based arenas I found myself to be a part of including, 4-H, FFA, my local church affiliate, softball team, basketball team, and so on.  Each of these organizations provided me with a different community and each had different, unified goals.  But more importantly, these communities allowed me to network, coordinate, cooperate, and collaborate.  What is important to highlight is: these four qualities you can find through in-person community based situations are the same qualities that drive virtual communities, in which we are all interconnected through like-minded goals and commonalities.

virtual community

Graphic courtesy of newmediastudies401

In my previous blog entries, I have at times referred to the work I am currently doing in my organization in order to develop an internal employee blog for my Information Technology (IT) department.  This blog, in and of itself, is a form of a virtual community designed to bring like-minded professionals together in order to acquire information.  And at the crux of virtual community development is this idea of collaboration, which, as Rheingold puts it, “has transformed not only the way people use the Internet but also how information is found” (2014).
The idea for developing this internal blog as a way to improve staff communication with each other, initially spawned from the excessive time it took to develop an employee newsletter (which I was the only one writing).  However, through the development of a blog, I would (in theory) have the opportunity to invite blog authors and co-contributors on board to create content.  As a lone communications role in my department, I can tell you it is difficult to build a community of trust and engagement if you’re the only one contributing.

rheingold quote

One of the most interesting things that Rheingold discusses in his book Net Smart, How To Thrive Online, is this idea of “collective intelligence” that can be pertinent in order to make an online community successful.  The tips he provided are as following (Rheingold, 2014):

  1. In order to build trust in an online network, foster conversations
  2. Ensure there is a diversity of participants within your community
  3. Provide continual options to for all community members to collaborate
  4. Offer this community as a place to share knowledge and make it easy for people to share

As we think about designing and establishing new online communities, understanding these types of drivers for a virtual community can help us to shape the community group and to foster more of those four qualities I previously referred to:  Networking, Coordination, Cooperation, and Collaboration (Rheingold, 2014).

Have you ever participated in online/virtual communities?  As a participant what are some of the expectations you have in these communities?

You better buy the cow, because I do not work for free.

Some of the themes in Howard Rheingold’s book, Net Smart, seem to be

  • give your full attention to people online and off-line
  • check your privacy settings on Facebook and be mindful that whatever you write online, because it will be there forever
  • to participate to help others and build your social capital

I found these to be common sense and good ideas. However, there are things such as remixing of copyrighted materials, which I did not agree with.

No copyright infringement for you!

As a small business owner who has dabbled in photography and videography, I do not agree with people taking works and remixing it into their own works and calling it “fair use,” if these people are getting paid for it. I fully stand by the copyright law, and I believe that people must ask for permission before using it. If there is a fee involved, fine. The artist has spent a lot of time creating his or her artwork, and they should be paid for it.

Now, if that artist wishes to create things for the public domain, or as Rheingold calls it, “collaboration” with others, that is fine too, but in the latter, the artist was asked if they want to share their work for free, when another person wants to create a project with that artist’s help.

I can do it, but it will cost you…

Moreover, just like with “playbor,” where people are doing work that seems more like play, but they are not getting paid for it, people need to know this upfront. While Rheingold said that many people do playbor to help the greater good, I, personally, fit into the group that refuses to be exploited. I, unfortunately, have been in that position of doing work and not getting paid for it before, and I will not let it happen again. I believe this is one of the reasons why corporations keep making a profit, while their employees who earn so little, continue to make so little, because there is no reason for the corporations to pay a decent salary when there are people who are willing to do the work for free, or for mere pennies.

Similarly, Rheingold mentioned to help others and to pay it forward, so that others will help you when you need it. He says that he helps everyone who contacts him. But, in my opinion, this is only possible if you do not work a full-time job and or have a family to raise too. Free moments should be spent with the family and relaxing from work. And for those who receive so much email and other messages, this sounds like too much work. I do believe that we should leave the world a better place than how we came into it, but helping others all day leaves little time for oneself and one’s own needs.

Understand, that I know for a fact that if I tried to respond to every message on Facebook or email, providing advice or whatever is needed, I would spend an entire day and not be done, because people respond back with even more questions. I do understand the importance of giving my full-attention to whomever I am talking to face-to-face, but online? I can maybe do that with a couple of people who I have a good relationship with, but if I did that for every email and message, I would not have any time for the most important people in my life, which is my family. Thus, I am happy to fail at gaining online social capital.

Disappearing websites? Say it ain’t so!

After reading Rheingold’s how-to instructions on Facebook privacy, I was wondering why his publisher would allow this information to take up space. Rheingold, himself, has stated, Facebook changes its privacy settings often. Thus, his steps for changing Facebook’s privacy settings probably became obsolete within a month or two after his book’s publication.

Now, as someone who has written for online publications before, naming that amount of websites that he did is a big no-no, and for the same reason that I mentioned in the above paragraph. Websites can go obsolete or change their urls within weeks of publication. I would assume that adding website urls in a printed book would be a much bigger taboo. But since it has been years since I last had something published in physical form, perhaps the rules have changed.

Anyway, I think that Rheingold’s book is good for beginners who are looking to enhance their social capital, build good online networks, know where they could go to participate in collaborating, and to learn what not to do online. While there were times that I thought, “Oh, yes, I should do that more,” I did not leave learning something totally new. This may be because I may be a more advanced user of social media…who is trying to actually back away from social media as it was taking up too much of my life. It will be interesting what I do next with my life in regards to social media. How about you?

Attention, Anxiety & the Internet

As I’ve often mentioned, my day-to-day life is very virtually centered.  My work is completely internet-based.  I am taking several continuing education courses online and I am now pursuing this program though Stout.  Even my social and romantic life have a significant digital component.  This week’s assigned reading from Net Smart,  by Howard Rheingold, was very relate-able.  In particular, I identified with the first chapter that discussed how our attention can be taken over by our use of digital media.

When email makes you anxious.

Media expert Linda Stone, hit a nerve for me when she said, “we’re putting our bodies in a state of almost low-level flight-or-fight (Rheingold, 2014, p.45).  Lately, I have begun to notice anxiety creeping in to my virtual world and not necessarily “low-level” as she describes it.

I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life.  The anxious state and panic can often occur just easily if I’m out in the “real world,” versus if I am behind my computer screen.  It really just depends on where I am when an anxiety-producing catalyst comes along.  Perhaps the only difference is that I can hide it a little better when I am in the comfort of my own home.

I have been noticing a peculiar shift lately.  Recently, my daughter was going through some health issues.  Because of some extenuating circumstances, I was required to rely extensively on emails to communicate with some of the specialists and insurance professionals that were involved.  Then during this same time period, I was negotiating some financial issues with my ex. I had a friend who was going through an exhausting emotional stretch and reaching out via email.  Then, there have been some very stressful work-related issues that are also being communicated primarily though email.  I am used to the internet being my vehicle to conduct much of life, but suddenly it was being inundated with negative interactions.

I am embarrassed to admit this, but several days, I have found myself lying in bed and not wanting to get up.  I can’t avoid the computer because a lot of the ways I use it, aren’t optional.  During the week, I actually share countless loving emails and instant messages with my significant other.  We are both single parents with a lot on our plate, so it’s our way to connect and share romance. This is a daily habit that usually drives me out of bed to see what is waiting there for me!.  Of course, there were some other positive emails I would be getting as well.  But, during this little pocket of time, the dread and anxiety I felt at having to go face my email box, and be ready for whatever stressful ones came in, was just overwhelming.

Attention isn’t always up to us.

Perhaps the gravity for me is because the internet is more than just “digital stimulation” for me.  It isn’t something that I am addicted to because I crave it per se.  It’s really the village I call “home.”  I shop at the store there. I communicate with everyone.  I work there.  When my marriage was crumbling, I (occasionally) felt that same way about getting out of bed.  I didn’t want to know what going to happen in my home with my ex-husband–but I knew once I got up, whatever stress there was to be had, would be unavoidable.  Now my “home” is more than a building. It is also a complex ecosystem of digital technology.  I cannot always control or mindfully avoid, some of the incoming data that impacts my “online” home.

I am going to spend some more time rereading this chapter as I am fascinated by the concept of “attention” and how we use it.  I also think it is worth considering that the degree to which one can control their attention or minimize where they turn their focus, is dependent on their relationship to digital technology–how much of their interaction with it is in the realm of optional, versus how much is a non-negotiable aspect of their day-to-day life.

Wiki… Wikipe… Wikipedia!

Thriving online.  This brief, but astute concept really makes me step back and re-read it over and over again to really try and understand if it is even possible to thrive online.  In this day in age, when we are so seemingly inundated with information – how can we possible muddle through it all?

In reading the Net Smart How to Thrive Online by Howard Rheingold, there were two primary components that I really honed in on.  One of the primary concepts was this idea around attention literacy, which the phenomenon of multi-tasking and online activities in search of information.

For example as I was writing this blog post for this week, I was looking up a few thoughts on my end idea and while I had those pages up on Google Chrome, I went searching for what a used pop-up camper might cost (I just in fact had a conversation where I was thinking about possibly purchasing one from a friend).  I then went back to find more resources for my post, but then I started wondering – what if the camper is dingy inside?  Can I remodel a pop-up camper?  So I went online hunting to find if others had this same thought and what ideas they might have had in redoing their pop-up camper (as you’ll find below – there are some neat ideas out there).  I finally told myself I had to stop and get to writing my blog post or I was not going to get it done – but then I had to wonder about how I would pull the camper since my vehicle is clearly in a dark place, I would need something different in order to make that happen…

Scattered thoughts (Source: Ironically from a site called Wikimedia)

This image – clearly marks this idea of gaining proper attention towards our online use.  But I think, even in my brief example, we can see how having an information genius at our fingertips can really have an impact on this natural “task switching” tendency we have as humans (Rheingold, 2014).

The second concept was equally as intriguing for me to ponder and that was around this idea of “crap detection” (Rheingold, 2014) on the internet.  As Rheingold put it, the rule of thumb for crap detection “is to make skepticism your default” (p. 77).

crap detector
Source: Natalie Dee

But as I read through these thoughts, one of the most interesting correlations I had was this idea of Wikipedia and interchanging that with crap detection.  Now I am assuming everyone reading this will know what Wikipedia is, but if not, it is essentially an online free encyclopedia tool.  One of the arguments that Rheingold makes in his book, is the idea of creating and developing online collaborative tools and social communities.  In fact, Rheingold goes on to say that “web-based tools are particularly important because wikis enable people to collaborate in ways that challenge basic assumptions underlying modern economic theory and contradict older stereotypes regarding human motivation to cooperate.”

This is even more thought provoking as we think about how Wikipedia is often viewed – especially in academia.  Without a doubt, Wikipedia is one of the most accessed online tools for gathering information, but we often here from professors that in academia world, Wikipedia is not a credible source.  In fact, even Wikipedia says that they are not as they state on their site, “citation of Wikipedia in research papers may be considered unacceptable, because Wikipedia is not considered a credible or authoritative source.”  One of the underlying concerns is the amount of editing rights people have – essentially anyone can go in there and edit it.

But what if it were a credible and authoritative source of information?  According to Rheingold, this online social network can in fact be a greater asset in terms of collective action.  And let’s not forget about the Encyclopedia books we had for year’s growing up.  I think I had the same Encyclopedia set in my house for over 15 years.  How is that useful and correct information?

But the big question is in the long-term, will Wikipedia become an established tool / credible source that can be used to collect accurate information?  Or do you think we will not ever feel like this would be a credible source from a social network perspective?

Pomodoro Technique Put to the Test

pomodoro technique

It goes without saying that capturing our attention these days has become an increasingly difficult task. Regardless of where we go or what we do, media presents itself to people at all times and in all places. While many of us try to multitask to accommodate this rapid flow of information, oftentimes this technique fails. With so much going on, no wonder it’s difficult to focus, let alone be productive. Thus, we need to transition from managing time to managing attention in order to help us achieve our goals. In other words, there are ways that we can pay attention to our inattention and increase productivity.


One example is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Numerous studies have found that the practice of mindfulness can have physical, social and psychological benefits. In today’s digital world, exercising mindfulness is an especially important task. In his book Net Smart, Howard Rhinegold states, “Deliberately exercised, continually strengthened, and judiciously applied, mindfulness is the most important practice for anyone who is trying to swim through the info stream instead of being swept away by it.” Thus, mindfulness can help us tune out distractions and improve our attention as we try to reach our goals.

Rhinegold’s emphasis on mindfulness and the need to incorporate it in our lives made me curious about my own attention to media and how I allot my time. While I certainly have experienced times where I have been swept way surfing the web, I never gave much thought to where my attention was focused or how I interacted with these forms of media.

Pomodoro in Action

Thus, in an effort to increase mindfulness of my own I decided to try the “Pomodoro Technique” that Rheingold references. Developed by Francesco Cirillo this technique uses twenty five minute intervals, or pomodoros, of work separated by five minute breaks to increase productivity. Every four pomodoros and you take a longer break. With nothing to lose, armed with a mountain of work and my egg timer I decided to give it a shot. The timer started and my mind began to race. How much could I accomplish in this little span? Could I make it to the end of the chapter? If I start researching, how far will I get? In other words, I found the twenty-five minute spurts or uninterrupted work to be a race to beat the clock.


Likewise, I found that the five-minute breaks go faster than I thought they would. The first break I did a few light chores around the house but just as I started to get into things, the timer went off. Back to work. The next few breaks I found myself texting and shortly after the timer chirped again. Even though I easily found ways to distract myself for five minutes, the Pomodoro site offers several suggestions of things to do. Most importantly, being active or physically creating distance between you and your work is best. As a result, going for a short walk, getting a glass of water or even simple desk exercises or office yoga are recommended.


Overall, I think the Pomodoro Technique with its short bursts of work helped me hone in at the task at hand. Knowing that after periods of work I had a five-minute incentive of free time helped me stay focused. Additionally, thinking about unrelated things for a few moments oddly helped keep me on track. While the fourth twenty five minute stretch was the longest, it also was the most rewarding because of the longer break.

However, one criticism is the application of this technique in different contexts. When I tried it I was at home and was able to have my timer go off without being a nuisance to others. In contrast, if I were to try this technique at work, having a timer constantly chirp may be an annoyance to other co-workers who may not be as receptive to my attention management strategies. Additionally, it was frustrating to become absorbed in a task and have to stop simply because the timer buzzed. In a few instances, I would have preferred to keep working and stop at my own pace. Yet, for the sake of the experiment I followed suit.

Closing Thoughts

In sum, even though my stint with the Pomodoro Technique was brief, I found it helpful nonetheless. While experts agree that you can to notice a difference in your work or study process within a day or two, true mastery of the technique takes from seven to twenty days of constant use.That being said, I believe mindfulness would be a great technique for anyone, including myself to cultivate in order to help achieve goals. Thus, with more time and practice I should be able to realign my attention habits and train myself to be more present and aware.

A change in tone is needed to facilitate conversation between experts and a literate public

“Promote the notion that more info literacy is a practical answer to the growing info pollution.” (Rheingold, Net Smart, p.89)

“Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.”

“…Markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organize. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.”

(Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, Thesis 3 and 10)

Last year I had an experience as a patient that changed the way that I thought about communication, specifically between experts (the doctors) and the increasingly informed public (the patients).

I had recently been through screening that revealed something worrisome. Since my healthcare provider is laudably transparent, I had access to the test results describing the discovery weeks before I had the chance to meet with a doctor and discuss. This, of course, gave me quite a lot of time to do my own research.

When it comes to researching health and medical issues on my own, I know that the internet is filled with misinformation, and that the doctors are the experts. I don’t panic, self-diagnose or jump to conclusions, but I do like to be as informed as possible when I meet with a doctor so that I can participate in conversation and ask relevant questions. I turn on my internet crap-filters and come walk into the doctor’s office prepared.

The day of my first informational appointment, the doctor swept into the room and introduced herself and her accolades. Then she described her observations from my test results, many of which matched nicely with my own research. However, the way she explained my situation and the tone of her voice made me feel like she was talking to a child. When I asked questions she quickly swept them aside and assured me that there was nothing to worry about. At this point I surprised myself and the doctor by starting to cry. The doctor was shocked, as she had just told me that everything manageable. It wasn’t the content of her presentation to me that caused my reaction. It was her tone of voice, and her dismissal of my worry that deeply upset me. She pointed me to a tissue box and made her exit. I changed doctors.

I was nervous about my second appointment. I knew that I was working with someone new, but my last experience was so upsetting. The new doctor came into the room, introduced herself and then knocked my socks off by her next statement. She said, “I’ve looked at your charts and I’ve formed my opinions, but first I would like you to tell me what you already know so that I can make sure we’re on the same page.” I felt like she was inviting me into a conversation, that she valued me. She didn’t diminish my perception of her expertise by asking me what I already knew. Instead she gave me credit and brought us both to a place where we could productively move forward.

The relationship between experts and amateurs, and the “company” and the “market” has shifted since the common people have had more access to information and better connection to each other. The authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto brought forward 95 theses that explored the shifting balance of power between corporations and the consumers who they market to, declaring that the people want to be treated like humans. Companies need only to look within to find employees that share a voice with the public that they are trying to reach. The consumer is getting so savvy that they can identify when they are being pandered to in a way that is insincere. “Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.” (The Cluetrain Manifesto, thesis number 25.)

On the other side of the coin, the people have a responsibility to become savvy consumers of information. We have access to more information than ever before, but it also runs the gambit in terms of quality and truthfulness. In the chapter on “crap detection” in his book Net Smart, Howard Rheingold champions many techniques that consumers can use to ensure that the fruit of their online research is as reputable as possible. Among them are methods like researching the credibility of the author (p. 78), triangulating information by checking three reliable sources (p. 79), using fact checking tools (p. 90) and finding resources that experts endorse as reliable (p. 91).

When specifically discussing the phenomenon of patients doing their own research before speaking with a doctor, Rheingold is cheered that at least one respected medical source “has publicly advised doctors to teach their parents the kind of crap detection that licensed practitioners learn to do early in their medical careers.” (p. 91). If doctors can help their patients to be savvy consumers of available information they empower people to make better healthcare decisions.

In my case, it mattered to me to have a doctor who acknowledged that I was coming into the conversation having done my research. My desire to be prepared with a basic understanding as well as with questions doesn’t undermine my respect for the expert opinion. The first doctor had made me feel like she lecturing me, rather than bringing me into a conversation. The second doctor wanted to connect with me so that we could move forward together.

This is a lesson that I can bring into my work with end-consumers as well as with colleagues that are coming from different realms of expertise. Defaulting to lecturing only alienates the listener. Perhaps asking instead, “What do you already know?” is a better way to enter a productive dialogue.

BONUS: “Crap detection” was just one of many useful subjects discussed by Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart. After reading the first chapter I actually bought my own copy of the book so that I could highlight more liberally and keep his advice at hand after the end of the course. Chapter 3 covers the importance of being proactive with your online presence. Rheingold discusses keeping up with Twitter and how he tries his best to be responsive to every post involving him (here he gives his twitter handle). I just had to put this to the test. Three years after publishing this book, would he live up to his claim?

Twitter response from Rheingold

It took him six minutes to respond to me personally. Needless to say, I am very impressed.

Does this qualify for extra credit?

How Google Is Making Us Smarter


While reading the first few chapters of Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, the section in chapter one titled “(Using) the Internet Makes Us Stupid (or Not)” really related to me. I constantly hear my friends say things like “autocorrect is making us stupid”, and “We’d be nothing without Google”, but I’ve always thought the complete opposite.

On page 52, Rheingold introduced and explained Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He went on to say:

“A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we’re searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole.”

I don’t understand how Carr has skewed this situation, but I feel the exact opposite. People Google information they do not know, or else they wouldn’t need to Google it. The “few words or sentences” that are generated from their searches are specifically what they needed to know. Regardless of whether or not they read the entire document, they have already learned something that they will not forget.

Carr feels, “We are substituting the web for personal memory, and emptying our minds”. However, I do not forget the information I look up on Google, ever. He’s thinking along the lines of easy come easy go, but that’s really not the case in this situation. In terms of neuroplasticity, I feel we’re actually training ourselves to absorb more information than ever before in the history of human existence.

I can go through more information online in a year than my grandmother has in her entire lifetime. I have the world’s knowledge at my fingertips, at my disposal whenever I feel like conjuring it. Our generation are masters of information, we’re experts at searching and locating exactly what we want to know in a matter of seconds.

Carr says, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it”, and we engage in, “nonlinear, scattered, perpetual scanning at the expense of depth and concentration”. I think my skipping and skimming habits are more like an ability to speed-read and pinpoint information I’m actually looking for than an Internet based attention deficit disorder. Web based authors also format their documents for this purpose, making information easier to find in less time.

In situations where readers need more elaborate explanations of the subject of interest, references to “traditional” texts are always linked to the content. In just a simple click, we jump from the “few words or sentences” to a printable PDF version of a book, or a link to buy a hard copy on Amazon.

It’s law in the United States for every child to attend school, or else their parents are held responsible. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, American illiteracy rates have been around 14% for the past 10 years, I highly doubt Google has been as influential as immigration, poverty, or drug usage. Most Americans are capable of reading, and will read in the traditional sense when the occasion calls for it. It’s simply a matter of optimizing time, effort, and using discretion.

As Rheingold said on page 52, “A search query, like a Wikipedia page, is often a bad place to end your inquiry, but an excellent place to start”. In most cases readers jump through multiple pages of information, and have the option of a robust explanation of what they are looking for through multiple resources. Google and sites like Wikipedia put them on track to find these resources, and long form text is always an option.

Tools like Google, Wikipedia and even autocorrect give us instant answers and correction that we wouldn’t have without it. Is it better to not have access to information outside of a 2000 page book, or to instantly get what you’re looking for with the option of exploring additional resources?

Paying too much attention to the wrong things

In Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold gives us straightforward advice on how to pay attention to our attention while online and how to subvert the almost-paralyzing fears that haunt us when we are disconnected from our channels of constant communication.

I’ll start with how to pay attention. Both at home and at work, I have two monitors open at all times. It’s critical that I have two screens because I need to constantly compare and cut and paste from documents. But this also allows me to have more windows open and on view at one time. Last summer, when I was doing some freelance work for a company that required lots of early-morning conference calls, I would find my attention drifting from the screen I was supposed to be looking at to my email, shopping sites, bill-paying sites, you name it. I had thought that it was possible to pay attention while having several windows open at once, but it seriously distracted me from the conference call in front of me, and I had to stop trying to do that so I could focus 100 percent attention on the project at hand.

Likewise, when we are always checking our email, phone, etc., we can end up on a hamster wheel of simply responding to emails and putting out fires rather than thinking strategically or making long-term plans. We need time, space and quiet for this kind of thinking, as Rheingold posits in his book.

I have found that the Pomodoro Method that he describes works quite well for when I sit at my desk for long periods, especially when writing and editing long documents. I allow myself to work on something with total concentration for 30 minutes, then I reward myself with checking my email and phone and perhaps Googling something for 5 or 10 minutes. That is certainly less distracting than refreshing my email every few minutes, and it cuts down on my fear of missing some critical email that requires an immediate response and action.

In an office, distractions and disruptions are legion. I work in a cubicle, so I don’t have much of a choice if a coworker drops by with a question or request; I have to stop what I’m doing and respond to that person. I was alarmed to read in Net Smart that it takes up to 30 minutes to recover from such drop-ins, because if the visit was about a request, you start thinking about what you need to do about it while you continue what you had been working on.

I thought it was particularly striking when Rheingold talked about the woman who realized that she was holding her breath every time she opened and read her email. I wondered why we are so afraid of both getting email and not getting email. I think it’s, in both cases, that we fear we’re missing something; in the case of getting email, someone wants something of us–and we better get it to them sooner rather than later. What if we had opened that email a couple of hours later? In the case of not getting email, we wonder if that absence means that the other person didn’t get out email or just chose not to respond. Or perhaps we’re deliberately being kept out of the loop at work. I think this is due to the fact that email is not face to face, and we just don’t have access to the facial expressions and body language that would give us the context we need in order to not worry.

I find that, if I’m in a series of meetings and away from my desk (ie, away from my cell phone, my work phone, my work email and my personal email), I get distracted and antsy to return to my desk and check and make sure I didn’t miss anything. It’s the same at home; if I leave home, I am truly disconnected from email because I’ve never enabled it on my cell phone, because I don’t want to be tethered to it. The first thing I do when I get home is to check my email.

In other words, as much as I try not to be a slave to technology and constant communication, it takes up way too much space in my brain. I know I’m not alone in this “hyperchecking,” particularly after reading Net Smart. Has anyone found any techniques that have worked to counter this hypervigilance and achieve a healthier relationship with technology?

The Un-Networked: A Story About App Development in a Bubble


In early 2008, I signed up for Evernote® and became a premium subscriber. It quickly became my digital brain and I used it daily. In 2012, Evernote acquired Penultimate, a note taking app for iPad that allows you take handwritten notes. In 2014, Evernote launched a new version of Penultimate that led to their having to issue an apology to their users.

But, despite their claims of listening to feedback, many Evernote users suggest otherwise in the app’s forums. I believe this “development in a bubble” has led to the company’s CEO, Phil Libin, having to step down and to the company’s having some serious trouble with public relations if not finances, as reported by The inside story of how $1 billion Evernote went from Silicon Valley darling to deep trouble.

But, why?

I’m no business analyst so I’ll skip the charts and graphs. But, I can tell you why I left Evernote last year as a premium subscriber and active user in favor of another app. I believe the following are some of the main reasons Evernote is struggling—all of which have to do with Evernote being un-networked to its user base.

We’re Listening But Not Really

Howard Rheingold, Author of Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, says “The aggregated by-products of digital participation add up to a marketable commodity…” (p. 135). In theory, yes, but only if the company is listening.

In Evernote’s case, I and other users called for certain features or feature tweaks for years in the user forums. What we got were new apps that eventually died (e.g. Hello and Food), features no one seemed to be asking for (e.g. Work Chat), or redesigns that turned long-standing workflows on their heads or made them impossible.

The net effect went something like this over and over again: “We didn’t get to that fix or feature you wanted, but look! We created a food app because Phil, our CEO is a foodie, and, well, food app!”

We Know What’s Best for You

At the front of the online book, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual list the 95 theses found within it. Number 25 is “Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.”

Evernote boasts over 50 million users worldwide. It’s my feeling this gave them so much confidence in what they were doing, they became dismissive of what users were saying.

Go to the forums—virtually any forum. I’ll bet you won’t have to scroll long before you find an Evernote team member effectively saying “Let them eat cake!” In other words, they indicate they understand the concerns, but they know what’s best. Whether or not a feature request is in the development pipeline or not is not the business of end-users. At least, that’s how many of us felt.

Drink the Kool-Aid or Else!

Power-user bullying of everyday users is rampant on the forums. Evernote is silent. I’ve read dozens of comments from self-identified power-users in reply to average users’ concerns that leave me speechless.

Effectively, these power-users seemingly become defensive on Evernote’s behalf and will shut-off whiney users: “Evernote is great. I use it 1,000 of times a day and have for 50 years. You just don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve given you two work-arounds, a life raft, and a helicopter! If you don’t like the way Evernote is set up or don’t like my work-around. Leave!” They don’t actually say this, but it does effectively represent their intent and tone.

The fascinating thing is that Evernote lets it go on. And, the next thing you know, that power-user bully has published a post on Evernote’s blog. You start to really feel hopeless as an average user.

A Note from the New CEO

A month ago, Evernote’s new CEO wrote to the user base explaining why the company was laying off talent and closing offices globally. He said some important stuff that may represent the bubble is being popped and Evernote will begin focusing on its user network (and hopefully employee network, if you read the Business Insider article):

“I believe that a smaller, more focused team today will set us up for growth and expansion tomorrow. Here are two things that you can expect from us over the next several months: we will launch major foundational product improvements around the core features that you care about most, and we will pull back on initiatives that fail to support our mission.”

He’s saying the company is going to focus on improving its core product THAT USERS CARE ABOUT MOST. I hope that means the same thing users have been telling Evernote all along: “Great product, but we need it do to A, B, and C, and by the way this needs fixed.”

I’m not going back to Evernote. Not yet. Maybe never. But, I’ll watch from afar to see what happens.


“If you’re not part of the future than get out of the way” (Mellencamp, 2001, Peaceful World)


When I started The Cluetrain Manifesto and 95 Theses I wasn’t sure if it was forward thinking or silliness. Granted, I hadn’t gotten to the “meat,” because I almost stopped reading after this enthusiastic bit: “The sky is open to the stars. Clouds roll over us night and day. Oceans rise and fall. Whatever you may have heard, this is our world, our place to be. Whatever you’ve been told, our flags fly free. Our heart goes on forever. People of Earth, remember” (p. 5). Okay. But you can be over-the-top when you’ve written a corporate wake up call the equivalent of the Ten Commandments.


It’s pretty bold to imply the customer is always correct; it’s more so to state that businesses are completely wrong. Yet, that’s exactly what authors, Christopher Locke, Rick Levine, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger proclaim. Their Cluetrain Manifesto warns corporations to speak our ”human” language, include us in their discussions, realize conversations are online, outside, in-house, and that it’s no longer business as usual. We matter! We want a place at the table, we want to be heard, and we want them to change how they deal with us. “You want us to pay? We want you to pay attention” (78, p. 7). Good stuff.


Going for the corporate jugular, the Manifesto mocks how companies communicate not only with their customers, but also with their own employees. Having just received another company email explaining an administrator-approved, attorney-reviewed, HR-established procedure that strips away more employee soul, I particularly liked 44: “Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore” (p. 5). Yep. And let’s not forget command and control. I work in higher education; I get it.


There’s some over-reaching with the truisms. We “get far better information…from one another than vendors” and “There are no secrets” (11-12, p. 6). Not necessarily, or we’d know the secret recipe for Coke and when Apple’s introducing the iOffice (I made that up). And the authors skipped over the fact that plenty of businesses have adapted, and adopted business practices that meet our needs. Many businesses do “talk” to their customer and market honestly. In my observation it’s the larger, often disconnection corporations that “do not speak in the same voice as these new networked conversations” (Locke et al., 2014, p.5). Where I live we have many small stores and franchises, both on the ground and online that engage in marketing strategies with a “human voice.”


Ernest Hemingway stated, “Every man should have a built in automatic crap detector operating inside him” (as cited in Rheingold, 2014, p. 77). In a lesson with his daughter, Rheingold delved into crap detection and the difficulty of knowing what’s credible in the online environment. Following his steps with his daughter was a bit frustrating (I wrote down the links to try), and yes, the Internet is full of companies that either missed the Manifesto, don’t know how to transition their hard-sell marketing techniques, or simply don’t care. Blaring banners, eye bleeding colors, tricky links, and less than truthful claims seem to be regular marketing practices today. (Could it be our culture of increasing acceptance of misinformation in politics that makes it okay?). You want to talk to us? Learn our language. You want to sell to us? Your old tactics won’t work. You want to reach us? We’re on the brave new ‘web of a world’. And when Rheingold’s daughter asks, “How can I tell if anything I find on the web is real “ (Rheingold, 2014, p. 78), that, dear child, is a great question.

More Sound Advice for Spending Time Online


In the last blog entry, I wrote that I agreed with Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, that a great way to spend more time with people was to avoid social media and texting during certain parts of the day. This is still a good idea so that people can actually face-to-face connect with others, and to have time to allow yourself to think, but in Howard Rheingold’s booked titled, Net Smart, he gives additional ways to take control over technology’s pull. I was amazed by how simple his advice is.

Just like Turlke, Rheingold says that people need to spend some time away from technology and learn how to meditate and to breathe. By focusing on your breathing, you are focusing your attention onto one thing. By learning how to focus your attention on a singular thing, you can re-teach your brain to focus on one thing and let the distractions drop away. By being able to focus on one thing while online, you will be able to focus on your intent – your exact reason for being online – so that you can solely work on that one thing that you need to get done, instead of being distracted by random emails, instant messages, Facebook, or other things lurking to steal your attention away.


My husband would agree with Rheingold about meditation, but I never would have thought that one could apply it to thriving online. Thinking back to my husband and about him meditating, I realize that he is a lot more focused on various things than I am. He tells me that I get distracted too easily, and that I need to learn to be more disciplined, which I believe could come from meditation. After reading Rheingold’s chapter on “Attention,” I may have to tell my husband that I will join him on his next meditation journey.

Results are Power

Now, if what Rheingold says is true that meditation helps with focusing attention, which in turn helps with “crap detection” (using your focus to research things on line to see if they are actually credible or not) and “participation power” (participate online by creating content such as photos, videos, news stories; sharing content; or editing Wikipedia or other community-based informational websites), then many people who want to success may want to do this too. I believe that I have had a good start in both crap detection and participation already, as I often create photos, video clips, and share links to other photos, video clips, and news stories on my blog and Facebook page. Just as Rheingold suggests, when I find something on the internet to share, I look at the url of the website, check for the author, and etc. to see if the content is from a place that I can trust. I do this because if I provide crap to my readers, my readers may complain or stop following or unfriend me. I want to keep my authority role as a trusted content provider.


For the most part, I found Rheingold to be providing common sense information and very helpful tips, in regards to thriving online – how to use your intentional attention to focus on what actually matters, which is having some downtime from technology, and being able to detect the credibility of internet content. By being able to do both, I can be a great participator online by creating and sharing trustworthy content on social media websites. But the one thing that spoke out the most was meditating. My sweet husband; he has been telling me to meditate for years, but it took a book to finally do it. I will just tell him that I finally came to my senses.

Mapping Life

My house, could be run by librarians.  I have always had a little bit of insanity when it comes to cataloging information and trying to make it easy for others to access.  For instance, once upon a time, all of my household manuals were kept in one location.  Trial and error made me realize that this didn’t make sense.  The kitchen appliances seemed to have a greater need for me to be able to quickly access the manuals.  I moved them all to a special location in my kitchen and the rest of the manuals go in my laundry room.

And, if you don’t think that is particular enough, I have a sitemap.  In the event that a family member is watching my child, I don’t want them hopelessly frustrated trying to figure out the dust-vac.  I have a “map” of every appliance and the room where someone would need it.  It then cross-references where the accessories are for that appliance and where the instructions are.  Weird.  I know.

When I was younger, I actually thought I may need some sort of intervention because of how specific my brain was in categorizing the information that came into my house.  I used to file every article that crossed the threshold.  That got to be exhausting.  I literally had giant binders for topics.  It was a bit OCD.  I now realize that I don’t need to retain all information I come across as the internet is able to relocate almost all of it.  I have to keep myself away from magazines and let the internet (and the document designers) do what they do best, catalog the information for retrieval.

As I read chapter 4, I was all over it.  I have been doing most of it for years, even if I didn’t realize it.  My binders of information actually take a lot of work to cross-references.  While I know that I will only need some information, like when I’m cleaning or in the kitchen, for instance, I know my parents will access it randomly when watching my child.  I make sure that they can find the vacuum manual more readily than I would require it.  It is the first manual in my household binder.

This is much like the approach for structuring a website.  I know my audience.  I know what they need and I know where they will get lost trying to find it.

How Influenced By Twitter/Facebook/Snapchat/Insta Are We?


How well do I know the “technology” that has become the backbone of my existence? Are the programs that are the object(s) of my constant attention, primary tools of expressing myself, and preferred ways of communicating with friends and family structuring me in ways I’ve never realized?

I sat back and took a long hard look at this possibility, and the only way I could attempt to dissect it was to try and imagine how I’d behave without this “technology”. The issue is I’ve been heavily reliant on social media since 2004 (15 years old). I tried to remember how I expressed myself and communicated with friends before MySpace, as well as the way I used MySpace when I first joined.

Before MySpace, I met and built friendships with many people but when life separated us (ex. Changing schools, moving across town), we lost contact and I forgot about them. I wasn’t upset about loosing touch with these people, but I would think about them from time to time. However, I had no desire to keep tabs on every person I’d ever met for the rest of our lives regardless of our relationship.

Upon joining MySpace I was amazed to see profiles of old friends and neighbors I hadn’t seen in years. Aside from getting real time pictures and updates on their lives, I could also see what their siblings and parents were up to as well as their new friends. I began searching for and befriending these old friends and acquaintances to personally reconnect, and to snoop on their personal lives.

This completely evolved when Facebook became popular and people were constantly updating their statuses. I strategically designed my page to present myself in the most impressive fashion possible in sort of a pathetic attempt for people who hadn’t seen me in a while to think my life was better than theirs. I spent hours capturing the perfect pictures, and spent days piecing together clever statuses that supported the image I was promoting.

During the Facebook status update phase, I would scroll through my newsfeed looking for my “friends’” dirty laundry. I’d see couples getting married at 18 and 19 and get so jealous of the beautiful ceremonies and diamond rings. I’d later giggle and text my friends when they changed their relationship statuses to “It’s Complicated” and post long status updates about their marital issues.

Before privacy was a big deal, I even found my favorite C list actor and followed his move from Hawaii to California, his engagement to 3 porn stars, first marriage/divorce, and (more recently) second wife and 2 children. I even told him happy birthday on his real birthday and had a brief conversation with him. I also Facebook stalked his first wife where I learned about his male stripping career, and mistress he met on the job (who he’s married to now).

When my parent’s generation joined Facebook, I began to learn much more than I wanted about their personal lives and personalities. I saw my aunt’s ex-boyfriends, drunken pictures at “Old School” cookouts, and had them reporting my Facebook activity to my grandmother. For this reason, I stopped using Facebook as much and moved on to Instagram and Snapchat.

I mostly use Instagram and Snapchat to showcase how “awesome” my life is as terrible as that sounds. I only post videos and images that make me look interesting, attractive and outgoing while I search for the opposite on my friend’s/acquaintance’s pages. I use these sites to snoop and judge their lives for gossip with mutual friends. We justify our nosiness with “If they didn’t want anybody to know/see, they shouldn’t have posted it”.

As terrible as this is, social media has structured my life and personality. It has made me a nosey, judgmental, and vain person who looks to exploit other’s faults for my own validation. I can relate this to the Enquirer and tabloids of the early 2000’s harassment of  Brittany Spears. I also realize that I am not the only one, most people in my age group use these sites for the same reasons.

I recently remember reading that paparazzi make much less for celebrity photos because social media is a direct channel into their lives the same as everyone else. They make snooping and judging so convenient, effortless and common that people don’t even get paid for it the way they did before.

So to answer my question… Yes. Social media has structured my life, personality, and morals similarly to the rest of its long-term users. I am not proud of the habits I’ve developed, but realizing and accepting them is the only way to change. For the first time ever, I understand my grandmother’s condemnation of social media as a trashy “gossip column” that I shouldn’t be on.

Trying my best to not spoil the broth!

As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization.  When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”.  But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization.  At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it).  But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs).   And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.


I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs.  In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking.  Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say.  But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).

I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world).  In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.

I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.


This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training.  But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.

As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about.  Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need.  It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication.  Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).

  • This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
  • Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
  • We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.

Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above.  It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience.  Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61).  But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.

For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages.  The content, design, and layout was all brutal.  In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff.  Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle.  At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.

So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?


Dicks, S. (2010).  Digital Literacy for Technical Communication.   In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81).  New York: Taylor & Francis.

New look! Same great taste!

When your husband is a biologist you find yourself participating in unusual activities for a graphic designer. A couple weeks ago I found myself providing moral support by tromping around the forest after dark as part of a citizen science activity led by my better half. I had a headlight strapped to my forehead and I was sweeping my gaze across the leaf-litter looking for the blue-green reflections from the eyes of wolf spiders. I’m proud to report that I was a very successful “citizen scientist” as I located quite a few of the little guys. To use the scientific term, I had developed a search image, by becoming hyper-sensitive to the the minute details that differentiated between the shimmering slug slime and the spider-eye glitter (Happy Halloween!). My brain had learned to look for one very specific thing set of traits, and to ignore anything that didn’t match up.

Spider eye-shine search image

Spider eye-shine search image

I observed a similar phenomenon when I worked for a tea company a couple years ago. (No spiders. I promise.) For a variety of reasons the company had decided to switch the format of packaging for its retail products from tins to paper boxes. As with the tins that they were replacing, each grouping of of the boxed teas (herbal, green, black, etc.) had a different visual theme to reflect the rich history and craftsmanship behind the individual lines of product. Some of the lines kept graphics that were nearly identical to the labels on the tins that preceded them. Some lines were completely revamped.

When the redesigned boxes finally hit the shelves, tea sales showed mixed results. Some sold quite well, but the line of teas that had the worst turn in sales was one that was completely redesigned. For all of the teas, customers had to look for boxes on the shelves instead of the tins that they were accustomed to. The tea company received calls asking why stores had stopped carrying customers’ favorite products. The products were still on the shelves, but the customers’ established search images were making them blind to the new packaging. This was very early in my career, and though I could be proud of how handsome the graphics had turned out on these boxes, I learned a lesson. Redesigns happen at a price. No matter how satisfying it might be to completely overhaul the aesthetics of a product it might not be worth the blow to customer recognition. Having an established search image can help a scientist or a tea lover quickly find what they are looking for, but it can also blind them to anything that doesn’t match up.

In the field of technical communication, the concept of ambient design is related to the effects of a search image. Salvo and Rosinski explain that, “effective ambient design helps users understand the purpose or content of a [document] with a quick glance.” (p. 120) Users create an entire mental library of meanings tied to visual cues. When looking at the magazine shelf in a store, a reader can quickly deduce the kind of content she would expect from Seventeen Magazine and how it might differ from Vogue. She doesn’t need to read the headlines on the front cover to know this. She makes her conclusions based on the magazine’s use of colors, typefaces, photography, and white space. If her favorite feature is always in the first twelve pages with a blue headline, she might flip directly to that page without critically observing the pages before or after. It would be a mistake for an editor to move that feature to the back of the magazine and use red headline, because the reader is already cued in to the ambient design with a pre-established search image.

These are the powerful forces behind a brand. A company or product establishes a set of cues that get filed away in the mental library of the consumer. Companies will go to great lengths to establish and protect a brand. For example, last year Cadbury lost a legal fight with Nestle after it attempted to trademark a very specific color purple. In the U.S. many people can name the postal service that deploys brown trucks, or remember the cause behind trendy yellow rubber bracelets that were popular years ago. Coca Cola’s brand is so strong that its name can be easily identified when written in a foreign language as long as it’s in the iconic white script on a red background.

Hebrew "Coca Cola"

Hebrew Coca Cols (Source:

As a technical communicators, designers and consumers we can form opinions around the subtle shifts or dramatic reinventions of our favorite brands. What can we learn from the companies who make big changes gracefully, and others that flop? Is there a right way to tweak a brand without alienating your consumers, or is it always a negative experience for the customer whose pre-established visual language is being re-written?

We will always need technical communicators

In Content Management: Beyond Single Sourcing, Hart-Davidson states that technical writing duties will be more broadly deployed in content creation in the future. He then asks what technical communicators will do. I am not sure I am reading his chapter correctly, but this is certainly not the case in my workplace, and I would bemoan the fact if it ever were.

This is because technical communication is a highly skilled field with many subsets, each holding specialized knowledge. For example, I am a medical writer and editor, which is a highly specialized discipline under the umbrella of technical communication.

I completed the pre-med curriculum at my university, I’ve worked in scientific laboratories, I’ve written about science and medicine during my 25-year career. Medical writers and editors are not that common, and I’ve never run across another person with the same credentials as I have. So I have trouble envisioning anyone else at my workplace, which is very large, having the skills and knowledge to do what I do. I would think this would be the same at most organizations, that highly skilled technical writers would continue to occupy a niche.

Technical writers—or any other type of skilled, talented writers—are not commodities. And many people who are not technical writers think they are and could do a writer’s job. That is simply not the case. Highly skilled and trained writers have received training in communication theory, rhetoric and many other disciplines that makes them uniquely qualified to do the job they are trained to do. From my point of view, highly skilled writers and the IT guy down the hall who thinks he can do a technical writer’s job are not interchangeable.

There will always be a role for talented and skilled writers, because it is a discipline in itself. And we will always need technical writers, who are one step removed from the subject matter, which allows them to be more objective than the subject matter experts, who might write quite well but cannot possibly have that perspective.

When Hart-Davidson speaks of content management with distributed authorship, I think of the Web site where I work. A few of us have the permissions needed to upload new materials to or to change the Web site, but no one else but me writes content for or changes the site but me, because I have the skills to do that. Other people have the permissions, but their job is not to write, it is to perform IT maintenance tasks or build more wireframes, etc.

We don’t currently allow the rest of the staff to write or post materials for the site without going through Communications. This is for the very reason that we don’t want non-writers to change the voice, the quality or the format of the Web site. It must be consistent and align with our brand and style. In fact, I often get material from non-writers on the staff who want me to post things on the Web site, intranet, Internet or TV monitors, and it is usually full of grammatical and spelling errors that need to be fixed before they’re posted. Without a skilled gatekeeper, that level of quality would be difficult to maintain.

Technical communicators will always have a place at the table, particularly when they keep up with their skills and credentials so they can offer added value to their organization.

Form and Function in a Cyber Environment


A major theme that resounded through the readings was the need for the organization, understanding and usability of content online. Through the use of creative design, implementation and use, technical communicators can work in conjunction with designers and help find solutions to these problems. Above all, usability and ease are the two most important factors in web design.

The famous phrase “form follows function” was coined by American architect Louis Sullivan in his 1924 book Autobiography of an Idea. There are two ways this phrase can be interpreted:

1). Aesthetics should be secondary to function

2). Beauty results from the purity in form.

Modernist architecture was based around this idea, as ornaments or decorative elements to a building were considered superfluous. In other words, the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. With this purpose, this movement became the guiding force for numerous architectural movements and schools of design.

However, one can ask, does this same principle hold true in a cyber environment?

In the early years of web design, oftentimes there was no rhyme or reason to the designs used by untrained technical communicators. Oftentimes, they would disregard principles of effective page design in an attempt to differentiate document design for print from online. In the wild west of web design, an innovative form took precedent over function. However, as time progressed, these freedoms gave way to a new wave of design fueled by purpose, content and user needs.

Today, we take these things for granted and expect certain standards for orienting ourselves in virtual space. Because there isn’t a one size fits all approach, the way in which designers create these spaces is intriguing.

Should they follow Sullivan’s advice of “form follows function”? Or would some creative flair benefit a site and make it more usable? This poses a challenge for designers because while usability is key, it is discouraged to gravitate towards either extreme.

On one end of the spectrum you have your very basic, bland web design. It presents the users with the usable components without any frills. An example of this is the Craigslist site with its basic blue links on a blank white page. It is clear that function is the most important aspect of this site, and little concern is given to aesthetics.


On the other hand, a site that either has too much going on also renders itself unusable. In the example for Yvette’s Fashion it is clear that the overwhelming amount of information, flashy colors, images and tiny text make it almost impossible to navigate, let alone read.


Gentlemen bear with me, but in a way this analogy of design and usability could be compared to women’s footwear. On end you have your very basic and ubiquitous white tennis shoes. While they may not look fancy, they are comfortable, provide the right amount of support and quickly can accomplish the job of getting the user from one place to the next. They are simple and style plays little role in its usability.

SUPERGA-CLASSIC-WHITE-BAYAN-SPOR-AYAKKABI-39__41988348_1 0c6c668ee677160cdf94c864d240a095

In contrast, there is the glammed up eight-inch stiletto. While they aren’t practical, the over the top nature of them definitely catches your attention. Additionally, while they also will enable the wearer to navigate from one place to the next, it is at a much slower and cumbersome pace. While both forms of footwear are aimed toward different users and server similar functions, the usability differs. In other words, usability is impacted by design.

Likewise, design elements contribute to the ambience of web sites and help prepare the user to understand the context for its use. In Digital Literacy for Technical Communications, Slavo states,“Readers recognize designed elements of the document before interpreting the context”. In other words, visual design carries its message in its physical presentation.

For instance, even a simple change in the web design can make a difference and affect usability. In Louis Lazar’s article, Design is Only as Deep as it is Usable, he examines the homepage for Facebook with a simple omission of color:


While the plain version is still functional, it is less inviting. Additionally, the contrast between the blue and white makes the boxes easier to find and therefore use. Overall, this example  proves that design can aid in the function of a web site.

In sum, there isn’t a “one size fits all” approach to the design and organization of web content. Because there is no hard and fast rule, function can’t overlook aesthetics and vice versa. “Eye candy is important, but it isn’t everything, and that for a design to be truly beautiful, it has to be functional, have purpose and contribute in some way to the website’s intuitiveness, usefulness and branding” (Smash Magazine). Rather, a balance of the two is needed as they work hand in hand to produce content that is both intuitive and appropriate for the audience. Through this, both ease and usability can be accomplished and good web design can prevail.

Relying on Heuristics in Digital Communication

I spend nearly every work day reviewing science and engineering reports and memos. Virtually every one of them follow the same structure: introduction, methods, results, and discussion or IMRAD as it is sometimes called. IMRAD is a viable heuristic for what is historically a paper-based, long-form argument. (If it weren’t, it would likely not be so prevalent.)

I’m also asked frequently by the marketing department to review content for online distribution. To help them along and save myself significant substantive editing time, I’ve attempted to provide that department—some of whom are trained technical writers—with heuristics (what I call writing prompts or an outline of sorts) which they can use to author within the various information types they are responsible for. So far, I’ve developed heuristics for blog posts, social media posts, brochures, flyers, and so on.

They’ve come to rely on these heuristics, essentially canonizing them, which was never my intention. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this has happened and its appropriateness. I’m beginning to be cautious about developing heuristics especially for digital communication.

Paper-Based and Digital Communication Are Different

Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski wrote in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (p. 105) touched on this dilemma:

“One difference between paper-based and electronic communication is that the forms and designs of older analog media have been internalized and naturalized…Use, familiarity, and comfort within these newer information spaces are therefore, to some extent, generational, and technical communicators must now consider how to bridge these generational boundaries that are likely to express themselves as technological preferences.”

I suppose what I’m saying is that the bridge between paper-based (with their traditional heuristics) and digital communication (which lets admit can be a free-for-all) is not heuristics.

Moving Away from Heuristics

What I’ve come to realize is, when it comes to digital communication, heuristics are effective starting points, but should never take the place of authentic communication. By authentic communication, I mean communication conceived of and designed to serve its particular audience and the content itself. This is the opposite of content designed to meet a preset structure (such as IMRAD).

In other words, instead of developing heuristics for digital communication (e.g. “A blog post has these five components” or “The services page on your website should cover three things”), what if we simply approach each rhetorically? Dave Clark in Digital Literacy discusses the “rhetoric of technology” which he contrasts against IMRAD without using that concept specifically.

So, the next time the marketing team wants some help structuring digital communication in particular, instead of writing up a heuristic they can use over and over again, I’m going to write a set of rhetorical questions they can rely on.

Culture and Society Rules You

I think that I am getting the hang of this “rhetoric of technology” now since Clark simplified it to “technology and rhetoric are…co-bedded in culture,” and that for technology to be a “real cultural phenomenon,” people have to start bickering over it (Clark, 2010, p. 85). Additionally, it has been drilled into me that all these technology analyzing tools are based on society and culture and its users, which in combination also plays a part in the workplace. I will be discussing my role as a contractor in the workplace with this cultural theory in mind.

According to Clark, who invokes Johnson to confirm that

[T]echnological design and implementation that places users, rather than systems, at the center of our focus, and that we have an ethical and cultural responsibility to learn and argue to collaborative approaches… (Clark, 2010, p. 93).

For my last assignment, we did just that. We had our users in mind – new people who had no training, and who were from another country – when we were told to update our content managing system (CMS) to be more user friendly, go through all documentation to either update or delete them, and to create new documentation if the documentation did not exist. The CMS was cleaned up, updated to have visuals such as icons and graphics, and had proper meta tags added each document to make them easier to find in searches.

While this fury of work was being done, we joked about how we are providing so much helpful documentation that we would all be out of a job. And we were. Once everything had been completed and tested over a month in another country, all of us contractors were given notice that all of our jobs were now going overseas, and that those people overseas would be actual, hired employees. But everyone here had a job to do, even though we knew we were putting ourselves out of a job. Thus, when Hart-Davidson wrote, “[T]he combined threat that many technical communicators have confronted firsthand: outsourcing and work fragmentation,” I could only nod in agreement and wonder what I have gotten myself into, again (2010, p. 141).

To make matters worse, when Hart-Davidson goes on to say that “users providing their own help content…actually present dramatic new roles for technical communicators to play,” I wanted to throw this book because he never explains which new roles that these were going to be (2010, p. 141). I do not want generics, I want real answers. Maybe being a consultant or contractor is a dream job for many, but when you have a family to take care of, bills to pay, and you are the nearly the sole wage earner, hearing that you only get so much time at a job is scary. In my opinion, it is sad that companies seem to only care about the bottom line and their customers, but not their employees. Employees used to be the ones valued, and their worth was rewarded with stock options, PTO, health benefits, etc. No more. The companies’ real value is information, which Hart-Davidson writes is the true “valuable commodity” (2010, p. 128).

Now, at another assignment, which I already know the exact date when to start packing up my stuff, I have tried to get them to be more efficient with their workflow, work instructions, and etc. But just as culture and society have certain conventions, rules, and guidelines, so does this workplace too. I have already been told that once a decision on how the templates were made, no further changes will ever be made. I understand that with global companies, they have to think globally, and when there is a change to the standard, then that change needs to be reflected in every document, which costs money. But working with these old templates creates extra work, as some things are duplicated, and there are fields on there that no longer apply, in my opinion. I believe that these templates could be edited for efficiency, remove confusion for the user, and look more professional, but the “power relationship encoded” in this template has limited what I can do with it (Salvo & Rosinski, 2010, p. 103).

Additionally, there is an issue of storing these documents and templates. It has been repeated throughout this course so far that there is a need for companies to store their information for others to find it. I brought this issue up in two meetings at work, with the reply of being that they know it is a problem, but it is not important enough to deal with. I would have to disagree. Even Salvo and Rosinki remark that “information that cannot be easily retrieved when needed is useless” (2010, p. 103). And if information is a “valuable commodity,” as already referenced above, then there is a problem that needs to be resolved sooner, rather than later (Hart-Davidson, 2010, p. 128).

In the end, while I learned that technology is based in culture and society, there are limits, rules, and guidelines that I have to play by. Some companies may be open for change; for others, they are more ridged due to political concerns. Many contractors understand that have an ethical and cultural responsibility to their client, even if it is to their detriment. While some scholars are hopeful that there will be plenty of jobs for technical communicators, some are not, and this theme continues to be weaved in and out of texts, which makes me hope that when I am on my deathbed, I can look back and know that I made the correct choice. Otherwise, dang it.


Clark, D. (2010). Shaped and Shaping Tools In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hart-Davidson, W. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.

Salvo, M.J. & Rosinski, P. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.

College Website Content Management

Content management as it applies in Digital Literacy by Rachel Spilka refers to “a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted and styled for delivery” (p. 130). My first thought was of college and university websites – who creates the online image, who maintains it, and how do you know if it’s effective? When your website looks different, are you being original, savvy, an “outside the box” thinker or someone who looks like they don’t know what they’re doing? A standard design helps you find information, “validates” it, and to a certain degree creates “credibility” – an implied added value that brings users to your site. Visit 39 Factors: Website Credibility Checklist (, and web design is the first standard. And it needs to be attractive with bells and whistles. University of Melbourne’s ( Dr. Brent Coker states, “As aesthetically orientated humans, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people, and the same goes for websites. Our offline behavior and inclinations translate to our online existence. As the Internet has become prettier, we are venturing out, and becoming less loyal” (The Melbourne Newsroom:


The annual Webby Awards ( selects the best of the Internet including websites and mobile sites and apps. I took a look at the awards for college and university website design, because I have the chance to redesign my page. Stephenson University was a top winner; take a look – Notice anything different? My eyes went straight to the left navigation – where is it? Stevenson dumped it on their homepage, but click any link on the center block of information and you get one. Whew.




I’m not a technical writer, but I write for work. No one at my college is a technical writer, but everyone with access to the Novus Content Management System (CMS) writes for our website. In Digital Literacy, William Hart-Davidson asks, “what does a writer do when the whole company writes (Spilka, 210, p. 137)? In the case of my school, you get a fragmented, out-sourced variation of styles and priorities. My college’s website design is awful. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I work, our students love us, and we engage with and support our community– but our web appearance really bothers me. Take a look at Hillsborough Community College:




The left navigation isn’t alphabetical or listed in order of importance; certainly, “Dining Services” isn’t as important “Searching for Classes. In the middle we have “Steps to enroll” and “Apply Now;” “Apply Online is also on the left – everything leading to the same information. Part of the problem is the use of a content management system (CMS) – Novus – that longer meets our needs. And until recently we employed one web manager and no other web staff to maintain the college’s web presence. As Hart-Davidson notes, “content management (cm) systems provide resources for enacting the kind of work reflected in Table 5.1, but they do not do the work themselves. Nor do they help those who lack expertise in writing studies learn best practices” (Spilka, 2010, p. 141).


This is an area that interests me and I have a chance to practice what I learn with our Distance Learning website revision. But in an educational organization with so many layers of administration, and committees who make most of the decisions, how does one promote a new content management strategy? Do any of you in higher education employ technical communicators to assist in website design and maintenance? And how do you measure the success of your website?