Reach for it!

In their 2014 Technical Communication Quarterly article, “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media,” Elise Hurley and Amy C. Kimme Hea discuss the challenges they encountered when trying to meld social media and technical communication. For the most part their students were, “hesitant to engage social media in technical communication contexts where assumptions about professionalism and credibility seem too high a price to pay for use” (56). Despite acknowledging the advantages of using social media, the students had heard too many horror stories of social media gone wrong. According to the authors, “it was clear that social media are tools to be used informally… not in professional contexts” (60).

This is unfortunate, the authors argue, because, “students need to be able to engage actively in [social media’s] cultural construction” (Hurley and Hea, 58). To do this, the authors turned to two concepts:

  1. reach: “the ability to form relationships, address user interests, and determine long-term effects of networking” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 57)
  2. crowdsourcing: “the practice of tapping into the collective public intelligence to complete a task or gain insights that would traditionally have been assigned to a member or consultant for an organization” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 57).

I have been familiar with the latter term for years, as I used to work for a company that crowdsourced its content. Ever since then, I have been interested in its use in technical communication, and I am excited to see it referenced within the field’s literature. I agree with Hurley and Hea’s conclusion that, “technical writers must maintain their relevance by reaching readers and anticipating their needs as they create content…” (61).

However, I believe that crowdsourced technical communication is more prevalent than the authors seem to realize. And more often than not, the content was not written by a technical writer. One example is the Stack Overflow website. People can come to this site asking questions about programming, and other users of the site will answer, with other users chiming in to contribute their experience, until a satisfactory solution is found. The community is self-moderated by a reputation system that allows garbage questions and answers to be removed. I have stumbled over this website (or its parent, Stack Exchange) again and again searching for solutions to my software problems.

I am less interested in this sort of crowdsourced knowledge. What I am interested is when companies take advantage of crowdsourcing that is already going on. In this scenario, a company will set up some sort of forum or bulletin board-style site where users of their product can ask questions. However, rather than hiring staff to answer those questions, the company instead depends on altruistic users who post their answers and experiences without pay.

Microsoft is one company leveraging the power of the “crowd” to help users solve technical problems. The Microsoft Community is their community-fueled help platform. Much like Stack Overflow, users can post questions to be answered by other users. The difference, however, is that Microsoft employees moderate the forum–although they rarely post responses themselves.

I can only imagine how much money Microsoft has saved by enabling its community of users to troubleshoot other users’ problems. I would be interested in finding out what other companies do this, and if it extends to more traditional documentation, rather than just questions and answers.

The article says, “To succeed in the age of social media… businesses need to adapt to the affordances of the Web in terms of users’ social and browsing habits” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 60). It is clear that companies like Microsoft are doing just that, and as technical communicators, we need to do so as well.


Posted on September 18, 2016, in Social Media, Technology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. When you mention that companies are setting up systems to take advantage of crowdsourcing, I immediately think of iFixit. Their website is set up like a wiki to help users document repair guides for an assortment of devices and machines. When I used iFixit recently to fix my laptop, I ended up buying replacement parts for my repair.

    I kind of see their company as a mix between user generated content and company generated content with the intent of licensing their documentation platform service and selling replacement parts. It’s almost like a one-stop-shop for self-service repairs.

    Lastly, what about paid crowdsourcing? I remember a small business called CloudCrowd that used people from social media networks to split huge projects into little tasks. It meant having to perform these tasks and then those tasks would be verified by someone else before getting paid. It had an interesting workflow and depending on experience and quality of work, better paying tasks would become available. Getting to the better paying tasks depended on people who felt your work was done well.

    • Interestingly, although CloudCrowd was my first real exposure to crowdsourcing, I would no longer consider it such. I’d be more inclined to place it in the sharing economy (Uber, AirBnB, etc.) or gig economy (Postmates, Elance,TaskRabbit, etc.) buckets. Although the sharing/gig economy buckets do require the shared resources or collective labor of a group, I think that crowdsourcing is specific to the collective knowledge of the group.

      CloudCrowd’s model unfortunately never did work out. They subsequently got bought out by another company for their platform. The company that bought them is a similar model, but it’s much closer to Amazon’s MTurk ( Which in turn is much more in the task economy bucket. It relies on outsourcing tasks to a large group–dividing labor rather than bringing together individuals’ knowledge.

      • An interesting note about any of the crowdsourcing platforms that you mention is that they don’t have any form of filter or accuracy check. People can post bad advice or “solutions” that don’t actually work. When turning to the wisdom of the crowd, you also lose the gatekeeper to make sure that you’re getting reliable information.

        I used to think that this was the fatal flaw of the model, but so far I’ve been proven wrong. I’m a bit too cynical to operate under the assumption that everyone contributes great information out of their knowledge and the goodness of their hearts, but that seems to be happening on many sites with a minimal amount of mediation or control (e.g. Wikipedia). Then again, I’ve also seen examples in my own work as a technical writer where one customer leads another customer astray, and we wonder why they didn’t just ask us for the right solution.

        • People who are passionate about something generally want to share that passion with the world.

          I have two interesting anecdotes about Wikipedia from my undergrad.

          1) In one of my classes, one of our assignments was to intentionally vandalize a Wikipedia page. Most of the pages were fixed before class the next day. The ones that weren’t fixed were very small changes that didn’t really affect the content in any way.

          2) Professor of the class mentioned in #1 had a husband who was a premier researcher in geology. He had made some discovery but they hadn’t published the paper yet. As a lark, he updated the relevant Wikipedia page to reflect his discovery. That change, too, was reverted within 24 hours.

  2. I like your example of Microsoft (I’ve been using that site much too often lately). I think IBM has a similar setup as well as WordPress tech help.

    I didn’t know these were examples of crowd-sourcing, but after reading Hurley and Healthy (2014) I made the connection.

  3. It’s funny how little thought I put into these resources. I’ve often searched a problem and ended up on a site that let me post my questions and wait for someone from cyberspace to address it. Or, I could search to see if anyone else previously posted a problem similar to mine and then read and try the responses. It never occurred to me that this was purposeful crowd-sourcing, and while it saved the company money by cutting down the need for a full technical department to answer questions, it was very effective.

    Amazon recently emailed a customer question to me. They had received a question from another customer about a glaze that I had previously purchased. The email asked if I could help the customer by answering her question. I believe this is another form of crowd-sourcing.

    • You bring up a good point about Amazon soliciting answers about previously purchased items. I’ve gotten these e-mails as well, and I probably have actually answered a couple of them (most get answered by somebody else before I have a chance to click the link). In this case the purchasers are sharing the information that they have gained about the product over the course of using it. I would consider this to be crowdsourcing.

      But it brings up another question: what about when Amazon requests you review something you purchased? Does the collective experience/opinions that gets aggregated into Amazon’s reviews, or a site like Yelp, count as crowdsourcing? I’d vote no; unlike the answers, reviews don’t leverage collective information or knowledge (which *may* be considered objective to a point–the dimensions of your kitchen scale won’t change just because the shipping was slow). But reviews are very subjective–you could be at the best restaurant in the world, but give a bad review because it was raining that day.

      And of course, some review aggregation sites can be pretty unreliable or downright scams at worst. If you want to know more about that, here’s an article by cybersecurity blogger Brian Krebs:

  4. Amazing discussion happening here! Thanks for all the examples. My digital humanities undergrads are reading a novel whose protagonist relies on Mechanical Turk, so tomorrow we are having our first discussions about trust online. I’m going to share the following video to give them some context:

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