Reach for it!
Posted by jebehles
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:
- reach: “the ability to form relationships, address user interests, and determine long-term effects of networking” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 57)
- 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.
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