Honing in on Audience

In part III of Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, the focus is on the relationship between technical communicators and their audience, taking a deeper look at ideas such as ethics and communicating between different cultures. The overarching theme is the emphasis that technical communicators must, and for the most part do, place on their audience.

Although I am not yet a technical communication (TC) professional, as a student of TC I have quickly learned the importance of considering one’s audience in the field of TC. It is one of the first and most highly emphasized points in many of the foundational courses for TC and it is not hard to see why – the purpose of a technical communicator is to advocate for the user/reader/audience and ensure that all associated documentation is easily accessible and understood. An important part of this user-advocate role, I believe, is understanding the rhetoric involved in communication of all kinds and attempting to write or design for the appropriate rhetorical situation. This, to me, is what sets technical communicators apart from other communicators (e.g. writers) – the emphasis placed on how the audience will perceive what is being communicated and utilizing that rhetoric in appropriate and ethical ways.

As I was reading this section, my mind kept wandering to one of the many “articles” I find linked on Facebook daily. With the uprising of so many “social news” sites (e.g. Buzzfeed), it is hard to get away from articles that use pop-psychology and serve no purpose other than entertainment. As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning, I came upon this article:

Screen Shot 2016-10-07 at 11.28.22 AM.png

In case you want to read the article, it can be found here

Out of curiosity, I went to the page and read through it (though these sites are notoriously difficult to navigate with only one portion of the list on each page – known as “click bait”). In situations like these, I most often like to read the comments that other Facebook users have posted on these links. As usual, this post was littered with comments of offended women going on about how they don’t care what a man thinks about their hair, they will do what they want, etc. Other comments were in response to those negative ones, claiming that the article was not telling you how to style your hair, or even that you should base your hair choices on what men think, but that it was just a little bit of insight into what men’s opinions are.

Aside from the fact that I don’t trust or believe these type of “survey” articles, due to lack of substantial research or any reliable study methods, it struck me as interesting that the primary controversy of the article seemed to be (as is often the case) about what the authors were actually trying to say with this piece. While this type of controversy is probably encouraged in the “social news” world, it is exactly the opposite of what a technical communicator strives for.

This is what I believe sets technical communicators apart from other communicators. The goal in TC is to be clear, precise, understood and to approach the situation from an appropriate rhetorical perspective so as to convey exactly what he/she means. This is not as easy as it sounds – as was exemplified by the above article, each reader’s perception is different and is clearly colored by past experiences, current opinions, and overall personality. This makes the technical communicator’s job that much more difficult to attempt to find a way to unite all those differences in opinion to convey one message.




Posted on October 7, 2016, in Social Media. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I like how you provided a “listicle” (list+article) as an example of what NOT to do in technical communication. I take the same approach as you do when confronted with these type of clickbait articles–hit the comments first. Generally, somebody will take the time to sum up the “article” so that nobody else has to click on it. I love these people, as I can figure out whether the article is worth my time.

    The thing about clickbait is, I don’t think they put much thought into the “articles” or their potential audience. Their entire purpose is to drive people to the site to view the ads (thus the need to click ‘Next Page’ after every list item–each click is an additional set of ad views). They don’t care if they meet anyone’s needs or usability (if they did, the whole article would be on a single page!). As such, they probably spend more time on their clickbaity headlines than they do on the articles themselves.

    From a rhetorical standpoint, they post controversial content (and even more controversial headlines) because they want to upset people. Angry people tend to be more likely to respond. Due to the way Facebook’s algorithms work, more responses to the Facebook post equals more eyeballs on said Facebook post, and more potential clicks an ad views, thus more angry people, thus more responses–et cetera ad infinitum.

    Thus I 100% agree with your assertion that “social news” is the antithesis of good technical communication.

  2. While this type of controversy is probably encouraged in the “social news” world, it is exactly the opposite of what a technical communicator strives for.

    Excellent post! The comments on these types of articles are also interesting to read, although to keep my sanity I usually quickly close the tab. It’s one of the things that makes me think everyone having access to technology isn’t such a good idea. But that returns us to tech literacy.

    If everyone who commented truly realized that their comment was now part of “the public sphere” and permanently out there, even on a topic as harmless as hairstyles, would they click “submit”? Facebook was originally a “walled garden” where you had to accept the friend requests and you could limit your audience of readers, but more and more pages are public for the world to see. And the fact that it takes a user, not you, to limit what they see of your FB actions, is totally unacceptable. I find myself checking for that public “globe” icon more and more because the last thing I need is to get into a debate with strangers.

  3. I like how you’re able to apply the theories from the readings from your life (even without being a TC professional yet). I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. I love to read posts from my friends and family as well as stay abreast of social interests; however, I hate about everything else. I found this article from Forbes (2014) that Facebook was going to crack down on click bait articles. Looks like those links found a different way to keep themselves in everyone’s news feeds. From an audience perspective, if you want to see less of those articles, stop sharing them. http://www.forbes.com/sites/amitchowdhry/2014/08/26/facebook-is-going-to-suppress-click-bait-articles/#348e47ba47b0

    Blakeslee presents several ideas about researching audience heuristics: “We have not questioned traditional approaches to analyzing audiences and we have not posed more specific kinds of questions about best practices for thinking about and addressing audiences” (p. 200) I also agree that TC writers should analyze and research digital media audiences more and involve the reader more. The shift from one-sided paper documentation to multi-faceted digital documentation needs much more consideration. These chapters were very provocative regarding digital media evolution.

  4. I’m glad you brought up clickbait as an example of what a technical communicator should not do. Most of the clickbait out there is junk and only serves in the interest of the website owner to serve more ads. I shudder to think what people’s business plan originally was before remaking their website into a clickbait site.

    On a side note: as a parody of those clickbait sites is ClickHole, which is a satirical website created by The Onion. I guess the internet will one day have a parody of this parody.

    I guess the best way to work through the clickbait is something I keep saying to my content contributors at work: write content that is clear and concise. If you write great content, it should stand up to the test of time. I ask them: will this content be relevant a year from now, two years, even five years?

    If it’s written well, people won’t have to heavily revise it because it’s already written in the best way possible. I know this is true because if you look at quality information out there on the internet, it still shows up on the first page of search engine results.

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