Distributed Work and Collective Knowledge-making
Posted by Dan Lea
Social media have spurred changes in communication—technical and otherwise—far beyond expanding its reach and speeding its delivery. Stacey Pigg, in the article, “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” points out that communicators use social media not only to distribute their work, but also to collaborate with contributors and to build their careers.
I have a little experience with the first and third examples listed there. As a broadcast journalist, I used social media to distribute news stories beyond the traditional, set-time radio newscasts, and also to create relationships with more followers (for lack of a better term), in the hope that some of them would become listeners. I have not had much experience with using social media as a collaborative workspace, but this may be the biggest development of all.
Bernadette Longo, in her article, “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South,” points out just what a leap this idea of collective knowledge making is. When a work is put out online and others can contribute to it, through feedback, comments, or even direct additions, such as in a wiki, the line of authorship becomes blurred. The creator becomes as much a moderator as an author, and the product continues to evolve long after is published (if that’s even the right word anymore). The resulting product is “richer, deeper, and more useful” (Longo, 2013, p. 23). The idea of inviting readers to be contributors to the finished product takes the concept of audience-centered content to the extreme. The audience is, in fact, invited to help craft the final product until they find it most useful.
The social aspect of social media is well illustrated in Pigg’s article, which traces the work activities of a freelance communicator she calls Dave. During the course of a work session at a coffee shop, Dave reads other bloggers’ work while he composes his own blog. He and these other bloggers comment on each other’s work and link to one another’s blogs, helping to grow their audience together. Pigg points out the temporary alliance bloggers form as they build their community. Dave is also deliberately building his online persona as he creates his work and seeks out communities to join. He hopes the name recognition and credibility he establishes will attract more freelance work. To stay engaged in the online community, Dave constantly monitors social media, such as Twitter, and participates in the conversation.
As I mentioned, I have not collaborated much via social media or publicly available online services, though I have done considerable collaboration by email. In my current job, working for a large, national health care organization, I collaborate via email and Skype with people far away, some of whom I have never met in person. Some materials require input and approval from multiple departments in various regions across the country, so we email drafts back and forth (I know, it seems like this would be easier with Google Docs, but security and virus concerns make these forbidden). When we need a quick answer on something and we don’t want to get lost in the clogged email inbox, we instant message one another through Skype. We also share sample documents and discuss larger issues—enterprise style standards, best practices, etc.—through Yammer, a business-oriented internal social media platform.
Longo argues that social media is more effective in maintaining real-world interpersonal relationships that in creating new, virtual ones. I have to agree, as I am much more likely to interact with people I know in some other context. My most frequent social media interaction is with my own family. We have found social media to be very useful in keeping in touch. Back when I first went to college in the dark ages (the 1980s), our parents were lucky if we called home once a week. These days, my wife and I are able to exchange daily updates and even inside jokes with our grown daughters, one on the east coast and the other studying abroad. Depending on what we want to share—a quick comment, a picture, a video—these interactions might take place via Facebook Messenger, SnapChat, or WhatsApp. Whatever tool we’re using, it helps us feel closer together.
Pigg’s real-life example, “Dave,” can’t even articulate all of these different tasks he’s accomplishing with social media. We are developing new techniques and approaches before we know what to call them. Technical communication education must constantly evolve to understand, describe, and teach these concepts. The constant change creates challenges, but it should also be exhilarating. There’s no time to get bored with the same old same old. Communication is not static. There is always room for experimentation, looking for a better way to produce a better product and reach a broader, more interested audience.
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