Monthly Archives: October 2017

Digital Literacy Embraced

Earlier this week I was chatting with one of my superiors who was visiting the regional campus from where I taught my IDL class that day. Of course, she asked me about my class (since I am required to take classes to keep my Speech certification). I told her what we have been discussing and told her about the case study I am doing on Western’s use of social media etc. She asked me what I thought of their Twitter posts. I mentioned that I enjoyed the content, but the spelling and grammar mistakes are plentiful. Her response was that in the more technical fields, grammar and spelling are second to content. I pointed out that the president of the college just tweeted and it contained an obvious error. She scoffed and said it was no big deal. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut, but I told her that Western’s Twitter followers may not share her view about spelling and grammar since many would see that as lacking an eye for detail or incompetence. He expression changed and she proceeded to a back office. So, I revisited that conversation when I read Dicks’ article, “The Effects of Digital Literacy” and his quote of Moore and Kreth (2005) stating “The days of being grammar cops, wordsmiths, and software applications experts are not over for technical communicators, but those skills are diminishing in value. . . ” (2010, pg 54).

Perhaps the English instructor in me has difficulty with letting those skills fall into second. I imagine many technical communicators may feel the same way. However, with the changes in responsibilities for technical communicator’s, I can see having to let something go. . . perhaps one has to put away the grammar cop badge and focus on other areas.

So many changes have occurred over the last 30 years, but many significant changes in the last decade have really eliminated many responsibilities of what I perceived many technical communicators do. In fact, I recently changed a writing assignment in one of my classes to a website review. I figured it would give them more of a technical view of writing and also get them to see what is considered when devising and evaluating a website[ Audience, purpose and content (as is for other types of communication)] verses an essay. The students (typical college students at a UW school) are much more engaged on this assignment since most are more technology-minded.

Technical communication is changing so rapidly, I am not sure I can keep up. I can’t imagine how challenging it must be for someone who has been in the field for 30 years. Dicks’ states, “Technical communicators watched some people leave the profession because they chose not to change the way they worked and because they insisted that true writing involved writing for paper (2010, pg 76). I see the same happening in my field. Some instructors at Western refuse to teach Online or IDL classes and refuse to use Blackboard. I find that a bit ironic since it is a technical college; however, it benefited me since I don’t mind teaching in either mode. I was pleased to hear that the college is finally making all instructors at least use Blackboard next year. Also, in some disciplines, faculty will have to teach Online or IDL if needed. Some may see it as an infringement of their rights (which I don’t understand), but technology is changing the workplace, not just for technical communicators, but for those of us teaching people who need some or all the skills of that field.

 

 

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Epiphany on Professional & Personal Evolution

I include “Their Brains Were Small and They Died”, a 1993 folk song from “Cows with Guns”, as a soundtrack for this week’s reflection. It’s intended to be humorous and a cautionary tale on what happens when there is no evolution. That’s a disclaimer as my intent is not insult anyone.

“You’re just a technical writer”.

This accusation from a co-worker (with dangerous presumptions of her own credibility and skills), as well as Rachel Spilka’s  choices for her Digital Literacy for Technical Communication  (2010) and conversations in the past week with my wife (also a professional communicator) and my students have led to an epiphany.

If I am to evolve as a professional, if I am to thrive as a teacher, it doesn’t matter what I think of social media. It doesn’t matter that I believe government-by-tweet is dangerous to democracy and that I continue to find Howard Rheingold and the work of Zuboff and Maxmin described in R. Stanley Dicks’ article to be “increasingly optimistic and even utopian revelries about the resulting world”. (R. Stanley Dicks (2010), “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” p. 57)

What matters is what I do to help my students be credible communicators and that I help Network Health Plan employees communicate more effectively and access information in channels and methods most comfortable to them. Being open to new facets of “digital literacy” is key. (I did appreciate Spilka’s analysis of how she settled on her use of the term.)

For example, because I’m enamored of American history, I tend to use Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy as touchpoints. (No, I don’t play Dion’s song from 1968.) My students, on average, not only don’t know the references but they tend to think that the world started 20 years ago. I have made a radical upgrade in references (including not mentioning how much I miss my abacus and slide rule).

Turning to the reading, the epiphany started with the very first page of Saul Carliner’s “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”. Like Carliner, my career in technical communication started with software documentation and has seldom strayed from that industry. I, too, have experienced the same change in duties and expectations as did Carliner.

In 1983, when I started in business-industrial communications, my role was, indeed, “just a technical writer”. The job required accepting Subject Matter Expert’s inputs, nearly exclusively in hard copy. Then I was to “fill in the blanks” applying corporate styles of appearance and content. My first technology-based tool was the then-revolutionary IBM system (green screen where a “return” was the same as a typewriter carriage return).

Fast forwarding through the last two decades, ever-evolving technology has enabled any stakeholder in a communication project to contribute content in nearly ready-to-use format (if not coherence or relevance).
evolve or die1
While not as draconian as “Evolve or die”, I found, just as Carliner describes, that I needed to be more than “just a technical writer” especially if I wanted to earn more than the $15 per hour that was, at the time, pretty much the standard wage. I paralleled exactly what Carliner experienced and my role became closer to the traditional roles of Business Analyst, Project Manager, and Content Management Administrator. I achieved that diversification of skills through classwork, do-it-yourself learning, and volunteering to take on tasks outside of my prescribed job.

That evolution in roles continues today where one of my goals is to empower my colleagues to produce more original content so I can concentrate on the delivery.

TC: The Madonna of career fields

If Madonna had stayed a “Material Girl” and never made “Confessions on the Dance Floor,” she likely would not have an active 40-year entertainment career. Technical communication has also continued to evolve to stay relevant. The key to success for technical communication is not getting too hung up on the name.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the profession as “Technical writers, also called technical communicators, prepare instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles, and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily. They also develop, gather, and disseminate technical information through an organization’s communications channels.” The Bureau of Labor also predicted the field will grow 11 percent–faster than the overall average–in the next 10 years because it will be “driven by the continuing expansion of scientific and technical products. An increase in Web-based product support should also increase demand for technical writers. Job opportunities, especially for applicants with technical skills, are expected to be good.”

In her anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Rachel Spilka (2010) said her collection “points to the critical need for evolution” (p.3). And Saul Carliner’s (2010) essay “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” illustrates how the field has been able to embrace new technologies to provide better support for customers. However, as the field continues to evolve, professionals in the field may not be called “technical writers” or “technical communicators.”

Eva Brumberger and Claire Lauer (2015) investigated the evolution of the field in their article “The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Posting,” which was published in November 2015’s issue of Technical Communication. The researchers analyzed 914 job postings from Monster.com over a 60-day period for a variety of jobs to include content designer, information architect, social media developer, technical editor, technical writer, UX researcher, and web writer (p.  The researchers only kept listings whose primary duties were rhetorical in nature, and divided the jobs into five fields: 1. content developer/manager; 2. grant/proposal writer; 3. medical writer; 4. social media; 5. technical writer/editor (pp. 228-229). In their analysis, Brumberger and Lauer (2015) discovered that all five fields place a strong emphasis on written communication [at least 70%] (p. 236).

According to Carliner (2010), technical writers in the 1970s were primarily producing written content to help customers understand their newly purchased mainframe computers (pp. 22-25). In current times, Carliner (2010) said, software engineers perform the roles of technical communicators (p. 25). Brumberger and Lauer (2015) reported almost 40 years later, technical communicators are expected to be strong in written communicators [75%] (p. 236).

While technical communicators first created books, most technical content today is found online, according to R. Stanley Dicks (2010) who wrote: “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” (p. 51). So, while a lot in the field has changed over 40 years, the core competency of written communication has not wavered. The emerging media platforms have given the field an opportunity to produce more meaningful written content because it has better communication channels with its audience. Dicks (2010) wrote that companies cannot hide common product issues because they will show up on product reviews, blogs, and message boards (p. 57).

Madonna has remained relevant for 40 years because she was able to keep a pulse on what was current. Technical communication has performed a similar feat by evolving but also by keeping audience analysis at the forefront. As long as the field continues to perform audience analysis and adapt, it will be a viable career opportunity for years to come.

 

 

Playbook

I found this week’s reading fairly awkward as it included software engineers as technical communicators. Software Engineer is a very misused term to begin with. Rachel Spilka’s book gave me the feeling that they used to be more document centric, but now they are more jack-of-all trades developers and managers, sometimes dev ops, and sometimes just programmers. A lot of software industry titles trend towards a jack-of-all trades type of job, hence the new title “Full-Stack engineer”. Full-stack engineers are usually developers who know all aspects of how to build a web application. Why pay multiple people when you can get just one that knows how to do everything? Initially, a technical communicator sounded like a far fetch in the software engineer’s knowledge tool-box.

When I was studying for my computer science degree, most professors seemed to verbally accept the fact that most of us were just not going to be gifted in the writing department. It was not a required or emphasized aspect even though I had a software engineering emphasis. In the industry, I cannot disagree with this either. Most legacy code I have worked on is not documented from the technical side at all. It’s not always because of talent or ability, but honestly the last thing most of my colleagues want to do after coding is sit down and write sufficient documentation for days after that. Additionally, one extra line of code has the potential to change most or all of a document on the system functionality. Documentation is looked at by our management as a nice to have, but it’s not a show-stopper if it’s not there. We are never interviewed on our writing skills. This first-hand knowledge made me raise an eyebrow when Spilka listed software engineers as technical communicators from the late 90’s to now.

What I realized part way through reading was that the documentation Rachel Spilka is referring to has changed just like how the job titles have changed. The documentation that a software engineer will generate is kind of dynamic and is not always a formal breed of documentation. Spilka states a couple times in the book that the job of technical communicators has changed audiences, that they have changed from being experts to novice. It seems to me that the responsibility for creating power user documentation has been assumed primarily by software engineers, architects and system engineers, while technical writers create more customer-facing or public documentation.

So, how do software engineers document? We document when we want to ensure that we don’t have to work more than we want. The documentation that we do produce is aimed at fellow engineers so we don’t have to repeat ourselves too much when new people are hired or start working on what we have already built. We also document for production systems for installation and troubleshooting guides for when things go very wrong. Both of these types of documents we call “playbooks” for our engineering sector. These playbooks seem very similar to the initial documentation that was created by technical communicators in the 70’s (Spilka, R., ed., 2010, 22).

Hand Drawing A Game Strategy

We keep these playbooks on a content management system that is accessible by the entire company, so if they want they can just go to our page and try to find the answer to their question before talking to us. We can also receive comments on the content management system so that all discussions on the documentation are public. Sometimes the documentation just looks like notes and sometimes it looks like a proper installation document depending on its purpose. We also document even less formally by creating static and dynamic charts and graphs for the design of our system. These can be the most useful in explaining functionality to other software engineers. We also document by putting comments in code to explain exactly what we are trying to do algorithmically. All of these forms of documentation fully take advantage of the technological changes that have been granted to us to make technical communication more efficient.

This book was written in 2010 so I feel like a revision could occur to navigate even more technical communication responsibilities in businesses today. For example, System Engineers have a huge role in technical communication between all components of a technical product. I feel like this specific role could be very helpful in identifying where some of the technical communication responsibilities have been dispersed in today’s world. Spilka does mention that the content would probably be irrelevant for the types of companies that I work at. Additionally, every company is vastly different in how they incorporate technical platforms and integrate with engineering processes. I can only imagine the challenges Spilka encountered in trying to compile the history of technical communication.

Digital Literacy: Survival Skills for the 21st Century

Unsettling? Challenging? Rewarding? How should we view the future of technical and professional communication? R. Stanley Dicks uses all of those words when wrapping up the chapter, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work.” I would argue that these three adjectives must almost always go together, for if we are settled, we are not challenged, and without being challenged, I don’t know how often we can feel rewarded.

I’m not saying I’ve never felt overwhelmed by changing technology. It is hard to even define the field of technical communication due to its many emerging subsets, such as usability and information architecture. The various tools of social media, content management, and distributed work, seem too many to count, let alone learn. But that is also what makes the field exciting.

I remember thinking it was funny that my dad (now 83) could not figure out how to use a computer mouse. Now my grown daughters laugh at the way my brow furrows when I’m trying to figure out a new app on my smart phone. I may not be as quick to pick it up as they are, but I still feel the excitement of learning to use new technology.

When I was starting out in the working world, as a radio broadcaster and copywriter, the clack of the typewriter and the finished page were the symbols of work and accomplishment. But the convenience of word processors overruled my nostalgia. When I took a class in HTML in the mid-90s, I found myself glued to a desktop pc for 8 hours at a time, enthralled at the way my text and tags combined to create a whole new, dynamic medium. I have found great usefulness in Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. Today’s easy-to-use web tools, such as the blogging site I’m using right now, can also make for some very satisfying work. I embraced e-learning in a big way, going back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree, and now tackling a master’s program. I am excited to learn to put more tools to use. Just today I was wishing I had a real content management system to work with, as I found myself making the same revision to multiple documents.

It will not be enough, though, Dicks argues, to learn to use the tools. We will not be able to settle in to learning a set of skills and then turning out good work, year-after-year. But what fun would that be anyway? We will need to participate in developing new ways to use these tools. Workers who can produce the same results over and over will not have job security as the 21st century continues. Those jobs, as Dicks points out, can be outsourced. It’s hard to outsource ingenuity, though. Those of us who learn to undertake symbolic and analytic work will be valuable to our employers. As the support economy grows, allowing customers to drive service rather than rely on it, those of us who can devise better ways to serve them will prove our worth, and hopefully reap the rewards.

I gave considerable thought to trying some type of freelance or contractor work when I

TechCommimage

Image: University of California Irvine http://www.carsera.org

made a career change less than two years ago. I’m not sure I’m ready to work remotely just yet. I might not get out of my bathrobe. But I am getting used to collaborating with partners I have never met in person. That career change also led to a crash course in collaboration, as I find myself creating content that depends on subject matter experts to feed me the information I need and help me convey it accurately, designers to help mold it into a usable form, and social media experts to help get it distributed. Some days I find myself stretching further into one or all of these directions myself, as the need arises.

The best thing I can do to stay afloat in this flood of innovation is to keep stretching those skills, and, most importantly, keep developing the ability to work with these multi-disciplinary teams. I don’t have to be an expert in everything, but I hope, if I ever find myself in another job interview, to be able to confidently say I can work effectively on a team, manage widely varying projects, and contribute creative expertise that will help add to my employer’s bottom line, no matter what my job title is.

 

Not your mom’s Web 2.0

 

Although I felt I had a good grasp on using the web (and some forms of social media)  really did not understand its full potential, history and cultural influence until this class. This week’s particular readings engaged me into researching articles to learn even more. I feel like I discovered a new world, and at the same time, wonder how I could have limited my vision over the years.

First of all, although I find the web, social media etc. informative and entertaining, I never truly saw it for all it’s worth —  for its communication and collaborative abilities as discussed in Rheingold’s Net Smart. Now I understand and agree with Wayne Macphail’s statement, “You need coordination to dance, cooperation to dance with a partner, and collaboration to dance with a flash mob” (Rheingold, 2014, pg. 153). Himmelman’s Taxonomy of Networking, Coordination, Cooperation and Collaboration helps me understand how online communication works to bring people together, share ideas, learn, explore and more. e218_ol_fig7_01

(Partnerships and Network)

In fact, I immediately related it to my teaching pedagogy. My classes do incorporate  networking activities by chatting with other students; coordination activities by sharing resources helpful for class; cooperation by peer revision/editing and online class discussions; and collaboration by creating a group wiki or project.

From observing my kids’ (ages 16, 21 and 30) online interactions, I see they even use their social media in the same way. For example, my son uses his Facebook and Instagram to to network and meet other teenagers who share similar interests in music (jazz and rap) and sports (football and basketball). He has joined social groups to delve into those interests more. This has led him to collaborating with others he wouldn’t normally meet. He now has friends he creates music with and with whom he either physically meets to play a sport or plays fantasy football with or even plays with on Xbox. He may not socialize the way I did as a teenager, but he is definitely communicating with others on a variety of levels through differing modes of communication.

These communication skills are essential in today’s world, for it can lead to innovation as

a result of collective intelligence. Yes, the idea of collective intelligence is not new. In Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome Collective Intelligence article, MIT Center for Collective Intelligence not only reviews basic Web enabled collective intelligence, but also examines more modern examples and the structure that leads to their success. Although MIT’s “map” gives a  clear picture of how collective intelligence works, it does coincide with Rheingold’s useful tool’s discussed in chapter 4 of Net Smart.

On another note, in the article above, MIT Center for Collective Intelligence discusses examples of collective intelligence such as having a YouTube channel:”In YouTube, every user is associated with a “channel.” On these channels, users can upload their own videos and/or link to selections of other users’ videos, via a favorites option. Users can subscribe to other users’ channels and receive notifications when their favorite channels have been updated. Users thus form social networks that affect their choices of what videos to watch.” In this way, You Tube can help expand the knowledge of a group. However, in “DIY Videos on You Tube: Identity and Possibility in the Age of Algorithms, ” Christine T. Wolf examines “. . . how the social and material aspects of YouTube are entangled in search practices, we can see how these experiences might work to narrow, rather than widen, individuals’ information worlds.” Nonetheless, I imagine that this is not the case with most modern forms of web-based collective intelligence.

The use of collective intelligence and crowdsourcing has been quite prevalent (unbeknownst to me) in the business world. I have found several blogs and articles online about  how “In today’s marketing community crowdsourcing is often seen as a modern marketing technique due to its technological influences” ( Mateika).

Kaytie Zimmerman says, “The idea of crowdsourcing is fairly new, with the term only being coined within the last decade. Because it is so cutting edge, millennials have comfortably taken on the idea as part of their daily lives” ( Zimmerman). So, since my students (many going into business) consists largely of millenials, I am interested in learning more about crowdsourcing and how I can incorporate this new knowledge into my classes.

 

Read only: The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0

Scott Kushner discusses the contradiction of social media being fueled by participation when in reality most people virtually stand back and don’t participate in his article Read Only: The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0. I found an interesting connection between Kushner’s article about lurking and Rheinhold’s piece titled What’s a Parent to do? What’s a Parent to know? on page 245 of the Net Smart text.

As a parent of a five year old daughter my husband and I have had to think a lot about what and how much we post about our daughter. When we were growing up the idea of oversharing about children never existed. Now I have to worry about posting where she goes to school or where we are. I also worry about posting if my husband is gone for a work trip. I don’t want it to be public knowledge that my daughter and I are home alone.

Lurking plays a big role in online safety for families because you never know who read or saw information and didn’t acknowledge it. Without acknowledging it with a comment or reaction I have no way of knowing who has seen this information. Lurking is dangerous because as hard as we try to make sure our privacy is protected others may share our posts or post things about our families without our knowledge. Its like lurkers can easily gain significant facts and information without having to try. It makes it much more available to them and it also ties in the gray area of privacy. Just because you know its wrong to keep checking back on peoples posts and pages doesn’t mean that will stop them.

In general I feel that lurking isn’t always a bad thing. My husband rarely posts. Usually if he does its because he did something neat or noteworthy when his family wasn’t with. This doesn’t happen very often. Usually I am the one to post things. He also guards the number of likes or comments he makes. He believes that if you constantly like or comment on things they have way less meaning then if you hold back and only comment on things that are really neat. If you lurk in a healthy way it be a positive thing but it can be pretty easy to tip the scale and create an unhealthy habit.

I think most lurkers out there are harmless but unfortunately in 2017 the web has evolved to allow this practice to take place easily and discreetly in most cases.

Ajax: Real Time Collective Action

A big buzzword in my field is “Real-Time”.  Every company wants real time applications with automatically updating interfaces for increased usability.  Real-time allows users to think less and do more.  People don’t have to request for the latest statuses when they are already using a web application, the application will tell them there is an update.

Jack Jameison discusses Ajax’s role in the Web 2.0 world in his article Many (to platform) to many: Web 2.0 application infrastructures.  Ajax is simply a combination of technologies that allows user interfaces to be updated automatically when the server tells it to.  An application that uses this technology allows interfaces to automatically send or receive messages from a server without provocation from the user.  This has drastically changed how use the internet, and what we expect from it.

Jameison voices his skepticism about web technologies such as Ajax because this revokes control from users, giving less visibility into how they are really interacting with the web application.  One example might be that you receive a message you don’t want to respond to from someone online.  Now they have a status to tell the other user that you read that message just from you being online and it popping up on your screen.  Now the situation may be awkward, and can definitely be an unintended behaviour.

While real-time applications do come with unintended behaviours, they have also opened up new doors for how we communicate with each other online.  Rheingold discusses and divides “collective action” in the online world as three different categories: cooperation, coordination, and collaboration (p. 153).  Collective action has been empowered by real time capabilities of the web. Automatically updating interfaces helps provide a more active feeling to participation when you know that someone has read or replied to your comments online.  Collective action has become much easier, especially with the development of smart phones.  Most people in my city use Facebook to communicate and arrange meetings.  Too many times I’ll be notified that the location of the meetup has changed or people have had to change the time.  This helps encourage a level of trust between people who are trying to coordinate meetups.  I do not miss the days when I was stood up because nobody could tell me that the plans had changed.

Real-time applications give the ability to broadcast messages to users of a system, whether it’s an amber alert or your current location.  Sharla Stone discusses in her article Real-Time Disaster Relief how applications were developed just for tracking people who needed help in disastrous situations.  The applications provided the ability to track rescue requests in real time, find resources for people who needed help, and help in information sharing where it was previously difficult to do without the help of technology.

Applications and movements like this always inspire me and make me want to join.  Hopefully I will be able to participate in something as meaningful as this in the future.

Activism in Web 2.0

Are the Internet and social media good or bad? Do they represent an advancement of our society, or the beginning of its collapse? As Howard Rheingold points out in “Net Smart,” the better way to frame the question is to look at what are the good ways to use these tools, and how can we encourage them?

While the increased reach afforded by social media is obvious, Mathias Klang and Nora Madison, in their article, “The Domestication of Online Activism,” argue that various social media platforms impose limits on their use that dilute the effectiveness of online activism. Some of these limits are due to community standards rules set by the platforms. Facebook, for instance, will delete a post promoting breastfeeding if a nipple is visible.

There is also the issue of what will get noticed. Those who post social awareness messages are competing for attention with cute cat videos. I was intrigued enough to watch a video designed to illustrate white privilege yesterday. Half an hour later, I watched a video showing a chubby cat trying to climb into a tiny box (I am not proud of this). The creator of the white privilege post had to fashion the message in an attention-getting way. This struggle is not new, nor is it confined to social media. The only way to prevent this would be to distribute activist messages on dedicated activism channels, which would then not reach a general audience. Preaching activism to an activist audience would defeat the purpose.

I find myself focusing on how to fashion my messages to take advantage of the strengths of social media, rather than lamenting their limits, as Klang and Madison seem to be doing.

Changing media and messages are nothing new. As Rheingold points out, Socrates believed verbal communication was superior to written language. He feared written language would lead to superficial understanding. Written communications have been getting shorter and shorter over the centuries, from books to articles to posts to tweets. We should not forget, though, that through much of human history, few people could read at all. If you’re looking for an ideal period of history where all people took it upon themselves to be fully and accurately informed, I don’t think you’ll find it.

The question is, how much can we expect of the audience? Rheingold outlines the skills we need to cultivate to be good online citizens. The hope is that people will make the effort. Every day in my Facebook feed, I see posts shared by old high school classmates that indicate they have no interest in crap detection. I am engaging in crap detection by checking out their sources, controlling my attention by ignoring certain posts, and tuning my network by unfriending those who continually waste my time. On occasion, I see one of these folks apologize for sharing a piece of fake news after someone has called them out on it. Maybe they’ll be more thorough next time.

Klang and Madison are right to point out that the platforms themselves have power to block or shape messages, and activists should continue to challenge policies that are barriers to certain viewpoints. However, they may be overstating the weaknesses of online activism. While it is true that it does not take much effort to like a post or tweet, or even to share one, each person who does so is investing some social capital. As I watch the posts that my connections like and share, I am continually evaluating their credibility as a filter. I will ignore junk news, whether it is shared by a person I rarely agree with or by a like-minded friend. If someone shares an opposing viewpoint from a reputable source, I’ll give it my time. I don’t want to trap myself in an echo chamber of one-sided discussion.

It is up to me, as a consumer, to engage in this crap detection and tuning of my network. While the term “fake news” has become a crutch to dismiss any opposing viewpoints, at least it brings the need for crap detection to public awareness. I agree with Rheingold that students need to be taught to consider online sources critically. I recently read an article in the American Federation of Teachers magazine outlining these very concepts.

We have a ways to go, but I think we are slowly learning that participating in web 2.0 requires us to become our own fact checkers.

Once again, it’s the overall message

As I’ve read Rheingold, especially the chapters for this week’s blog posting, his level of optimism and confidence in the strength, viability, and “trustiness” (which sounds like a word from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) of “the Web’s collective intelligence” and the ever-evolving means of interacting continue to pique my attention.
Is that optimism warranted? (Disclaimer: I was voted “most likely to become cynical” in high school. I told my class it was already too late.) For example, he posits on p. 249, “Social media can amplify collective action” and on p. 250, “Collaboration requires agreement on shared goals. Everyone can look after their own interests but communication and negotiation are required for sharing goals.” This was demonstrated as true during the uprisings called the “Arab Spring” mostly notably in Tunisia and Egypt.
I suggest that Rheingold needs to re-assess at least some of that optimism in light of the current public discourse, at least in politics. Aside from responding in kind or in a juvenile ever-escalating stream of insults, there seems to be very little listening, much less collaboration, among prominent legislators and the President. Witness the recent “Twitter war” with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and the President.
This would be in line with the somewhat more somber assessment in Proferes’ article in which he asserts that easy availability and ease of participation is NOT the same as empowerment or true collaboration.
Equally chilling to Rheingold’s optimism is the ongoing collection of user information on behavior and habits as Proferes outlines in the two examples of Twitter (Library of Congress Archives and Occupy Wall Street). The same data collection processes and storage, while now mostly confined to determining what ice cream ad should be shown on your Facebook page, can be used against individuals and groups advocating political positions or actions deemed “subversive” by authorities or, even worse, deemed unacceptable under the “laws, economics, culture and social norms of the platform providers” to use Klang and Madison’s phrase.
This dovetails with their observation that while, “The acts of everyday activism seem to be faring the best as the reach of the individual has never been as great”, there are issues of technology limitations, interference from the same platform providers and government, and self-censorship.

Web 2.0: collaboration and oversharing

Sailors in the information warfare community, such as information systems technicians, intelligence specialists, or cryptologic technicians, generally live with the “nerd” stereotype, and most of us live up to it in different ways. My nerd outlets are academics and fitness tech. Others like anime and several of these Sailors play video games, especially World of Warcraft. (Although, I’m told the game isn’t as cool anymore and many have moved on to other games. Don’t ask me what’s cool now.)

So imagine my surprise when Howard Rheingold wrote in his book 2014 Net Smart: How to Thrive Online that World of Warcraft was cool. He said, “World of Warcraft is the new golf [in Silicon Valley]” (p. 158). Rheingold said World of Warcraft, as an interactive, multi-player game is a great example of collaboration online because players must form teams to complete quests (p. 158). He also cited a researcher who said it’s been estimated gamers have spent 5.93 million years playing World of Warcraft (p. 158). In some ways, I’m not surprised. My husband, feeling some nostalgia, spent the last year playing an older version of World of Warcraft on a Czech server. All I know is his “raid” schedule definitely cut into our social life. While annoying then, after reading Rheingold, I can appreciate the amount of collaboration it took to assemble 30-plus gamers (I think) from across the globe to play at a certain time.

Collaboration is important, according to Rheingold because it leads to “collective intelligence,” which is “a situation where nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given member knows is accessible to any other member upon request …” according to Henry Jenkins in his article “Collective Intelligence vs. the Wisdom of the World,” published in 2006 and cited by Rheingold (p.159). Collaborative efforts and crowdsourcing have created some of the web’s best resources including Wikipedia and the Linux operating system.

Rheingold says updating Wikipedia is a simple process: “All anybody has to do is click the ‘edit this page; link at the top of every Wikipedia page” (p. 181). Rheingold also wrote that Wikipedia’s founder’s first project, Nupedia, was a failure because the volunteer-written articles had to be vetted by an expert, which proved to be costly and time-consuming (p. 180). Wales dropped the expert vetting and Wikipedia took off (pp. 180-181).

However, Nicholas Proferes, author of “Web 2.0 user knowledge and the limits of individual and collective power,” published in 2016, argues Wikipedia isn’t the collaborative platform it claims to be because “only a small number of elite editors … contribute a significant amount of content to the platform.” Proferes added that “Getting new Wikipedia users to contribute has been a significant challenge” because the new users need training.”

To see who was right, I decided to make a small change to my alma mater’s Wikipedia page. I added the link to The Times-DelphicDrake’s student newspaper, and it was almost as easy as adding a link to WordPress. The “link” icons were the same in Wikipedia’s visual editor. I opted to create an account, and when I did, I was given tips on a username. After I added the link, I was asked to describe my changes and enter a string of letters to let Wikipedia know I’m a person and not a bot, then I hit “save changes.”

While Rheingold and Proferes disagree on the ease of Wikipedia, they both agree that Facebook’s privacy settings are difficult to navigate through. Proferes cited Lorrie Cranor (2003), who said “read-ability experts have found that comprehending privacy policies typically requires college-level reading skills.” Rheingold cautioned Facebook users “it is crucial to always keep in mind that your control of what Facebook technology can do with, as well as to your information … is limited, plus subject to change at any minute” (p. 234).

Overall, Rheingold sticks to the positive sides of Web 2.0 technologies while Proferes explores some of their pitfalls, but men caution users that regardless of what platform they are using (especially Facebook), it is important to know how the service works and what information it is collecting and sharing about you. So, be a good citizen on the Web, share your insights, just don’t share your whole life.

Torn from Today’s Headlines

The power of social media is shown in stark relief today. I’m not taking sides here (much) but it is fascinating how social media has become not just the medium but the message (to echo the now-quaint Marshall McLuhan).

Just from the Washington Post’s afternoon update of its Web site:
Jemele Hill suspended two weeks by ESPN after tweet about Cowboys owner Jerry Jones
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/10/09/jemele-hill-suspended-two-weeks-by-espn-after-tweet-about-cowboys-owner-jerry-jones/?utm_term=.d4562c1f20da

‘This is about systemic oppression’: Eric Reid becomes the voice of 49ers’ protest with criticism of Pence
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/early-lead/wp/2017/10/09/this-is-about-systemic-oppression-eric-reid-becomes-the-voice-of-49ers-protest-with-criticism-of-pence/?tid=pm_sports_pop&utm_term=.96bf3f8d2f68

It’s not the cost of Pence’s trip that was galling. It was the preparation for it.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/politics/wp/2017/10/09/its-not-the-cost-of-pences-trip-that-was-galling-it-was-the-preparation-for-it/?hpid=hp_hp-more-top-stories_penceanalysis-857am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.193a679e0e4e

While Pierre Omidyar, the eBay founder, finds even more ominous signs:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2017/10/09/pierre-omidyar-6-ways-social-media-has-become-a-direct-threat-to-democracy/?hpid=hp_no-name_opinion-card-b%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.ec91cb851862

Amazon Sharing Information at Incredible Speed

I was inspired by Jennifer’s blog post and also the Cluetrain’s “95 Theses” this week.  Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger discuss that through the internet people are inventing new ways to share information with incredible speed. I was amazed during the month of September at the amount of awareness Amazon.com brought to a very important issue in my family life.  Childhood cancer awareness.  Jennifer also blogged this week about another event that helped promote awareness for childhood cancer awareness.  Originally I had a different topic in mind for my blog but after seeing Jennifer’s post I realized that I wanted to share more to this story.

I first learned that Amazon was partnering with the American Childhood Cancer Organization ( https://www.acco.org/amazon/ ) through some of the cancer family groups I am a member of.  It took everything I had to not order something and waste money just to see a box.  Little did I know our iguana needed a new heat lamp and my husband made the purchase not knowing what the box would look like. Amazon sent out 10 million boxes with the following message on it:

IMG_5589

The marketing for this campaign is smart. 10 million boxes arriving at homes within a day or a few days to all types of people the make purchases from Amazon.com.  Amazon.com’s decisions can relate a number of ways to the Cluetrain Manifesto “95 Theses”. These #1 is Markets are conversations. These special boxes could have created new conversations anywhere from the fulfillment area, the shipping process, the delivery location and the recipient.

These #2 is that Markets consist of human beings, not demographic sectors.  This fact really helped spread this message to all groups of people and quickly. Human beings that may not been originally “targeted” to receive this message now have the opportunity to learn about this important cause.

Did anyone else receive or see a childhood cancer awareness box from Amazon in September?

 

Get a Clue: Join the Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail,” made it clear why online businesses/services are more successful than brick-and-mortar businesses services. Granted, I presumed much of the success had to do with instantly receiving the product or service and the lower costs due to the lack of physical space required. However, when I consider myself as a consumer, I realize that I tend to purchase items/services that don’t just “talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies” (Levine, Locke, Searles & Weinberger ,2001).

For example, I tend to use Amazon to purchase easily-shipped items to my rural home (an hour at least from any city with shopping choices other than Walmart). I used to purchase my clothes at a small local JCPenny. However, in the past few years, the internet has become available to almost all in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, so most of us have chosen to shop online, thus leading to the closing of stores like our local (at least 20 miles away from me) JCPenney in a town of 4,000 people. I imagine delivery/trucking companies are thriving though since packages are not being sent by truckloads to large brick-and-mortar businesses, but are being shipped to homes. This must me true in my area, for I see a UPS  or Spee-dee delivery truck on my road at least twice a day!

In addition to shopping online, I also listen to a local radio station which plays music “on the long tail.” WKPO 105.9 is a local station which claims to play a variety of music and it does! Each DJ chooses what they want to play, so it isn’t a pre-recorded list of hits. I imagine it is for some (based on my listening experience), but some DJs (on-line personalities) really pull from the long tail. For example, Tim Eddy cranks out the obscure music he loves which is a combination of rock, blue grass, funk, folk etc. He doesn’t just play hits, but plays music he enjoys and since he is well-known in the communities he serves, he tries to play what he feels his audience may enjoy, even if not popular elsewhere. Do I turn to another station when he gets on a roll of playing folk? Yes. Do I return? Yes, for I find more new songs/artists I enjoy by listening to his show.  “You can find everything out there on the Long Tail,” and Tim Eddy knows that (Anderson, pg 11)!

Although I do have cable television, I choose to use Netflix and Hulu for my entertainment instead. Like my choice in music, my film interests may be those from the Long Tail. Yes, I enjoy foreign films, independent movies, British television dramas and documentaries in addition to the popular choices such as Shameless etc. Anderson points out that “Netflix has made a good business out of what’s unprofitable fare in movie theaters. . .because it can aggregate dispersed audience,” much like what Amazon and other online businesses are doing. Both Nexflix and Hulu also follow Anderson’s “Rule 3: Help Me Find It,” by making suggestions based on my previous viewing. So, far the suggestions have been very good, so I often go to suggestions instead of searching for new titles to watch. This saves me time and broadens/deepens my interest in film.

Overall, the digital world has broadened my view with diverse options. In addition, it has also enhanced my physical world by allowing me to enjoy life on my hobby farm in rural Southwest Wisconsin and have shopping and services, not normally available here, available to me. In essence, it has saved me time and energy in my physical world, so I can enjoy what that world has to offer: a summer breeze, frolicking goats, changing leaves and golden sunrises.

What they’re NOT saying

Economic theorists, going back to the “Invisible Hand” of Adam Smith, have required that (paraphrased) a capitalist marketplace must have free and unfettered information shared by all participants to function “successfully”.
Clearly this requirement is rarely met in the “real world” or we wouldn’t need anti-insider trading rules and laws, anti-trust laws, anti-predatory lending laws, ad infinitum and we would not experience scandals such as Enron and Global Crossing.
I offer this perhaps tortured scenario in responding to this week’s readings. It seems that, without exception, the assumption is made that all participants in the “infosphere” as Rheingold calls it have free and unfettered (A/K/A fast or “turbo” or “extreme” or whatever today’s preferred adjective happens to be) access to, and USE of, the Internet. The Cluetrain Manifesto echos this assumption throughout its 95 theses by not even acknowledging there are huge infrastructure and social/political/economic barriers to realizing its “People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products”.
Let me quickly distinguish between “use” and “access”. While cellphone companies and government agencies claim that some large percentage (75% – 96% depending on the source) of Americans have “access” to the Internet, that is not the same as effective “use” of the Internet.
This has been dubbed the “Digital Divide” and affects large numbers of low-income (regardless of residence) and rural(regardless of income) Americans.
Indeed, even the research now available, such as from the Pew Research Center and the federal National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)in the Department of Commerce, usually fails to make this distinction.
NTIA’s BroadbandUSA program promotes innovation and economic growth by supporting efforts to expand broadband access and meaningful use (my addition) across America.
To make it personal – as I am writing this, I see my download speed is a scintillating 256 kps. This comes from the best option we have found in Shawano County (rural, northern Wisconsin); DSL from Frontier Communications. Although we are provisioned for a minimum of 3 mps, Frontier oversold its network capabilities and capacity. Now routinely, in the name of “fairness to all subscribers”, Frontier throttles our usage to these very low levels.
Frontier representatives have told we should be “grateful” for even this level of usage. New residents of our township or residents seeking Internet access cannot even get Frontier “service” due to its lack of capability, leaving satellite providers as their only option. Shawano County also shares the fate of many rural areas in having large sections where Internet access is flatly not available.
Clearly, until the issue of infrastructure is addressed across the country, we will not realize the benefits of online life such as Rheingold notes in his Chapter 3, “In the world of digitally networked publics (there’s that rhetoric concept again), online participation – if you know how to do it – can translate into real power”.

The Fridge is Full and There is Nothing to Eat!

I can go to the store and buy $300 worth of groceries, but when I look at the fridge after doing chores all day the last thing I want is to figure out what to make for dinner. There are just too many choices. This same phenomenon seems to happen with any other bountiful option of choices, whether it’s Netflix, or Spotify, it feels like I have even less options than when I had a collection of entertainment that could fit on half a bookshelf. With the bountiful amount of content and information available online, how are we getting anything done?

Metadata

Rheingold reminds us that this is not the first time an overabundance of information was made available to us. Rheingold reiterates that the printing press influenced scholars to “sharpen disciplines” and “define genres” to handle “the information overload of the 16th century” (p. 54). Genres and disciplines in this case are just metadata to help sift through the overload of data. And we are handling the internet in much of the same way. We use tagging online to help categorize and organize knowledge. The difference is that tagging is done by a large population of the internet rather than a few scholars.

The online entertainment businesses help consumers figure out what they want using categorization as well as recommendations. Anderson notes that recommendations for related content helped fuel book sales for content that may not have been previously considered (p. 2). Online entertainment has drastically helped increase the supply in business by the very nature of the delivery platform. Companies no longer have to worry about having enough popular content on their shelves since their shelves are just disk space and network constraints. Anderson also notes that the profitability of niche content is now more evident than ever. This means markets for niche content are much less risky than when we were limited to time slots on TV and in movie theaters.  But again, the overabundance of content is hard to sift through as a consumer. Meta-services like CanIStream.It have come around just to help people try to find if they are already paying for the service that hosts content they want to watch. Additionally, services like Netflix and Amazon both have recommended content and user generated ratings for every movie or episode that you can view to get a feeling for the level of quality.

Quality

The internet has given humans a greater voice on the internet, whether it is Yelp, online reviews, or online content from “amateurs.” And this is great, because we can potentially find better representations of public opinions.  The Cluetrain Manifesto highlights the new voice that people have been handed now that the internet can help us stand up to big corporations.

Unfortunately, this voice also leads to a large amount of bad content from uneducated and ill-willed people. This creates the need to have a level of skepticism when trying to find good information sources. Rheingold’s chapter on Crap Detection looks at some heuristics for finding trustworthy information. Services that help debunk bad information or review bad services can help us navigate these problems, but sometimes even that is not enough.  The level of internet security for a lot of this online content is not upheld to the same PCI compliance standards as banking, and we’ve seen how well that has gone. But that’s not to say we should no longer use it. Any channel of communication, whether it is the internet, phones, letters, books, or person-to-person communication, can be exploited. As such we should remain skeptical, critical, and keep up with where we get our information from, and where we put it.

This brings up the desire for content filtering and governance for these very reasons. Rheingold brings up Socrates’ skepticism of the written word, highlighting how without scholars to guide knowledge exchange there can be dangerous consequences (pp. 60-61). There appears to be an on-going trend throughout history to put governances and restrictions on knowledge. I fear that this option will set us back and make the internet unusable. Like I said before, everything can be exploited.

Conclusion

With more information than ever before, we are finding ways to manage and organize information into smaller amounts of information until it is exactly what we need. We are even creating services to help discover which services we should use.  With all the dangers that the amount of information being generated can impose, we must be careful about governances and restrictions, there is a fine line in protecting people’s minds and censorship.

 

Chasing the Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s article, “The Long Tail,” had special resonance for me. I spent about half of my 28 years in radio doing music “disc jockey” shifts (we called ourselves “air personalities,” as we stopped jockeying any kind of discs in the mid to late 90s). I understand all too well Anderson’s diagram showing the anatomy of the long tail, with a small number of major hits clustered on one end, and the long tail of lesser-appeal material trailing off into infinity. Our limitation on the radio was time, just as the limitation in (now scarce) music stores is shelf space.

We could only play one song at a time on the airwaves. If you selected a song from the “hits” end of the spectrum, you stood the best chance of holding a large share of your audience. If you selected one of your girlfriend’s personal favorites from the obscure end of the spectrum, most of your audience would tune over to one of your many competitors and would not come back until they screwed up and played something the listeners did not care for. For this reason, the choice was taken completely away from the djs and the playlists were programmed based on research, music testing, and safe hits. Hence the repetition and general lack of adventure of most stations. Many a radio programmer learned the hard way that while everyone says they want to hear more songs, they really want to hear more songs they like. Hit a clunker, and they’re off to someone who gives them what they want. Fewer listeners means lower ratings, lower advertising revenue, and lost jobs for those who steered their employers’ multi-million-dollar broadcast facilities in the wrong musical direction.

I know, of course, that there are many off-the-beaten-path songs that are beloved by a smaller, widely dispersed audience. Still, I was stunned at the statistics Anderson shared about how well those lesser known songs perform on digital music platforms, which can afford to offer up hundreds of thousands of songs for listeners to choose on their own time from anywhere in the world. Some of the radio stations I once worked for played around 300 songs, total. Current hits were played several times a day, while older nuggets might turn up once a month. The digital jukebox company, Ecast, offers up 150,000 songs on their barroom music service. Astonishingly, 99 percent of them are selected for at least some play each month. Some are played more than others, obviously, but digital storage and worldwide distribution make it possible for music and entertainment services like Rhapsody, Pandora, Netflix, and Amazon Prime to make money off the obscure works, too.

I’m delighted when one of these services offers up something I would never have had access to under the media limitations of my youth. When a movie about early 1960s folk musicians called “Inside Llewyn Davis” came out a few years ago, I could not find it in a local theater, despite a supporting role played by Justin Timberlake. On signing up for Amazon Prime a couple of months ago, I was finally able to see it. That prompted me to look for the soundtrack. It was readily available via digital download, and a few cd copies were available as imports or used. I doubt I ever would have found that in a local record store.

There is still room for hits. Part of the appeal of a hit is the shared experience of enjoying it together. Crank Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl” in a room full of children of the 80s like myself and you will find everyone singing along. But, as Anderson points out, “Everyone’s taste departs from the mainstream sometime” (7). Now we can find those songs, too.

Sure, you’ll find a lot of junk as the barriers to publishing music and movies come down, but when the cost is low, I don’t mind stopping the weird indie movie I was watching and trying something else. And, as Howard Rheingold outlines in chapter three of his book, “Net Smart,” this makes room for globe-spanning communities of like-minded movie, book, and music fans to sift through the rabble, pick out the gems, and share their favorites with one another.

I still make time for my radio friends, especially in the car, but I’m glad that as I bang out my blog, I can listen to the late 80s Minneapolis alternative rock band “Trip Shakespeare,” even though I only know two people who remember them. Maybe I’ll find some more now!

The Kinnick Wave, Roku, and reviews

I dare you to keep a dry eye after watching College GameDay‘s feature on the Kinnick Wave. (Links to the video and to a segment created by Fox Sports can be found here.) When University of Iowa Children’s Hospital completed its new building, it included a “press box” on the top floor that overlooks Kinnick Stadium. During football games, patients and their families can go up there to watch the games.

A fan page called Hawkeye Heaven engaged in the participatory culture that Howard Rheingold (2012) discussed in Net Smart: How To Thrive Online. It posted this on Facebook because, like Rheingold described, “they believed they had some degree of power” to create a change (p. 115). After being “liked” over 5,000 times and “shared” more than 3,000 times, the word got out.

And resulted in this:

When Iowa played Iowa State the following week, ESPN delayed the commercial break after the first quarter to air “the wave” live.  And about a month later, ESPN featured this on College GameDay (same video from the link in intro paragraph):

This is my favorite response to the ESPN feature. Fran’s Red Face is a spoof account for Iowa’s occasionally emotional men’s basketball coach.

This is just one example of how social media can effect positive changes, which was one of the themes for this week’s readings. In addition to Iowa fans, football fans at College GameDay’s live broadcast at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., did the wave as well as fans in East Lansing, Mich., who were hosting Iowa against Michigan State.

But movements don’t always need large followings, they just need a platform, said “The Long Tail” author Chris Anderson. In his Wired featured, he explained major entertainment companies invest the majority of their money in big names and big productions, which is ill-advised because “‘misses’ usually make money, too. And because there are so many more of them, that money can add up quickly to a huge new market. Or in my case, a big jump in morale in the workplace.

When I first started working for Ingersoll Wine Merchants, we listened to an adult contemporary station on the radio. At first, it wasn’t bad, but it did not take long for the station to become repetitive. Then, shortly after Christmas and all of its song, my boss purchased a Roku box, and we started listening to Radio Paradise, which is a wonderful listener-supported station that plays a wide variety of music. It introduced me to a lot of new artists, including Jill Barber, a Candian jazz singer, who I saw live in New York in 2014.

While it is good to follow the road less traveled for music and entertainment, it is not always recommended for consumer goods. I learned Cluetrain’s No. 11 on its “95 Theses” the hard way shortly after I graduated college. (Author’s note: This story from 10 years ago is a little embarrassing, but I think it illustrates my point. … Don’t judge too harshly.)  I was looking to expand my exercise video library, and Carmen Electra’s Aerobic Striptease sounded like fun. When I looked into it, the video series had a lot of negative reviews for not being long enough or challenging enough. Despite the bad reviews, I purchased it anyway and saw for myself it wasn’t a good buy. When I moved from Des Moines, all those DVDs made the “donation” box. Now when products on Amazon have many negative reviews, especially regarding customer service, I find an alternative product.

Like Rheingold said, social media provides a lot of positives, as long as we use our BS filters and don’t let it take over our lives.

Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making

I enjoyed reading the article by Bernadette Longo titled Using social media for collective knowledge-making: Technical Communication between the global north and south (2014).  Longo discusses that technology has made it easy for anyone to create their own content and share their stories across a variety of technology.  For example much of the footage of civil uprisings in Egypt have been created using smart phones.  In areas that may not have the media availability, consumers have found that they can create their own content and don’t have to wait for others to share their stories.  This created content by the general public has helped provide government and police officials inside information that has helped change history.

The idea that anyone can create content which can create knowledge is pretty mind-blowing.  Technology has really allowed us to help ourselves and others.  Without in the field reporters many areas of the world could be limited in the amount of information coming in and going out.  While not all content created on social media is sharing credible knowledge it feels like we are on the right track.

Longo discusses that social media can create open lines of communication and enable collaboration.  This is also a very important concept.  Not only are we able to view and respond to communication from areas and populations of the world that were once inaccessible, we now have lines of open communication for collaboration.  Populations that never had their own voice can now create their own content and collaborate with other areas of the world.

Another concept that Longo brings up is that with all of this collaboration ideas can become a little muddled or blurred due to multiple owners, however the content can become much richer and more useful.  I can see how this could be an issue.  The more hands we have in content the more points of view are being expressed.

I feel that social media is creating a positive environment for knowledgeable content design especially in areas that previously didn’t have the ability to communicate or collaborate.

 

Finding the Common Ground: Using social media for content production versus community support

In synthesizing the themes and conclusions of this week’s readings, I was first struck with a personal revelation. The readings and research indicate the integration of social media into “everyday” activities and work tasks of communicators. As Pigg noted on p. 84, “Social media facilitate activities that are deeply important to invention: accessing or creating networks of relationships, building and maintaining a presence that can interact with them, and then leveraging them toward future action.”

Diverging from the knowledge workers characterized in Ferro and Zachry, I realized that I have regarded social media more as a reference source, a sounding board, or a job-hunting resource for work in those instances when I have considered social media at all.

A recent example highlights this. I was challenged by a co-worker on the use of numbered lists. Disclaimer: I love numbered lists in technical writing. The vast majority of my work writing are instructions where you bloody well have to do things in order.

This co-worker insisted that numbers were irrelevant and a distraction. She reasoned that we hire smart people and they don’t have to be coddled or treated as children. (Her solution is to use bulleted lists and indenting to indicate order and importance.)

Rather than get confrontational, I thought I might have missed something new or forgetten some fundamental principle. With that in mind, I went out to social media and the Internet at large to reality-check my position. (I was correct, by the way.)

This is, no doubt, generational to some degree and reflects my own reluctance and suspicion about the self-revelation and personal exposure on social media.

In the case of Dave, along with what Pigg called his “assembled social and technological resources to sustain and create his current project”, he has the very strong incentive to be visible and interactive as a freelancer is always looking for his next gig. (I know as a former independent contractor.) I was surprised that she, along with Ferro and Zachry and Longo, did not explore or emphasize this aspect more. Although to be fair, this would have been somewhat outside of Longo’s study.

Blurring Physical and Digital Lines

 

 

Instructor

In response to an earlier blog, Dr. Pignetti commented about being interested in how I will incorporate what I learn from this course into my own pedagogy. Of course, I have had this on my mind as I re-evaluate my audience, revise old lesson plans, create new activities on Blackboard and strive to be student-centered instructor.  As I read Longo’s “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making,,” I struggled with the assumption that all students participate in social media, especially since much the research etc. was from over five years ago. However, I do realize, he is assuming students are traditional university students age 18-23, and most likely students from urban, not rural, environments. However, I do recognize the “participatory culture” of this generation even in a rural area where I teach. Prior to this reading though, I had not equated this culture with social-media. Nonetheless, I realize without making that connection, my pedagogy does include “this participatory approach to teaching and learning based on the idea that most students learn more effectively through the incorporation of experiential activities” ( Longo, 2014, pg 30). Perhaps my high school teaching experience has influenced teaching style of my college classes. Usually the traditional lecture sets the stage and provides background and then students join in the teaching/learning.

Longo acknowledges “the balancing act that becomes acute in active learning environments,” where students learn collaboratively, yet the professor is still the authority of the class content. When my students work in groups online, I am included in the forum and have access to their chat room. I do not dominate the conversation or guide them to certain conclusions per se, but do check that they are on task and ask questions to further their collaboration.  I have used the tools in Blackboard to do this, such as Blackboard Collaborate, Blogs, Wikis, discussion rooms and chat. I haven’t included forms of social media like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. since there is such an age gap and technological skill gap among students. In addition, there is no time available in the curriculum to teach how to use social media.

Student

Many of my younger students reflect the participatory culture and desire to share on the first day of classes. For example, they often immediately share their phone numbers, snapchat id, and full names in order to connect on Facebook. My older students are less likely to welcome this technological communication or enter that community. However, since my classes all have an online component, even these students quickly adjust to participating in the online community of our class and classmates and their lives. However, I still find that it is imperative for many of my returning adult students to actually meet me face-to-face. Therefore, I travel to the five regional locations. Since Blackboard now can include our picture with our posts etc., that desire doesn’t seem as prominent. It could also be because I have been including more video with clips of me in them, perhaps helping blur the lines between physically space and digital space.

Colleagues

Although my communication with present students is either face-to-face, on a screen due to IDL or online via Blackboard, my communication with my colleagues at the main campus in LaCrosse includes social media. Because my position requires me to travel to various regional learning centers or work from home, my communication with my colleagues does extend outside formal settings. We do communicate via email, blogs, Sharepoint, Skype, Facebook, Instagram etc., and I do move “across textual and social resources during one work session” (Pigg, 2014, pg. 75). Since we have been doing this, I do feel more included since I am only physically with my department two times a year.

 

No, really, I’m working

Kudos to Dave, the professional communicator featured in “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” who ensured the author understood he wasn’t just blogging. He was working. Although Stacey Pigg dedicated a lot of time studying freelance writers, it seemed she also had a hard time associating social media with work. While the technology and the money are present to allow entrepreneurs and freelance writers to make a livelihood with social media, our mindsets are not.

And who can blame us? I’m as guilty as Pigg in that regard. If I see FaceBook or YouTube open on a co-worker’s screen, my first thought is “slacker.” Pigg cited five authors who said, “social Internet use in work contexts is more frequently constructed as ‘cyberslacking'” (Pigg, 2014, p. 73). However, whenever I use social media at work, it is usually for work purposes. I’ve used Facebook to either contact a co-worker or to check the calendar of events at the base gym. I’ve used YouTube to learn how to accomplish tasks in Excel or how to change the combo on a lock.

I understand some of the technical limitations that prevent companies from utilizing social media, but I wonder if that is the whole story or if managers are hesitant to implement these tools due to the stigma of “cyberslacking.” In her article, “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication between the Global North and South,” Bernadette Longo (2014) wrote “one area of expertise technical communicators that have traditionally claimed is that of audience analysis and user accommodation” (p. 23). I think most companies try to accommodate their users, but it seems they are slacking in accommodating their employees.

Pigg (2014) could have used the City of Jacksonville as an example of an organization that blocks employees’ use of social media that has “largely negative effects on employees” (p. 73). Toni Ferro and Mark Zachry (2014) also found that 21 percent of all their study participants “reported that their company blocks the use of specific web sites” (p. 13) in their article, “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices.” Jacksonville’s animal shelter uses Facebook as the primary means to communicate with volunteers and fosters. Therefore, the employees have to utilize their smartphones and often their personal accounts to communicate on behalf of the city. This also makes their personal Facebook accounts subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

I am happy to report that the Department of Defense has recognized the potential of social media platforms and has replicated some of them with the appropriate security considerations. For example, my command uses its Intellipeda page to post our intelligence products. We also use chat/instant messaging, secure VOIPs, and secure video teleconferences to collaborate. For an exercise, we used SharePoint to collaborate, and it worked really well for multiple people to be able to edit products. However, we haven’t transitioned to SharePoint for our daily products. During a different exercise, Bleater (think Twitter), played a large role because all the “players” used it: good guys, bad guys, and bystanders.

Ferro and Zachry (2014) concluded their paper by suggesting teaching students about “services rather than on the sites that now dominate the popular imagination about social media. Students need to learn to communicate effectively through services, not only to operate the sites that are currently most popular in their network” (p. 20). I agree that focusing on what services a particular site can offer, we can help remove the stigma that social media is just a time-waster, when in fact, it can make us more productive.