Author Archives: Allie K

An ending and a beginning!

This class has been a fascinating and wild ride. I can’t say that I’m not completely exhausted, but I also am more interested in the subject matter than ever! Simultaneously to reading and responding for this course, I was also updating my professional portfolio, applying for a new job, interviewing and accepting a position at a UW university! I started in my new position two weeks ago, leaving a long day of being the new kid on the block, and returning home to research and write my final essay. I cannot wait for vacation!

Exhaustion aside, this course gave me an amazing foundation to be able to speak knowledgeably about emerging media and how it affects communications on professional and personal level. Additionally, all of our discussions about the changing role of the technical communicator helped me organize my feelings and goals concerning my career as a graphic designer in a non-profit internal marketing department. I have really grown to love working for higher ed institutions, and so I am looking at how I can grow into a more strategic role rather than a strictly production role. This became part of my rhetoric as I interviewed for my new position and also as I discussed the field with the wonderful folks at the college I left. I still don’t know exactly what I’m aiming for, but at least I know what direction I want to push.

The ironic thing, is that I had a better chance to influence web and social media strategy at my old position. It was a much smaller team, and I had a bigger voice in the marketing efforts of the smaller college. After I settle in for a while at my new university, I’m going to have to regroup and decide what steps I can take to involve myself in that aspect of the communications at my new job. Still, I’ve already been able to discuss some of my favorite topics from this course with my new boss and the social media expert. It’s exciting!

My final paper had everything to do with my new position. I researched the use of social media in the marketing of higher ed institutions. The following is my brief abstract.

The effort to attract potential students to attend colleges and universities is highly competitive. Though higher education institutions have attempted to embrace the use of social media to connect with potential students and their parents, studies shows that the audience on these platforms remain unengaged. This paper explores the social preferences of young potential students, and strategies to help higher education marketing departments successfully engage their audience.

I learned so much from my discussions with you! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge through your blog posts and comments! We have been lucky to have such a multi-talented and involved cohort for this class. I wish you all the best, and I hope you call can get a little rest now.

– Allie

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The Unpredictable Skill Set of a Technical Communicator

Technical communicators are far from being confined to the word processor as their primary tool for producing texts. For as many different job titles and responsibilities that can fall under the umbrella of technical communication (UX designer, copy editor, social media manager), so are there an abundance of tools and technologies that are used in different combinations in the daily workflow of a technical communicator. When asked in a survey to identify the types of writing most often produced in their professional lives, technical communicators named tasks that require completely different sets of skills and technology to accomplish, for example, email, web sites, texting, infographics and press releases (Blythe, Lauer, Curran, 2104). Each format of communication has its own unique set of circumstances surrounding it. Is the audience public or private? Is the standard tone of voice casual or formal? Are there additional technical skills that are required to complete the task like a knowledge of code, or an image editing software?

An example of this phenomenon is the freelance technical communicator who is featured in Stacy Pigg’s 2014 study, Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work. Dave works remotely out of a coffee shop, composing posts for his blog on the topic of fatherhood. In the time that it takes him to compose his blog post (roughly one hour) Dave switches back and forth between several social media platforms that he uses as content reference, networking tools, or to publish his work. For him, and likely for many modern technical communicators, the number of different tools to master increases exponentially when considering not only the service being used to create content, but also all of the other tools that are used to gather, organize, support and distribute the content.

This huge spread of trending tools poses a challenge to educators. How can a professor go about teaching future technical communicators the tools they need for the trade, when the careers available to graduates are so diverse and the tool kit is so rapidly expanding? As noted by Blythe, Lauer and Curran, though the alumni that they surveyed were so disparate in their current job titles, they were all chosen to take part in the survey because they shared a very specific program of study – technical communication. In some ways, the fact that the students went on from receiving their identical diplomas to hold such different job is a testament to the power of a broad education that covers the concepts more than the details of specific software or workflows.

That being said, educators also must embrace uses of media that have historically been thought of as recreational, such as texting or connecting on social network sites. These instruments of communication are more and more being used in professional settings. Just because a student has a personal twitter account doesn’t mean that she has the skill to effectively tweet to a company’s audience. An educator should embrace the new media as it comes, while simultaneously exploring alongside her students how these inventions can be used to communicate professionally. Just like Sherry Turkle describes in her book Alone Together how she bravely brought up Chatroulette on the screen in one of her lectures after she had first learned of its existence from one of her students. She was able to take a new technology that had previously fit squarely in the recreational world of her students and she formed an intelligent discussion around the meaning of the new social platform. (Of course this may be a poor example as I can’t imagine Chatroulette ever being a useful tool for professional technical communicators. Never say never?)

New ways to communicate are bubbling to the surface at an unprecedented rate, and technical communicators are tasked to incorporate them into their broader communication strategies. Despite a shared program title on their diplomas, technical communicators are finding a broad range of professions, each with its own ecology of new media tools. Educators are stuck trying to strike a balance between teaching broadly applicable theory and bringing specific trending technologies into the classroom in order to discuss professional-level communication through typically informal formats of communication. Through studies like the survey in the Blythe, Lauer and Curran essay, at least instructors of technical communication will have more data on current professional practices. Students graduating from a technical communication program will have to be prepared to wear many hats.

Learning the site. Learning the service. Learning to learn.

What is the difference between a social media “site” and a “service?” At first it might seem that the two words can be used interchangeably to lend a little variety to the wording of a blog post. However, the difference between the two terms is a lot less subtle than that. A “site” is a set of web pages, typically connected by a shared URL. A “service” is an aspect of a site that offers some sort of function (Ferro and Zachry, 2014). For instance, www.twitter.com is a web “site” that offers “services” like microblogging.

In their research published in 2014, Ferro and Zachry take a survey of knowledge workers four years in a row to monitor the frequency of use and the function of publicly available online services (PAOS) in their work. Ferro and Zachry found that the majority of those polled reported using PAOSs during 20% of their workweek (p. 13).

Though the percentage of time spent using PAOSs remained fairly constant each year, the sites and services being used changed from year to year. For instance, the most used site by knowledge workers in 2008 was Wikipedia. In 2009 there was a tie between the use of LinkedIn and Twitter. In 2010, Twitter gained almost 5% in usage over LinkedIn, and then in 2011 Google Calendar took the lead. Not only are the most popular sites different from the previous year, but so are the services provided by the sites. Wikipedia is a wiki, LinkedIn is a network creator, Twitter is a microblogging site and Google Calendar is a knowledge transactor.

What we can learn from this is that, though PAOSs will continue to be important tools in knowledge workers’ professional repertoire, the specific sites and services that are being utilized can rise and fall in popularity in as little as a year’s time.

When reviewing this study I was reminded me of how my undergraduate professors taught my Communications Design cohort how to use the Adobe suite (the industry standard technology in the graphic design profession). To be more specific, they purposefully didn’t teach us a single keystroke. All they did was tell us on our first assignment that we “might want to use PhotoShop” for this assignment, so we should probably go figure it out before coming back to class next week… or at least figure it out well enough to complete the homework. Their philosophy was that the programs that their students use professionally will always be in flux. Whatever software they would have taught us that year would be outdated by the time we graduate. To teach the design students how to use PhotoShop is to make them experts in that specific program only. In forcing them to teach themselves, they are given the resources and confidence to learn to use the next programs after the first ones become out of date.

By the time I graduated I had taught myself the Adobe suite well enough to secure my first job. I have learned a lot since, mostly through continued google searches and discussions with my co-workers, but the knowledge that I can teach myself anything gives me the confidence to jump into the deep end when it’s asked of me.

When a knowledge worker masters the use of a certain social media site, she has no guarantee that that same site will be useful in coming years. If a knowledge worker masters a service, she can apply that knowledge across the range of sites that provide that service. However, we have observed that even the popularity of services seems to fluctuate over the years. Though learning to use a site and a service are both necessary and constructive, the most valuable skill to the knowledge worker looking to stay on top of technology is the ability to learn.

Keen and Zittrain’s competing realities can co-exist, but is technology really the issue?

At the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain debate over whether the rise of technology is creating or replacing good jobs. Are there more quality opportunities for the average worker to find employment, or are workers being replaced by technology, leaving them with no option but to take on more menial work for lower pay while a few companies collect the profit? Zittrain argued the more optimistic point, while Keen could not find a silver lining.

I found the debate fascinating because, though Keen and Zittrain seemed to see two contrasting realities, it seems to me that both realities exist simultaneously. Through the use of emerging technology, some people are able to find new ways to earn money that better fit their lifestyles. At the same time, other people are losing their jobs to an automated process. In some areas, people have FREE access to resources that they would have previously paid money for, but the people who provided those services for a fee have lost their customers… but those services are also generating new and different jobs… but are the new jobs enough to replace those that were lost?

Before writing this post I decided that I needed to see some numbers. I looked at America’s most recent employment numbers, charts showing the rising and falling of industries, and reports on which industries are hiring college grads. Service-providing industries are rapidly growing (example, health care) while labor industries are shrinking (example, mining). As of this very moment in history, according to the couple reliable sources that I dug up in a short amount of time, job prospects are becoming more numerous, though in different industries than before.

Taking a step back, I realize that I am not an economist, and that this is a very complicated field of study. The reports I found don’t speak to quality of the jobs being created in comparison to the quality of the jobs being lost. Another factor that isn’t shown in the data I found is the amount of training needed for the new jobs. Are the jobs being added accessible to the unemployed?

Working at a technical college I hear a lot about the skills gap, where the unemployed population lacks the skill level to fill open positions. I also just learned of the term “grey collar worker” used to describe a highly educated individual who can only find lower skilled employment, like my younger sister who has a four-year degree in international relations, yet she has only found employment doing clerical office work. These two realities exist at once! There aren’t enough skilled workers to fill the open positions AND there aren’t enough open positions for the skilled workers! How can this be?!

Debators keep bringing up the labor market in the 1950s as an example of a time when the middle class flourished, people could find good moderately skilled careers that would allow them to provide for their families and send their kids to college. However, now that all of their kids have gone to college to get highly skilled training, some industries are hurting for skilled labor while others are saturated. Is this really solely a technology issue?

Bringing this back around to the debate between Keen and Zittrain, Keen argues that technology is taking the lower skilled jobs, leaving a large population unable to find quality work and Zittrain argues that there are emerging areas and systems of employment that might provide balance to this economic shift. My quick research does seem to show that employment is on the rise, though the industries who are hiring are shifting, backing up Zittrain’s point of view. After taking in all of this information, I am left with the following conclusions:

  • There is a problem in employment, but though technology definitely plays a role, it is only part of a much larger issue.
  • Our culture, as Keen points out, is shifting from an industrial economy to a digital economy at an unprecedented rate. This results in some industries being left in the dust while there are few constraints on the new guys (Google is brought up over and over), allowing them free reign to dominate the field, yielding profits to a lucky few.
  • Economic theory and public policy are straining to keep up with the changes in the market. Zittrain and Keen bring up Uber’s legal issues as an example. Are the drivers employees or contractors? What percentage of the profit can Uber collect? Does Uber have to provide benefits to it’s workers?
  • Meanwhile, there are either too many or too few skilled workers, depending on the industry.

The rapidly shifting job market in this new digital economy is leaving a lot of people playing catch up. Some are lucky enough to ride the wave, while others are struggling to stay afloat. Is technology the problem, or is the issue more deeply rooted in our society’s cultural expectations and policies that are still trying to catch up with rapid change? Keen’s arguments were all on point, but other than decrying the state of things, I didn’t see him offering any possible paths forward. The optimist, Zittrain, at least mentioned that we must face these issues head on, examine policy, change our expectations and move forward.

I look forward to hearing where my classmates stand on this issue. I know this is a huge issue where politics and values come into play, and I want to hear from other opinions. I am often surprised to find so much resistance from my classmates when I take a pro-technology stance. The way I see it, the momentum pushing our society towards a more digital age is a fact. We have the choice to meet it head on, embrace it and work out the kinks… or to dig in our heels and get passed over. Just the fact that the individuals taking this class are mostly professionals who are investing our time and money into graduate-level professional development means that we are all being affected by this economic shift, and we are moving forward! Tell me your thoughts!

Sources:

United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Industry employment and output projections to 2022, December 2013

Michigan State University, Collegiate Employment Research Institute, Recruiting Trends Report Briefs 2015-16

United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Employment Situation – September 2015, released October 2, 2015

Communities and Committees: Mindful Contributions Win the Day

In this week’s reading of Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart, we learned about the importance of collaboration and the attentive nurturing of one’s social network (online and offline). As I read the assigned chapters I was surprised by how Rheingold’s advice for managing our online communities almost perfectly mirrored my work week meditation on successful participation on committees.

This past week I excitedly attended my first meeting as a member on a committee. I can see you rolling your eyes. Keep in mind that I am an enthusiastic people-person with five years professional experience under my belt – which is enough for me to feel like I can meaningfully contribute, and not so much that I’m jaded about committee work. Also, graphic designers don’t often get to weigh in on college-wide policy. I sat at the long U-shaped grouping of desks admiring my coworkers’ professionalism, and keyed up to be able to represent the marketing point of view. I did get to add some good insight to the conversation, but I also contributed at least once when I didn’t necessarily need to, resulting in me feeling like I added more confusion than productive information. Over the course of the week I spent some time thinking about committee participation, college communication in general and how an individual can best use her experience, connections and insight to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. As it turns out, some of my conclusions were almost exactly the same as strategies that Rheingold shared in his discussion of etiquette while online networking:

Pay attention before you join in. (p. 163)

Rheingold’s first tip urges folks to remain a wallflower for the first couple days while checking out a new community. The culture, expectations and general vibe of a community might not be apparent at first look. It makes sense for the savvy web-citizen to take some time to assess the true nature of a community. If it is a bad fit for whatever reason, then everyone is better off – the individual and the community – not to force the relationship. Additionally, watching and waiting helps the prospective member understand what she is can uniquely contribute to the community.

In a committee situation, it’s less of the question of whether to join but what to contribute. Hopefully any new committee member was selected to provide a very specific skill or knowledge. My challenge is that in my eagerness to contribute I am tempted to join-in as soon as I think of anything to add. Instead, I should pause and absorb what is being discussed without the pressure to pipe up at the first opportunity. Just like in online communities, it’s important to understand the context of the issue being discussed, the tone of the conversation and the roles of the other committee members before joining in.

Assume goodwill. (p. 164)

This is crucial in any situation where text is the primary medium of communication. Any time I receive a potentially snarky email from a coworker I step back and remind myself how easy it is to misinterpret the tone of email without the aids of body language and a person’s audible tone of voice. If I still can’t get out of my head that the email is hostile, my next step is to call or visit the coworker in person to discuss. If there is a problem, usually a quick conversation human-to-human eases the tension. Most of the time, rather than malice having been the cause of the nasty-gram, it’s confusion or ignorance of processes, both of which are situations that I should be jumping to remedy.

Jump in where you add value. (p. 164)

I was talking with someone outside of work who I know has been on many committees, and I mentioned how all of my colleagues in the meeting were so well spoken! I couldn’t have presented those facts in such a natural way. I was nervous that when it comes time for me to step up to the plate I will embarass myself. The woman I was chatting with pointed out that my coworkers’ eloquence most likely came from intimate knowledge of the subject they were speaking about. When it comes time for me to share my expertise, I will find myself able to be speak with authority.

In the end, this all relates back to attention management. Overexcited hastiness can be just as harmful as detachment and disinterest. Step back, breathe and take it all in before making a move. Assume that coworkers mean well despite tersely worded emails. Calmly “ask friendly questions” (p. 164) until the matter is explained and resolved. Every person on a committee or employed in a company is there because of a specific skill or point of view. Keeping that unique attribute in mind can help inform when that insight is needed.

I’m sure looking back on this post I will be tickled by my enthusiasm for committee meetings, but I truly am looking forward to the next session, especially now that I have these strategies in mind.

A change in tone is needed to facilitate conversation between experts and a literate public


“Promote the notion that more info literacy is a practical answer to the growing info pollution.” (Rheingold, Net Smart, p.89)

“Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.”

“…Markets are getting smarter, more informed, more organize. Participation in a networked market changes people fundamentally.”

(Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger, The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual, Thesis 3 and 10)

Last year I had an experience as a patient that changed the way that I thought about communication, specifically between experts (the doctors) and the increasingly informed public (the patients).

I had recently been through screening that revealed something worrisome. Since my healthcare provider is laudably transparent, I had access to the test results describing the discovery weeks before I had the chance to meet with a doctor and discuss. This, of course, gave me quite a lot of time to do my own research.

When it comes to researching health and medical issues on my own, I know that the internet is filled with misinformation, and that the doctors are the experts. I don’t panic, self-diagnose or jump to conclusions, but I do like to be as informed as possible when I meet with a doctor so that I can participate in conversation and ask relevant questions. I turn on my internet crap-filters and come walk into the doctor’s office prepared.

The day of my first informational appointment, the doctor swept into the room and introduced herself and her accolades. Then she described her observations from my test results, many of which matched nicely with my own research. However, the way she explained my situation and the tone of her voice made me feel like she was talking to a child. When I asked questions she quickly swept them aside and assured me that there was nothing to worry about. At this point I surprised myself and the doctor by starting to cry. The doctor was shocked, as she had just told me that everything manageable. It wasn’t the content of her presentation to me that caused my reaction. It was her tone of voice, and her dismissal of my worry that deeply upset me. She pointed me to a tissue box and made her exit. I changed doctors.

I was nervous about my second appointment. I knew that I was working with someone new, but my last experience was so upsetting. The new doctor came into the room, introduced herself and then knocked my socks off by her next statement. She said, “I’ve looked at your charts and I’ve formed my opinions, but first I would like you to tell me what you already know so that I can make sure we’re on the same page.” I felt like she was inviting me into a conversation, that she valued me. She didn’t diminish my perception of her expertise by asking me what I already knew. Instead she gave me credit and brought us both to a place where we could productively move forward.

The relationship between experts and amateurs, and the “company” and the “market” has shifted since the common people have had more access to information and better connection to each other. The authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto brought forward 95 theses that explored the shifting balance of power between corporations and the consumers who they market to, declaring that the people want to be treated like humans. Companies need only to look within to find employees that share a voice with the public that they are trying to reach. The consumer is getting so savvy that they can identify when they are being pandered to in a way that is insincere. “Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.” (The Cluetrain Manifesto, thesis number 25.)

On the other side of the coin, the people have a responsibility to become savvy consumers of information. We have access to more information than ever before, but it also runs the gambit in terms of quality and truthfulness. In the chapter on “crap detection” in his book Net Smart, Howard Rheingold champions many techniques that consumers can use to ensure that the fruit of their online research is as reputable as possible. Among them are methods like researching the credibility of the author (p. 78), triangulating information by checking three reliable sources (p. 79), using fact checking tools (p. 90) and finding resources that experts endorse as reliable (p. 91).

When specifically discussing the phenomenon of patients doing their own research before speaking with a doctor, Rheingold is cheered that at least one respected medical source “has publicly advised doctors to teach their parents the kind of crap detection that licensed practitioners learn to do early in their medical careers.” (p. 91). If doctors can help their patients to be savvy consumers of available information they empower people to make better healthcare decisions.

In my case, it mattered to me to have a doctor who acknowledged that I was coming into the conversation having done my research. My desire to be prepared with a basic understanding as well as with questions doesn’t undermine my respect for the expert opinion. The first doctor had made me feel like she lecturing me, rather than bringing me into a conversation. The second doctor wanted to connect with me so that we could move forward together.

This is a lesson that I can bring into my work with end-consumers as well as with colleagues that are coming from different realms of expertise. Defaulting to lecturing only alienates the listener. Perhaps asking instead, “What do you already know?” is a better way to enter a productive dialogue.

BONUS: “Crap detection” was just one of many useful subjects discussed by Howard Rheingold in his book Net Smart. After reading the first chapter I actually bought my own copy of the book so that I could highlight more liberally and keep his advice at hand after the end of the course. Chapter 3 covers the importance of being proactive with your online presence. Rheingold discusses keeping up with Twitter and how he tries his best to be responsive to every post involving him (here he gives his twitter handle). I just had to put this to the test. Three years after publishing this book, would he live up to his claim?

Twitter response from Rheingold

It took him six minutes to respond to me personally. Needless to say, I am very impressed.

Does this qualify for extra credit?

New look! Same great taste!

When your husband is a biologist you find yourself participating in unusual activities for a graphic designer. A couple weeks ago I found myself providing moral support by tromping around the forest after dark as part of a citizen science activity led by my better half. I had a headlight strapped to my forehead and I was sweeping my gaze across the leaf-litter looking for the blue-green reflections from the eyes of wolf spiders. I’m proud to report that I was a very successful “citizen scientist” as I located quite a few of the little guys. To use the scientific term, I had developed a search image, by becoming hyper-sensitive to the the minute details that differentiated between the shimmering slug slime and the spider-eye glitter (Happy Halloween!). My brain had learned to look for one very specific thing set of traits, and to ignore anything that didn’t match up.

Spider eye-shine search image

Spider eye-shine search image
(Source: http://www.jonathansjungleroadshow.co.uk/)

I observed a similar phenomenon when I worked for a tea company a couple years ago. (No spiders. I promise.) For a variety of reasons the company had decided to switch the format of packaging for its retail products from tins to paper boxes. As with the tins that they were replacing, each grouping of of the boxed teas (herbal, green, black, etc.) had a different visual theme to reflect the rich history and craftsmanship behind the individual lines of product. Some of the lines kept graphics that were nearly identical to the labels on the tins that preceded them. Some lines were completely revamped.

When the redesigned boxes finally hit the shelves, tea sales showed mixed results. Some sold quite well, but the line of teas that had the worst turn in sales was one that was completely redesigned. For all of the teas, customers had to look for boxes on the shelves instead of the tins that they were accustomed to. The tea company received calls asking why stores had stopped carrying customers’ favorite products. The products were still on the shelves, but the customers’ established search images were making them blind to the new packaging. This was very early in my career, and though I could be proud of how handsome the graphics had turned out on these boxes, I learned a lesson. Redesigns happen at a price. No matter how satisfying it might be to completely overhaul the aesthetics of a product it might not be worth the blow to customer recognition. Having an established search image can help a scientist or a tea lover quickly find what they are looking for, but it can also blind them to anything that doesn’t match up.

In the field of technical communication, the concept of ambient design is related to the effects of a search image. Salvo and Rosinski explain that, “effective ambient design helps users understand the purpose or content of a [document] with a quick glance.” (p. 120) Users create an entire mental library of meanings tied to visual cues. When looking at the magazine shelf in a store, a reader can quickly deduce the kind of content she would expect from Seventeen Magazine and how it might differ from Vogue. She doesn’t need to read the headlines on the front cover to know this. She makes her conclusions based on the magazine’s use of colors, typefaces, photography, and white space. If her favorite feature is always in the first twelve pages with a blue headline, she might flip directly to that page without critically observing the pages before or after. It would be a mistake for an editor to move that feature to the back of the magazine and use red headline, because the reader is already cued in to the ambient design with a pre-established search image.

These are the powerful forces behind a brand. A company or product establishes a set of cues that get filed away in the mental library of the consumer. Companies will go to great lengths to establish and protect a brand. For example, last year Cadbury lost a legal fight with Nestle after it attempted to trademark a very specific color purple. In the U.S. many people can name the postal service that deploys brown trucks, or remember the cause behind trendy yellow rubber bracelets that were popular years ago. Coca Cola’s brand is so strong that its name can be easily identified when written in a foreign language as long as it’s in the iconic white script on a red background.

Hebrew "Coca Cola"

Hebrew Coca Cols (Source: http://www.brandsoftheworld.com)

As a technical communicators, designers and consumers we can form opinions around the subtle shifts or dramatic reinventions of our favorite brands. What can we learn from the companies who make big changes gracefully, and others that flop? Is there a right way to tweak a brand without alienating your consumers, or is it always a negative experience for the customer whose pre-established visual language is being re-written?

Communicators unite! The parallel struggles of two professions.

A little while ago I made a pact with myself to quit the “graphic designers are misunderstood” rants in order to provide less angsty and more constructive content to this blog. Though my point of discussion today comes uncomfortably close to breaking that agreement, I think that the likeness between the history and struggles of technical communicators and graphic designers is fascinating. The profession of technical communication is at least parallel in some aspects and identical in others with that of a graphic designer.

My professors and more experienced colleagues have told me stories of how they adjusted professionally as PCs gained dominance in the workplace. From using rub-off lettering to meticulously laying down thin black lines in order to make a document “camera ready” for the printer, being a designer meant having amazingly adept hand skills and other areas of expertise which are different from what is needed to hold the same title today. When Macs with graphical user interfaces came along, my colleagues were immediately on board, many of them being the first in their company to have desktop publishing capabilities. As technology rapidly changed and improved, designers had to continuously learn new hardware and software. Often it was the same software to the same purposes as the technical communicators described in the first chapter of Rachel Spilka’s book (Spilka, 2010).

The Apple Macintosh, 1984

The Apple Macintosh, 1984
(Source: http://www.prepressure.com/prepress/history)

Yes, the basic concepts of design still hold true through changing technologies, just like the discipline of technical communication has always required the professional to use “words and images (whether stationary or moving) to inform, instruct, or persuade an audience (Scriver, 1997).” Still, the advance of new technologies have reshaped the day-to-day workflows of technical communicators and graphic designers. Learning new technology became a sink or swim situation. In the Communications Design BFA program at Syracuse University, our professors purposefully never taught us how to use the design programs we needed to become professionals, leaving us to figure it out on our own. They said that the technology will change in a few years anyways (and it did). What we needed more than to be taught the software was to learn how to be self-taught.

Returning to Scriver’s definition of the core skills needed for technical communicators, I would argue that the exact wording could be also used for graphic designers. Also identical between the two professions is the need to move beyond doing commodity work (which is easily outsourced or downsized) and instead shift towards symbolic-analytic work. Both professions must learn to, “analyze, synthesize, combine, rearrange, develop, design, and deliver information to specific audiences for specific purposes.” (Spilka, 2010, p. 54) Spilka even used the phrase “pretty it up” when describing the perceived commodity work that is asked of technical communicators by clueless colleagues. A customer recently sent me an email with a subject line reading “Make it spiffy?” Though creating aesthetically “spiffy” documents is within my job responsibilities and skill set, I would rather be thought of as an expert in crafting effective communications. (Now I’m getting dangerously close to my previous rant.)

I appreciated Spilka’s edict, that it is our individual responsibilities to make the true value of our work visible to the higher-ups. We must align ourselves with the management strategies of our institutions and fully embrace the changing technologies and philosophies as they emerge. We must find ways to advocate for ourselves and let the true symbolic-analytic qualities of our work become apparent to all. Spilka goes on to recommend strategies for the technical communicator to do just this by showing how their work contributes to cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement and intangible contributions (Spilka, 2010, p. 61). Though some of these tips can only be applied to technical communicators when taken at face value (such as “One method [of cost reduction] is to consolidate development of documentation, online help, and training to minimize the duplication of efforts in doing research, planning and designing communication.”)

Balancing truth and a positive image online

What is our responsibility to the truth when we post online? When representing a business/institution online and on social media, must we always represent it with 100 percent accuracy? What is the truth anyways?

At first glance this question seems pretty straightforward. Always tell the truth. Anything other than the truth is misleading and therefore wrong. How could it be otherwise?

The same straightforwardness seems apparent in Jonathan Zittrain’s talk when considering the ethics of interfering with Facebook or google’s algorithms. He uses as an example the potential power that Facebook would have to sway an election by just leaving a reminder to vote off of a person’s newsfeed who shows a preference that is unfavorable to the powers-that-be at Facebook. It would be unfair for these online giants to use their influence to sway something that is as fair and unbiased as a math-based algorithm to anyone’s benefit.

Screen shot of Facebook's reminder to vote.

Screen shot of Facebook’s reminder to vote. Source: TechPresident, Facebook’s Voting Reminder Message Isn’t Working, 2012

But his next example makes the issue a little murkier by explaining how google has removed from its top search results a company that blackmails people by ensuring that their mugshot photos would be prominent when their name was searched unless they paid a steep fee. This seems like justice, even though Google is stepping in to use its power against the cosmic fairness of a mathematically-powered search algorithm.

So when we create a presence for a public institution online – possibly a social network site where we create a public profile, make connections in the community, and gain access to their connections (D. Boyd, Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship, p. 211) – what is our responsibility to the public to represent the institution truthfully?

I’ll use photography as an example that I come up against as a graphic designer in the marketing department of a technical college. Let’s say that we’re posting a picture to facebook of our college’s president smiling next to a student at a college event.

  • The lighting is too bad to post this picture without adjusting it in Photoshop. Do I correct it? Yes.
  • While I’m here, in this portrait the president clearly has lipstick on her front teeth. Would I remove it? Absolutely.
  • How about a couple zits on the student’s face? I would remove most of them or at least lighten them.
  • What if the student has a permanent wart or a birthmark? Those stay. That’s part of what the student looks like, and it would be crossing a line to remove that.

But isn’t the student’s zits also part of what he/she looks like on this particular day? Isn’t it the truth that on this day the President attended the event with lipstick on her teeth? Isn’t it also the truth that the lighting in the room was horrible?

In a conversation about Web 2.0 between Andrew Keen and David Weinberger, Keen likens the story of the Internet to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where the Internet is the mirror that reveals ourselves to be cockroaches. He compares the multitude of contributors of online content to mindless monkeys. This strikes me as counterintuitive when most of us spend our efforts consciously making ourselves look as good or better than we are in real life.

In our office, amongst the graphic designers, the social media administrator, the copywriter and anyone who is creating content to represent the College, our mantra is to represent our community (students, staff, instructors, even the campus) in a way would be recognized by them as having a “good day.” We choose our content and edits with empathy and compassion. We don’t strive to mislead, and we always maintain what participants would recognize as the reality of the moment. The camera is often cruel, picking up details that we would overlook in person. The candy wrapper on the sidewalk in a picture of the facade of the school does not represent how we see the building. It just happens to be there when the information is flattened into a photograph. No one noticed the white specks all over the shoulders of your shirt, but that dandruff sure does shine in the lighting of the photo. To remove these details doesn’t change the reality experienced by the individual in the moment, it just shows it off at its best.

Would you rather that I not clean up your shirt? Lighten the blemish? Subtract the trash? Am I being kind, or deceitful? Is my responsibility to tell the truth of how you experienced the moment, or the truth of the photograph?

Test Post #1: Blogs vs. more tailored publishing platforms

Blogging is a useful format for many people to get their ideas out into the world, but I’m noticing that it’s increasingly having to compete with other publishing platforms for my participation.

In their essay titled “Why We Blog,” Bonnie A. Nardi, Diane J. Schiano, Michelle Gumbrecht, and Luke Swartz observed five reasons why their subjects wrote in blogs; “documenting one’s life; providing commentary and opinions; expressing deeply felt emotions; articulating ideas through writing; and forming and maintaining community forums.” (“Why We Blog,” pg. 43.)

When I kept a blog as a teenager I used it as a journal. As a college student, I blogged while studying abroad to share my adventures with family and friends back home. Later I maintained a tumblr page that reblogged design-related images and links that I found elsewhere on the internet. I read blogs to learn about the thoughts and ideas of interesting people.

All of these motivations are still driving my online behavior today, but they manifest through other platforms. I keep my family and friends posted through Facebook. I edit and share photos that document my day-to-day life through Instagram. I follow designers, celebrities and interesting people on Twitter and Instagram, and repost interesting content through Twitter and Facebook. For me, all of these platforms are more centralized, easier to post to and to browse than a blog.

I am looking forward to exploring this class’s use of a blog as the nucleus of course discussions. As I don’t have a background in writing, I’m hoping that frequent blog posts and responses can help me improve my writing skills. I am curious, though, to compare my experience in this class using a blog to post our discussions to my experience in the other course that I’m taking simultaneously. In that class we post our responses to a discussion board. How does one format compare to the other?

Test Blog #2: The art of a tweet

It’s not hard for me to see how skills in technical writing can be immensely useful in constructing a professional presence with social media. The most recent example in my life is my experience of trying to familiarize myself with Twitter. Tweeting didn’t seem all that hard until I tried it myself. As an initial “lurker” on Twitter, I spent a long time building up a twitter feed full of interesting people and organizations without actually posting myself. On the surface, composing a good tweet doesn’t seem like it should be that difficult. It’s only 140 characters. It can be an offhand comment, or three words before re-tweeted content from another user. It can be a series of emoticons and a link. How could that be difficult?

Sometimes it takes trying to do something myself for me to be able to recognize the artistry in others’ efforts. Since I took my own name as a twitter handle I decided that it was a good idea to start using it to establish a presence on Twitter. I struggle. It can easily take me 15+ minutes to compose a good tweet. It requires consideration and skill to be able to compose an eloquent thought with a bit of humor, the correct attributions and maybe a link, all under 140 characters. My favorite Twitter personalities make it look so effortless. Now my goal is to tweet more often to refine my own skills, and hopefully to fill my account with enough decent posts for any interested party to kindly ignore a couple duds. After all, it’s under my actual name. I have my reputation to consider.

This experience of mine came to mind while reading “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media” by Hurley and Hea. It’s so easy for someone who is not familiar with a social media platform to disregard it. The overwhelming cultural narrative, as expressed by Hurley and Hea’s undergraduate students is that, “Social media often influences writers to write carelessly and unfinished. Because the social media may just be a way to communicate with others, people often forget the structure of the English language and instead just abbreviate words in the quickest manner to get a simple point across, not leaving room for proper punctuation or spelling.” (Hurley and Hea, p. 60).

Before I tried tweeting, even though I was reading other’s tweets, I didn’t have an appreciation of the skill needed to be an effective communicator in this medium. Just like the students in Hurley and Hea’s class, it took to experience of actually engaging in the platform myself before I was able to see the talent that goes into composing relevant and poignant content within the confines of the media. These talented authors have to consider their audiences and make themselves a peer in order to appeal to their readers. Additionally, they have to distill their thoughts to fit eloquently into the word limit. While I struggle to improve my own use of twitter, at least now I have a better eye for what makes a good tweet. I can appreciate the contributors in my twitter feed, not just for their content but also for their skill.