Author Archives: David Wilhelms

Acceptance Leads to More Questions

In my evolution from Luddite to social media evangelist during this semester and thanks to the content and comments from Dr. Pignetti and fellow learners, I have found one part of social media that has continued to nag: the use of emojis/emoticons. From the ubiquitous “smiley face” and emoticons built of sequences of letters and punctuation. we now are bombarded with pictures and strings of emojis from ever-growing libraries in an Instant Message (IM) or email. Previously, I have dismissed these as something reserved for “ onna otaku” (she-geek or teenaged wired girl). I believe that I have previously posted that a good way to fail an assignment in my writing class is to employ emojis/emoticons.

Indeed, my 27-year-old niece consistently communicates only in shorthand condensations (“lol”), emojis and emoticons which, more often than not, baffle me. For example, what does a string containing an animated cat’s face, an evergreen tree, a red heart, and a blue lightning bolt mean? (No, I am not making that up.)

However, I now believe these constitute an emerging, valuable supplement to the words (even reduced to code like “yolo”) because they add an affective or emotional (duh) dimension. Indeed, as the entry for emoticon in states, it is “intended to represent a human facial expression and convey an emotion.”

We have all suffered through misunderstandings or perceived slights in emails or IMs that are “only” words. I see now that these problems are inevitable because, despite being hopelessly addicted to words and their appropriate, impactful use, I know they can’t convey sarcasm, a tone of voice, or other affective elements of conversation.

This suggests some very fruitful lines of academic inquiry:

  1. Tracing the history/evolution of the emoticon/emoji.
  2. Attempting to build a lexicon and/or grammar of emoticons/emojis.
  3. Cultural, national, racial, age, gender differences in the use of emoticons/emojis.

If nothing else, answers to these questions would help me to understand what my niece is trying to say.



Is Advertising, especially when integral to a company’s strategy, considered social media?

As I have been constructing my case study, this question has reared its ugly but intriguing head. Nancy Flynn’s definition (p. 332) emphasizes “user participation and user-generated content” which is maddeningly vague. Certainly, successful advertising includes user participation (purchase of a product or service) but “user-generated content”? Outside of a favorable product review or Yelp review, holding advertising to that definition means it probably doesn’t qualify as social media.

Yet my Subject Matter Expert for my case study easily moves back and forth from discussing “mainline” social media features (response time to Facebook posts, regularly scheduled updates, etc.) to discussing how advertising is placed and sucess metrics.



Adding the elements of organizational / official constraints on social media

Hey Jennifer, Gotta love those Badgers. I was at Camp Randall yesterday evening and it was amazing. So UW-Madison sets a record for the school at 10-0. All the sweeter for beating Iowa. Go Badgers!

One more digression – My friend, who works with Latino families on the many challenges they face in adapting to a new culture, is reading Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation”. Her aim, just as the New York Times noted it in its review, is to respond to Turkle’s “call to arms” because “our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-reflection,  and the time has to reassert ourselves, behave like adults, and put technology in its place.”

Okay – now to the task at hand: As this week’s focus is culture and its’ at-times uncomfortable relationship to technology, I thought this email exchange to be informative.

Some background – Carol Ryczek, my wife and Volunteer Services Manager at Thedacare (healthcare system, forwarded this to me. “This is a request for a solution from an Appleton (Wisconsin) police admin who had an officer respond via personal email because the department email was not allowed onto the site.

“There are any number of issues here: Personal Facebook used for official purposes, albeit with good intent; the infant on the picture (obviously home email but an awful image to have attached to this exchange); nothing that the police department could find unless the officer said something. And yet, the officer, on his own time, wanted to respond to a sincere request for help and get some information out to the public.

“I am not active in this group anymore since my job changed—but this does express some of the issues in social media. What happens when they are no longer just ‘social’ but official? When these lines blur, what does it mean for the people involved?” (my emphasis)

I couldn’t ask any better questions based on this week’s readings.

Anne Blakeslee notes, “ … digital writing is increasingly social, collaborative, social, and fluid”. (Blakeslee, p. 220) and “ … digital audiences have very specific needs and that they function in complex rhetorical contexts.” (Blakeslee, p. 223) But, as this email underscores, what happens to the perception of audience and writing to an audience when there are technological and/or organizational barriers? The police example illuminates even the desire to do “the right thing” can be thwarted by rules dictated by a non-technologically oriented organization.

I appreciate that this set of questions and inclusion of technological / organizational barriers was outside of Bernadette Longo’s “Human+Machine Culture”. However, it would be instructive if she re-directed her question of “.. why do we accept the aspects of social agents (e.g. technological, institutional) that affect us negatively and over which we have limited power to affect change?” (Longo, p. 264) to a consideration of institutional influences on uses and utility of social media, especially when it affects “official” (police) functions (much as Carol asked in her email to me).

From Stone Chopper to Content Management Strategy

There are a few framing thoughts before diving into the content of this week:

1. If you were wondering about Dave Clark’s use of “riverwest”, he is referring to a neighborhood in Milwaukee on the Milwaukee River’s West Bank. Milwaukee has justifiably prided itself on its neighborhood identities such as “Walker’s Point”, the “Historic Third Ward”, and where I lived directly across the river from Riverwest, Cambridge Woods. He is correct in describing it as “the ghetto” in 2009. However, it has experienced a stunning renaissance (some deride it as “yuppification”) in the past 10 years.
2. While not finding fault in the least with the choice of readings for this course, I can’t help but notice that 2009 was a long time ago when it comes to consideration of technology.
3. I have tweeted once in my life and that was at the request of a supervisor. This is not to further illustrate my recently-rejected Luddite approach to social media. It is a clear-eyed acknowledgement that my life is nowhere interesting enough to share constantly with the world in 140-character bursts.

I appreciated Clark’s examination of “What is Technology?” in prefacing his chapter. (Clark, p. 87-89). It seems we all make a lot of assumptions on technology’s definition and he demonstrates this is not a particularly good choice. What struck me in his tracing of technology through history is that he is correct: intent or the deliberate and conscious pursuit and application of a technology seems to be missing. In this respect, technology is as old as the first proto-human (Homo habilis? Australopithecus Garhi? “Lucy” – Australopithecus afarensis?) to flake a stone core to make a chopper. Given the current debate over “bump stocks”, his observation, “we cannot, as of today, buy a grenade launcher at WalMart” is apocryphal.

While the discovery of a technology may have resulted from a fortunate accident, it is the deliberate choice to apply and use that technology that is critical. (Clark, p. 88) This is where we, as technical communicators, live.

As he constantly noted that his constructs were tentative and intended to spur further research, it would be interesting to find any follow-ups.

Michael J. Salvo and Paul Rosinski amplify the ideas Clark outlined, particularly in filling in my perceived gap on the intent or deliberation. See p. 105 among others.

William Hart-Davidson then neatly “puts a bow” by integrating the needs of the individual technical communicator, the organization, and the larger practice of technical communication in Content Management (CM) based on an inclusive strategy. Given his set of parameters, I completely agree that CM must been seen in a broader perspective. As technical communicators, we are still sorting out the implications that Hart-Davidson elucidates. This article illustrates how far we have come in “naturalizing” CMS in our practice.

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.

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.

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

‘This is about systemic oppression’: Eric Reid becomes the voice of 49ers’ protest with criticism of Pence

It’s not the cost of Pence’s trip that was galling. It was the preparation for it.

While Pierre Omidyar, the eBay founder, finds even more ominous signs:

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”.

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.

Takeaways for a Technical Writer in a Web 2.0 World

One of the strongest responses from the boyd and Ellison article was the alignment of its age (nine years old) with the social network sites featured. When I asked my 34-year-old son (who happens to be visiting from Denver), “Is Myspace even still around?”, I received a string of dismissive invective that translated roughly as, “Why are you even talking about Myspace? Myspace hasn’t been a thing for years.” (He is a devout and frequent Facebook user / consumer.)

I hadn’t looked for in years but, yes, it still exists. My point, as underscored in boyd and Ellison’s further evaluation in the article, is that social network sites are subject to the same relentless attrition as other Web categories. What seems archaic is dissecting Friendster’s rise and fall.

My second response is one of chagrin. While I pride myself on a global outlook, I am nearly completely ignorant of social network sites popular in other countries. (On the other hand, as an EXTREMELY casual consumer of social media, that shouldn’t be surprising to me.)

My takeaway for communicators from this article is to constantly be on the alert for trends and the ebb and flow of social network sites. The tactic is to be an “early adoptor” of new sites and new features within existing sites.

The Keen vs. Weinberger debate (Thank you, Daisy, for the .pdf. Yes, the WSJ went all-subscription roughly a year ago.) extends a welcome cautionary note to my urging of communicators to be on the alert: “There is, indeed, a lot of ‘digital narcissism'” and even more flat-out lies, misinformation, and ideologically-driven nonsense. A savvy communicator needs to find and/or develop what Weinberg called “a wide range of trust mechanisms” because “They are the rule … because from the beginning the Web has been about inventing ways to make its own massness — its miscellaneousness — useful”.

Even more snarky, Keen rejoins (and supports a healthy skepticism): “Web 2.0 tells us that we all have something interesting to say and that we should broadcast it to the world … Web 2.0 transforms us into monkeys.  That’s the new abundancy, the long tail, if you like. Infinite primates with infinite messages on infinite channels. The only good news is that broadband is still pathetically slow. But what happens when fiber-to-the-home becomes a reality for all of us? … What happens with the monkeys have the technology of the Gods at their paw tips? Media will be transformed into ubiquitous chatter — into an audio-video version of Twitter.”

It was revealing to me to compare Keen and Weinberger’s debate with the “cold” numbers of the Blythe, Lauer, and Curran. While I carry the job title of “technical writer” and was, in fact, dismissed recently as “only a technical writer”, I was gratified to read “The notion of a ‘Technical Writer’’ seems dated, because maintaining a career in this field now involves blogging, editing, information management, UI=UX design, Usability, QA, training, API documentation, Persona development, etc. And that’s just in the software industry. . . . you must branch out and be a master of many skills and tools.”. While the pair sparred over  the “technology of the Gods”, what was not gratifying was the survey results showing  working professional and technical communicators continue have a somewhat lower usage level of sophisticated technology, exemplified by Adobe’s Technical Suite, Captivate, and Articulate’s Storyline.

As noted, I am a Technical Writer at Network Health Plan, a smallish health insurance company in Wisconsin. My primary tools are the Office 365 suite – Word, Visio. Excel, and (shudder) PowerPoint. I have PhotoShop Elements or PhotoShop “Lite” for graphic manipulation. I am also an administrator of the knowledge bases in ServiceNow.

For this content management system, have been a principal architect of the templates used for articles, processes for creating, reviewing, and approving articles, and coaching other team members in Information Services (IS) on how to use ServiceNow.

In addition, I am highly sought after as a Business Process Architect. This stems from an innate ability to condense, compile, and sort through a meeting’s palaver to deliver a coherent Visio diagram of a team’s task or process.

This recitation leaves out social media. Aside from Skype used as an internal messaging service, I do not routinely use social media and there are no supervisory or corporate expectations for interacting with blogs, Facebook, linkedin, etc. I’m not sure if forums built around solving problems in software programs counts as social media but I regularly haunt the ServiceNow forums in the usually futile quest to find answers for questions.


My point about a technical communicator’s need to be aware of social media, its evolution or de-evolution and the appearance of new “hot” outlets was acknowledging a wake-up call for me.

What I Did on My Previous Blogging Efforts

First off, Word Press, stop helping me. If I want your help, I will ask for it. Until then, take your little Clippit knockoff somewhere else.

Sheesh. That is nearly as obnoxious as Microsoft’s programs constantly offering to “help”.

I have started blogs but, like journaling or other desirable permanent endeavors, they all faded away in time. I have also contributed to blogs over time. The longest tenure in that area was about two years in a science fiction interactive fiction effort.

As the tone of this post’s beginning suggests, I see blogs as usually pretty loose, free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness personal expressions. I get that is likely not the case here for the next 15 or so weeks.