Author Archives: emilyklaird

Discovering the audience, identity, and power in an online community.

Understanding an audience plays a significant role in the technical communication field. We are, by training and requirement, focused on the audience and those who will use what we create. Social media has developed a broad network of communities focused on anything from niche cooking techniques to reality tv shows. For my case study this semester, I chose to observe Bravo TV’s social media channels. My decision was based on the way Bravo TV has evolved with its audience to continuously grow, particularly using social media. Bravo TV has used its social media to build active communities of followers who engage daily on Bravo content. While completing the case study, it became evident that Bravo TV has a very engaged Instagram community. This semester, the topics of audience, identity, and power were raised throughout our readings, specifically in Blakeslee (2010), Chayko (2017), Hurley & Hea (2014), Longo (2014), and Rheingold (2012). Knowing how digitally engaged the Bravo TV community was, I wanted to put theory to practice and determine what could be understood about Bravo’s audience. Primarily I was interested in the community identity and power balance within the community. By observing comment temperament, I was able to observe the power balance between the audience and Bravo TV cast members, who often engage within the post comments. Before my observation, I assumed the power balance was shifted more toward the Bravo TV cast members. After completing the observation, it became clear the power within the community rests with the audience. The engagement was not just the audience fawning over their favorite Real Housewives, the identity of the Bravo TV Instagram community is that of support and accountability. The community had almost standardized levels of acceptance from the Bravo TV cast members. If a cast member went outside the bounds of acceptability, a stream of comments reprimanding them on any Instagram post featuring they were featured in followed. Certainly, some cast members seemed to be despised by the community. Bravo TV appears to be aware of its audience because their Instagram posts rarely feature these particular individuals. As Bravo TV has centered its content around the audience, the power within the Bravo TV community ultimately lies with the audience. Uniquely, Bravo TV’s show stars are audience-made. They are not famous beyond the notoriety they receive from fans as cast members in reality shows. If not for the fans, they would not hold their faux-celebrity status. Furthermore, fan support keeps individuals relevant as show cast members, without this, they would be taken off the show – which has happened many times.


Research findings can often surprise us. It is the old adage of not judging a book by its cover. Until we have truly engaged with an audience, our understanding is only based on assumptions. As technical communicators, we know understanding the audience is a critical step to being able to communicate with an audience. The benefits of modern, digital communication modalities are what they allow us to discover about our audience. Not only are these communities attainable from devices which we carry around with us (mobile phone), they are active and vocal. If they don’t like or approve of something, in the case of the Bravo TV community, they discuss it. Longo (2014) championed the idea of technical communicators incorporating social media into their toolset. After completing both the case study and research paper, I couldn’t agree more.

Expanding into the Unknown.

 Flower Darby is a senior instructional designer and adjunct instructor at Northern Arizona University. Darby is also the author of the book Small Teaching Online: Apply Learning Science in Online Classes. I had just finished reading Darby’s book when I heard her interviewed on the Our College, Your Voices podcast. During the interview, Darby said something that stuck with me. Essentially, she explained, when transitioning our courses to online environments, we have tried to mimic the traditional classroom. When we look back at this moment in time, we will realize we had no idea what we were doing, and we did it all wrong. This concept resonated with the readings we engaged with this week because they discuss online delivery, untraditional workspaces, and publicly available online services. With so much rapid change, how do we know if we are doing it correctly?

    From the inception of the Covid-19 pandemic, there have seen shifts across almost all fields and workplaces. Unfortunately, most coffee shops have hidden all the furniture, so those coffeehouse writers featured in Pigg’s (2014) case study have probably gone elsewhere. Technical and professional communicators are a nomadic bunch, so where have we gone now? As Pigg explains, “the decentralization of organizations, the increasing movement of writing into informal locations, and the collaborative nature of writing continue to challenge the foundations of technical and professional communication” (p. 71). We are in a progressive time where not only are technical communicators displaced from their favorite writing spots, we have all been, in some way, displaced. The loss of our traditional workplaces also means the adoption of publicly available online services (PAOS.) Look at Zoom or Microsoft Teams, they have become the new workplace. Ferro and Zachry (2013) explored technical communicators’ use of PAOS and the reflection it has on TPC pedagogy. The author’s data drills it down to the understand PAOS are used to develop associations (62%), learning about a topic (60%), editing information (56%), and conversing with people (53%) (Ferro & Zachery, 2013, p. 16). Yet, in going back to Flower Darby’s concept of an established practice truly in its infancy, I postulate that is also reflective of the current TPC field. Now, certainly, I see how this may be a bold statement, but, I also recently read Saul Carliner. Carliner’s (2010) chapter, “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”, presents the radical changes the technical communication professional has gone through since the late 1970s. Technology was the driving force behind these changes; the same technology that is today expanding at a rate we have never before seen. Not only are we living through a tech boom, but we also just became a society forced to function through technology. Will the TPC field of today look the same five years from now? Honestly, probably not.

   Audience, as discussed heavily in my previous post, plays a major role in the TPC field. This week’s reading by Ann Blakeslee (2010) “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age” explores heuristics and strategies for addressing digital audiences. This, undoubtedly, is valuable information as we all push further into the technosocial landscape. Blakeslee (2010) states, “digital audience adaption, therefore, requires a problem-solving approach that allows writers to identify and analyze their audiences and to learn about their audiences’ contexts and uses for the documentation” (p. 204). Ethnography is a practice used heavily in many fields but is particularly referenced in TPC user-experience literature. Social media engagement, certainly a major theme from this week yet to be addressed, employs a sort of modern, technical ethnography. Within social media lives communities and cultures from which, if studied, we can learn a great deal about users. There is a social media channel many of the instructors I work with use, I review it weekly to see just where they are struggling with technology. This same practice could be utilized in various social media channels to build heuristics and strategies for better addressing a particular audience.

     Although we may be, as Flower Darby projects of online teaching, still in our infancy, emerging strategies, PAOS, and social media channels are all aiding in technological betterment. We may not have completely discovered the best ways to utilize these resources. Instead, we may all be using them completely inaccurately. Regardless, our recent pivot into a digitally functional society could only help establish better heuristics for future engagement.

Audience Understood.

“The very nature of technical communication begs for conceptions of audience because technical writers are fundamentally charged with the responsibility of translating information from one context to another.”

– Robert R. Johnson, 1997, Audience Involved: Toward a Participatory Model of Writing

 Johnson’s (1997) quote seemed a fitting choice as I reflect on the author’s we engaged with this week. Technology, as detailed by Saul Carliner (2010), has gone through major evolutions subsequently impacting the careers of those in the technical communication field. Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s (2014) study details just how deeply varied the skills of technical communicators have become in the workplace. This week, we see these themes reflected again in more specific areas of technical communication: social media, content management, and technology culture. Within each of these topics, there are benefits and hurdles for those in the technical communication field. Ultimately, technical communicators, to ensure effective knowledge transfer, must understand their audience.

       Social media, as it relates to the work of technical communicators, brings growth (Maggiani, 2009). Not only is this growth seen within the emerging communication mediums, but also with the audience reach. Longo (2014) writes, “once technical communicators started dealing with web documents, we began to consider our documents had an all-inclusive audience” (p. 24). The notion of a global audience, or writing for a global audiencehas been a trending topic in the technical communication field for some time now. It all circles back to better understanding the audience and ultimately user experience. Determining how people engage with an end product can take us back to Don Norman’s (2013) The Design of Everyday Things.

Within this user experience classic, Norman (2013) states, “the rapid rate of technology changes outpaces the advances of design” (p.8). This makes the day-by-day work for the technical communicator undeniably more challenging. Yet, a focus on the audience, the user, can aid in overcoming these technology-related communication pitfalls and narrowing in on a more effective communication strategy.

     Content management, as discussed by Hart-Davidson (2010) in “Content Management: Beyond Single-Sourcing”, play a major role in modern communication as well as social media communication. By becoming better content managers, technical communicators have been able to breakdown communication silos. Removing these silos creates “barriers to systematic reuse” allowing for collaboration on a two-way street (Hart-Davidson, 2010, p. 131). Communication can be distributed to an audience and the audience can accept it or reject it, either way offering reflections of the outcome. This again presents another way social media brings the growth that Maggiani (2009) had discussed while also aiding in understanding the audience. It allows technical communication to be as ever-evolving as the technology which supports it. As Hart-Davidson (2010) explains, “we must devise ways to listen carefully and move quickly to support the emerging needs of users by documenting new uses, supporting them with new features or services, and scaling-up capacity” (p. 141). Goals like these are best reached through an audience involved, a plea made by Johnson back in 1997. To utilize social media effectively while successfully managing content, technical communicators must be involved and engaged with their audience.

     Patricia Sullivan (2017) champions the practice of truly engaging with your audience. Sullivan (2017) will point to the practice of ethnography, or the study of individual peoples and cultures, to not only understand but empathize with an audience. Longo’s (2010) “Human+Machine Culture: Where We Work” starts by defining both culture and community. The comprehension of these terms is significant because they are not the same. To understand the culture does not automatically reflect in understanding the community. Technology adds another challenge to this as it fosters additional communities with varying cultures. Working for a company, for example, does not define the culture and community of each department within that company. To truly understand the various norms, we must appeal in some way, to Sullivan’s (2017) suggestion of ethnography. Social media provides us a window into various digital cultures and communities. By utilizing this viewpoint, we can better manage our content from creation to distribution. However, it all begins with first understanding our audience, so we can effectively use technological resources to make that knowledge transfer successful.

     As we have seen from many of the authors highlighted here, technology brings with it challenges for technical communicators. Yet, to achieve knowledge transfer, it is critical for technical communicators to first know their audience(s). This understanding will allow them to recognize the various cultures and communities that reside within their end-users. Furthermore, technical communicators are more able to successfully prepare content and manage the dispersal of this content to the right audience.

Jack of All Trades, Master of All

  The study detailed in Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World, by Blythe, Lauer, and Curran (2014) features the perfect quote to summarize technical communicators at this moment. It comes from an online comments forum where an individual, presumed to work in technical content management, notes of technical writing, “you must branch out and be a master of many skills and tools.” That’s right, a master, not just someone who can dabble, but a sophisticated, knowledgeable user. What Blythe, Lauer, and Curran (2014) ultimately find from their study is those working in the technical and professional communication (TPC) field utilize a wide range of writing styles, audiences, and technology to accomplish their role. Coincidently, Rachel Spilka’s (2010) book Digital Literacy for Technical Communication reflects and discusses the impacts technology has had on the technical communicator. Saul Carliner‘s “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” presents the radical changes the technical communication professional has gone through since the late 1970s. The changes have all directly been impacted by technological evolution. Carliner will conclude that in today’s workplace, the challenge technical communicators face is ultimately being outsources. Content development needs are dwindling, but this, from my experience which I will later discuss, is due to the vast amount of technology now required in the workplace. Technical communicators simply cannot know it all, but, we are almost required for job security purposes. As Blythe et. al. (2014) found, gone are the days of specialized skills, replaced instead by the Swiss army knife approach. One unit, or person, that does everything. R. Stanley Dicks will also expand on this in his chapter “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work”. Dicks (2014) states in his opening sentence, “With the rapid and intense increase in digital literacy, technical communication is, by many accounts, in the midst of a seismic shift” (p. 51). Economics, management, and methodologies, as they affect management theory, have aided in the shift. From web techniques like single-sourcing, so productivity management, such as scrum, Dicks discusses emerging norms altering the workplace landscape. Ultimately, Dicks will lean on education as a solution for assisting in the ever-evolving responsibilities of the technical communicator. Education is important and plays a critical role in preparing individuals for the field. What I would like to emphasize in the second part of my post, a professional reflection, is the extent of continuous education required once practicing as a technical communicator.

 Professionally, I deal with a wide range of requirements working in a technologist role. It is not enough to understand the basics of any programs, we’re expected to know everything. From novice to expert, my knowledge must be able to run the gamut to effectively perform my job. I must know the learning management system (LMS) our campus uses inside and out. Additionally, I must understand all of the extensions that go into using the LMS. As Covid-19 has shifted our classrooms into more virtual spaces, I must also understand the virtual conferencing applications we use. Video is also in high demand right now and so I often find myself training on video editing, embedding, and linking. Just this week, I offered two trainings on a new accessibility tool. Additionally, I developed documents aiding instructors in understanding FERPA requirements that relate to their classroom. So in a given week, I may assist instructors with troubleshooting their online courses, write manuals supporting tools, edit videos, train on accessibility, and FERPA, all while answering calls and emails about other niche technology issues. I can’t count out all the other ad hoc issues thrown my way on a given day. Now, don’t let my reflection fool you into thinking I’m complaining. I absolutely love what I do. Learning new technology is one of my favorite activities, so I’m overjoyed to learn more. What I’m trying to showcase is how broad and varied my day-to-day, even hour-to-hour can be working in technology. I certainly have my specialties on the team. I am the designer of the group. So if instructors have design issues related to their course, both with instructional design or graphic design, they also come to me. Yes, I am literally a human one-stop-shop with technology software, applications, and tools. Which is both amazing and also a tad bit daunting. On top of this, my team and I are always looking to the future, from Technology Trends for 2021 to upcoming Learning Trends. Let’s add a cherry on top of this giant sundae as we’re also busy keeping up with the ever-changing offerings of the programs we currently use. Microsoft Teams is a great example of this. Here is what was new in Teams for September and here is what was new in October. Next week, I’ll have another new release coming of features and upgrades to familiarize myself with before my clients encounter them. Our readings this week, certainly shed light on how much the TPC field has grown with technology. The benefit of how comfortable most people are with technology is also the challenge. Our clients are engaging deeper into tech which leads to more programs and software use. It also leads to more training and more ways to ensure the options their choosing ultimately meets the needs of the end-users. Accessibility is always a major concern in my world and so not only must my client be trained on using the tool, they must understand how to navigate that tool for end-users with disabilities. The TPC field is so multifaceted requiring continuous training and educational growth. As the title of this article states, we are expected to function as a Jack of all trades, master of all.

Technology is Gaining Control

What do we give up by accepting our technological coexistence? Continuing my exploration of Mary Chayko’s Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life, the notion of loss of control began to surface. In chapter 9, Chayko touches on cell phones affording us the ability to adjust plans at the very last minute. Chayko goes on to say, “time can be perceived as more porous, less fixed” (p. 184). Time is something lost within our presence in the constant techno-social world. We are available to each other at a moment’s notice and we expect our society to function within this expediency. This notion takes us back to Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart and the notion of imitation learning Rheingold expands upon. If our techno-social society dictates instant communication between one another, then you either abide or are a non-conformer. When it comes to text messaging, the instant back-and-forth has become so culturally standard, there are lengthy amounts of online literature dedicated to not being texted back. From Medium’s 3 Reasons Why I Did Not Reply to Your Text Message Yet to the holy grail of honesty, The True Reason Guys Don’t Text Back, instant communication causes its share of miscommunication. With the cell phone or digital communication, becoming status quo, time has taken on a new meaning. Our presence within a techno-social world becomes constant, which in turn creates a level of involuntary participation. Although we are, through our technological devices, constantly “on”, our physical presence within time has become more selective. Physical time, as previously pointed out by Chayko, has become porous. We are available at any given time, yet, we can opt-out of physical engagement at a moment’s notice. Chayko uses this notion to transition into technology rescuing us from mistakes. Of this, Chayko writes, “If we count on technology to rescue us if we make mistakes, we can be prone to making more mistakes.” This leads, for Chayko, to the concept of control. The technological devices which represent our presence in the world begin to control us. The question, then, actually comes in the form of an article entitled Is Technology Actually Making Things Better?

      Pairagraph is a fantastic website featuring articles of discourse by two notable individuals in a particular field. John K. Davis, Professor of Philosophy from Cal State Fullerton, and Jason Crawford, author of The Roots of Progress and an engineering manager with a long history in Silicon Valley, take on the issue of technological betterment. Early on, Davis’s portion of the article states of technological progression, “We can easily feel like the sorcerer’s apprentice, confronted by an ever-widening array of new toys that are spinning out of control.” With the mention of control, we are back to Chayko’s chapter 9 and the dependency of technology for solving our mistakes. As almost a response to Chayko, Davis argues our wisdom must grow with technology and, unfortunately, it is not. Technology is expanding rapidly in many avenues; our wisdom simply cannot keep up. Davis continues, writing, “the core problem is that we’re becoming more powerful but not more wise.” This is a problem. With technology now able to influence elections, control nuclear weapons, and run entire operations through AI, wisdom is required, or we face a total loss of control. Crawford, in his portion of the article counters, expressing all the good technology has done over the last century to make life easier for the average person. He expands on the concept of isolation and the connectedness technology has afforded many – a key concept by Chayko. Crawford continues by arguing although technology produces risks, it has also saved society from risks including disease control to house fires. Crawford, although arguing the pros of technology, concedes to Davis’s notion that technology is making us more powerful but not wiser. The article winds down to conclude growth in our wisdom is required to matching growing technology. Chayko, then, is accurate in pointing out the lack of wisdom we adhere to when technology continues to solve our problems. Although it can, and certainly should be argued as Crawford has, the many benefits of technology. We have to recognize and confront the many ways technology is very rapidly gaining control over our society. In Jonathan Zittrain‘s discussion at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, he questions if technology is friend or foe. His concern works as an argument for the wisdom necessary for defining the role of technology in our modern lives, and not completely losing control. 

Rinsta, Finsta, and Sinsta: The Identies of Instagram

The inclusion of technology in our everyday lives has produced impactful changes in societies. We experience life through apps, share thoughts and feelings digitally, have robots vacuum our floors, and throughout all this share ourselves with technology. Traditionally, the only other beings we could share with is other humans with whom we knew personally. As Dr. Mary Chayko’s chapters 4, 5, and 6 of Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life explores, technology is shaping the way we live and with whom we identify. As Chayko’s chapter 6 states, “self and identity are shaped and transformed in interaction with others” (p.114). However, the modern “others” extends far beyond our traditional, physical social circle. Technology, primarily within the sharing of ideas and social media, has ushered in a new opportunity for identity development. Chayko discusses “agents of socialization”, which can include family and friendship groups where we are most comfortable and authentically ourselves (p.115). In 2020, however, agents of socialization, for many, reside outside their direct network and instead function as social media influencers. Influencers, on an individual level, can vary greatly. Some identities are affected by the organizational powers of Susan Santoro of Organized 31, while others prefer the adulting advice and musing of Katina Mountanos. By absorbing the advice provided by both of these influencers, online users are inspired, or influenced, to shape their identities. We may mimic their behavior, dress, communication style, or social media photos. For many of us, these agents of socialization define how we project our identity out to the world as our multifaceted selves.

     When working with undergraduate students, I have always been impressed by how invested they are in Instagram. Their Instagram identity holds a great deal of weight in their life, but one instance of themselves isn’t enough. Just as Chayko discusses the multifaceted self, she states of identity, “people tend to produce and manage their online identities rather strategically and to evaluate others’ identities just as strategically” (p. 119). The students I have worked with, supervised, and taught, do just this. The self is multifaceted and so when presenting their identities online, they do so in a multifaceted way through various Instagram profiles. Many years ago I was introduced to the terms applied to these profiles rinstafinsta, and sinsta. A rinsta, or real Instagram, is an individual’s main account. In my experience, students tend to post an identity that is easily digestible to all in this space. Meaning their mom and dad, grandma or grandpa, or the common public could view it without any cause for concern. The finsta, or fake Instagram, on the other hand typically requires approval to follow (private account). It isn’t necessarily used for content that is “naughty”, it’s a more an authentic, unedited version of the individual’s identity. Finally, there is the sinsta, yes, this is the fun one. Unless you’re a parent, then this is about to be uncomfortable. The sinsta is a private account where the user is free to post whatever they want. Ok, relax parents, it doesn’t necessarily have to contain a naughty picture, frankly, some use it as just a “secret instragram” not a “sin”-stagram. Others, however, definitely use it as a place for sin, and for that, parents, I am sorry. The reality is these various Instagram accounts showcase the multifaceted identities we can supply to others. 

    We are not all angels, but we’re not exactly devils either. We are people who create our identities through various engagement with others which includes social to sexual practices. As Chayko states, “technology use by the young can have a range of effects, both beneficial and potentially hazardous” (p. 127). The way I see it, at least, when young adults feel they need to share something a little private, they are wise enough to create a fake, private account. By doing so, they’re already more sophisticated digital citizens than good old Anthony Weiner, the former New York politician and convicted sex offender. For the record, the students I engage with are all legal adults, who I assume are engaging with other legal adults. My opinion if I worked with middle schoolers or high schoolers would probably have a very different outlook. 

Techno-Social Evolution

Artist Rudolph Zallinger’s famous illustration The March of Progress showcases 25 million years of human evolution. Similar illustrations of technology product evolution and human technological evolution have also been produced. The evolution of technology is thoroughly explored within chapters one through three of sociologist, and musicianMary Chayko’s Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Sociological Essentials. Although technology is evolving, we are evolving alongside technology. This evolution can be viewed from a macro level as we observe the many ways technology has shaped our cultural experience. Technological evolution, however, can also be viewed in the ways technology is changing us on a micro, individual level. Who we are in our everyday lives is not always who we are online. Do we all live a double life? I would argue to some extent, yes. Yowei Shaw, co-host of the podcast Invisibilia, says it best in the episode Post, Shoot, in regards to our online presence, “this person has a relationship to us, but it is not us.” The interesting thing to note is that technology and the many communities and networks within the internet, mobile communication, and social media networking (Chayko’s triple revolution) create a gateway to be whoever we want – at least, online. Although Chayko’s second chapter will discuss the birth of the dark web, let’s live in the light and instead look beyond the depravity we know can exist online. Our focus here is instead on who we become when our persona is translated to others through the online lens of social media channels.

Drama Queen Illustration, Dharma Comics by Leah Pearlman

   Leah Pearlmanas told by Vice news, found fulfillment in sharing her comics on the social media platform Facebook. Not only did her comics allow Pearlman to convey her inner thoughts, but she was also thrilled by how many likes they garnered. Until one day, Facebook changed its algorithm and the likes slowed to a dull crawl. Pearlman was distraught, comparing the feeling to that of not receiving enough oxygen. Riffled with insecurity and concern over her lack of likes, Pearlman decided she would buy Facebook ads. It was the only option she could turn to for filling the void likes had left behind. Chayko’s third chapter discusses reality and the brain, how online reality trickles into our real-world reality. Pearlman’s addiction to likes and the validation they offered her was having real-world consequences. The irony of this story is that Pearlman, a previous Facebook employee, is credited with inventing the like button. Her very creation became what validated her life as an online comic. Likes were what gave purpose to her creations and the currency to her efforts. Her online persona became controlled by the click of a button signaling social approval. Its symbolic representation harkens back to Chayko’s sociological statement on human beings gravitating toward one another to fulfill needs, including safety and love. The approval of the like buttons makes us feel both loved and safe by the positive attention and approval from others.

Breakfast in Bed Image, Kashlee Kucheran, Instagram

Love will make us do crazy things. Mix love and technology and you’ll get things like Catfishing. Love, in this context, can drive us toward false online representation for the love of a mate or the love of an audience. Living with technology, as Chayko’s second chapter addresses, means living within an augmented reality. Social media and the internet provide us with the ability to filter the lens capturing our lives. We do not always experience moments as they are, but instead how they will be showcased on the internet. In fact men and women alike, for the love of others displayed through social media likes, have unsuccessfully stopped their lives to chase the dragon of online fame. Kashlee Kucheran, did something many of us dream about doing. She quit her high-paying real-estate job, sold her house, and began a new career as a travel blogger. Kucheran ventured to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, writing and photographing her journey. Along the way something changed, Kucheran began spending more and more time on Instagram. Driven by likes, follows, and comments, Kucheran details in an article she authored for the Huffington Post she could spend 6 hours trying to capture the perfect photograph. She details waking up to get ready (full hair and makeup) before taking a ‘just woke up’ breakfast in bed photo. Kucheran’s life as a travel blogger, her techno-social existence, was being ruled by Instagram results. Gone was her whimsical passion for adventure, instead, her travel was dictated by the quality of images for use on her Instagram. Ultimately, Kucheran saw minimal growth from her Instagram efforts and decided it was time to take a break from the platform. Chayko’s third chapter states, “technology can be so deeply integrated with so many aspects of life that it is almost as though the tech has seeped inside the person, cyborg-style.” Kucheran’s life, ruled by technology, had transitioned from the human connection, or the human experience, to a technology-driven existence. Yet, Kucheran is not alone in her venture to live so extensively in an online space. Many of us focus more on ourselves as an online persona than ourselves as a person. It is as if the next step in Rudolph Zallinger’s evolutionary illustration should just be a digital network.  

Art Heist: When online sharing leads to digital theft.

The internet connects us through unmeasurable hyperlinks, thus leading it to be known as the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 in hopes of creating a global network for referencing and sharing information. This is how Howard Rheingold (2012), author, professor, and proud shoe painter, begins the second half of his book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Rheingold focuses on collaboration, community, and networks both in the digital and real-world realms. He reflects on conversations he’s engaged in with other similarly focused professionals and personal experiences as they relate to communities and networks. Infinite numbers of ideas, opinions, recipes, photos, videos, how-to’s, and art get linked around the web in a practice we know as ‘sharing’. Forget the New York minute, honey, sharing is happening in a cyber-minute and it’s modern communication lightning. Sharing happens so frequently that in 2019 (a simpler time) global online users sent over 41.6 million mobile messages. Many of these were, I’m sure, simple communications, but they also included an abundance of link-sharing. The act of sharing information is why we have the worldwide “web” and the infinite number of communities and networks entangled within. Sharing is not just something one can perform online, it is truly engrained into our cultural practice of the internet. Rheingold’s (2012) chapter 5 discusses sharing at length, but he states early on, “entire communities exist for the purpose of sharing and organization” (p. 22). 

     DeviantArt was created to share and organize art between artists. A Web 2.0 darling, DeviantArt was a community embracing collaboration and inclusivity until a simple platform switch encouraging sharing changed everything. Dan Perkel, now director of global design company Ideo, spent three years doing fieldwork on DeviantArt. Perkel’s work would inevitably become a piece for firstmonday.org entitled Share wars: Sharing, theft, and the everyday production of Web 2.0 on DeviantArt. Amid Perkel’s fieldwork, August of 2009, DeviantArt’s platform added new “Share Tools”. The tools were a result of application programming interfaces (APIs) ability to share DeviantArt content directly into other platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

2009 DeviantArt Share Tools courtesy of firstmonday.org

In the days following the launch of the new Share Tools, conflict erupted across the DeviantArt network. The primary issue was the loss of control for community artists. Shortly after the tool’s incorporation, community members’ original work began showing up on other websites as banners and button or as other artists own “work”. Of course, most damaging of all was community members original artwork appearing for sale on other websites. This underside of sharing, the inspiration for Tim Berners-Lee’s vision, has a very real and impactful effect on both independent artists and brands. 

     The story of Tuesday Bassen versus Spanish apparel retailer Zara was featured in the podcast Articles of Interest, #8 Knockoffs. Articles of Interest is a “limited-run podcast series about fashion, housed inside the design and architecture podcast 99% Invisible.” As a quick side note, I highly recommend 99% Invisible, created and hosted by Roman Mars. It deep dives into design features present all around us, things we engage with or see every day, but never knew the full story behind them. I digress. Tuesday Bassen is an illustrator and entrepreneur who sells her unique, pop-art sketches in the form of prints, pins, t-shirts, and most notably her satin jackets which feature saying like “Hail Satan” and “Mixed Emotions Club”.

Tuesday Bassen (left), Tuesday Bassin ‘Mixed Emotions’ satin jacket (right)
– courtesy of Los Angeles Magazine and ShopTuesday.com

Tuesday is made aware from others on social media that Zara seems to be copying her original work. Initially, she’s scared to go after the giant retailer – which is understandable. Just like Dan Perkel’s experiences with his field study of DeviantArt, independent artists are not prepared for legal battles, nor do they want to participate in them. Who would? Yet, Tuesday Bassen decided for the love of her brand, she would play David against the Goliath, Zara. Bassen eventually wins a settlement, only to shortly after find items similar to her originals on Zara and many other sites. 

     Music and video theft, as discussed by Rheingold (2012) came with heavy legality, copyrighting, and ultimately streaming serves which aided acts of piracy. Similar movements for artists online exist but don’t have the backing of the film and music industry. A growing trend in stock art websites allows anyone to purchase or obtain both knock-off and original art, videos, and stock photos. Sites like pexels.comflaticon.com, and unsplash.com are useful resources – especially when I’m designing a website and my client doesn’t have photography in the budget. However, I’m certain their services are hurting independent artists. Technology combined with sharing within both communities and networks is a beautiful, progressive process. Technological expediency within art communities, however, may be providing shortcomings and downright theft for many. 

Derailed by the Long Tail

    At the present, we are living in a vastly digital, on-demand world. Gone are the days of patience and anticipation, replaced instead by instant gratification. Once entering the digital realm, all we encounter is stimulation. Perform a simple Google search and you’ll be met with links, pictures, videos, and information. This excessive quantity of stimulus warrants the advocation for both mindfulness and “crap detection” online found within the first three chapters of Howard Rheingold’s (2012) book Net Smart. The antagonist to Rheingold’s call for digital awareness is editor of Wired.com, Chris Anderson, who in his article The Long Tail, predicts the future of markets is found within niches. While streaming serves are the status quo, providing extensive offerings from standard fare to obscurity, their long tail offerings are derailing our digital journeys.

      Rheingold (2012) states, “powerful technologies always entail trade-offs and while the power of a new tool is evident early, the price we pay may take longer to become visible” (p. 61). Video-on-demand, endless libraries of music at our fingertips, and a never-ending flow of social media now make up our day-to-day. Want to hear a song? Press play on Spotify or Apple Music. Want to watch a movie? Turn on Netflix and watch. Want to share a thought? Log onto social media and have at it! Of course, these activities have become effortless as smartphones accompany us everywhere. Information overload and consumer satisfaction walk a narrow line, as Rafeal Lucian details in his 2014 article in The Journal of Internet Banking and Commerce. Lucian found online customers expect the same amount of offers as provided by the last minute products that line the checkout aisles – we anticipate choices. When we choose to stream a show or listen to an album from the comfort of our phone, the options are interminable. Have you ever sat in front of a tv with your dinner getting cold because you were unable to choose something to watch while you ate? This is an example of how Anderson’s long tail is effecting your day-to-day life clouding your digital mindfulness.

    There’s nothing wrong with digital rabbit holes. Personally, I enjoy a good mindless romp through social media or the little trailers that now play before you select to watch anything on Netflix. Yet, in drawing back to Rheingold’s (2012) statement, is the price we pay our time? Often easily forfeited, time is a very valuable currency. Anderson’s (2004) The Long Tail even points out the poor exchange of time spent locating open-sourced music versus paying to download instantly. With digital services able to offer us the long tail into obscurity, the tradeoff is we’re inundated with decisions. This abundance strains Rheingold’s (2012) concept of infotention, the conjoining of the brain and machine filtering, by providing the machine an advantage. The machine is providing us the information we’re seeking, but a new challenge amasses – an overabundance of information stimulus. We as the user can focus our attention, being mindful of our digital journey, but the long tail and its many offerings detract from our mission. This is not to say I disagree with the niche offerings which compromise the long tail. I am a consumer who desires both the unique and the unconventional. However, in reading Rheingold’s (2012) calls for mindfulness, I couldn’t help but consider how hindering the broad access to niche materials works against our focus.

     Combating the extensive number of digital stimuli isn’t an easy task. It’s rare a day that I’m able to be truly present online, staying faithful to the purpose of being there in the first place. This dissension from my true online task is not my fault, it’s exactly what the long tail hopes to accomplish. By falling into a digital rabbit hole we’re engaging with more content, videos, or media. If time is money then someone somewhere is getting paid for my digital off-roading. Thus, pulling us away from our intention and harnessing our participation elsewhere is the goal of the long tail. This keeps us from accomplishing our digital intentions in the time we thought it might take us. The truth is the long tail is rarely, in my experience, disappointing. Thus, we’re willing to part with our time in exchange for interesting, attention-grabbing content.

Reach & Crowdsourcing: A Binder of Tech Comm and Social Media

The relationship between technical communication and social media is a peculiar crossroads. The notion of pitfalls and perils of social media, as discussed by Hurley and Hea (2014), seems to define the differences between the two. As I reflect on synthesizing technical communication and social media, I initially question how I would go about doing so. The former seems sterile and definitive, while the latter open-ended, free-spirited, and uncontrolled. Technical communication, for me, has been best approached by Redish (2011) who states technical communicator’s goal, “is to make even complex interactions understandable and usable.” This concept of understanding and usable can transfer to the activity detailed throughout Hurley and Hea’s (2014) article where students prepared instructional documentation for a social media website. So why when I initially went to synthesize the relationship between the two did I feel it was unrealistic? I believe it goes back to the beginning of Hurley and Hea’s (2014) article and the previously stated pitfalls and perils. Social media in the realm of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter seems very free-form. Devoid of checks and balances, social media commentary can flow freely like the jazz music of digital communication. It can change on a dime with users rhetorically appealing to the same concepts Hurley and Hea forefront – reach and crowdsourcing.

Reach, as defined by Hurley and Hea (2014) is, “the ability to form relationships, address user interests, and determine long-term effects of networking” (p. 57). I would argue reach is central to successful communication as the content must resonate with the user. In the technical communication field, this viewpoint would center on user experience and usability. As the student’s in the Hurley and Hea (2014) article framed their instructional topics, their focus on reach also focused on user experience. By producing an article central to usability, as all of the instructional documents within the article did, the authors ensured the article reached users. Thus within this example, we can see the connectivity of technical communication and social media. Both utilize reach in varying ways to resonate with an end-user. The document itself, the ‘how-to’ technical communication element, uses reach in connecting a user and the technology. The social media component or the ability to engage with the document, leave comments, and share it, uses reach to connect the document to a network. It could almost be deconstructed into two stages: production and dissemination. I don’t think, however, that we need to disassemble this to such a sterile level. The point being both technical communication and social media utilize reach to connect with the users. By positioning users in this way, both technical communication and social media also use crowdsourcing to their benefit.

Hurley and Hea (2014) define crowdsourcing as, “the practice of tapping into the collective public intelligence to complete a task or gain insights that would traditionally have been assigned to a member of or consultant for an organization” (p. 57). When technical writers, for instance, create a manual for use by end-users, they traditionally and hopefully perform user testing. This examination of the user employs crowdsourcing to determine a variety of useful knowledge. This can include user nomenclature when it comes to a particular device or performing a task. It can also include document user successes and failures to determine the required content to reside within a how-to manual. Crowdsourcing, like user testing, requires user experience. It requires engagement with an audience to define what the people want and need. Social media both uses and offers the ability to use crowdsourcing for discovering channels of communication and user information. Similar to user testing for a manual, engaging within a social media channel requires crowdsourcing to comprehend what users are saying. To join a conversation, you need to know both what’s being discussed and topics of interest. You wouldn’t engage with a social media channel focused on MMORPG’S to share a document about games outside this genre. In this instance, you’ve inaccurately utilized the communication channel because you’ve neglected to crowdsource. A more successful approach would be sharing a beta test of a new MMORPG with a Discord channel focused on that game genre. Just as one could share a sample of a user manual for a VOIP phone, for example, with users of VOIP phones in an organization. Crowdsourcing, to be successful, must focus on the user, and ultimately, it must make sense within the conversation. Thus the connection between technical communication and social media can be found within reach and crowdsourcing.

Hurley, E., & Hea, A. C. (2014). The rhetoric of reach: Preparing students for technical communication in the age of social media. Technical Communication Quarterly23(1), 55-68.