Author Archives: Emily Hayes

Teachers are Digital Communicators Now

I’ve missed our weekly blogging exercises and exchanges! I’m eager to review my classmates’ final projects, though.

My essay focuses on the ways that the skills and concepts of digital communication are now an essential element of teaching as online learning (and all the digital tools, apps, bells, and whistles that come along with that) becomes a permanent part of education.

To say the global pandemic caused disruption to the American educational system seems like a laughable understatement, but that is the term being used to describe the, in some cases overnight, switch from in-person learning to online and virtual learning for schools across the country and around the world. Teachers who had trained for years to earn a teaching degree and then continued to perfect their craft through years of classroom experience and further study suddenly found themselves without a classroom or any of the tools they had previously relied upon for their work. Educational professionals had to master screencasts, Zoom, and Google classroom from their homes. While the instantaneous change made a quality transition all but impossible in the short term, the long-term reality is that these digital tools and spaces are now a permanent part of the educational landscape. Teachers must master the platforms their schools adopt, and this requirement is where the concepts and skills more familiar to digital communicators come into play. This paper argues that teachers and the profession of teaching as a whole must adopt a digital communication approach of audience-centered communication and skilled information design in their efforts to elevate the online classroom to the same levels of educational excellence that they have long offered in the traditional classroom. 

Here’s the essay, if you’re interested!

The Shared Nature of Teaching and TPC

Albert Einstein is credited as saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The first time I heard this quote paraphrased I was being instructed to explain the concept in a way that even a six-year-old could understand. That idea has shaped the way I take any idea or skill in my curriculum and work to translate it into what my students will actually see and hear. For example, before I cover advanced punctuation issues in my students’ writing, I have to go back and review the parts of speech. Do I think (and maybe do you think) it’s a little ridiculous to be covering nouns and verbs in higher education? Sometimes I think that, yes. Does it change the fact that it makes a noticeable difference in whether or not students are able to grasp the other more “college-worthy” topics that we shift to within the same class period? Yes. It does. In the end, what I, a professional with nearing decades of experience in the content, think doesn’t trump what my audience (students) needs. If my objective is their learning; my product must meet them where they are. 

For teachers, it should go without saying that the audience determines how the required curriculum is communicated. I’d bet, though, that anyone reading could share stories of teachers who seemed unable to bridge the gap between their own content-area expertise and the lack thereof in their students. 

Technical writers have the same challenge. If they cannot access the needs of their audience, their products will fail. And, as much as a classroom is made of individual students with unique needs, those who engage with the technical products of TPC professionals have just as many idiosyncratic demands. Anne Blakeslee writes in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age” (2010), chapter 8 in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “It is dangerous, especially in cyberspace writing, to presume that your writing will have a limited and well-defined audience” (p. 201). It might seem that teachers have the advantage over their technical communicator and writer peers here because they do work personally with their students, but what advantage they’ve ever had, if there was one, is disappearing in online classrooms.  Essentially, everyone has to find out “after the fact… and from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 209). In both cases, these come in the form of personal complaints, online ratings, and failure to meet objective measures of success. 

Interestingly, it seems that the same procedures and practices to address this issue serve both professions. Blakeslee offers three pieces of information that writers [teachers] should seek out regarding their readers [students]: “How readers [students] will read and interact with their documents. How and in what contexts readers [students] will use their documents. What expectations readers [students] will bring to their digital documents” (p. 213). Whether we read these suggestions from the perspective of a technical writer crafting documents for the user of a new pressure cooker or a student in a math classroom, the deliverables crafted and shared in either case will be more successful for having the information listed above about their specific audiences.

The recent disruption to traditional education has accelerated the overlapping spaces like these between the professions of education and technical writing. These new digital spaces that have merged with and sometimes replaced our classrooms will never go away entirely. In “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communication Practices,” Ferro and Zachry assert that, “extending the field’s longstanding concern for people and their informed engagement with the products and processes of technology, technical communicators have a role in ‘the new work processes’ wherein individuals are ‘cooperative and flexible’ with the ability ‘to act as an interface between new technology and human interaction’’’ (p. 18). As students of all ages learn to navigate various online learning management systems, work their webcams, blur their Zoom backgrounds, and still learn the assigned content, teachers are pulled in to support all those elements. Now, regardless of their subject, they are teaching their students how to engage in and build shared knowledge via technology. 

Dr. Stacy Pigg highlights similar ideas in “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” writing “Writers must construct relational networks among people with shared interests and sense opportunities for future action and consider when and how to shift practices or discourse in response to them” (p. 70). If that’s not what a teacher is doing within their classroom, then I don’t know that it’s actually happening anywhere. 

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that most people have had more than one experience with a teacher who in some way failed to make their user/audience/student the center of their teaching, usually with frustrating/boring/disastrous results. Perhaps a clarification of teacher as professional communicator would be enough to improve those teachers and their classrooms. For those teachers struggling to find their new groove in this remote/hybrid/synchronous/asynchronous environment,  an acknowledgment of the very real, very professional and technical, and very valuable realities of their work could likewise help them find their teacher identity in these new responsibilities. 

In any event, regardless of the context and the content, the needs of the audience have to rule the priorities of the communication in both formally recognized professional and technical communication as well as in teaching. Maybe those professional communicators can learn from the attention good teachers have always paid to their students’ needs, and teachers can benefit from viewing their work through a TPC lens of supporting technology integration and modeling, as well as practicing, knowledge work.

It’s Still Just Us Out There

I’ve had several experiences lately that have reminded me in very personal ways of the fundamental imperfection of individuals and of humanity, in general. When these imperfections show up in those I love, I strive to find them endearing or, if they show up in my children, to coach, model, or train them away. When the imperfections are impacting half of the nation, the struggle is a bit less within my circle of control or influence. On a good day, I do my best to find the beauty in our shared state of imperfection. Now, how I respond to the imperfections of humankind are really just coping mechanisms for my daily well being. Regardless of how it impacts me personally, the fact is that we project these flaws into and onto everything we touch. 

Reading Bernadette Longo’s chapter titled “Human and Machine Culture Where We Work” in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I was again reminded of how, try as we might to evolve and transcend our past mistakes and faults, anything that comes from mankind will reflect and replicate both the strengths and weaknesses we already deal with. The context might change, but the essence remains. I had bought into the dream that the internet and digital spaces were ushering in a new, more inclusive and equitable age. While the persistent optimist within me still believes we might have a better chance of getting there thanks to those very spaces and tools, both our technology and the human race is still seesawing between good and evil. 

As Longo points out, “community formation relies on acts of inclusion and exclusion.” I’m going to risk assuming that we all learned that lesson shortly after entering school, maybe before. After all, our very families are an act of in- and exclusion. In any event, that first conscious recognition was maybe on the playground the first time a group of kids didn’t let you in. Maybe it was at the hands of an older sibling. Maybe it was when a few girls wore the same color shirt and you didn’t or there was a birthday party you weren’t invited to. The point is, we’re hard wired to want in, and we can only define “in” as the opposite state of those who are “out.” 

This carries into the machines we create: some have access to them; some don’t. It shows up in the spaces we inhabit online. It’s present in the branding of Apple and android. I’m not an i-person. I have my reasons, and I’m comfortable with that choice, but it still annoys me that when people send me texts from an iphone, they get chopped to pieces and arrive out of order. It feels like a constant over-the-shoulder laugh from the popular girls meant to remind me that I’m not “in.” 

Those are the easy-to-identify pieces. What about the behind-the-scenes business deals and censorship or highlighting of certain lines of thinking or cultural norms or implicit bias? How did the recent film version of Roald Dahl’s The Witches make it all the way to release before anyone thought to consider the witches’ hands as a message that disabilities and differences make you bad or scary? It’s because our very human imperfections pervade even the largest groups and the most expensive, advanced machines. We want to believe that we’ve stripped the messy parts of being human away from our machines, but they are still our machines and our online communities. Humanity might advance with our technology, but it will not advance because of it. That is, our virtual spaces will not cure the very real issues within the human race. That’s still our work to do both in person and online, in our families, social lives, and professions.  

What do you want to be when you grow up?

It’s fun to ask kids this question. It’s even still fun to ask my husband this question sometimes. He’s on his third or fourth career change (depending on whether a return to teaching after leaving it counts as a new career) before 40. When my kids feel stressed because they don’t know where they want to commit their professional lives before they enter high school, I laugh and tell them, “That’s ok. There’s a good chance your job doesn’t exist yet.”

Watterson, B. (n.d.). [Calvin and Hobbes comic]. imgur. https://imgur.com/gallery/KCtDob0

Technical writers might feel the same on any given day. As Saul Carliner proves in “Computers and Technical Communication” (2010), his contribution to Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice, both the audience, the content, and the expertise required of technical writers has evolved as quickly as technology and the digital world has. From first needing to write the manuals on how to use the technology and needing the technical skills more than the writing skills, to writing for highly skilled professionals, to creating content for the average person with no technical experience at all, to managing branding and social media, it seems that the skills students planning to pursue their careers in this field will be better served to be taught how to write, how to communicate, how to think critically, and how to keep learning because any specific content they are given on technology is bound to be outdated by the time they graduate.

As if technology wasn’t moving quickly enough on it’s own, this global pandemic arrives to disrupt that flow and accelerate things like eCommerce, online education, remote learning, entertainment, socializing, grocery shopping, and health care. The World Trade Organization’s “eCommerce, Trade, and the COVID-19 Pandemic Report,” “spurred by social distancing and stay-at-home requirements, e-commerce in services that
can be delivered electronically has flourished, with demand rising sharply.” In response, Under Armor recently announced it “plans to prioritize direct-to-consumer sales and exit 2,000 to 3,000 wholesale locations by 2022.” Facebook says it’s messaging app, as well as video chat usage is up by 50%.

It’s not just all-digital business, either, though. Grocery store curbside pickup and delivery has achieved a level of integration it would have taken years to achieve without the stay home orders and other pandemic-related changes to our everyday lives. This requires the quick development and then maintenance and continuing evolution of webpages and apps. It requires blogging and social media coverage to communicate and generate attention for a specific company’s services over another’s. It’s new customers, new buying and spending habits, new organizational priorities.

In “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World” (2014), Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curran, conclude that students in technical writing programs “should be exposed to situations in which they must choose the best channels for communication in a given situation, … be exposed to a wide range of technologies that will facilitate that process, … [and] be versatile with multiple media.” This seems sound. This is not a list of specific technologies or skills to be mastered. Instead it’s much bigger, more abstract, and infinitely more suited to the nonstop changes that are to be the technical writer’s only certainty.

Kids These Days

I teach reading, writing, and communication skills to undergraduate college students. Before I made the jump to post-secondary ed., I taught high school English. I have a MA in English and am working on a second masters degree in Technical and Professional Communication. I love to read and learn. School is clearly my happy place. But that happy place is increasingly that place where I’m looking at the young people around me in horror, wringing my hands about what will become of the world when these kids get hold of it.

In the past five years, I’ve had several situations where I’ve finished my semester thinking the most lasting and impactful thing I’ve taught my students is the importance of taking notes and having a planner. I used to enjoy thrilling class discussions early in the research essay process when students were trying out their arguments on each other to identify holes in their reasoning. Students also used to tackle big topics and seek out unique solutions to the problems they identified. Lately, though, I’ve pivoted to spend far more time trying to incentivize students to do more than simply Google the specific information they need to prove what they think is the truth. Why go to the bother of struggling through the science on climate change when I can Google “climate change hoax” or “climate change polar bear”?

I don’t think this is personal failing on the parts of these students. I really don’t. In measurable ways, they are hardworking, and too many of them struggle with real anxiety and depression on a daily basis. This is less a case of “kids these days,” as it is a “what have we done?” situation. Chayko points out that “In general, people who attempt to multitask regularly and chronically suffer cognitive and behavioral deficits. They have difficulty recalling information and are slower at processing information.” Between infinite choices on the television thanks to cable, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and the like, as well as their smartphones and social media accounts, we brought them up in a world that demands they multitask or be left behind. Now I’m going to expect them to focus and dive deep on issues when everything in their lives has rewarded them for doing the opposite? I can try, but it’s not going to be pretty.

And that anxiety that can sometimes cripple an otherwise successful student to the point that they fail the class because they can’t bring themselves to write a final essay I have proof they are perfectly capable of writing? Chayko has that covered, too: “Anxiety can be experienced even when people are simply unable to answer their ringing cell phones. In a study by journalism professors Russell Clayton, Glenn Leshner, and Anthony Almond (2015), iPhone users who were unable to answer their ringing phones while completing a puzzle reported feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness. Their heart rates and blood pressure increased. Their cognitive functioning was impaired, and they had a hard time paying attention to the task at hand.” The very presence of their smartphones creates anxiety. Unfortunately, the absence of their phones does the same thing. Solve that riddle for me, please. Students either check their phones for communications and risk the loss of focus or ignore their phones and risk the loss of focus.

Schools should be the place where we teach students how to resolve these paradoxes in their lives, how to manage their distractions and find the joy of deep focus and thought. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. We did some bad things to our educational system at the same time we were creating these other distractions, though. “It can be argued that many aspects of a society, including social systems such as education, health care, and the government, have become McDonaldized—so concerned with moving people through their systems in predictable, calculable ways that individuals are becoming more controlled, less empowered, and somewhat dehumanized in the process.” 🤦🤦‍♀️ Ooops?

It’s possible that the human brain that is weaned on an iPhone will be able to handle the multitasking better than brains that started with boring paper books and local channel television options, and I trust teachers to find the spaces in between the standardized requirements to sneak in inspirational, life changing learning experiences for students. This is probably no different than previous generational disagreements about priorities and values. I’ve heard that people thought books would destroy the fabric of society when they were made more widely available. Imagine how it might have been for our great-great-great-great grandparents trying to pry their child away from a book to engage in conversation. Slip a phone into that picture instead of the book and it looks awfully familiar! So maybe it isn’t as bad I think, but these distractions, this anxiety, this lack of critical thinking and sustained focus can’t be ignored, either. For sure, though, the blame is not on the kids. It’s on us.

I Know You Are, But Who Am I?

“Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”-George Bernard Shaw

Imaginative play is one of the joys of childhood. It removes all barriers and allows anyone to be a dragon, a queen, a dump truck driver, a farmer, a teacher, a professional athlete. The list of options is nearly infinite, and I only say “nearly” because I’m no good at math and I’m guessing someone might take issue with the fact that an infinite list is not actually possible. I digress. In Superconnected, Dr. Mary Chayko notes this method of identity formation, writing “Individuals also develop their selves and identities by using those in their immediate vicinity as a kind of mirror to the self. They look carefully at people’s reactions and responses when “trying on” a new behavior, characteristic, or preference. If something elicits a positive response, it is more likely to engender a sense of confidence, and such a quality is more likely to persist.”As children try on these personas, they are feeling them out independently, but also are very much aware of how others respond to them when they are that teacher, farmer, dragon, etc… This is how gender stereotypes are imposed before many even notice they’ve contributed to their existence. Girls are indulged when they play with dolls; boys are often shunned for playing with them. Girls get posed for pictures when they play in makeup; boys are drawn rewarded when they make a great throw with a football. This is changing, of course, but it’s still there. These roles are reinforced in media, as well. Families on tv often consist of a mom and dad, usually of the same race, and their children. Again things are changing, but those changes are new and fighting for space and a lasting place in the cultural identity. Ideas about class, culture, race, and intelligence are likewise taught to children, often without ever being discussed openly.

Most children accept these identities relatively well. Then they become teens, and this is where the internet really makes things interesting. For all the concerns one might have about social media bullying, access to inappropriate content, constant distractions, and the unwise decisions of adolescence that might now live forever online, teens who are finding the more confining identities available to them when they look for a model in their daily lives can find validation and acceptance. Chayko acknowledges this positive aspect: “Those who have been targeted or harmed due to socially marginalized aspects of their identities can use the same digital technologies to find one another, rally, and support one another. In the process, their group identities can be bolstered and their individual identities strengthened and extended into new directions. For those who have experienced such struggles, this can be so supportive as to be lifesaving.” So when I say that things like gender norms, closed definitions of “family,” stereotypes of race and class are changing, this is part of what is helping advance those changes.

Still, though, those negatives do exist. The key here is to embrace the change instead of fight it. To be proactive. The internet and social media are 100% a part of the lived experiences of American teens today, regardless of what we think of that fact. It’s not the only dangerous element of the teen years, either. Handing the car keys to a teen brings with it a host of dangers, too, but we still do it. Letting children spend the night at a friend’s house sometimes goes wrong. Playing high school sports can lead to injury. In each of these cases, though, experts (i.e. adults with experience) prepare teens for these experiences. Young adults take drivers ed. classes, clock hours behind the wheel with experienced drivers, and pass a test with a state examiner before driving off alone. Children are prepped from preschool for sleepovers with conversations about appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, walking them through what if’s and how to’s for those unforeseen situations. Coaches take their student athletes through warm ups and work them up to a level of play that mitigates the risk of injury. The answer to protecting against the downsides of the internet for teens is not rocket science. It’s modeling. It’s coaching. It’s teaching.

Like dress codes and norms of acceptable behaviors in schools, workplaces, and other shared spaces show teens how to successfully show up in the “real” world, we need to create similar guides for the virtual world. It might seem obvious to an adult that what one shares online becomes a part of their identity, that that rant or inappropriate meme shared publicly will have repercussions, but it’s not always obvious to a person whose life experiences have not yet taught that lesson. Adults must stop expecting teens to know how to navigate these online social spaces online simply because we let them into them when they asked. Explicit conversations must be had acknowledging that “Because people can control their self-presentational behavior online, they manage their impressions strategically and make decisions about what to self-disclose, and they do this both with known audiences and with strangers.” Good and bad examples need to be pointed out. What if’s and how to’s must be role-played. Adults must open up their own accounts as models for the young people in their lives. It’s not just, “Someone asked me to smoke a cigarette, what should I do?” anymore. It’s also, “Someone wants me to send them a naked selfie. What should I do?” and “I think this meme is funny, but I’m not sure how others will take it. Can I show you?”

My mother used to pull notes from my pockets and read them shamelessly. Police shine their headlights in vehicles parked in secluded spots after dark. Teachers monitor the halls in the schools. Online spaces need adults in the room, too.

Spoiler Alert: We Don’t Know What We’re Doing. Yet.

In his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari explores the evolutionary path humanity has taken to get where we are today. He acknowledges a cognitive revolution, the agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, and the scientific revolution as pivotal moments in the evolution of mankind. While daily life has changed markedly for humans through each of those revolutions, humanity has remained constant in its need for community. That need for community is where we so far failed, unfortunately, to successfully leverage the digital world available to us.

As Mary Chayko identifies in Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Technosocial Life, though, “Social life—living in tandem with others, in relationships, in families, in communities—is one of the aspects of people’s lives most profoundly changed when information and communication technology enters the equation.” She also asserts that “The internet and digital media connect people together in ways both mundane and significant. they help bring people into one another’s awareness and allow them to discover commonalities and contact one another.” We should be enjoying a transcendence of our differences, but so far we just seem to be entrenching more deeply in them.

I have to wonder what happened in the few years since Superconnected was published to make those optimistic statements feel like a fairytale. Once upon a time, humanity was gifted the internet and everyone lived happily ever after… Instead, our digital tools and social media spaces seem to be dividing us more than anything else. Is it us? Is it the technology? Is it Obama? I think we can find two possible answers to how we are failing to make the most of this recent revolution in the history of our evolution.

First, Harari informs us that our ability to band together and form communities hinged in large part on the commodification of gossip. Relationships and reputations were built, strengthened, damaged, and rebuilt as individuals shared coded information about the individuals in the group in the form of gossip. This hasn’t changed much in the intervening thousands of years. We seem to have reached critical mass in the last thirty years, however. Harari says, “even gossip has its limits. Sociological research has shown that the maximum ‘natural’ size of a group bonded by gossip is about 150 individuals. Most people can neither intimately know, nor gossip effectively about, more than 150 human beings.” When gossip was still being exchanged in the local beauty salon or bar or office space, we could maintain those communities. It still works within families, friend groups, workplaces, and small communities. With the ballooning of our communities into spaces that can accommodate thousands and more, however, our ability to maintain community by leveraging “gossip,” and thus personal relationships, falls apart.

Then there’s another of Harari’s evolutionary truths that states “Imagined orders are … the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively.” The lack of leadership in these spaces inhibits the ability of the group to make any real progress beyond simply sharing the common interest that brought them together in the first place. Moderators can block users, delete comments, and write rules of etiquette, but there is no real power in any of those moves. The affected parties can either continue to post or start their own group. In this way, the limitless access to communities does less to open our eyes to more perspectives than it does to provide ample opportunities to reinforce our own.

Given that digital reality is so new in its current forms, it’s not surprising that humanity would need more than thirty years to adapt. Until we do find a way to manage and leverage these spaces for good, expect as much division as there is highlighting of commonalities.

Sticks and Stones: From the Playground to the Web

Man in pillory

Punishment, whether in abstract or concrete terms, is something most humans grow up knowing to avoid. From childhood, the messaging is consistent: “wrong” choices/actions/words = negative consequences. Whether it’s soap in the mouth, a spanking, standing in the corner, a time out, or loss of privileges, we’re trained to make the “right” choices/actions/words in order to avoid that pain. Who establishes “right” and “wrong” varies a bit from one community or culture to another, but ultimately those norms are communicated through rewards for adhering to them and punishment for failing to do so. 

In spite of recent real-world pivots away from punishing bad behaviors in favor of things like Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), Chapter 4, “Social-Digital Know-How: The Arts and Sciences of Collective Intelligence,” of Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, notes how this long-standing social principle applies in the digital world. He first notes that “reciprocating cooperation, punishing noncooperators, and signalling a willingness to cooperate are useful for individual[s], as well as the groups they contribute to.” Later, he says, “Punishing those who break the institution’s rules is apparently essential to cultivating cooperation; ‘altruistic punishment’ may be the glue that holds society together.” First its our parents, then our classmates, and our colleagues; of course, it we do this online, too.

The challenge for those wishing to innovate is to find a way to subvert the rules that maintain the status quo without triggering those very same punishment mechanisms. I wrote my master’s thesis on this phenomenon in the social-problem novels of Industrial Revolution England. In each of the novels I highlighted as evidence, the heroine worked to protect those around her from the worst of the fallout hitting the working class, and in the end, was rewarded for her efforts by getting what she wanted for herself and then being removed from society to some idyllic, less industrial location, usually with a husband. Ultimately, even the writers whose books sought to spark change in their communities knew enough to punish, albeit relatively altruistically, their own characters for breaking those accepted rules. So this tension between progress and homeostasis is nothing new to the human race. 

Rules in the 3-dimensional world evolved over time and only changed from one community to another, requiring that one had to physically move to encounter those rules. Because a newcomer would be alone in their efforts to change any norms they disliked, these communities were often allowed to remain static for generations. Digital users, on the other hand, are able to interact with any number of unique communities on a daily basis. These overlaps allow for far more rapid evolution of community rules. While this has some advantages in terms of change agility, the lack of centralized leadership in these communities can mean that real change or progress is stymied by constant uncertainty about the rules of engagement. 

In “Get Lost, Troll: How Accusations of Trolling in Newspaper Comment Sections Impact the Debate,” Magnus Knustad explores the ways that calling out “trolls” in comment sections can impact the discourse within that community by potentially shutting down ideas that don’t agree with that of the majority. In this, he identifies the term “troll” as a type of punishment intended to alienate the person challenging the status quo opinion from the rest while also invalidating the ideas themselves, thus vanquishing two threats with one insult. Knustad notes this, as well, “The activities of trolls, real or imaginary, and how they are responded to, can affect how people communicate in comment sections, the trust between commenters, and the inclusion of all those who want to participate.” And this is the complexity of this method of encouraging conformity for the collective good: it exists for a reason, but its existence stifles collaboration and progress.

xkcd comic: throwing rocks

Until digital communities can reconcile this contradiction, meaningful growth will continue to languish under competing desires for coordination, cooperation, and collaboration, against our human need for continuity. It’s a battle between our basic needs and our self-actualized aspirations. The potential for what might come assuming we manage this, though, is mind blowing. 

What If Humanity is the Market and Our Future is the Product?

Nightly News anchor in 1980’s

In an earlier blog post, I referenced my parents daily connection to the world through the newspaper and nightly news programs. At the time, there was one major regional newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and three or four channels hosting news programming between 5:00 and 7:00PM each evening. Then it was on to Seinfeld and Cheers. That was the late 80’s and into the 90’s. Then we gained access to cable and the internet, and the amount of information sources increased by an amount I can’t even guess at. Instead of feeling plugged into the world after a maximum of three hours reading and viewing, the news cycle stretched to 24 hours and “printed” news could come from around the world by turning on the computer. My parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents, etc… made informed decisions about their families, their careers, their charitable giving, their health, and their vote with a fraction of the information I navigate and can consume in a single scroll through Facebook. 

This isn’t about information overload, though. Or at least, not in the way of how it impacts our well being or mental health. It’s about how humanity is now the product shaped by the hyperconnected social media spaces available via the internet and our technology. The fight is on for the future of our country and the world, but for perhaps the first time in history, the voices participating in the discourse are not limited to those with wealth and political power. In “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson explores the “world of abundance” created by the limitless spaces of the online world. He writes, “Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody… This is a world of scarcity… we are entering a world of abundance and the differences are profound” (p. 7-8).

He’s right for more reasons than just those retail-driven examples of music, books, and movies that he highlights. He means the availability of more diverse consumable products here: “the cultural benefit of all of this [the economics of the Long Tail] is much more diversity, reversing the blanding effects of a century of distribution scarcity and ending the tyranny of the hit,” (p. 26), but he might as well be predicting the current Black Lives Matter movement, calls for living wages, affordable healthcare access for all Americans, or women’s rights to control their own bodies. In the Long Tail, everyone’s tastes can find space. On social media, everyone’s opinion can find space. 

social media icons

Whose voice sways the masses can be difficult to predict, but we can find some clues in Rachel Spilka’s 2010 book, Digital Literacy For Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice. In that text, R. Stanley Dicks writes in “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” that user-centered design and iterative design support agile development. These strategies are intended for use by companies needing to get products out to consumers at ever-increasing speeds, but they can also be used to predict which voices are more likely to influence social movements. If that voice is a person engaged in the process themselves or is carefully connected to those who are, they are more likely to craft messaging that is user-centered. The comments section and more simplistic “like,” “love,” “dislike” reactions of their audience allows for dramatic user involvement and real time feedback to use for iterations. If they have a history of activity on their social media engaging in a particular discourse or others like it, they’ve been and will continue to be iterating their message and messaging. The voices with the most staying power will be those who are able to adapt their message with as much agility as the masses respond and adapt to everything impacting them via the 24-hour news cycle and all their other social media inputs, as well as the realities of their daily lives. 

When the murders of George Floyd, Amaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many other BIPOC individuals found space in the Long Tail of information available for the public, one of the products in question became the fallacy of American equality, and individuals have had to reckon with their own participation in this economic product that is the American Dream. Once this happened, businesses were suddenly encouraged to act in alignment with this evolving national conscience. The NFL finally acknowledged the systemic racism that they allowed to reframe Colin Kaepernick’s protests into a political statement. It was now good business as indicated by the fact that Nike’s release of a Kaepernick jersey sold out in one minute. 

Kaepernick jersey sells out in less than a minute

Locke, Levine, Searls, and Weinberger break down the complex relationship between businesses and the communities they exist within to an easy-to-follow chain in their “95 Theses.” One of those theses states, “To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities,” and that’s followed immediately by, “But first, they must belong to a community.” The community is struggling to redefine itself in the midst of this abundant space and un”blanding” that Anderson identified as the Long Tail. Neither our country or our economy will settle until the community determines how to move forward in a new reality that has space for everyone, not just those that have been identified as the “hits.” 

Can the Blogger be Defined out of the Blog?

I would describe myself as an avid consumer of information. Following the example of my parents who read the newspaper cover to cover every evening and then sat down to watch a solid hour of nightly news, I make it a point to stay abreast of what’s going on in the world. Of course, I don’t have to wait for the paper to be delivered each day; I am not limited to one editorial board’s perspective, and if I have far greater access to information, I have to work harder to make sure it’s credible. 

My first conclusion regarding my own experience with blogs is that in spite of how much reading I do online, I only follow one blogger regularly. Hungryrunnergirl has defined my view of the evolution of blogging. The author blogs about her running, her love of food, and her life. In the early years of the blog, she posted several times a day in colorful fonts. Lately, she’s dropped to six posts a week. She blogged through a divorce, adventures as a single mother, remarriage, blending a family, and more pregnancies, as well as an ultramarathon, breaking 3 hours in the marathon. Robinson Meyer’s take on “What Blogging Has Become,” I see this blog has also limited my appreciation for what blogging can be, perhaps what it must be, today, not the least of which because that article is already five years out of date. Meaning, if my ideas on blogging were outmoded in 2015, they must be fossilized in 2020.  

woman’s hands on typewriter keys; the word “blog” on paper

In “Why We Blog,” Julie Nardi, Diane Schiano, Michelle Gumbrecht, and Luke Swartz say that “bloggers are driven to document their lives, provide commentary and opinions, express deeply felt emotions, articular information through writing, and form and maintain community forums.” That was in 2004, but it captures where my current appreciation of blogging stands. 

I mentioned my news consumption earlier. I don’t pay to have the local news delivered to my doorstep, but I do pay to have online access to it. I am also a paid subscriber to Talking Points Memo, which is apparently also a blog. I guess the President of the United States also blogs given his affinity for Twitter, which I also learned is a thing called microblogging. Who knew? Well, you knew. Now I do, too. 

numerous social media icons featured Polaroid pictures

When Meyer asks, “Is there a place for blogging online in 2015?” I begin to think that there cannot be a simple answer for that in 2020. Blogging certainly has a place. As it was defined even five years or 15 years ago? Perhaps not really. Can one simply start a blog and drive readers to the site on the power of their topic and personality alone? Can they do it without leveraging the power of centralizing sites like Medium? Without microblogging on Twitter? Without Instagramming content, as well? Without vlogging or podcasting on top of it all?  Kyle Beyers reports that as of 2019, “there are over 600 billion blogs in the world.” That’s a big crowd.

As my appreciation for what blogging has become grows, I’ll make better use of that content and the strategies that inform the content and the format. What actually concerns me, though, is that much of the current practices surrounding blogging seems to devalue the individual behind the content. Joshua Benton thinks Medium “degrades authorship, renders it secondary, knocks it off its pedestal.” This is seconded by Robinson Meyer, who writes about Medium that, “Medium doesn’t want you to read something because of who wrote it; Medium wants you to read something because of what it’s about.” The implications behind that move need more exploration and consideration on my part. 

 

Benton, J. (2012, August 13). 13 ways of looking at medium, the new blogging/sharing/discovery platform from @ev and obvious. Nieman Lab. https://www.niemanlab.org/2012/08/13-ways-of-looking-at-medium-the-new-bloggingsharingdiscovery-platform-from-ev-and-obvious/

Byers, K. (2019, January 2). How many blogs are there? (And 141 other blogging stats). GrowthBadger. https://growthbadger.com/blog-stats/

Meyer, R. (2015, February 26). Why no one blogs anymore. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/02/what-blogging-has-become/386201/

Nardi, B., Schiano, D., Gumbrecht, M., & Swartz, L. (2004). Why we blog. Communications of the ACM47(12), 41-46.