Author Archives: Dan Lea
My final paper for English 745 – Communication Strategies for Emerging Media builds on ideas I have been studying in multiple classes and in carrying out my work as a public affairs specialist for a large health care organization. My paper explores the ways in which networked communication afforded by social media platforms is changing the patterns of internal and external communication in the workplace. The study explores previously-published research to draw connections between practices that have been learned from consumer behavior on external social media and practices that have been applied to internal organizational communication. It also includes my own observations. In the paper, I analyze the ways in which top-down, or one-to-many communication is being replaced by a many-to-many, networked flow of information. A review of the literature finds that this restructuring of communication has led to a deemphasizing of hierarchical organizational models and a growing prevalence of peer-to-peer collaboration. With the growth of networked communication, this study finds that individuals who place themselves at the intersections of social networks have the most influence.
To highlight three of the sources that interested me most:
David Meerman Scott, in the book, The New Rules of Marketing and PR, describes how social media, such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have afforded businesses new tools with which to reach potential customers and maintain relationships with existing customers, and how those businesses that use social media most effectively have had to adapt to a new communication power structure. In the not-so-distant past, marketing and public relations (PR) communications followed a one-to-many flow of information. Marketing and PR professionals created messages, which were then distributed to a mass audience via paid advertising and press releases (Scott, 2015). Scott describes how companies must adapt to the ways in which their customers now seek information: “…the evidence describing how people actually research products overwhelmingly suggests that companies must tell their stories and spread their ideas online, at the precise moment that potential buyers are searching for answers” (p.41). Social media, such as blogs that allow comments, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds, have disrupted the previous one-way flow of information: “We also have the ability to interact and participate in conversations that other people begin on social media sites like Twitter, blogs, chat rooms and forums” (Scott, 2015, p. 41).
Mehra, Dixon, Brass, and Robertson, in the article, “The Social Network Ties of Group Leaders: Implications for Group Performance and Leader Reputation,” found that the social network ties of group leaders in a large insurance company were an indicator of leadership reputation and group success (2006). The study sought to measure the centrality of group leaders in internal and external social networks and to draw a connection to the group leaders’ reputations and the success of their groups, represented by sales and customer loyalty. Mehra et al. found that a group leader who was centrally placed in a network of his or her group members and/or a network of other group leaders did have an enhanced reputation for leadership among their group members and peers (2006). Perhaps more significantly, the study found that the groups led by those leaders were also more successful, both in overall sales performance and customer loyalty (Mehra et al., 2006).
Robert Berkman, in his article, “GE’s Colab Brings Good Things to the Company,” studied how GE is using an internal enterprise social network (ESN) called “GE Colab.” Interviewing GE’s chief information officer, Ron Utterbeck, Berkman found the organization was drawing on the same benefits offered by a external social networks such as Facebook to leverage existing connections and build new ones across the organization (2013). Utterbeck described the goals of using the platform: “…some of our challenges, as we’re global, is how do you connect people? How do you make it so that you can search and get the right skill sets very easily? How do you make GE a lot smaller of a place? How do you have a virtual water cooler?” (Berkman, 2013, p.2).
Utterbeck said the company is seeing real benefits to facilitating these network connections:
“We’re solving problems faster. When you belong to these groups and you can see how people are saying, ‘Hey, I got this problem,’ literally, within minutes, three or four people comment on it and say, ‘Have you tried this? What about this?’ People are connecting, finding the people they need.”
I also touch on the topics of crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. My favorite example of this is the novel The Martian., which author Andy Weir originally posted, chapter-by-chapter, for free on his blog. Scientists who read the chapter suggested technical corrections. Readers eventually urged Weir to make an ebook available for sale, which he did, on Amazon, for $0.99. The popularity of the download led to a hugely successful book and movie deal. You can read all about it here: http://www.businessinsider.com/how-andy-weirs-the-martian-became-so-successful-2015-6
This research has been useful to me at work, where we use an enterprise social network called Yammer and other tools to collaborate across departmental and geographical boundaries. It has been interesting to study the ways in which personal connections, help get the job done, as I have definitely observed in my work. This is something I will continue to study throughout my master’s degree program.
I like genres. I like to know where the boundaries are, even if they are flexible. If you ask me to create a document, I will want to see an example. If you ask me to create something new, I will probably try to find an outside example. How long can it be? Who is the audience and what kind of language are they comfortable with? What kind of tone is appropriate? What is the typical size of the chunks of information? It may sound unadventurous to some, but I want to know what the rules are, even if it’s okay to break a few for good reason.
In the chapter, “Human + Machine Culture,” Bernadette Longo discusses Spinuzzi’s concept of genre tracing, which combines activity theory and genre theory to look not only at a particular genre, but to examine how people interact with it—a genre’s life cycle as it passes through creation and use. This was especially interesting to me, as I am constantly navigating these paths in a large and complex health care organization.
Longo’s example of electronic medical records was particularly familiar to me, as my organization converted to a new medical record system over the summer. This was a
major undertaking, as it involved not just learning new software, but new workflows. The software company worked with the organization to create workflows that would, hopefully, get the job (many jobs, actually) done most easily and effectively. This involved getting different parts of the organization (which had at one time been separate organizations of their own) to agree on a standard set of tools and processes. This involved much negotiation and consideration of not just the technology, but also the institutional culture. Who creates a record? Who needs it later? What needs to be included? Who has authority to see records? Who can change them?
In developing the workflows, designers needed to understand how the various staff members would interact not only with the software, but also with each other. As Longo points out, power differentials between those staff members can either aid or impede the workflow. If employee A needs a set of information from employee B, does employee B have the necessary authority to make sure employee A provides that information? When the direction of work and the power structure are misaligned, it can lead to conflict.
Meeting my own deadlines sometimes depends on receiving timely information from someone who is much higher on the company flowchart than I am. If that person does not consider my request important enough to respond in a timely manner, the workflow is stalled.
I was also interested in the way Longo described the use of metaphor as a bridging technique to learn new technologies. When we work with something new, we sometimes give it an old name that we recognize. Take files and folders in Windows, for example. The concept helped computer novices adapt to PC technology as home computers became commonplace in the 1990s. Metaphor helped old school radio broadcasters like me bridge the gulf from analog to digital audio equipment. When digital systems were designed to store and play songs and radio commercials, the commercial files were identified by “cart numbers.” This is because commercials were previously recorded onto rectangular cartridge tapes—carts for short—which each had a number printed on an adhesive label. With digital systems, there were no more carts, but “file number” was too big of a mental leap. Similarly, we still referred to “tape,” as in “tape an interview,” or “edit the tape,” nearly two decades after the last reel-to-reel tape recorder was removed, leaving only servers loaded with .wav files.
The two topics are related, in my mind: genres and metaphor as bridging language. The conventions of a genre help me understand the framework in which I am working. The bridging language of metaphor helps me navigate new technology using a familiar road map (another metaphor!).
Fun fact: did you know that “computer” originally referred to a person? Check it out here.
In the chapter, “Information Design,” Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski draw repeatedly on the concept of “metis,” an ancient Greek term that refers to navigating change. The metaphor struck home for me. My family had a sailboat when I was in middle school, and I still take advantage of the chance to go sailing with others when it comes along. My wife and I had a great time on an evening charter sail in Bayfield, Wisconsin in October, and I took a turn steering for a while. I had to keep a number of factors in mind to navigate safely between the mainland and Madeline Island. There was the unchanging, but invisible hazard of the water depth. I had to follow our captain’s guidance and the feedback of the depth finder to avoid running aground. I had to be mindful of moving obstacles, such as other boats. And I had to be mindful of where the wind was blowing, so that I would not get trapped too close to a shoreline without enough sailing room to tack my way back out to safe water.
As I read the chapter, I thought that sailing was a good analogy for navigating the changing conditions of technical communication. There are obstacles we know about, like the depth of the water in a bay, which change slowly, and there are unexpected changes that happen more quickly, with less warning, such as the direction of the wind and movement of other boats.
The chapter includes a description of a futuristic, but not hard-to-imagine scenario. A father enters the word “broccoli” into a search engine. The search engine takes into account not only the word, but the searcher’s context: what room of the house he is in (the kitchen), what time it is, and what time the family usually eats dinner. The search engine determines that the searcher is looking for a recipe containing broccoli that can be made in an hour or less.
We currently use and allow some of these context-based tools. I will search “restaurants near me” in a new city, and let my phone tell the search engine exactly where I am. I know from the ads that pop up on my Facebook page that Facebook knows I occasionally search for clothes, kayaks, and musical instruments. But as developers are working to take marketing advantage of more and more of this data, and context-based results can be very useful, some of us are getting uncomfortable with the notion that somebody knows where we are and what we’re searching, reading, and buying. A previous borrower of my Digital Literacy for Technical Communication textbook wrote “****ing creepy!” in the margin of this section. Just like we are now able to mostly shut telemarketers out of our lives by signing up for no-call lists, many people will likely block access to personal data, and new rules are making it easier to do so.
This article from Marketingprofs.com outlines Europe’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These rules will require any companies doing online business in Europe (regardless of where the company is located) to ask consent every time a piece of personal data is used; just allowing a user to opt out now and again won’t be enough. Companies also will need to provide users with a way to access and change their preferences at any time.
Continuing with the sailing/navigating reference, developers have been sailing toward an ideal to providing a personalized experience to users. Now they will need to sail around the obstacle of much stricter privacy rules.
Technical communicators will also need to make course changes career-wise to survive
changing conditions. In the chapter, “Content Management,” William Hart-Davidson points out many changes to how communication work is accomplished, including the automation of some writing tasks. A few years ago, as a working journalist already watching the job market shrink dramatically, I was alarmed to learn that online news outlets were employing news-writing bots to create content. This is not limited to news aggregators and gossip and click-bait sites, but includes, as noted in this article in Wired, serious news organizations such as the Washington Post and Reuters.
Who knows where the wind will blow next? Our employers and our own careers will be best served if we learn to be navigators, ready to plot a new course when needed.
Unsettling? Challenging? Rewarding? How should we view the future of technical and professional communication? R. Stanley Dicks uses all of those words when wrapping up the chapter, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work.” I would argue that these three adjectives must almost always go together, for if we are settled, we are not challenged, and without being challenged, I don’t know how often we can feel rewarded.
I’m not saying I’ve never felt overwhelmed by changing technology. It is hard to even define the field of technical communication due to its many emerging subsets, such as usability and information architecture. The various tools of social media, content management, and distributed work, seem too many to count, let alone learn. But that is also what makes the field exciting.
I remember thinking it was funny that my dad (now 83) could not figure out how to use a computer mouse. Now my grown daughters laugh at the way my brow furrows when I’m trying to figure out a new app on my smart phone. I may not be as quick to pick it up as they are, but I still feel the excitement of learning to use new technology.
When I was starting out in the working world, as a radio broadcaster and copywriter, the clack of the typewriter and the finished page were the symbols of work and accomplishment. But the convenience of word processors overruled my nostalgia. When I took a class in HTML in the mid-90s, I found myself glued to a desktop pc for 8 hours at a time, enthralled at the way my text and tags combined to create a whole new, dynamic medium. I have found great usefulness in Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. Today’s easy-to-use web tools, such as the blogging site I’m using right now, can also make for some very satisfying work. I embraced e-learning in a big way, going back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree, and now tackling a master’s program. I am excited to learn to put more tools to use. Just today I was wishing I had a real content management system to work with, as I found myself making the same revision to multiple documents.
It will not be enough, though, Dicks argues, to learn to use the tools. We will not be able to settle in to learning a set of skills and then turning out good work, year-after-year. But what fun would that be anyway? We will need to participate in developing new ways to use these tools. Workers who can produce the same results over and over will not have job security as the 21st century continues. Those jobs, as Dicks points out, can be outsourced. It’s hard to outsource ingenuity, though. Those of us who learn to undertake symbolic and analytic work will be valuable to our employers. As the support economy grows, allowing customers to drive service rather than rely on it, those of us who can devise better ways to serve them will prove our worth, and hopefully reap the rewards.
I gave considerable thought to trying some type of freelance or contractor work when I
made a career change less than two years ago. I’m not sure I’m ready to work remotely just yet. I might not get out of my bathrobe. But I am getting used to collaborating with partners I have never met in person. That career change also led to a crash course in collaboration, as I find myself creating content that depends on subject matter experts to feed me the information I need and help me convey it accurately, designers to help mold it into a usable form, and social media experts to help get it distributed. Some days I find myself stretching further into one or all of these directions myself, as the need arises.
The best thing I can do to stay afloat in this flood of innovation is to keep stretching those skills, and, most importantly, keep developing the ability to work with these multi-disciplinary teams. I don’t have to be an expert in everything, but I hope, if I ever find myself in another job interview, to be able to confidently say I can work effectively on a team, manage widely varying projects, and contribute creative expertise that will help add to my employer’s bottom line, no matter what my job title is.
Are the Internet and social media good or bad? Do they represent an advancement of our society, or the beginning of its collapse? As Howard Rheingold points out in “Net Smart,” the better way to frame the question is to look at what are the good ways to use these tools, and how can we encourage them?
While the increased reach afforded by social media is obvious, Mathias Klang and Nora Madison, in their article, “The Domestication of Online Activism,” argue that various social media platforms impose limits on their use that dilute the effectiveness of online activism. Some of these limits are due to community standards rules set by the platforms. Facebook, for instance, will delete a post promoting breastfeeding if a nipple is visible.
There is also the issue of what will get noticed. Those who post social awareness messages are competing for attention with cute cat videos. I was intrigued enough to watch a video designed to illustrate white privilege yesterday. Half an hour later, I watched a video showing a chubby cat trying to climb into a tiny box (I am not proud of this). The creator of the white privilege post had to fashion the message in an attention-getting way. This struggle is not new, nor is it confined to social media. The only way to prevent this would be to distribute activist messages on dedicated activism channels, which would then not reach a general audience. Preaching activism to an activist audience would defeat the purpose.
I find myself focusing on how to fashion my messages to take advantage of the strengths of social media, rather than lamenting their limits, as Klang and Madison seem to be doing.
Changing media and messages are nothing new. As Rheingold points out, Socrates believed verbal communication was superior to written language. He feared written language would lead to superficial understanding. Written communications have been getting shorter and shorter over the centuries, from books to articles to posts to tweets. We should not forget, though, that through much of human history, few people could read at all. If you’re looking for an ideal period of history where all people took it upon themselves to be fully and accurately informed, I don’t think you’ll find it.
The question is, how much can we expect of the audience? Rheingold outlines the skills we need to cultivate to be good online citizens. The hope is that people will make the effort. Every day in my Facebook feed, I see posts shared by old high school classmates that indicate they have no interest in crap detection. I am engaging in crap detection by checking out their sources, controlling my attention by ignoring certain posts, and tuning my network by unfriending those who continually waste my time. On occasion, I see one of these folks apologize for sharing a piece of fake news after someone has called them out on it. Maybe they’ll be more thorough next time.
Klang and Madison are right to point out that the platforms themselves have power to block or shape messages, and activists should continue to challenge policies that are barriers to certain viewpoints. However, they may be overstating the weaknesses of online activism. While it is true that it does not take much effort to like a post or tweet, or even to share one, each person who does so is investing some social capital. As I watch the posts that my connections like and share, I am continually evaluating their credibility as a filter. I will ignore junk news, whether it is shared by a person I rarely agree with or by a like-minded friend. If someone shares an opposing viewpoint from a reputable source, I’ll give it my time. I don’t want to trap myself in an echo chamber of one-sided discussion.
It is up to me, as a consumer, to engage in this crap detection and tuning of my network. While the term “fake news” has become a crutch to dismiss any opposing viewpoints, at least it brings the need for crap detection to public awareness. I agree with Rheingold that students need to be taught to consider online sources critically. I recently read an article in the American Federation of Teachers magazine outlining these very concepts.
We have a ways to go, but I think we are slowly learning that participating in web 2.0 requires us to become our own fact checkers.
Chris Anderson’s article, “The Long Tail,” had special resonance for me. I spent about half of my 28 years in radio doing music “disc jockey” shifts (we called ourselves “air personalities,” as we stopped jockeying any kind of discs in the mid to late 90s). I understand all too well Anderson’s diagram showing the anatomy of the long tail, with a small number of major hits clustered on one end, and the long tail of lesser-appeal material trailing off into infinity. Our limitation on the radio was time, just as the limitation in (now scarce) music stores is shelf space.
We could only play one song at a time on the airwaves. If you selected a song from the “hits” end of the spectrum, you stood the best chance of holding a large share of your audience. If you selected one of your girlfriend’s personal favorites from the obscure end of the spectrum, most of your audience would tune over to one of your many competitors and would not come back until they screwed up and played something the listeners did not care for. For this reason, the choice was taken completely away from the djs and the playlists were programmed based on research, music testing, and safe hits. Hence the repetition and general lack of adventure of most stations. Many a radio programmer learned the hard way that while everyone says they want to hear more songs, they really want to hear more songs they like. Hit a clunker, and they’re off to someone who gives them what they want. Fewer listeners means lower ratings, lower advertising revenue, and lost jobs for those who steered their employers’ multi-million-dollar broadcast facilities in the wrong musical direction.
I know, of course, that there are many off-the-beaten-path songs that are beloved by a smaller, widely dispersed audience. Still, I was stunned at the statistics Anderson shared about how well those lesser known songs perform on digital music platforms, which can afford to offer up hundreds of thousands of songs for listeners to choose on their own time from anywhere in the world. Some of the radio stations I once worked for played around 300 songs, total. Current hits were played several times a day, while older nuggets might turn up once a month. The digital jukebox company, Ecast, offers up 150,000 songs on their barroom music service. Astonishingly, 99 percent of them are selected for at least some play each month. Some are played more than others, obviously, but digital storage and worldwide distribution make it possible for music and entertainment services like Rhapsody, Pandora, Netflix, and Amazon Prime to make money off the obscure works, too.
I’m delighted when one of these services offers up something I would never have had access to under the media limitations of my youth. When a movie about early 1960s folk musicians called “Inside Llewyn Davis” came out a few years ago, I could not find it in a local theater, despite a supporting role played by Justin Timberlake. On signing up for Amazon Prime a couple of months ago, I was finally able to see it. That prompted me to look for the soundtrack. It was readily available via digital download, and a few cd copies were available as imports or used. I doubt I ever would have found that in a local record store.
There is still room for hits. Part of the appeal of a hit is the shared experience of enjoying it together. Crank Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl” in a room full of children of the 80s like myself and you will find everyone singing along. But, as Anderson points out, “Everyone’s taste departs from the mainstream sometime” (7). Now we can find those songs, too.
Sure, you’ll find a lot of junk as the barriers to publishing music and movies come down, but when the cost is low, I don’t mind stopping the weird indie movie I was watching and trying something else. And, as Howard Rheingold outlines in chapter three of his book, “Net Smart,” this makes room for globe-spanning communities of like-minded movie, book, and music fans to sift through the rabble, pick out the gems, and share their favorites with one another.
I still make time for my radio friends, especially in the car, but I’m glad that as I bang out my blog, I can listen to the late 80s Minneapolis alternative rock band “Trip Shakespeare,” even though I only know two people who remember them. Maybe I’ll find some more now!
Social media have spurred changes in communication—technical and otherwise—far beyond expanding its reach and speeding its delivery. Stacey Pigg, in the article, “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” points out that communicators use social media not only to distribute their work, but also to collaborate with contributors and to build their careers.
I have a little experience with the first and third examples listed there. As a broadcast journalist, I used social media to distribute news stories beyond the traditional, set-time radio newscasts, and also to create relationships with more followers (for lack of a better term), in the hope that some of them would become listeners. I have not had much experience with using social media as a collaborative workspace, but this may be the biggest development of all.
Bernadette Longo, in her article, “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South,” points out just what a leap this idea of collective knowledge making is. When a work is put out online and others can contribute to it, through feedback, comments, or even direct additions, such as in a wiki, the line of authorship becomes blurred. The creator becomes as much a moderator as an author, and the product continues to evolve long after is published (if that’s even the right word anymore). The resulting product is “richer, deeper, and more useful” (Longo, 2013, p. 23). The idea of inviting readers to be contributors to the finished product takes the concept of audience-centered content to the extreme. The audience is, in fact, invited to help craft the final product until they find it most useful.
The social aspect of social media is well illustrated in Pigg’s article, which traces the work activities of a freelance communicator she calls Dave. During the course of a work session at a coffee shop, Dave reads other bloggers’ work while he composes his own blog. He and these other bloggers comment on each other’s work and link to one another’s blogs, helping to grow their audience together. Pigg points out the temporary alliance bloggers form as they build their community. Dave is also deliberately building his online persona as he creates his work and seeks out communities to join. He hopes the name recognition and credibility he establishes will attract more freelance work. To stay engaged in the online community, Dave constantly monitors social media, such as Twitter, and participates in the conversation.
As I mentioned, I have not collaborated much via social media or publicly available online services, though I have done considerable collaboration by email. In my current job, working for a large, national health care organization, I collaborate via email and Skype with people far away, some of whom I have never met in person. Some materials require input and approval from multiple departments in various regions across the country, so we email drafts back and forth (I know, it seems like this would be easier with Google Docs, but security and virus concerns make these forbidden). When we need a quick answer on something and we don’t want to get lost in the clogged email inbox, we instant message one another through Skype. We also share sample documents and discuss larger issues—enterprise style standards, best practices, etc.—through Yammer, a business-oriented internal social media platform.
Longo argues that social media is more effective in maintaining real-world interpersonal relationships that in creating new, virtual ones. I have to agree, as I am much more likely to interact with people I know in some other context. My most frequent social media interaction is with my own family. We have found social media to be very useful in keeping in touch. Back when I first went to college in the dark ages (the 1980s), our parents were lucky if we called home once a week. These days, my wife and I are able to exchange daily updates and even inside jokes with our grown daughters, one on the east coast and the other studying abroad. Depending on what we want to share—a quick comment, a picture, a video—these interactions might take place via Facebook Messenger, SnapChat, or WhatsApp. Whatever tool we’re using, it helps us feel closer together.
Pigg’s real-life example, “Dave,” can’t even articulate all of these different tasks he’s accomplishing with social media. We are developing new techniques and approaches before we know what to call them. Technical communication education must constantly evolve to understand, describe, and teach these concepts. The constant change creates challenges, but it should also be exhilarating. There’s no time to get bored with the same old same old. Communication is not static. There is always room for experimentation, looking for a better way to produce a better product and reach a broader, more interested audience.
Who are we when we are online? Are we really ourselves, or do we take advantage of the technological filter of the Internet to create a slightly (or greatly) more idealized version of ourselves for public consumption? In the article, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” danah boyd and Nicole Ellison outline many of the aspects of social networks that have attracted the interest of researchers. Two of those aspects, which are related to each other, are impression management and friendship performance. So what kind of impression are we trying to make?
There are three main ways to make an impression on a social media site that I can think of. Ellison and boyd point out research that explores how people’s profiles and friend lists make an impression. I would say that what you choose to post adds to the impression people get when they connect with you online.
Let’s start with the profile. When you are building a social network profile, you are deliberately deciding what you want people to know about you. Let’s set aside privacy concerns for now—my brother, for instance, won’t post his true birthdate, not because he doesn’t want people to know he’s the oldest, but so it’s harder for an identity thief to impersonate him—and focus on what we do and don’t want people to know about us.
On my Facebook and LinkedIn profiles, I allow people to see my age. I’m not ashamed. Maybe next year when I’m 50, I’ll feel differently, but I doubt it. I include all of the jobs I have held as an adult. My Facebook profile includes all of my education, including high school, to help me connect with past classmates. My LinkedIn profile only includes my post-high-school education. It also includes my resume, professional awards, and links to some articles I have had published.
This information is factual, but mainly designed to make me look good, I guess. However, if you pay attention to the education section, you’ll see that at one point I began a college career and then abandoned it. It took me many years to finally accomplish that task.
Secondly, let’s look at the Facebook friend list and LinkedIn connections. According to boyd and Ellison, research indicates that who your friends are make up part of your online identity. I would add that the number of friends might also affect the impression people have of you. I have 476 Facebook friends and 326 LinkedIn connections. That seems respectable to me. I do not work very hard to increase those numbers. But I just noticed I have a friend who has over 1,100 Facebook friends and somewhere over 500 connections on LinkedIn. My impression of this is that she is more popular than I am! My self–worth is slightly diminished.
As far as who my friends are, I’m not sure what that says about me. There are some wonderful people on the list and some I would not choose to hang out with in person. I have not made a point of courting influential social media friends, though I do seek out influential professional connections on LinkedIn.
I think that what we choose to post on social media also makes an impression. Some people brag about themselves or their kids, others complain about their jobs or spouses, some make political statements, and some post amazingly uninteresting minutia. I like to post pictures of myself kayaking and playing guitar, because I think that’s the closest I come to looking cool. I have bragged about my daughters; that shows what a great parent I have been. I have posted pictures of awards I have won, brag brag. Other than that, though, I like to make people laugh, so I am much more likely to post about something stupid I have done than something that makes me look good. I would not likely post about a successful day on the job, but I did post a story about getting lost in the back hallways of the hospital where I work. The impression I probably made there? Funny, but stupid. Maybe I gain a few points for humility.
I have a feeling that after reading some of this research, I will have the urge to polish up my online self!
I’ll admit it. There was a time I never though I would tweet, or snap, or instagram (apparently that can be used as a verb). As a broadcast journalist at the time, I already complained that some of my newscasts were only a minute long. What on earth could I say in 140 characters? Eventually I saw Twitter as a way to parcel out bits of breaking news, stay engaged with my audience when I could not break into programming, and develop an interactive relationship with them. Now that I work on the public relations side of media, I am continuing to learn how social media can be used in a professional way, allowing me to reach an interested audience, form relationships, establish credibility, and collect useful feedback.
The article, “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media,” by Hurley and Hea, illustrates many of these points in arguing that technical and professional communication students should take seriously the study of social media for professional use. I am lucky that, after a long break from school, I completed my undergraduate work recently, and my coursework included study and practice in social media.
I now work for a large and very credible health care organization that uses social media for many of the purposes outlined by Hurley and Hea. My organization distributes helpful and interesting health and wellness content, written by doctors, nurse practitioners, nutrition educators, and others, in order to establish a relationship with patients (and potential patients) and to establish credibility.
We do not solicit readers to provide their own helpful insights on how to perform cardiovascular surgery, so crowdsourcing is not really part of what we do, but I have seen it in action. I first became aware of online crowdsourcing way back in 2000, when I was experimenting with home music recording. I was trying to pick out the best combination of equipment to make reasonably professional-sounding recordings in my spare bedroom. I discovered the online community at homerecording.com, where I could search for answers and post my own questions about specific microphones, multi-track recorders, and other gear, as well as how to use them. It didn’t matter to me that those answering were not employees of a company, or even trained experts. It was like calling up a friend who knew about the subject and asking what they would do, except it was a total stranger.
The examples Hurley and Hea use, such as Instructibles.com, show how a user can use such a platform to not only reach an audience, but to obtain free feedback, serving as market research and consulting help. While many comments may be inane and unhelpful, some will help the producer create even better content.
Social media analytic tools can help a content creator evaluate what kinds of content will be most widely read, though I have see the concept of the “economy of likes” at work. We were recently discussing how an article about potential health benefits to allowing your pets to sleep in your bedroom was being widely shared, much more so than articles containing more “hard hitting” health information. The students in Hurley and Hea’s classes were right to point out that just because something is more widely read and shared does not indicate it is of the highest informational value. Still, this is nothing new. Traditional media are driven by ratings and readership. TV programs that rate the highest aren’t necessarily of the highest value; they simply catch the attention of the most people.
Having worked in traditional media through the rise of the worldwide web and social media, I watched my peers first sneer at, and then embrace platforms such as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, gradually learning how to use them effectively to maintain a relationship with their audience. Not that I had tremendous foresight. I had to be coaxed along, just like everyone else.
I’m a believer now. The technical and professional communicator who dismisses any channel that they think only their children will ever use will miss huge opportunities to reach and engage an audience, but he or she should take the time to evaluate how and why they will use a particular channel for a particular purpose.
This is not my first go at blogging. Having completed my undergraduate degree fairly recently, I was required to blog regularly for a couple of classes. My first blog was a random collection of posts about communication in general. It was a chance to practice the mechanics of blogging, including embedding images, video, and other media, and it served the secondary purpose of forcing me to research a new communication topic each week. However, I can’t imagine anyone following that blog of their own accord.
My second blog project allowed me to pursue any subject I chose. I decided to do an interview format focused on community theatre entitled, “Dan the Theatre Man: On Enjoying and Excelling in Community Theatre.” In choosing a subject I had an interest in, I was able to apply some of the concepts outlined by Alex Reid in the article, “Why Blog? Searching for Writing on the Web.” I focused on a subject in which I had a strong personal interest and could speak about with reasonable authority, having participated in the craft for 35 years. I’m not sure my blog fulfilled the mission of showing an urgency to the subject matter or fulfilling an important and reasonable purpose, but I definitely achieved the “state of flow” described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, as I got lost in the writing. I aimed for 500 words, but often found myself wanting to write three times that length. My enthusiasm for the subject matter made for a readable blog. Thanks to shares from some of my interview subjects, I was able to reach as many as 500 readers for my top post.
I agree with Reid’s belief that having an outlet with complete freedom of choice makes writing more enjoyable, and the more students write, the better they will get. Creating your own blog is also a good exercise in defining a target audience.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience of creating my own blog and the exercise helped me hone my efficient writing skills, even after I had been writing broadcast materials for more than 25 years.