Author Archives: lizmathews01

Government Agencies and Social Media: It’s Complicated

The relationship status of regulatory agencies and social media truly is complicated. The rise of instant, widespread communication was fascinating when it was first discovered. One internal memo I reviewed talked about how its one blog might be joined by one or two other agency blogs within a year. Among all regulatory agencies the story was the same: social media sure took communications professionals by a storm.

I decided for my paper to look specifically at social media policy and use of social media channels by a few regulatory agencies. It seemed exciting to look at an organization that does not directly market products, and explore both US and agencies abroad. Regulators such as the FDA, EPA, and OSHA exist to support communities and enforce compliance by companies with established standards. The same is true for those in Europe: the EMA, ECHA, and EU-OSHA. Part of this support includes guidelines for marketing products, including marketing done on social media.

My favorite discovery through this paper was finding out that the FDA’s response to regulating social media marketing was heavily criticized. Individuals did not think the agency did enough to provide a clear understanding of what was and was not considered acceptable. The concern was that social media would only communicate the benefits and not the potential risks or side effects of a particular product. Another interesting fact that arose was that the research trend in studying regulatory social media wants to harness social media communication to achieve regulatory goals, including a better response to reported negative drug reactions. Researchers wondered whether these reports might appear on social networks rather than the portion of the agency website dedicated to patient or consumer reporting.

When I chose this topic, I did not consider that some of these agencies continue to have a spotlight on them due to the latest news on Coronavirus vaccines. In my research, I encountered news about the EMA scheduling their review of the safety and efficacy data, which would occur more than a week after the FDA’s decision to grant an Emergency Use Authorization. Even though these agencies are in the news, it is curious that the most popular posts do not come from the agencies themselves. I thought about how a tweet from an individual can be posted without much thought, but the responsibility and reputation of the government is present in any form of agency communication.

Overall, I concluded that regulatory communications professionals can expect to have a lot more to consider as communication continues to change forms and connect us in new ways. Workers in industries that rely on regulatory updates are both pleased and challenged by social media, but can learn a lot from each other moving forward.

Three Pillars of Social Media Communication

This week, I heeded the cautions found in Chapter 8 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. I decided to think more deeply about whether my efforts were reaching who I had intended to reach. The reading offered that it was important to consider the context of use and the user expectations during the writing/ communication process.

In the beginning of a project creating forms, I decided to design what made sense to me. Three months in, I became aware of an end user who has no email and works away from the computer. Of the group of people who would use the documents, even one person caused our team to re-evaluate our strategy. We thought we had to decide either to continue to use all electronic documents, or revert back to all handwritten forms. The solution that ended up working best was to have someone transcribe the one user’s handwritten information to the electronic form.

What became clear to us was that the invention process does not only involve one designer or one department and a goal. The solution was created when a group of people generated ideas together and reimagined what is possible. In the workplace, this would be a call for meetings and collaboration between departments, but that is a small-scale example of social communication.

The reimagining of projects also extends to how they are communicated and disseminated digitally. A recent example I have paid attention to is the information design of the NIH to engage web users. As a national institute, their team seems to hope to communicate to as wide of an audience as often as possible. As a result, the social media page on the website links to hundreds of accounts for spreading all the research, news, and science that they work to produce. The goal is the spread of good information, especially now, given the current health crisis. In particular, the grant-funded efforts of the Community Engagement Alliance Against COVID-19 Disparities (CEAL) publishes social media resources. These ready-to-post Twitter and Facebook resources aim to make it easy to share and spread accurate news.

Both communication for the workplace and for society can benefit from the use of social networks. How social media impacts the invention process is described by Stacey Pigg (2014) in her conclusion:

“Social media facilitate activities that are deeply important to invention: accessing or creating networks of relationships, building and maintaining a presence that can interact with them, and then leveraging them toward future action.”

From Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work.

I reflected on the verbs of these three parts: accessing or creating, building and maintaining, and leveraging. These are tools for building any social communication effort.

First, accessing the social network would mean making sure that enough people are gathered or will be invited to view, participate, etc. Making a post public would be a step toward increasing that number as much as possible. When starting a new page, creating a network of followers who share something in common or are able to interact with each other also fosters the social media impact.

The second pillar, building and maintaining a presence, involves the strategy of when to post, what design elements will be recognizable in every post, and connecting with the audience. A weekly post that offers tips can appeal to networks who want to know when specifically to expect the content they want to make use of. Professionals in consulting and other disciplines also use these opportunities to establish brand images and messaging. They may offer a preview of their products and services or even giveaways to promote their business.

Finally, leveraging the connections would mean using the platform to promote messages and calls to action. For influencers, this is telling their army to consider donating to an organization or take part in a trend. In all cases of social media and professional communication, it is important to remember that our world is surrounded and fully immersed in these communication norms and styles. What this means for the communication professional is that knowledge of these and agility to move through them are now the top skills to navigate our digital world.

ICT User-Research: A Balancing Act

Bernadette Longo (2013) offers a case study looking at information and communication technologies (ICTs). In exploring the interaction humans have with these technologies, she provides insight into a potential limitation of technical communicators/teachers. This limitation is the limited ability to capture the effect of ICTs on all potential users. As users have also become content producers, the interaction becomes more complex than technical communicators may have been used to. The field’s response to an evolving human computer interaction becomes a critical piece to this discussion.

One area her study seemed to address was a look at the reach of technical communicator requests for direct feedback. While it is ideal to listen to all voices, when taking a sample of a population to interview, what perspectives could a technical communicator be missing? She offered a number of examples where a person with a different lived experience even caused her to change the question she felt she should ask about technology use. Access to technology, in particular, was a concern she raised as another level of what makes information and document design complex. If any people who are offering opinions on the design of a document would not have access to the technology in the first place, what should that mean for the designer? She does not specifically ask this question, but I thought about it with the person with no access likely being a “non-adopter” of the technology, while a person with access would be a “probable adopter” of the technology. Is the preference of a non-adopter as useful as one of a future end-user?

My take is yes, this perspective adds to the improvement of document design. No opinion should be counted out or disregarded. Moreover, counting those without access in document design supports their success and positive experience when technology is able to be delivered to that community. In addition to being good ethical practice, it is also good for improving user-research.

Besides access to technology, I also reflected on the conscious and subconscious effect of ICTs on people/users. Just as a person’s real-world experience informs who they are and what they want from technical communication, so too their online experiences have a lasting impact on their expectations as users. An example of a missing perspective could look like my own encounter seeing a homicide video posted on Facebook on Easter, 2017. Due to the safety issue this individual presented to the public, people began to repost the wall post, unfortunately including the video footage. It took two hours for Facebook to be aware of the offensive/violent content and take it down. I appreciate that law enforcement and the FBI could respond more quickly since it was posted, but the disturbing and fearful image of a random act of violence on the street was upsetting.

As a user with this experience, I am afraid when videos begin to play before I have a chance to read the headline or caption. The choice to engage is taken away, just as it was when the man committed and posted his crime on social media. I wish the play feature could still only be activated with a button, but I know the user experience is more seamless when the content auto-plays. Knowing how to weight the experiences users have with technology can be tricky: does the majority always win? Not that technical communicators should expect to design for every user’s every demand, but we can think of how else we can elicit user narratives that make our work better and more representative of the world.

Technical Writer by Day, PSA Creator by Night

The research study (2014) by Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curran gave a close look at the professional lives of technical and professional communication program alumni. I had seen this research in a previous course, but it struck me differently this time. Before, I focused on the types of writing technical communicators were reportedly doing: email, instructional manual, website, blog. These were the physical proof of a hard day’s work. When asked what kind of job I’d be looking for in the field, I would say I could write online help documents to help people use their smart devices.

This week, I looked back at my notes and saw that I had skipped over one of the charts. Table 3 on page 274 lists the purposes for the types of text written. In breaking down whether the writers completed projects for work or as part of a personal project, a number of categories only receive attention at work. I was surprised there was not more carryover except for blogs and emails.

This sample of writers did not find a high percentage of personal or public uses for infographics, instructions/procedures/manuals, and usability materials. At the time of this survey, these writers left companies and agencies in charge of the decision to spend the money and resources to produce these instructional documents. I can see how writers may have not seen a need to produce and design to the caliber of an infographic or user guide if they just had a few concepts or ideas to share. A well-structured blog did the job and an email is the fastest form.

Even though some types were deemed strictly workplace materials a few years back, it is worth a present-day look at the gap between the professional and public occasions of these text forms. Should writers produce them at a similar rate for their communities and networks as they do for workplace projects? If they are chosen as an effective communication tool in the professional world, why should they be ignored in favor of narrative blogs?

For example, would it not be great to scroll through a feed of infographics that educate the public on healthcare topics? The CDC website evolved to include infographics for every facet of life in response to the pandemic, including its most recent guidance for trick-or-treating. While that was likely accomplished in a writing department at work, technical writers could also do this work to spread other types of text to their non-professional network. I appreciate that resources likely already exist on the web, and may even have been generated by writers, but I think this could be a natural outlet for improving communication by those who know some best ways to do it.

As I thought about this informal PSA- role for technical writers, it is not without a few challenges. For example, the technical writer is not necessarily the subject matter expert. It may be more likely that an individual could spread inaccurate information if it is not revised and approved in the workplace. The reader may not trust the content posted at 9 p.m. by a user who does not explain credentials or authority for posting without a recognized agency. The other big problem could be engagement. While a bank publishes great content on financial wellness, many individuals do not want to tune into that topic enough to get a firm handle on it. Even though technology allows for improved communication possibilities, the only way these things take shape is when someone works to prove it is worth our time.

It’s Getting Personal – Protection of the Vulnerable User

Jonathan Zittrain (2015) talks about the trajectory of the Internet and the potential roles needed to regulate it. If the Internet does define our perception of the world as he says, then it becomes a critical issue for society to say when it goes a step too far or falls short of “doing good.”

For me, “doing good” means not contributing to the spread of misinformation or acting out of financial obligation. I believe that only truths should exist online or in print, and short of that, disclaimers about the level of confidence used to publish information should be present on every page. As television, radio, and other mediums have been forced to comply with regulations, so too should the Internet.

Zittrain also introduces the analogy to fiduciary duty or looking out for a client’s best interest. Right now there is no stipulation that a search engine or any other online source needs to give information that is verified or should be working for the benefit of the user. At the end of his talk, he says that academics should care about these issues because they will continue to need to navigate them. He does not mention a specific responsibility or call to action, but five years later we can see how his talk accurately forecasted the current online landscape.

So what about now?

We know that algorithm math has power over many aspects of our culture and even the decisions we make. It predicts and calculates based on data we volunteered without thinking about it. How many unnecessary questions do we answer because they are required fields in order to create an account?

We also know that key manipulators are paying attention to make the data work for their goals: whether through increased sales, control of their market, or less obvious end results. Is the Internet a lawless arena, or can we work towards transparency and established rules? Finally, are we willing to give up the freedoms we have enjoyed for a more regulated Internet experience? Or would we rather place all of this responsibility on the user – a user who may not understand when the math is working with or against him or her.

Splinternet: The Opposite of Superconnected

Mary Chayko (2018), in Chapter 5 of Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life, comments on globalization in technology use and network-building. She then defines the term “digital divide” to describe disparity among different groups using and accessing technology, and brings up the link between internet access and a country’s national income. Her discussion also highlights the relative success of many European countries, Singapore, the U.S., and Japan as competitive in the field of information technology. The chapter is titled “Global Impacts and Inequalities,” which asks us to consider the worldwide consequences of digital access issues and Internet governance.

America’s contribution to a global economy throughout history has often been de-emphasized by political administrations or citizens adopting attitudes of nationalism. Whether it was to grow the national economy or an attempt to build consumer trust in only American-made products, these actions greatly affected how the invention of the Internet and digital technologies would spread.

In 1933, the Buy American Act first solidified a focus on nationalism. As a result, some consumers stick to American cars and feel pride seeing Made in the USA on any product, big or small. As a nation, we create strategy to increase access and technology for Americans at home first, and as a second thought establish relationships with developing countries to increase their access. The attitude seen in many elements of American culture promotes access and economic benefit for Americans, but does not address issues of global digital access or commerce.

Besides national income and nationalist attitudes, an additional concern is raised in a 2019 Wall Street Journal article: The Rising Threat of Digital Nationalism. While select countries already dismantled the concept of a free world wide web by regulating their citizen’s content, this article describes the possibility of multiple, fragmented networks and closed “online borders.” Looking from the perspective of weaker countries, who do not yet have technological advantages, this situation could put them in a vulnerable position. If they were looking to become more competitive, they would need to choose which strong network of countries to join, which sounds way too close to a set-up for a world war. The full article is linked below: is this threat as worrisome as it sounds?

Friend Requests are for Friends

In chapter two of her book, Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media, and Techno-Social Life, Mary Chayko explains how an early social networking site did not account for what she calls a “truism” of online social networks. She explains that the people forming online communities joined sites to maintain and enhance existing relationships. The truth was that the majority of these people hoped for connections that were established in the real world first, online second. The online community was a way to improve communication and offer more opportunities to connect, but this was in addition to the face-to-face meet ups. Thinking about how this perceived persona compares to social media users now can be an interesting reflection.

The site Six Degrees connected people that were geographically far from each other, so it missed what modern algorithms use to connect people who could reasonably visit each other. The creators saw what was possible but did not see how users would want to use such an advantage. As an alternative to talking to strangers, a person on Six Degrees could decide to chat with a different stranger who they would never have met otherwise. This forced alternative was not as genius as the sites to come later: it asked users to choose an activity they never wanted in the first place. Thankfully, technology would not become an alternative to living a full, in-person life as the users continued to socialize as they always had. The site was popular but it would never become a mainstream form of communication.

Instead, later social networks enabled quick and easy “chat,” “messenger,” “wall posts” and eventually tags that would assist communication occurring in the real world. Communities collectively decided to create profiles and built individual networks from a handful of closer friends into a larger system of friends of friends. However, it was in addition to and not replacing the normal face-to-face communication. Before leaving for work, a person could ask their spouse to pick up milk from the store. Later, a quick conversation on Messenger could be used to add to the grocery list, thus enhancing their lives by saving a trip to the store. The affordance of better communication in existing relationships was the key missed by earlier networking sites.

Another great example of a popular affordance is in the ability to look up people who only still existed in the past. This is often acknowledged by older social media users who before had accepted the reality that they would never know what happened to “Pat from high school.” Interestingly, despite this new ability of old classmates to connect online, the traditional high school reunion get-together has still not been threatened. All the things we do on social media are not meant to replace the ways we have gathered, and as a society we have not let them. As humans, we can tell the difference between virtual community and real community. Keeping that in mind, there is nothing to fear about the innovations in social connections of the future.

Link in Bio: A Decade of Practical Participation

Instagram Bio

In thinking about online participation, fundraising is a classic example of how online networks can generate money and resources. In his text Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Rheingold defines this topic in the context of social capital, or the capacity of a population to accomplish collective action. Resources that could not otherwise be secured can emerge from building relationships into what he calls a “network of trust.” Communications professor Scott Kushner agrees with this phenomenon as he discusses “lurking,” or the action of viewing content without interacting with it. In his article, Read Only: The Persistence of Lurking in Web 2.0, Kushner claims that considerations of online participation matter because social media transforms both content and interaction data into resources. A lack of active social media usage can cripple the success of any campaign.

Considering the new and easy ways to learn about and give to causes, are we more willing to donate now than we used to be?

Where the second half of the 20th century saw telethons and TV ads, the first portion of the 21st century has the Internet, social media, and online payment options transforming fundraising campaigns. In the past decade specifically, the use of smart phones now allow people to carry opportunities for fundraising everywhere. Fundraising is surely more convenient than ever, but the motivation to not only like and share but also give money may or may not be stronger today. 

It has been a decade of influencers and celebrities recording short, informal appeals for anyone who sees the post to donate to the cause they wish to champion. Use of celebrities in previous decades featured them on special television events to raise money or offered handsome compensation to appear in an ad. Now, the same obligations can be fulfilled on an Instagram profile just under their picture. Frequent posts can also use the phrase “link in bio,” for the reader who wants an easy way to help. Link services can also be used if the same Instagram user wants to share and support a number of different campaigns.

This year alone, we have witnessed two huge movements that included both knowledge-sharing resources and ways to donate: Coronavirus relief and support for Black Lives Matter. Using social capital during this year was enabled by technology innovations, updates to platforms, and changes to how they have been used. The Instagram story feature that allows for links to other posts was responsible for my own continuing education of the movements. I also appreciated that celebrities I follow skillfully highlighted the best charities for their area of need. In 2010, I could have completed a Google search for a charitable organization after reading a paragraph caption on an Instagram post. Ten years later, one link brought me to a webpage optimized for mobile, and donating would be as simple as my thumbprint loading my saved payment method. While I do not know whether people today are more charitable, it is truly fascinating to think of how many barriers to giving we as a society have removed.

The Power of the Web and Media User

We are humans.

We are consumers.

We are digital citizens.

As a result of new media and enabling technologies, humans can incorporate new abilities into all areas of our lives. New spaces and services have been built, but we, the users, are also responsible for their continued success. The inventors define what is allowed, but we define how their resource is used now and will be used in the future. In describing digital literacy, Howard Rheingold explains this participatory tenet with: “We who use the web have an opportunity to wield the architecture of participation to defend our freedom to create and consume digital media according to our own agendas.” While the services may be built based on what they believe we will like and benefit from, it is our challenge to become an active agent in all of these processes.

The power of the humans consuming digital media is further explored in Cluetrain’s 95 theses. It is repeated again and again, that the people are the market. Whenever the people are ignored, the product and company will suffer. On the other hand, when users are acknowledged as humans, better outcomes can be actualized.  One way the world has answered this call to action is in the fields of user experience and user-centered research. These departments continuously acknowledge a people-first approach that the author insists is a prerequisite for success in the modern world.

An examination of the growth of media providers, such as Netflix, also supports the idea that our actions online matter greatly, and they represent who we are beyond what we like to watch on TV. Rheingold explains that while the technological advancement is still in an early phase of spreading, this is the prime opportunity for users to exert their influence. He speaks generally for any new technology, but for a streaming service, things like how we search for shows, how much time we spend browsing, and which shows we binge watch are all metrics they could use to make decisions. These seemingly unimportant actions are under our control. They are a path for us to help the provider help us better. Beyond a lengthy product review, our computer interaction speaks volumes on what our preferences are.

If a person does not have interest in intentionally influencing the market, they can continue to be a passive user. Rheingold optimistically hopes for more from us. He explains that we are already contributing to the evolution of these technologies, even if we are not consciously aware of it. If we can open our minds to the possibilities of engaging differently, or mindfully, our efforts will be rewarded. The benefits of developing an improved sense of awareness as an online user begin with personal empowerment, success, and power. Beyond improvements to the self, a global effect of better communities and increased digital literacy surely would make these ideas worthy of reflection.

Keeping in mind the insights of Rheingold, I can track how my online presence and use of web technologies has impacted not only my life but all who are in my communities. I thought of the effects of spending a typical day involving work on a computer, which is only interrupted by an hour of interacting on a phone, and then is followed by a number of hours consuming media on TV before the day is done. Screen time limits may be a necessary prescription in the future, but for now it may be that we simply acknowledge times when we could use a little more balance. Overall, if we look at our own use and the ways to encourage each other to think more about it, the rise of technology and the web can remain a period in our history that afforded us more than it harmed us.

Predicting the Future: Will We Blog?

The opinion that Tumblr will be the last great blogging platform comes with a defense of its format from writer Jeremy Gordon. He remarks on the differences between Tumblr and the even more popular Twitter. When thinking about why the other social media sites are in a different league than Tumblr, a few theories come to mind. While groups and organizations take advantage of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, Tumblr seems to be designed for individuals but not for groups. Organizations enjoy the efficiency of 140 characters and the guarantee that the audience will quickly receive the message. If Tumblr were the only option, we would see a lot more promotional blogging, but the other sites make it impossible for the blog form to compete.

Even though it is not in the top three, Tumblr would likely be recognizable if a group of people were surveyed outside a mall. According to Gordon, Tumblr’s popularity can be attributed to a number of usability advantages, including its format. He cites a metric that even today, Tumblr is in the list of the top 50 most popular websites. This surprising fact brings up a question to think about: how has it remained popular? It may have lasted because brief and regularly updated postings from individuals continue to be in demand. Instead of keeping ideas in a notebook at home, people have developed a habit of interacting online, by either posting or scrolling at specific times of day.

Another explanation that keeps Tumblr from extinction looks at the common denominator of all social media. If a user connects with a post, psychology and neuroscience dictate that this individual will likely be back for more. Researchers have investigated the link between likes and dopamine levels and published many recent studies about social media and neuropsychology. They used previous research of the impact of any social interaction on the brain and built upon research of internet use and addiction. It could be the affordance of interaction that keeps Tumblr in the top 50 most popular sites today. Whatever the reason, I would bet that the future will include plenty of new “Tumblrs,” and many people eager to share, regardless of the format. It is not the end of its era, even if it dropped a few numbers down the popularity scale.

In their chapter on academic blogging as a new literacy, researchers Julia Davies and Guy Merchant define additional affordances of blogs for a particular group, that is, academics. Their discussion includes examining the ways to study blogging as a practice and blogs as texts. It also describes blogs as an opportunity to be taken advantage of. In a blog, an individual shares information and personal experiences in order to connect with potential followers, also known as their readership. This is attractive to academics and other professionals because they can extend their work to share knowledge and experience beyond their physical work environment. Academics who want to leave a legacy and extend their reach can look to blogs. The same can be said about academic journals, but they lack an important attribute: simplicity. Furthermore, Davies and Merchant reveal the best part: blogs create online communities capable of hosting debate, connection, and knowledge transfer all in one spot. Again, we see efficiency as a high priority that is improved upon with blogging over professional journals.

In my experience, I have never been an avid user of Tumblr, but I can still recall its influence in my life. From around 2009 to 2011, it was common to hear either, “I saw it on Tumblr,” or “I just spent two hours on Tumblr.” Instead of or in addition to keeping up with Twitter threads and Facebook chats, some teenagers and young adults took to Tumblr to post or read. I also had not read a blog before a couple years ago. Even now, I would only credit myself as a once-in-a-while blog reader, and this will be my first blog post. I have been aware of blogs, and like to know what topics the creators are talking about, but this is something I have not fully committed to. If you are like me, I do not think we have missed our chance yet: the “Tumblrs” of the internet are sure to make a comeback. The name will be different but we will be able to use the literacy we have gained from the rest of our backgrounds in blogging and social media to create the same communities and reap the benefits of these connections.