Author Archives: maryvanbe
In “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson argues that, online, we have more access to and more demand for more niche, less mainstream “micromarkets” of media such as movies, books and music than we ever did in the physical world. In other words, demand is shifting from the head of the distribution to its tail (image to the right). Businesses can actually make money selling these types of relatively unpopular media. Today, you don’t need a megablockbuster to make money, but you still need to make a big impact to capture enough of the market share.
Film streaming services like Amazon or Netflix offer viewers both mainstream content and “off-the-grid” documentaries and vintage movies in large numbers. I, for one, never watched TV until Netflix came along.
I was bored with the silly, inane offerings on the major TV networks, deciding instead to rent movies from Redbox or other similar service. But once I was turned on to Netflix and I had access to so many great, offbeat movies and TV shows, I was hooked. Mini-series like “Top of the Lake” and “The Killing” became my go-tos. I could always find something interesting to watch, even if it was just endless “Law and Order Special Victims Unit” shows. Paired with Amazon, you have a seemingly endless list of options, because what one doesn’t have, the other one does. For example, the other night I was looking for the original 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (image to the right). It was nowhere to be found on Netflix, but there it was on Amazon, and minutes later, I was watching it. That film had a cult following in the 1970s, when it first came out, but I doubt it’s one of their most downloaded movies now; still, like Anderson stated, if just one person watches it every so often, it can be profitable for Amazon to keep it among its ranks. Likewise, I recently watched the film “Helvetica,” about a single font, for a class assignment; no doubt it was a niche documentary, but there it was on Amazon.
The other advantage Netflix has over the main TV networks is that you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. Of course, you can do that to a certain extent with DVD, but services like Netflix and Amazon give you instant viewing at any time of day or night. So when I sit down at night after the kids have gone to bed, I can watch my detective shows that wouldn’t be appropriate for them.
The content on Netflix and Amazon is much easier to find than any content on TV. I have cable (the only reason I have it is so the kids can watch their kids shows), and I hate scrolling through the channels looking for something in particular. Most of what’s available is really junk viewing, and you have look and look to find what you might want. On Netflix and Amazon, a search function allows you to type in exactly what you want and, voila!, there it is. I’ve always complained about too many bad choices on cable, but perhaps its just the way the material is uncurated and disorganized.
Distribution graphic source: Ilya Grigorik
In Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold gives us straightforward advice on how to pay attention to our attention while online and how to subvert the almost-paralyzing fears that haunt us when we are disconnected from our channels of constant communication.
I’ll start with how to pay attention. Both at home and at work, I have two monitors open at all times. It’s critical that I have two screens because I need to constantly compare and cut and paste from documents. But this also allows me to have more windows open and on view at one time. Last summer, when I was doing some freelance work for a company that required lots of early-morning conference calls, I would find my attention drifting from the screen I was supposed to be looking at to my email, shopping sites, bill-paying sites, you name it. I had thought that it was possible to pay attention while having several windows open at once, but it seriously distracted me from the conference call in front of me, and I had to stop trying to do that so I could focus 100 percent attention on the project at hand.
Likewise, when we are always checking our email, phone, etc., we can end up on a hamster wheel of simply responding to emails and putting out fires rather than thinking strategically or making long-term plans. We need time, space and quiet for this kind of thinking, as Rheingold posits in his book.
I have found that the Pomodoro Method that he describes works quite well for when I sit at my desk for long periods, especially when writing and editing long documents. I allow myself to work on something with total concentration for 30 minutes, then I reward myself with checking my email and phone and perhaps Googling something for 5 or 10 minutes. That is certainly less distracting than refreshing my email every few minutes, and it cuts down on my fear of missing some critical email that requires an immediate response and action.
In an office, distractions and disruptions are legion. I work in a cubicle, so I don’t have much of a choice if a coworker drops by with a question or request; I have to stop what I’m doing and respond to that person. I was alarmed to read in Net Smart that it takes up to 30 minutes to recover from such drop-ins, because if the visit was about a request, you start thinking about what you need to do about it while you continue what you had been working on.
I thought it was particularly striking when Rheingold talked about the woman who realized that she was holding her breath every time she opened and read her email. I wondered why we are so afraid of both getting email and not getting email. I think it’s, in both cases, that we fear we’re missing something; in the case of getting email, someone wants something of us–and we better get it to them sooner rather than later. What if we had opened that email a couple of hours later? In the case of not getting email, we wonder if that absence means that the other person didn’t get out email or just chose not to respond. Or perhaps we’re deliberately being kept out of the loop at work. I think this is due to the fact that email is not face to face, and we just don’t have access to the facial expressions and body language that would give us the context we need in order to not worry.
I find that, if I’m in a series of meetings and away from my desk (ie, away from my cell phone, my work phone, my work email and my personal email), I get distracted and antsy to return to my desk and check and make sure I didn’t miss anything. It’s the same at home; if I leave home, I am truly disconnected from email because I’ve never enabled it on my cell phone, because I don’t want to be tethered to it. The first thing I do when I get home is to check my email.
In other words, as much as I try not to be a slave to technology and constant communication, it takes up way too much space in my brain. I know I’m not alone in this “hyperchecking,” particularly after reading Net Smart. Has anyone found any techniques that have worked to counter this hypervigilance and achieve a healthier relationship with technology?
Digital literacy, as defined by Spilka, does mean something different today than when I started working 25 years ago. At that time, digital literacy meant that you could use a dot-matrix printer and type on a typewriter, correcting errors as you went with Whiteout or one of those white correcting strips.
Today, in my job, digital literacy means being able to use a PC, software, high-speed printer and digital camcorder and being able to use the content management systems for my company’s Internet and intranet. I’m expected to understand Internet and intranet design, including user experience testing and implementation of those findings. I have to be able to read and analyze the analytics on both the Internet and intranet. And I need to have at least an elementary background in social media–and I’m pretty sure more will be expected of me in this area.
It can be difficult to keep up in the latest and greatest innovations and gadgets and in what is new and cool in Web design. Is it OK to make Web site users click more than once or twice to get to the page they’re looking for? Is it better to employ an endlessly scrolling design or one in which everything sits “above the fold”? What about those sites that have an austere minimalist design with maybe just a few words and you have to click on it to get to any sort of “real” information: are they suitable for our company?
Yes, there has been a “seismic shift” in technical communications. The shift from “blue collar work” to knowledge work means that it is a rare person who is still “just” an editor or writer. It is far more likely that we are editors, writers, Web designers and “new media” experts. Rarely am I now referred to as a “grammar” expert. Not that that role is any less important; in fact, it’s more crucial than ever. But my job goes far beyond knowing when to say “compared with” rather than “compared to” and when to use “which” versus “that.” That knowledge is part of the continuum of my job, which on any given day, could mean communicating with staff, senior leaders, media relations or the board of directors.
Teamwork has always been important, but never more so than today. No one works in isolation completing the same tasks over and over again. Every staff member is part of at least several different teams with different accountabilities. I work with technical staff, other communications professionals, leadership and administrative staff on different projects, because we’re all expected to go beyond the narrow tactical tasks of our resumes to work on strategic directions for projects, teams and beyond.
At the same time, if need be, I can do the work of several people to produce something like a brochure, user manual or e-newsletter. Today’s software packages and easy-to-use programs such as Microsoft Publisher allow me to do the work of a graphic designer, desktop publisher and printer.
Dicks says that the roles of grammar police and wordsmiths are not over for technical communicators but are diminishing in importance. I would argue that these roles are still extremely important–today more than ever. If social media are eroding young people’s use of grammar, spelling and architecture, we need to be there to make sure our writing and communications are of the highest quality. This, of course, goes beyond just grammar and wordsmithing to things like targeting the correct audience, keeping each piece of writing concise and precise, and avoiding “corporate speak” and jargon.
I, for one, welcome any new technology that is going to make my work easier and faster while still preserving high quality. Doing anything else is risking become an impediment or barrier to the work of an organization–or worse, irrelevant. Technology is going to keep evolving, and as communicators, we need to keep evolving right along with it.
In the full text of the debate on Web 2.0 between Andrew Keen and David Weinberger, the two argue whether Web 2.0 is more like Disney or Kafka. While I agree that the Web is a chaotic place full of garbage, I find there is value to it for those who can distinguish between the valuable and insightful from the inane and redundant. The Web can be a giant time-suck if don’t know where to go and have created no “walls” to keep out the distractions and the chorus of competing voices. But I think most, if not all, users are able to do so by creating communities.
I think of it this way: when I left the small town of my youth for a large urban university, many people said, unhelpfully, “don’t get lost in the crowd!” But many people said something else: “You will make the university small for yourself.” This last comment was the more prescient. I moved into a dorm (one community), found a job (another community), joined the campus newspaper staff (another community) and had friends in other communities, and so on. I never found it unmanageable; in fact, I “made it small” by joining the groups that were most meaningful to me and that suited my purposes at the university at that time.
I think of the Web the same way: you “make it small” by doing several different things. First, you join the communities that are most meaningful to you. For myself, I value Facebook and LinkedIn. I have my network of “friends” on Facebook with whom I interact every day. This network consists mostly of new friends, old friends, friends from high school, coworkers and friends of friends. I limit views of my profile to friends, and I feel “safe” in this network, even though I know “safety” and “privacy” are illusory on the Web. But I know this, and I am careful what I post and comment on.
It’s the same with LinkedIn, although in a different realm. Some of the people whom I’ve “invited to become part of my network” or accepted their invitations are also Facebook friends, but most are current and former colleagues and people I’ve networked with over the years. There are even a few people in there whom I don’t know, and I don’t even know how we connected in the first place. I use LinkedIn very differently than I do Facebook in that I use it largely to generate business for my freelance work by networking with people who might want to hire me.
I also am the social media chair of the local chapter of the American Medical Writers Association, so I approve or decline membership in our group and occasionally post about an upcoming event or other topic. I’ve never posted anything else, and I’m much more guarded about doing so than on Facebook. Not because I feel unsafe but because the audience is professional, and I feel I’d have to have something uniquely insightful to post before I’d attempt to do so.
So, much of your ability to make the most out of an online community is understanding its audience and reach. Likewise, savvy people know that online-only “friends” or “contacts” on social networking sites control every aspect of how they appear to you (and vice versa). In other words, the man or woman “behind the curtain” may in fact be almost unrecognizable and unfamiliar in person. Thus, I think most adults know to exercise caution when dealing with people whom you have never met in person.
And I think we are, as a whole, becoming more and more savvy about the relationships and communities we participate in online, as well as more and more cautious about what lurks “out there.” In the last decade, we have amassed many a cautionary tale. But, as in “real life,” we can choose whom to be friends with and whom to listen to and communicate with. Our job is to “make the Web small” by effectively managing our exposure to different types of information from different sources and to understand that they are not all equal. If we can do that, the Web is an invaluable resource and a fantastic source of knowledge. In other words, yes, there are plenty of cockroaches, but you might not see them if you keep the light on.
As a favor to my brother, I write a small blog to promote his business’s products: food industry-related items like cuptake towers and cake pop holders. I call it a “small” blog because I don’t follow many of the blogging best practices, mainly because neither one of us is very serious about it, we don’t have a lot of extra time and I don’t do it for pay. I write a blog post every quarter, which I guess is consistent, according to “16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners.” But it certainly isn’t often enough to maintain any followers.
Problem No. 2 is that I’m no expert on the subjects of which I write about: fancy cupcakes and cake pops. Since our audience is people who are experts on fancy cupcakes and cake pops, we should have an expert voice. I did try recruiting top bakers in the field to write blog posts about their businesses, favorite recipes, etc., but although some agreed to do it, no one ever followed through–despite my nagging. So, while I know who are audience members are (Tip No. 2), and I did try to get ideas from the audience (Tip No. 1), it didn’t happen as I envisioned it. That’s how I ended up writing the blog myself, and I don’t think I sound very authentic.
I have to mention that our audience is made up largely of very busy small-business owners (bakeries, cake makers), so I’m not sure how much time they have to peruse a blog when they’re trying to order a cupcake tree for an upcoming event.
And that brings me to Problem No. 1: I don’t really write very much at all. Basically, I asked some baker bloggers if I could repost some content from their own blogs, and one or two agreed as long as I give them credit and link to their site, which I always do. Sometimes I find a cool recipe or project online and link to it. I write a nice, creative, enthusiastic introduction, but I don’t bring a lot of added value to the content. I am not writing for myself (Tip No. 3).
The blog is part of the business’s Web site, which is connected to a Facebook account, but that’s the only marketing we do (vs. Tip No. 4). We’re hoping to use lots of keywords to help us get found online, and I do have to say that our Facebook page is getting more and more likes and views than ever. However, I’m not sure how much the two are related, if at all, because we haven’t looked at the blog analytics for awhile. We also didn’t want to bother monitoring comments, so it’s not interactive at all (so many comments now are from spambots, etc.).
So that’s the status of my small blog and why it’s not thriving but simply existing. I learned a few things from the Top 16 tips, though. For example, I’m going to start issuing a call to action, something I’d never done before except on Facebook (Tip. No. 6). Seems obvious, but I’d never thought of it.
Actually, I think a lot of blogs are like mine: poorly maintained and underperforming due to benign neglect. I can’t tell you the number of blogs I’ve seen in which the writer obviously started with enthusiasm but then just couldn’t maintain the momentum–either due to lack of time or lack of engaging content. One of them I saw was for a deck-maintenance business. The owner started out writing things like “Just did another deck,” but that got pretty repetitious, and apparently, he couldn’t think of anything else to say. He stopped writing after a few weeks. That blog should obviously be taken down.
One other problem I’ve seen with a lot of blogs is that the writer just does not have a unique voice or anything new to say about a topic covered by tons of other blogs. How many blogs about wedding dresses with pictures of elegantly dressed people in front of old barns and decrepit cars does one need?
I also think that many bloggers just aren’t very well informed, nor good writers. Not just anyone can write a good blog; you have to have something to say and the ability to say it in a compelling way. Now, I’m not talking about the guy who wrote a blog to document his wife’s health, as in the article, “Why We Blog.” Like CaringBridge entries, that blog probably saved that guy a lot of time and helped keep people connected with what’s going on. I’m talking about poor writers who could accomplish their goals just as well on Facebook. Blogs have their place, but I don’t think everyone has the skills to write a good one.
My post was about a lot of things not to do–but, in my experience, the most valuable advice comes from one who’s been there and learned a few things. These things likely won’t save my blog because I just don’t have a strong motivator to do it. But I do know that, going forward, if I’m going to write a blog, I’ll be more ready to step up to the plate.