Author Archives: Michelle Mailey Noben

Civility in online news comments sections

I chose to write my final paper about an issue that’s frustrated me for years, the basic lack of quality and accountability in online news site comment boards. It always felt like such a disconnect to me. Here we have reputable news sources, the format of which (a newspaper, let’s say) has evolved over about 600 years to really reach a pinnacle of social necessity in the mid- and late-20th Century. Journalism has evolved into a profession rooted in ethics and the pursuit of meaning and truth for the purpose of educating and informing the public. Pretty lofty and important concepts, for sure. And then the internet comes along and there’s an incredible opportunity for news outlets to distribute information to audiences never possible before and to actually engage with readers in real time. Twenty or so years after people really started turning to the internet for news, these interactions with the public have devolved into virtual places belonging to trolls and spammers, extremists of all kinds, bullies and liars, totally inconsistent with journalistic values of truth, fairness, accuracy and integrity.

Referencing the expansion of digital literacy described by Rheingold, I took a look at a variety of third-party comment systems designed specifically to improve the level of discourse in comment sections, finding many features and concepts in use that align much more closely to the goals of reputable news sources than the lawless site-run comment system can be. Facebook Comments is widely used, as well as Disqus as embeddable comment systems. IntenseDebate and Livefyre offer communities centered on sharing and commenting on news links, and some new platforms like Kinja and a yet-unnamed partnership between the Washington Post, New York Times and Mozilla offer promising ideas in encouraging true connectedness and interactivity between journalists, editors and commenters, what I believe will be the next step in online journalism.

Thanks everyone for your entertaining and informative posts and thought provoking comments during this semester! Have a wonderfully relaxing break and a successful Spring semester.

Michelleim-gonna-be-productive-this-winter-break

Inclusive Design for Social Media Tools

I was interested in the global aspect of Longo’s article and colloquium and the desire to bring the cultural implications of the internet and social networking to the fore. It was important to me that the needs and considerations of the globally disenfranchised were so strongly considered. Truthfully, I find myself often forgetting that so much of the world is generally without the networked capabilities I take for granted.

Longo had a point that spoke to me especially as a designer interested in the best communication practices between all types of people, across cultures:

However, as we embrace and use these tools to open communication and design processes, we need to look at cultural assumptions underpinning the design of these tools and how we envision  people using them. Through this mutual analysis of our audience, our tools, and ourselves, we are able to devise technology design and diffusion practices that profoundly include the perspectives and feedback of people whose lives are affected by those technologies. (pg. 26)

Especially in a hyper-connected world where the latest designed artifacts are largely of the digital, interactive variety, there are incredible opportunities to design interaction in the most inclusive and universal ways possible. Designers and writers today should assume that their works can be accessed and used by people in widely differing cultures and create with the goal to successfully reach as many people as possible. This is such a challenging aspect of design today. It is challenging to design for the entire range of participants in our own culture, much less cultures we are wholly unfamiliar with. The desire to create universal works needs to be accompanied by a drive for intense research and an abstract way of thinking that can allow the creator to place themselves in another’s shoes. It is a balancing act between clearly communicated content and accessible design.

Think about your own favorite social media technology, and think of yourself as someone from the Global South. How does the technology translate? Is the technology primarily word-based? This clearly creates limitations. Maybe there’s extensive use of icons, some of which have come to represent technology in a universal way (think of a “settings” icon, often represented by a gear shape, or a “location” or “GPS” icon, wholly derived from graphic interface of the technology itself). Some social media tools are very minimal in prompts design, relying on swipes and taps to function.

As we begin to collaborate and seek feedback from across cultures and continents, we may find ourselves thinking in terms of the most basic forms of communications. The universal solution might rely on a design of simplicity to facilitate and negotiate the complexity of the inner workings.

Communicating Across Cultures

I was especially interested in the topic of cross-cultural communication in Chapter 7 of Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, titled “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures” by Barry Thatcher. I personally have always enjoyed the research portion of communications work, and learning about the audience and applying that knowledge to convey information to a particular demographic is an indispensable part of designing and writing successful communications.

It is because of this research interest, paired with a fascination of world cultures that I found the information in Thatcher’s chapter of particular value. I think it can be easy as an American to feel isolated from international culture, especially for Midwesterners and people who live outside of major metropolitan areas, so this article also serves as a reminder that our communication methods are particular to this culture and not always directly applicable to others.

My favorite part of the article was Thatcher’s research into websites of 27 universities around the world, looking at purpose, audience, information, organization and style in terms of the cultural values of “how a single person relates to others” (pg. 175), universal or particular approach to rules and norms (pg. 176) and the “degree of involvement across different spheres of life” approach of diffuse or specific (pg. 177) as illustrations of these cross-cultural communications considerations. When reading about this research and Thatcher’s case study involving Texas Tech University, I couldn’t help but think of Stout’s website and how, not surprisingly, it embodies many of the same cultural communications values Thatcher describes as particular to Western cultures.

Screenshot 2014-11-02 19.46.29

Like the Texas Tech website, the homepage emphasizes cultural values of “individualism, universalism, and specific orientation.” (pg. 190). This is shown by the featured image of a lone, individual student in the header as well as links that are specific to types of users the website aims to serve. The purpose is to give users quick and direct access to whatever information they seek.

The audience for the Stout website is those disparate individuals looking for quick access to specific types of information. Like Texas Tech’s site, it is “designed for the reader’s specific needs at the moment.” (pg. 191)

The information presented is, again, all about the individual user’s needs for specific answers. Collective and historic information about Stout and the Menomonie community is buried within the site. Many photos do include collaborative themes and groups of students, but the relationships are often vague. Language is at a universal level, designed to be easily understood by most potential users.

The organization of the Stout site is based on the specific needs of the audience mentioned above. The site as a whole is “highly templated”, much like Texas Tech’s site (pg. 193). The overall organization follows strict guidelines which dictate menus, headers and hierarchy, dividing information immediately along user types like “Future Students”, “Current Students”, “Parents”, etc.

Looking at these cultural values evident in a familiar website has made me realize how much I am oriented to think along these lines when organizing information in publications and website design without much thought about how else it could be done, certainly not in terms of how international users might prefer to be communicated to. As world cultures become more connected through the network, cross-cultural considerations become increasingly relevant during the design process, and I certainly plan on applying the concepts presented in this chapter in my work. Did this article make you think about the cultural assumptions you make in your work?

My social network analysis

The structure and nature of networks is a fascinating topic indeed, and the quantitative nature of digital data makes analysis of online human networks not only relatively easy, but pretty insightful. I took Howard Rheingold’s cue in Net Smart to search for “visualize Facebook social network” (pg 203) and applied it my personal Facebook friends. What I learned revealed some statistics I hadn’t considered before, but more interesting, intriguing insights into how friends with certain social network strengths make up my top connections.

After a Google search for the phrase above and a look around at the results, I chose Wolfram Alpha’s Personal Analytics for Facebook. I had to register an account through my Facebook page, but I haven’t noticed any unwelcome posts, and the analysis was totally free and quite thorough. I recommend trying it out for yourself! Wolfram Alpha looks at post, like, comment statistics for statuses, photos and links, word frequency analysis on status posts and a lot of personal data in addition to the network analysis, the topic of this post.

Mutual Group ClustersMutual Group Clusters

The first complex network analysis was groupings of friends according to “mutual group clusters”, which, not surprisingly, seemed to group friends into collective experiences like family, work, and school.

The largest group (medium blue cluster on the right) seemed to consist my closest friends and friends of those friends, mostly people I considered in my “real life” social peer network. I invite these people to parties, go to theirs, we visit the same bars, know the same people.

The next largest group, (darkest blue on left) consisted entirely of people I went to high school with. This is a great example of a network that, to me, is strictly online and almost painfully superficial. I have exactly two high school friends I still socialize with on a regular basis, so most of this group is people I haven’t seen face-to-face for almost 15 years. For many, it is unlikely that I even interacted with them much during high school!

The next group (slightly darker blue in the middle-right) is family, including some of my parent’s closest friends. Smaller groups include coworkers I had at a newspaper group (blue-green), my husband’s family (medium green), and schoolmates from my undergrad studies (green-yellow).

To me, the most interesting set of friends were the outliers (at the bottom in orange and red), who each were assigned their own “group”. These friends had no connections to my larger network except through me, we provide for each other unique connections to otherwise unconnected networks.

color coded friend networkNetworked Roles

The second and most insightful network analysis assigned social roles to certain friends. These roles described highly connected friends in terms of their relationship to me and my network as well as their connections to other networks. This analysis gave me an important insight into which of my Facebook friends have influence and access inside or outside of my network.

Wolfram Alpha defined five different social network roles and assigned “top” friends to each who exemplified the defined role.

The first role is “social insider”, represented on the graph in purple. According to WA, “a social insider is a friend who share a large number of friends with you. Social insiders typically appear in the center area of your friend network.” My “top social insiders” include my husband, brother, mom, and oldest friends and would be important people for influencing my established network.

The next role, “social outsider”, is represented in gray. Like the outliers in the group cluster graph, “a social outsider is a friend who share at most one friend with you.” (WA) These friends could offer access to entirely new, foreign networks. My neighbor is a good example of one of my social outliers.

In green are my “social connectors”. This is a friend “who connects together groups of your friends that are otherwise disconnected.” This is one of the most important roles, acting as a hub to connect disparate social groups and affecting influence on several groups within a network. This role includes close friends and family, similar to my social insiders.

Next, in orange, are “social neighbors”, those friends “with a small number of out-of-network friends (friends of theirs that you don’t know).” These people are more integrated into my shared network than they are integrated into other networks, so they have a strong vested interest in the same networks and friends. This includes many of my older family members who haven’t established extended Facebook networks.

The last role is that of “social gateway”, “someone with a large number of out-of-network friends.” My top social gateways are my connection with very large number of friends. I don’t consider myself close to most of them as personal friends, but their potential to reach others can’t be underestimated. My top social gateways include my very outgoing younger cousin, a popular friend of my mom’s, and a classmate from undergrad who is in a band.

This analysis has been so insightful and while it felt superficial and egocentric at first (sometimes what Facebook feels like in general), it caused me to think about outwardly about the varied people in my virtual network, their inherent value and humanity as individuals with unique networks. It is a useful tool for those who want to reach local and new networks effectively as well.

Less chatter, more meaning for companies through networking

As a big fan of manifestos and other calls for change, The Cluetrain Manifesto’s 95 Theses really spoke to me this week. There were several themes therein that I found especially appealing.

The first of these themes is that companies need to ease up in the Department of Propaganda and Information Control:

  • People in networked markets have figured out that they get far better information and support from one another than from vendors. So much for corporate rhetoric about adding value to commoditized products.
  • Already, companies that speak in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.
  • Most marketing programs are based on the fear that the market might see what’s really going on inside the company.
  • When corporate intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked marketplace.
  • In most cases, neither conversation is going very well. Almost invariably, the cause of failure can be traced to obsolete notions of command and control.
  • We are immune to advertising. Just forget it.

I remember learning about all the different methods of advertising in elementary or middle school, and I’m pretty sure it was in the context of D.A.R.E. I suppose they taught about advertising to strengthen my resolve against all the illegal drug pushers I would inevitably encounter who used tactics like “join the cool people, buy THIS!”, “you’ll totally get laid if you have THIS”, “you are clearly lacking and need THIS to compensate”. While I never met any drug dealers with such a corporate, consumerist sales approach, that little tidbit of education is knowledge I’ve applied to the advertising I’ve encountered ever since, and I’m proud to consider myself more or less impervious to traditional advertising.

What works on me? Facts. Tell me the facts, I’ll look into it and get back to you. A little personality that isn’t irritating helps too. Hold the b.s., meaningless claims, and parsing of phrase, please. This is the kind of advertising I choose to design in my graphics work (whenever possible) and this kind of relationship between company and consumer lends itself well to a networked market, I believe. Dispensing with the fluff and distraction shows a respect for the market as thoughtful, intelligent people.

Another theme I really enjoyed was the idea that real, live, human employees are valuable for more than propagating the company “image”, shutting up, crunching numbers and generally being treated like a thoughtless machine:

  • What’s happening to markets is also happening among employees. A metaphysical construct called “The Company” is the only thing standing between the two.
  • When corporate intranets are not constrained by fear and legalistic rules, the type of conversation they encourage sounds remarkably like the conversation of the networked marketplace.
  • When we have questions we turn to each other for answers. If you didn’t have such a tight rein on “your people” maybe they’d be among the people we’d turn to.

In reality, it is “The Company” that is the thoughtless, inhuman machine that exists as no more than an idea, a construct, and figment of the imagination. It is nothing if not for the people that make it up, and I truly believe connections with those humans are what the future of marketing and customer service will evolve into as consumers demand access to relatable people for information and help.

The last theme I really appreciated was the idea that social media, crowdsourcing, and networking offers companies an absolute wealth of information to improve and create products and services. Involvement in society, culture, and community are what’s expected of modern companies:

  • Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.
  • If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market
  • Smart companies will get out of the way and help the inevitable to happen sooner.
  • We’ve got some ideas for you too: some new tools we need, some better service. Stuff we’d be willing to pay for. Got a minute?

The last point has always been a disconnect between consumers and business I’ve found ironic. I can think of any number of products or services I might use, if only someone would offer them! Now that the capability exists for direct communication between company and consumer, I hope companies will take advantage of access to consumers to help guide their decisions.

I noticed that the 95 Theses was written in 1999. Fifteen years later, there are companies who have embraced these ideas, but so many more who are stuck in old ways of advertising, controlling information and employees, choosing to dictate how things are instead of listening to how things should be.

Visual and Verbal, Communication BFFs

KeepInTouch-Info_icon

Out of this week’s readings, the concepts that spoke to me most were contained in Chapter 4, “Information Design” by Salvo and Rosinski. In this chapter, the authors approached much of the information design roles technical communicators have in terms of, not surprisingly, design.

I found the lines between traditional, historical roles of the technical communicator as writer and those of visual designer were blurred by the authors and this ties in closely with my observation that these types of information design roles will require cross-over proficiencies in practitioners as job roles and expectations are consolidated in the future. As noted by the authors, a base of historical genres and usability studies is a good starting point when applying both verbal and visual communications to new technology (pg. 106-108). Technical writers will need to develop aesthetic, visual design sense and visual designers will need to develop strong writing and reading comprehension skills in order to integrate both of these equally important, but traditionally separate, communication strategies into effective messages. Because writing is communicated visually, and visuals often use words to convey meaning, verbal-visual skills are inextricably intertwined, and ultimately most effective when used together (see image, http://www.jocelynwallace.com).

It was a difficult choice for me after high school to decide whether I wanted to go into writing or design. I was awarded a big journalism scholarship in high school for college, but after one year decided to try graphic design instead. Because of my interest and proficiency in written communication, I feel I’ve had an advantage to many of my designer colleagues. Being able to contribute or entirely create copy and writings for design clients is a distinct advantage over designers who don’t, requiring the client to create written content themselves, or hire a writer at additional cost. Even for designers who aren’t as interested in writing as I am, there’s no underestimating the value of being able to fully understand and analyze a design’s text components, and applying that understanding to create a visual design that is harmonious and appropriate. Basic literacy skills such as vocabulary and semantics, spelling, and syntax can save a lot of time, money, and hassle as well.

I’m currently researching for a midterm paper in a grad-level Design Education course about this very issue, the benefits of emphasizing writing and reading comprehension skills as a vital part of undergraduate design curriculum. To me, it’s just another skill to acquire in order to be the best communicator possible.

So on this same note, I’m interested in the writer’s perspective. How do you feel about utilizing or acquiring visual design skills as part of being an effective communicator? Do you see it as a valuable skill? Is it something that comes naturally to you? If not, do you plan on learning more about it to better market yourself or make it easier to talk with designers in the workplace?

The Sympathetic Graphic Designer

A great, comprehensive summary of the wide variety of skills needed to be a good designer. No doubt you'll find many of these same skills on a list for technical communicators.

A well designed, comprehensive summary of the wide variety of skills needed to be a good designer. No doubt you’ll find many of these same skills on a list for technical communicators or find you use them often in your own work.

Although I’m not a technical communicator who uses primarily writing and language to transmit messages, I think of myself as a technical communicator of the visual variety (with a penchant for writing). As a graphic designer, my work and industry are closely related to that of the technical communicator, and we likely share many of the same challenges and experiences in our careers. In The Effects of Digital Literacy by R. Stanley Dicks I was especially struck by the similarities in the current state of both of these related industries.

What inspired me to return to school was my own experience losing a job to overseas outsourcing. I worked as a copy editor, and later in the graphics department (advertising design) for a newspaper group based in La Crosse, Wis. I loved the work, so demanding and fast-paced, with often incredible pressure and high stakes (complete with meager compensation). My coworkers were some of the most intelligent and creative people I’ve had the pleasure to work with. The newspaper group produced three daily papers, several twice weeklies and seven or eight weekly newspapers in addition to additional special interest, seasonal and advertising publications, and I was proud to work for the press, which I had always revered. The newspaper industry, however, is in a state of crisis as the cost of producing a physical paper becomes an untenable business model when many adults find news from free online sources or from television or radio. In early 2012, the company outsourced all advertising and graphic design services to a contractor in India and later that year moved nearly all copy editing positions to a central location in Madison, Wis. These types of changes are, to me, an effect of digital literacy. As the culture shifts to assimilate new technology, industries (and individuals) who can’t or won’t change are left behind, becoming obsolete.

I definitely identify my work as being of “symbolic-analytic” nature, described by Robert Reich (in Dicks’ words) as those who, in the post industrial world, “analyze, synthesize, combine, rearrange, develop, design and deliver information to specific audiences for specific purposes.” (pg. 54) These high-level, creative tasks require an ever-changing, flexible and innovative outlook not everyone possesses. As manufacturing moves overseas, and our industries begin to do the same, I truly believe that us technical verbal and visual communicators will need to work to stand out as individuals working in collaboration with other professionals in the new support economy style (pg. 58) as opposed to in-house, departmental type positions common in the industrial age.

In my graduate work, I’d like to look at how graphic designers and design students can learn to acquire a wide range of communications skills, such as writing, to make themselves more valuable and flexible communicators, and what other skills might be beneficial to the constant skills evolution required in the possible support economy. This article gave me some insight and avenues to explore further.

Social media’s opportunities and pitfalls

social-media-humor-12

Connection in some ways, disconnection in others

Like I mentioned in my first post, I see social media as a double-edged sword. One the one hand, it allows for targeted and mass communication like we’ve never seen. For organizations with something to sell, and people with something to say, there’s no other platform of communications that allows for a bigger, quicker reach or can be more specific in directing viewer demographics. The costs of running an online campaign can be relatively small, and the digital revolution’s impact on advertising waste can have a great impact on the environment. Finding people already predisposed to a company’s product has never been easier, and it’s often the case that individuals seek out connections with companies and organizations they like out of their own volition, as opposed to the traditional pursuit of consumers by companies.

On the other hand, social media can be very unforgiving, and technical communicators often need to be able to anticipate the many viewpoints and user experiences of not only their consumers, but of all social media users. An insensitive or ill-informed post can cost years of marketing and public relations work, and sully the image of even a long-standing, respected brand. Careful consideration of social media use is vitally important. While it’s easy to reach and connect with people, it’s just as easy to turn people off. It only takes a click for a consumer to connect and disconnect.

I’ve often felt social media applied to me in a personal way with similar pros and cons. If I’ve got something to say, and I want to reach most people I know, I go to social media. For the effort, there’s no more efficient way of inviting people to a party, promoting an event or business I enjoyed (or warning about one I hated), and sharing experiences and staying in contact with colleagues, friends, family and acquaintances. Conversely, I feel that it has disconnected me from people I should be closer to, or at least made me lazy in my efforts to connect with the most important people in lasting, beneficial ways.

I’ve often hesitated to use social media in a professional way, but Hurley & Hea’s study, along with prodding from professors, has opened my mind to the possibilities that social media can offer. Even while exposing my work to criticism (which is actually a good thing, I do recognize), and myself to less sense of privacy, social media can offer connections to job opportunities and future work l’d otherwise have no way of getting in touch with. The practice of crafting my own social media presentations can only help in future job and instructional practices.

But while I recognize the many benefits of social media, much of it still feels foreign and forced to me. It’s not an activity I’ve naturally taken to, and more or less joined social media venues out of peer pressure. I don’t like feeling as though I’m only doing something because other people are, or to stay in touch with people I’ll likely never see again in my life. I need to find my own place in this vast sea of information and personalities. It will be a journey for me to integrate social media into my life in more meaningful ways.

Musings on my soft underbelly and social media

Blogs and social media have always been a bit of a double-edged sword for me. While I love debate, differing opinions, human connection and technology, I often feel like I don’t have much worth putting out into cyberspace, ‘cause I’m really nobody of special ability or insight, so who would even care? Right? Plus, like reservations students had in Hurley & Hea’s study in The Rhetoric of Reach, it’s forever out there, a piece of my intimate self. In a way it’s like a tattoo… I think they’re cool, I kind of want one. But how can I commit? Overly cautious, one might say, and I’d have to agree. I have reservations about being in the spotlight, putting myself out there for critique. That apprehension has never been worth the potential positive returns.

This is a hangup I’m consciously trying to move past. My current DIY personal improvement. All my life it’s seemed as though I’ve got a little mental project for myself (usually to get over something that I’m tired of being held back from) and this is it for now. Going back to school for an advanced design degree, critical eyes are everywhere and they’re nothing if not gleefully honest about their feelings. I’m determined to become comfortable exposing myself and my ideas and work to potential criticism and use it to improve, on my own terms. I’m deliberately showing how flawed I am, just to see what happens. Should be interesting, I think.

My experience with blog and social media in general has been mostly work-related, or simply as an observer and reader. I’ve created a few blogs in the past with intentions of using it in a diary-like fashion or as on online portfolio, but it was never an activity I was able to generate much excitement over. I’ve participated in Facebook (will you be my friend?) more than any other platform, but am getting into Pinterest (my mother is more of a Pinterest expert than I am, I think that says something) and am learning more about Twitter through my work. I currently contribute content to the UW-Stout University Library’s Blogger page, Facebook and Twitter accounts. I encourage you, especially as writers, to join these pages, there is such a wealth of resources available from the University Library.

As a graphic designer, my job has always been to craft messages. Writing goes hand in hand with the visual. Responsibilities to maintain social media and blogs often falls onto designers, at least in part, so I plan on becoming more blog-literate and active throughout this course, to take advantage of the opportunities these connections can make, both professionally and personally.