Category Archives: Digital
Has the democratization of the Internet turned us all into Kafka-esque cockroaches? Andrew Keen argues yes in his debate with David Weinberger. From Keen’s perspective, the Internet has stripped away traditional filters and given a voice to the masses — and the resulting clamor shows the worst of humanity. Instead of having gatekeepers in the form of publishers and traditional media sources to groom experts and present us with the best, the unaware Internet user is bombarded by amateurs and their trash.
Image from Books by Audra. http://www.booksbyaudra.com/2016/04/18/considering-kafka/
Weinberger takes the opposing viewpoint that the traditional media filters were flawed, and the Internet offers opportunity for everyday experts and untapped talent. He’s not alone in his assessment. Philip Tetlock created the Good Judgment Project on the premise of nonprofessionals making more accurate predictions than established experts. Tournament style, the project identifies the top two percent of “superforecasters” who don’t have any particular credentials but are amateurs with a knack for making predictions. Through Web 2.0, these individuals are now able to connect and share ideas in a way that was inconceivable just twenty years ago.
Interestingly, most of the articles that I saw about everyone being an expert through the leveling of the Internet were from about five to ten years ago. After that, it stopped being news. Now, it seems that the voice given to the masses is assumed and taken for granted. The last decade has softened it from a potential catastrophe to now just an accepted part of culture.
The twist is that the Internet is both still reliant on traditional gatekeepers and developing new types of filters. As we’ve discussed earlier in this course, the more content is created, the more significant it becomes to navigate and find the right content. Jonathan Zittrain discusses how Google and other search engines have become a de facto filter as people attempt to find material online. Zittrain talks about the tension between “neutral” search algorithms and Google’s moral responsibility to present quality, or at least accurate, sources. His talk acknowledges that most people have a knee-jerk reaction against search engines serving as a “Big Brother” and controlling what you see, but also don’t like the specific examples of overtly wrong or biased sites being at the top of search results. Even though anyone can contribute online, search engines and other tools for navigating the web still provide some basic form of filtering. The questions is how much power should we give them?
Even in light of the massive amount of user-generated content and the new ways of determining what has value, there is still a role for traditional gatekeepers to help audiences from being bombarded. This is good news for Keen who sees “professional intermediaries [as] arbiters of good taste and judgement.” For me, the example that comes to mind is Wikileaks. On one hand, it embodies the ultimate democratization of all information being released to the public online. On the other hand, nobody reads the thousands and thousands of released leaks, and the general public hears about only the top few items of interest as reported by major media outlets. The gatekeepers are still serving to prioritize the information and tell people what they care about.
Wikileaks releases unprecedented amounts of information online, but still relies on traditional filters to make sense of it. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-cables-data
The New York Times just ran the article “WikiLeaks Isn’t Whistleblowing” that offers a scathing condemnation of the Wikileaks approach to “journalism” and argues that massive data dumps are inappropriate and counterproductive by not offering context for the information or discerning what is necessary to share. Tufecki writes, “Mass data releases, like the Podesta emails, conflate things that the public has a right to know with things we have no business knowing, with a lot of material in the middle about things we may be curious about and may be of some historical interest, but should not be released in this manner.”
Putting aside the other moral and privacy questions raised by Wikileaks, it serves as an extreme example of how the Internet enables a massive amount of content from all types of sources, while we’re still figuring out the role for filtering and gatekeeping. Keen warns that if we don’t find an answer, we’ll soon see the worst of ourselves reflected back in the Internet and discover our true cockroach nature.
Tufecki, Z. (4 Nov. 2016). Wikileaks isn’t whistleblowing. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/05/opinion/what-were-missing-while-we-obsess-over-john-podestas-email.html
Good Judgment. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016 https://www.gjopen.com/
Working together can create more meaning and bring more understanding of the world around us. The ideas in Chapter 4 of Net Smart by Rhiengold (2012) especially regarding collective intelligence and the function of the Internet to create communities, groups, and audiences that create a deeper meaning of what is happening around them is very powerful and applicable to our work with analyzing and reviewing social media principles as well as our work as technical communicators.
I have heard complaints from the generation before mine, professors, staff members, and students that came before, that the way we learn and take in information currently does not take the same amount of effort and time that it used to, thus we are as a whole not as smart as we could be, as they had to be in the world before the World Wide Web.
I wholeheartedly disagree. Are things different? Definitely. For the most part, we do not have to deal with card catalogs and worrying about not obtaining the library book we need because someone already has it out. But what we do have is mountains of information at our fingertips that needs to be read through, researched, analyzed, and ultimately accepted or discarded as useful to the project that need to be completed.
Thinking about it as the natural reaction our society has had to the advent of technology and connectedness, collective intelligence seems like a great place for us to be in.
“Now that we have gained access to digital tools that enable us to share what we know and aggregate small contributions into large knowledge repositories, a new level of collective intelligence is possible” (p. 160).
Just as a reality, it is fascinating how much I find myself depending on the opinions and knowledge of others in my personal and professional life.
I read Yelp reviews and will search through a few pages for tips and tricks about shopping: how to do it effectively, where to go for the best prices, and when to go to avoid the most foot traffic.
I use my coworkers as sounding boards when working on projects, running edits, changes, style issues, and new copy by one or more people to see how they react, even when we’re working on completely different projects.
This trend is so important to the way we think about knowledge and learning. It may seem like an obvious idea. We learn currently from teachers and professors, those who go to school and study techniques specifically to learn how to instruct and impart knowledge on others, but to my mind there is still so much stigma associated with the spirit of collective intelligence in schoolwork.
Beginning your career as a student, you do not learn that it is your right, I would say responsibility, to question the font of knowledge: a teacher. In order to retain control over groups of wild children, teachers must be seen as the ultimate authority in their spaces. As you grow older and become more comfortable with yourself and the idea that you have to have your own opinions and thoughts about the world around you, you are inundated with cultural norms and taboos. They are subjects you can’t bring up in public without receiving a negative reaction: sex, politics, and religion. There are other subjects that only apply to you and place you into a subgroup: race, gender, sex, socio-economic status, ethnicity.
By high school you have hopefully learned all the rules, overtly taught to you and covertly gathered by osmosis and have gone through puberty so hopefully you have become a version of yourself that can function in society. You have created PowerPoints and book reports and scientific models. But beyond being forced into groups by your teachers, it is still up to the teacher as the superior figure to create meaning and focus your attention on the facts and figures that you need to know.
That long analogy is meant to draw attention to the fact that with the Internet and social media, it is up to us to create meaning and monitor the information and knowledge being influenced and cultivated around us. I cannot say with complete certainty that children are reacting differently in classes. There are thousands of studies and reports about classroom teaching and management that are authored about the changes going on in classrooms because of technology and the Internet.
What works for me is the idea that we are demanding more of our teaching professionals and of ourselves than we have before. Yes, the Internet gives everyone a platform to shout their opinions from the rooftop (leading to a degradation of fields like traditional print media). It also gives us the ability to share what we know with each other, outside of the limits of a roundtables and desks with tiny chairs. Even outside the bounds of an online course taught by a PhD.
Rheingold, Howard. (2014). Net Smart: How to thrive online. MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold recognizes the same trend as Sherry Turkle of the historically unprecedented amount of available information through the Internet. However, Rheingold confronts the challenge of the volume and velocity of digital media with much more optimism. He sees it as a huge opportunity, if people understand the right strategies for managing it.
In his Tedx Talk “Attention: The New Currency,” Sree Sreenivasan argues that getting and keeping attention is critical for success in this world of overwhelming volume. Sreenivasan says, “It isn’t just that our attention spans are getting smaller and shorter but that there’s so much more stuff coming at us and so much more stuff competing for our attention.”
Rheingold makes the case that one way to handle the volume is increased mindfulness about what is getting our attention. He argues that the issue isn’t that multitasking is rewiring our brains, but rather that we do it without even being aware of it. The Washington Post article “Is the Internet Giving Us All ADHD?” suggests that although rates of ADHD are steadily increasing and the Internet facilitates behavior often recognized as ADHD, there is no evidence for a causal link. As the volume of information on the Internet continues to explode, we don’t need to fear possible brain damage, but rather be mindful about where we are putting our attention. Sreenivasan quotes Les Hinston, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, as saying, “The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention.”
However, simply knowing where our attention is going is only the first step in managing information overload. In Chapter 2, Rheingold suggests a dashboard approach to “infotention.” Savvy users organize and manage content in a dashboard style so that they can easily access the most relevant and useful information. When you’ve decided how you want to prioritize your attention, the dashboard approach helps you organize the information that you’ve decided is worth your time.
A third strategy is relying on others as curators. Rheingold tells several cautionary tales about bogus websites and warns about the need for “crap detection.” However, being a “detective” and investigating the source for every website that you visit just makes the volume even more overwhelming. In my experience, leisure users rarely go through the trouble to research a site’s author and dig for source material. Instead, most users have the online news site that they always read, and they trust it — no further investigation necessary. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive study, but I’m curious about the percentage of time that people spend online on just a handful of favorite sites. I’m guessing that for most people, the majority of their time online is on just a couple of sites that they have deemed as passing the crap detection test.
Beyond curating your own list of favorite sites, people turn to social curation. Just as Google uses the PageRank algorithm (Rheingold, pg. 83) to boost search results based on links from other sources, so we turn to the wisdom of the crowd to help us determine which information in the sea of possibilities should get our attention. I saw this article “Social Curation in Audience Communities” about how a Finnish newspaper deemed the participation of their readers in”liking” and sharing articles as one of the most critical factors to their success and how they used strategies to begin leveraging this social curation. The article includes the statistic that up to 75% of the online news consumed by American audiences is forwarded through email or social networking sites. You could argue that this is because of peer pressure, the desire to read what our friends are reading, or other social motivators, but I think it’s also a coping mechanism to handle the volume of information available. When there are too many options, one way to decide is to take the recommendation of others. I think it’s the same as asking your dinner date what you’re at a new restaurant and trying to pick from a huge menu.
Finally, Rheingold pushes us to go one step further: “Google itself is not the curator; we are. Every time a person references a link, they help to curate the Web.” (pg. 127). After we’ve waded through the huge amount of information and deemed what is reliable and attention-worthy, we can participate by becoming the curators. Theses 72 in the Cluetrain Mainfesto gets at this: “We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.” As a community of curators, we’re no longer just consumers of corporate rhetoric, but we are empowered to determine value for ourselves.
Three sails to staying afloat in information overload. Drawing from Coloring Son
Actually, Rheingold’s principles for being a “filter blogger” bear a surprising resemblance to what we do as technical writers. We take on a huge amount of information and distill it for what is important. Although technical writing then moves to the next step of content creation, it begins with managing and curating available information. We daily practice the skills of culling information and can appreciate the wealth of opportunities offered by the Internet without being swept away.
Dewey, C. (2015, March 25). Is the Internet giving us all ADHD?. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/03/25/is-the-internet-giving-us-all-adhd/
Sreevnivasan, S. (2015, April 20). Attention: The new currency.” Tedx Broadway. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I4WkhG_GRM
Villi, M. (2012). Social curation in audience communities: UDC (user-distributed content) in the networked media ecosystem. Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. 9.2. Retrieved from http://www.participations.org/Volume%209/Issue%202/33%20Villi.pdf
Before airing a new T.V. show, networks and studios test the pilot on an audience focus group. The audience members turn a knob based on their reaction to different parts of the episode, and their response can determine whether the show makes it to the screen or dies right there (“Test Audiences Can Make or Break New T.V. Series”).
In the technical communications world, understanding our audience and receiving audience feedback is also vital to creating high-quality documentation, but it’s much harder to achieve. Blakeslee writes about “the importance for technical communicators of continuing to give careful thought both to identifying their audiences and to accommodating their audiences’ needs and interests” (p. 200), yet she says that our industry has failed to investigate audience needs in the digital age. It seems to me that we misunderstand our audience in several ways, including their relation to technology, and the lack of audience awareness can severely limit our documentation.
One pitfall of not appropriately understanding our audience is falling into the activity theory framework, where we narrowly define our audience based on a single task instead of a comprehensive cultural understanding. As Longo states,
“If, as technical communicators, we make decisions based only on our understanding of activities and not of the cultural contexts in which these activities are embedded, we run the risk of proposing documents and systems that do not fit well with the organization where we work and our goals for the future” (p. 160).
At the company where I work, we constantly walk the line between specific task-oriented instructions balanced with a larger understanding of strategic and operational needs. Here are the steps to set up XYZ printer. Why? Because a certain type of medication label only prints on XYZ printer. Understanding that context, can we also guide readers about how many printers they’ll need and where to place them?
Not only do we need to learn about our audiences’ situation and goals, but we also need to learn about how the audience approaches the documentation itself based on their cultural context. In “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher gives several warnings about how the culture of our audience changes their approach to documentation. Although his main example is about internal communication, the same principles apply to customer-facing documents, as reflected in the school websites that he analyzes. By knowing more about the culture of our audience, we can tailor tone and content to appropriately address an individualist vs. collectivist mindset, or universalist vs. particular understanding. I shudder sometimes to think about all the things that I ignorantly say just because my perspective is so limited. The American Marketing Association actually published “The Olympics are Coming: Lessons for Cross-Cultural Advertising” to head off some foot-in-mouth moments.
Finally, as Blakeslee alludes to, we need to understand how our audience approaches documentation differently when it’s digital. This goes directly to Katz and Rhodes discussion of six different ethical frames through which audiences might approach technology. I might seek ways to optimize electronic document delivery, seeing it as both a means and an ends. My reader who gets the document likely sees the delivery process as only a tool and having value only as a delivery mechanism. Similarly, if we approach our documents assuming a sanctity frame, we could alienate task-focused readers who have a “us and them” mindset to technology.
Technical communications doesn’t get nearly as much help in understanding our audience as T.V. shows. Instead of focus groups, we get occasional blog comments. However, I think the more we know about our audience, the more we can create content that addresses their specific context, culture, and relation to technology.
I have really enjoyed this class, and interacting with all of you on this blog. This course has helped me see my current (and future) workplace situation through different lenses, and I feel this has made me stronger professionally. I chose to write my paper on what skills technical communication professionals need to succeed in the modern/future workplace. I have pasted my abstract below, please let me know what you think!
Emerging media has completely changed the face of traditional technical writing. The introduction of Web 2.0 has created user needs that supersede the tangible printed and bound instruction manuals that previously defined the field. As a result, workplaces have established new requirements for the skills ideal technical writing candidates must possess, and universities have strategically designed programs to keep up with these trends. Successful technical writers are now faced with the tasks of interpreting the most effective structure to present information; the best terminology for particular users; the appropriate design strategies to maximize accessibility; and the optimal platforms/technology to deliver products. This paper will define modern technical communication, and highlight the essential skills and abilities required for success in the industry. This paper will be concluded with my personal experience with these dynamics as a technical communications professional in multiple workplace settings.
The skills I then listed are to:
- Understand business operations and corporate financial goals to prove their value to the workplace
- Possess the collaboration skills, and ability to work in a team environment
- Maintain a thorough familiarity with leading industry tools and trends
- Possess solid writing, composition skills, and oral communication skills
- Possess the ability to evaluate their own work performance as well as those of others
- Possess document design knowledge
- Possess the ability to execute tasks and projects with enthusiasm and to meet deadlines with little support from management
All I could think of while reading Kenichi Ishii’s article, Implications of Mobility: The Uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life was, “This sounds a lot like present day American youth.” This research study was conducted between 2001-2003 in Japan, but I doubt their introverted culture had as much of an impact on their results as they’re letting on.
The article mentioned “32% of Japanese adolescents agreed with ‘I can easily start talking straight away to someone I do not know’, whereas 65% of their U.S. counterparts agreed (pg. 349)”. I understand American adolescents may be more socially skilled, but I believe this has little effect on their dependency on “mobile mail”, better known as texting.
It was also mentioned that, “Japanese youth increasingly seek to avoid conflict and friendships with deep involvement”, and that they practice “long term withdrawal from society” (pg. 349). My first reaction to this information was perhaps SMS messaging initially became more popular among Japanese adolescents than it did in the U.S. As a consequence, maybe they began seeing the negative effects of such convenient, impersonal communication sooner than we did, and had more time for it to penetrate their culture.
However, if this was the case American adolescents and youth still would have never become dependent on SMS. Especially considering their noted “superior” social abilities. I doubt dependency on SMS messaging would vary much across many cultures because it’s not a matter of cultural inclination, it’s a matter of convenience.
The contextual dimension of mobility (pg. 347) allowing non-business users freedom and privacy is in my opinion key to this situation. Convenience, privacy, and freedom from parent’s rules are what created and maintained adolescents’ interest in SMS. This reminds me of Sherry Tuttle’s warning about our desire to connect with each other on mobile devices replacing our desire to connect face to face.
This article speaks volumes about the monster mobile communication has created, and it’s even more interesting that it’s so old. Approximately 12 years later we have less control over mobile devices/communication, they take up increasingly more of our time through social media and it seems to be getting worse.
Adolescents, and students are no longer the primary users of SMS messaging; the addiction is as widely spread among adults. Many of the adolescents who grew up using social media are now young adults and its impact on their social development is an area of my personal interest. It’s also interesting the negative social effects of mobile technology were so obvious from the beginning.
It’s difficult to realize the bad habits you’re falling into while you’re in the situation, and I’m beginning to see the value of that quiet time Sherry Tuttle mentioned more than ever.
While reading Toni Ferro and Marc Zachry’s “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge, Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices”, I noticed some striking similarities to my own job. This article basically analyzed technical communications professionals’ workplace usage of publicly available online systems (PAOS), and I can completely relate to their findings. The table below explains this in greater detail (pg. 16):
I’m an eCommerce Copywriter for multiple retail brands, and sites like Wikipedia, Google Docs, Skype/WebEx, and Amazon.com are literally my backbone. In order to write product descriptions, I either need a sample (which is never available), or a product description from a vendor/competitor’s site. Literally 50% of my workday is spent researching products and putting existing descriptions into my own words.
The table above mentions 60% of participants reported using Wikipedia for “learning about a topic”, and this is true for me personally as well. There are times when I’m given products for sports/hobbies I’ve never even heard of and I depend on Wikipedia to explain what they are. For example, last week I was given 100 SUP accessories to write on our company website, and had no idea what the acronym SUP even stood for. Wikipedia saved the day with a robust explanation that helped me write my product descriptions like an expert.
Google Docs is another program I couldn’t do my job without, as when writing these products, other departments like imaging and merchandising need real time visibility into our progress. Most lists of products that need copy are distributed in a Google spreadsheet, and as we complete copy, we simultaneously check products off the list for the next step that needs to be initiated by other colleagues. Google Docs is our go-to for sharing and editing documents, and its absence would make everyone’s job nearly impossible.
Ferro and Zachry went on to ask, “What is the relation between what we are designing our classes and overall curriculum to achieve, and the things students will be doing after they are with us (pg. 19)?” I had been anticipating this question from the second I read through the survey data. With the amount of rapidly changing technology we’re facing and growing increasingly dependent on, PAOS are no longer a workplace/educational distraction. I personally feel students could benefit from a course geared to helping us identify and maximize these resources. I’d even be interested in taking a course on how to create these resources.
I was also happy to see the statement in the Pedagogical Implications section, “Technical communicators today rightly express concerns about how we should teach students to write in forms that did not exist 3 years ago – and some that do not yet exist (pg. 20)”. The ability to predict, effectively navigate, and communicate in the PAOS environment can make or break an employee’s success in the workplace. Employees who can create and monitor expert Wikis, become masters of developing associations and relationships online, and internalize electronic planning/coordination are greater assets to their companies than employees with identical work knowledge/experience who lack these additional qualities. I’m very interested to see how educators will introduce this material, and how this change will reflect in the technical communication discipline.
Every once in a while, I open a product I have just bought, and feel a little nostalgic for the days of paper manuals. I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that I can seek out instructions regardless of whether I am online. The truth is, when a question does arise, it is second-nature to sit down and search the internet. And, honestly, when am I offline anyways?
I do remember the days when online help wasn’t so easy to come by. If a manual did not have an answer I needed or I didn’t understand it, I was stuck with the time-consuming tasks of doing my own research. Other times, I would come across mistakes in the instructions or information that became outdated after a software update occurred.
So while I think I “miss” the days of paper documentation accompanying products, I don’t miss all that they represent. I like that I can search for specific issues quickly. I love that outdated or inaccurate information is usually wiped away. And, it’s super convenient that customer support is often a click away, instead of requiring a call to the customer support line.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still print out a lot of the instructions that I look up in customizable searches. I do this because, in many cases, it is easier for me to follow directions on paper. (It is an annoying personality quirk of mine that costs me untold amounts of money buying ink and paper.) I also find that I often look up the same issue repeatedly. I have certain applications that I use on a regular basis. There is usually a function or two that I only use occasionally, so I find that when that rare occasion comes up, I need a refresher on how to do it.
Along with my printing habit, I like to cut and paste chunks of helpful or interesting information from help sections, and put them into a Microsoft document for future reference. I bookmark a lot of pages too. There is a problem though. This inconsistent data collection makes it very difficult to access the information. I have to search my saved documents which leaves me trying to remember if I saved it on my laptop or desktop? Hard drive or memory drive? If I bookmarked it then I have to search through all the bookmark and Chrome and Internet Explorer. This is assuming that I actually recall saving it in the first place. Often I go look up the same information again, only to notice I already had it, when I go to save it. Sigh.
The idea of being able to customize my own instructional text on a site is an incredibly exciting concept (Spilka, 2010, p.206)! I imagine all those topics that I go back to time and time again at my fingertips. No more haphazard organization of all the information I want to retain. No more wasted time looking for information, only to realize I already have it documented somewhere. Just one site to go back to, the source. Not only would all the information that I need be structured in the way that best meets my needs, but I could also add more information or remove what I no longer need. That would be the ultimate user experience!
Until that becomes widely available, I will continue to appreciate the ways that digital media is enabling writers to provide better and more targeted content. The use of digital media has not lead to a homogenized audience, but has instead given many new opportunities for writers to tap into the specific needs of the reader. They no longer have to make assumptions about the reader’s needs and can instead utilize a variety of user information absorbed from observing the user directly. In many ways, the move to greater use of online documentation, defies the image of the internet widening the distance between people. In this instance, online media allows for a greater personal connection with the audience.
After watching the Debate about technology and jobs between Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain, there were a number of topics that peeked my curiosity in this 60 minute video. One, in particular, was this idea around how technology is taking over a number of different jobs within our society. One thing Zittrain came across in his own research was the idea of: if a robot could do something a human could do, than ultimately it was beneath a human’s capacity to do that work.
But is it? One of the things Zittrain noted was that if technology does impact a person’s role, it is also important that there is meaningful work for people. But what if this is meaningful work for some?
I have an uncle who has down syndrome (DS), which is a type of physical and mental impairment. Although the developmental delays vary significantly between individuals with DS, it can hinder their capacity of “contributing” to society. My uncle, for example, has the development that an 8-year-old would have. Nonetheless he is able to work. I would say, however, that type of work while meaningful to him could potentially at any point be performed by technology.
So what happen to the dissemination of unskilled labor then? If we take that away and replace unskilled labor with technology, do we take jobs away from individuals who are elderly or have mental disabilities? In their article on Technology, Society and Mental Illness, Harvey and Keefe found that technology does in fact have an impact on populations that include the elderly, those with mental illnesses and disabilities.
But, can individuals with mental illness (or even the elderly) strive in this “human+machine” culture that Longo refers to (in Digital Literacy) – against the claims made by Harvey and Keefe? One of the most fascinating things about my uncle is his own ability to use and adapt to technology. He can play Wii games and find his way through levels upon levels. Does he struggle with some things? Sure – but if he were living in this digital culture would his online counter parts know he was mentally disabled?
In fact, in her article titled, What effect has the internet had on disability, Aleks Krotoski argues that physical impairments become non-existent in the virtual world. Without having the stigma assigned to them, those with disabilities have the opportunity to flourish online.
This idea aligns well with the information the Longo provided in her chapter on Human+Machine and the importance of investigating and understanding how this human and machine culture works and how it is not equal to the “human+human culture”. In a human to human culture, as Krotoski found, those with mental or physical impairments are chastised, but in an online virtual environment – when it comes down to humans plus machines – those individuals have the opportunity to participate in society without human barriers.
How do you feel the Human+Machine culture might impact the elderly or mentally disabled populations? As technical communicators, how do we account for communication to these audiences if they were in fact online participants?
While reading the first few chapters of Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, the section in chapter one titled “(Using) the Internet Makes Us Stupid (or Not)” really related to me. I constantly hear my friends say things like “autocorrect is making us stupid”, and “We’d be nothing without Google”, but I’ve always thought the complete opposite.
On page 52, Rheingold introduced and explained Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He went on to say:
“A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we’re searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole.”
I don’t understand how Carr has skewed this situation, but I feel the exact opposite. People Google information they do not know, or else they wouldn’t need to Google it. The “few words or sentences” that are generated from their searches are specifically what they needed to know. Regardless of whether or not they read the entire document, they have already learned something that they will not forget.
Carr feels, “We are substituting the web for personal memory, and emptying our minds”. However, I do not forget the information I look up on Google, ever. He’s thinking along the lines of easy come easy go, but that’s really not the case in this situation. In terms of neuroplasticity, I feel we’re actually training ourselves to absorb more information than ever before in the history of human existence.
I can go through more information online in a year than my grandmother has in her entire lifetime. I have the world’s knowledge at my fingertips, at my disposal whenever I feel like conjuring it. Our generation are masters of information, we’re experts at searching and locating exactly what we want to know in a matter of seconds.
Carr says, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it”, and we engage in, “nonlinear, scattered, perpetual scanning at the expense of depth and concentration”. I think my skipping and skimming habits are more like an ability to speed-read and pinpoint information I’m actually looking for than an Internet based attention deficit disorder. Web based authors also format their documents for this purpose, making information easier to find in less time.
In situations where readers need more elaborate explanations of the subject of interest, references to “traditional” texts are always linked to the content. In just a simple click, we jump from the “few words or sentences” to a printable PDF version of a book, or a link to buy a hard copy on Amazon.
It’s law in the United States for every child to attend school, or else their parents are held responsible. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, American illiteracy rates have been around 14% for the past 10 years, I highly doubt Google has been as influential as immigration, poverty, or drug usage. Most Americans are capable of reading, and will read in the traditional sense when the occasion calls for it. It’s simply a matter of optimizing time, effort, and using discretion.
As Rheingold said on page 52, “A search query, like a Wikipedia page, is often a bad place to end your inquiry, but an excellent place to start”. In most cases readers jump through multiple pages of information, and have the option of a robust explanation of what they are looking for through multiple resources. Google and sites like Wikipedia put them on track to find these resources, and long form text is always an option.
Tools like Google, Wikipedia and even autocorrect give us instant answers and correction that we wouldn’t have without it. Is it better to not have access to information outside of a 2000 page book, or to instantly get what you’re looking for with the option of exploring additional resources?
In early 2008, I signed up for Evernote® and became a premium subscriber. It quickly became my digital brain and I used it daily. In 2012, Evernote acquired Penultimate, a note taking app for iPad that allows you take handwritten notes. In 2014, Evernote launched a new version of Penultimate that led to their having to issue an apology to their users.
But, despite their claims of listening to feedback, many Evernote users suggest otherwise in the app’s forums. I believe this “development in a bubble” has led to the company’s CEO, Phil Libin, having to step down and to the company’s having some serious trouble with public relations if not finances, as reported by BusinessInsider.com: The inside story of how $1 billion Evernote went from Silicon Valley darling to deep trouble.
I’m no business analyst so I’ll skip the charts and graphs. But, I can tell you why I left Evernote last year as a premium subscriber and active user in favor of another app. I believe the following are some of the main reasons Evernote is struggling—all of which have to do with Evernote being un-networked to its user base.
We’re Listening But Not Really
Howard Rheingold, Author of Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, says “The aggregated by-products of digital participation add up to a marketable commodity…” (p. 135). In theory, yes, but only if the company is listening.
In Evernote’s case, I and other users called for certain features or feature tweaks for years in the user forums. What we got were new apps that eventually died (e.g. Hello and Food), features no one seemed to be asking for (e.g. Work Chat), or redesigns that turned long-standing workflows on their heads or made them impossible.
The net effect went something like this over and over again: “We didn’t get to that fix or feature you wanted, but look! We created a food app because Phil, our CEO is a foodie, and, well, food app!”
We Know What’s Best for You
At the front of the online book, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual list the 95 theses found within it. Number 25 is “Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.”
Evernote boasts over 50 million users worldwide. It’s my feeling this gave them so much confidence in what they were doing, they became dismissive of what users were saying.
Go to the forums—virtually any forum. I’ll bet you won’t have to scroll long before you find an Evernote team member effectively saying “Let them eat cake!” In other words, they indicate they understand the concerns, but they know what’s best. Whether or not a feature request is in the development pipeline or not is not the business of end-users. At least, that’s how many of us felt.
Drink the Kool-Aid or Else!
Power-user bullying of everyday users is rampant on the forums. Evernote is silent. I’ve read dozens of comments from self-identified power-users in reply to average users’ concerns that leave me speechless.
Effectively, these power-users seemingly become defensive on Evernote’s behalf and will shut-off whiney users: “Evernote is great. I use it 1,000 of times a day and have for 50 years. You just don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve given you two work-arounds, a life raft, and a helicopter! If you don’t like the way Evernote is set up or don’t like my work-around. Leave!” They don’t actually say this, but it does effectively represent their intent and tone.
The fascinating thing is that Evernote lets it go on. And, the next thing you know, that power-user bully has published a post on Evernote’s blog. You start to really feel hopeless as an average user.
A Note from the New CEO
A month ago, Evernote’s new CEO wrote to the user base explaining why the company was laying off talent and closing offices globally. He said some important stuff that may represent the bubble is being popped and Evernote will begin focusing on its user network (and hopefully employee network, if you read the Business Insider article):
“I believe that a smaller, more focused team today will set us up for growth and expansion tomorrow. Here are two things that you can expect from us over the next several months: we will launch major foundational product improvements around the core features that you care about most, and we will pull back on initiatives that fail to support our mission.”
He’s saying the company is going to focus on improving its core product THAT USERS CARE ABOUT MOST. I hope that means the same thing users have been telling Evernote all along: “Great product, but we need it do to A, B, and C, and by the way this needs fixed.”
I’m not going back to Evernote. Not yet. Maybe never. But, I’ll watch from afar to see what happens.
As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization. When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”. But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization. At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it). But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs). And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.
I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs. In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking. Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say. But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).
I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world). In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.
I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training. But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.
As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about. Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need. It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication. Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).
- This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
- Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
- We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.
Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above. It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience. Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61). But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.
For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages. The content, design, and layout was all brutal. In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff. Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle. At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.
So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?
Dicks, S. (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81). New York: Taylor & Francis.
Content management as it applies in Digital Literacy by Rachel Spilka refers to “a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted and styled for delivery” (p. 130). My first thought was of college and university websites – who creates the online image, who maintains it, and how do you know if it’s effective? When your website looks different, are you being original, savvy, an “outside the box” thinker or someone who looks like they don’t know what they’re doing? A standard design helps you find information, “validates” it, and to a certain degree creates “credibility” – an implied added value that brings users to your site. Visit 39 Factors: Website Credibility Checklist (http://conversionxl.com/website-credibility-checklist-factors/), and web design is the first standard. And it needs to be attractive with bells and whistles. University of Melbourne’s (http://www.unimelb.edu.au/) Dr. Brent Coker states, “As aesthetically orientated humans, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people, and the same goes for websites. Our offline behavior and inclinations translate to our online existence. As the Internet has become prettier, we are venturing out, and becoming less loyal” (The Melbourne Newsroom: http://newsroom.melbourne.edu/news/n-575).
The annual Webby Awards (http://www.webbyawards.com/winners/2015/) selects the best of the Internet including websites and mobile sites and apps. I took a look at the awards for college and university website design, because I have the chance to redesign my page. Stephenson University was a top winner; take a look – http://www.stevenson.edu. Notice anything different? My eyes went straight to the left navigation – where is it? Stevenson dumped it on their homepage, but click any link on the center block of information and you get one. Whew.
I’m not a technical writer, but I write for work. No one at my college is a technical writer, but everyone with access to the Novus Content Management System (CMS) writes for our website. In Digital Literacy, William Hart-Davidson asks, “what does a writer do when the whole company writes (Spilka, 210, p. 137)? In the case of my school, you get a fragmented, out-sourced variation of styles and priorities. My college’s website design is awful. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I work, our students love us, and we engage with and support our community– but our web appearance really bothers me. Take a look at Hillsborough Community College: http://www.hccfl.edu/
The left navigation isn’t alphabetical or listed in order of importance; certainly, “Dining Services” isn’t as important “Searching for Classes. In the middle we have “Steps to enroll” and “Apply Now;” “Apply Online is also on the left – everything leading to the same information. Part of the problem is the use of a content management system (CMS) – Novus – that longer meets our needs. And until recently we employed one web manager and no other web staff to maintain the college’s web presence. As Hart-Davidson notes, “content management (cm) systems provide resources for enacting the kind of work reflected in Table 5.1, but they do not do the work themselves. Nor do they help those who lack expertise in writing studies learn best practices” (Spilka, 2010, p. 141).
This is an area that interests me and I have a chance to practice what I learn with our Distance Learning website revision. But in an educational organization with so many layers of administration, and committees who make most of the decisions, how does one promote a new content management strategy? Do any of you in higher education employ technical communicators to assist in website design and maintenance? And how do you measure the success of your website?
I remember an intense discussion a few years ago at the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication where members were debating the efficacy of the titles “technical writer” and “technical communicator”. Were they the same? Were they different? If they were different, in what ways? Did it matter what we thought if employers couldn’t get it? How did employers view persons who worked in technical communication?
It was interesting to me to observe how members, based on their experience in the practice, answered these questions. For the most part, those with say 15 or more years of experience clearly remembered being technical writers per se. They also recognized they were much more than that today—at least most were. The less experienced folks in the discussion mostly sat wide-eyed (not because they were impressed, but because I think they were trying to stay awake). For the most part, they saw themselves as technical communicators, but without a full understanding of that term. But, I recognize the more senior folks, including me, didn’t fully understand either.
What everyone these days seems to recognize is that technical communicators cannot just be technical writers. As Rachel Spilka puts it in the foreword to Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, which she edited: It’s not about survival, it’s about evolution. And, I believe she’s right.
Five Steps to You 2.0
Below are five steps we can take to evolve from technical writers or even technical communicators to technical communicators 2.0. A what? R. Stanley Dicks in chapter 2 of Digital Literacy (p. 77) notes that not only has the technology technical communicators use become more complex, so has the their core job of developing text and graphics. So, technical communicators 2.0 are themselves subject matter experts or must become so. Here’s how:
- Keep up on changes in the field. This seems like a no-brainer, but we’re just as busy as CEOs (although our golden parachutes are more like cocktail umbrellas). It’s critical to make time in our schedules to examine what is going on in our field: attend a conference, hop on a webinar, or, uh, get a graduate degree.
- Integrate with other teams. The idea of integrating has a sense of equality about it. I think that is often missed by technical communication professionals. We’re not below the development team or just a cost center as far as the sales team is concerned. Well, let me say it this way, we need to promote ourselves within our organizations as specialists within a practice that requires a high degree of skill and knowledge—not because we want to be but because we are.
- Learn new technologies strategically. Saul Carliner in chapter 1 of Digital Literacy (p. 45) groups technical communication technologies into three categories: authoring, publishing, and management. This is brilliant. While I’ve tried to stay up with technology throughout my career, I think I’ll now look at doing so across these categories. The key will be doing so strategically meaning I can’t keep up with all technology, but following some in each category is 2.0 thinking.
- Develop a subject matter expertise. About eight years ago I moved from high tech to science and engineering. It required me to gain an understanding of science and engineering concepts. In any given week I deal with, from a content perspective, anything from soil mechanics to geochemistry to frozen dams. Now, I’m not a subject matter expert in any of these things, but I am a subject matter expert in communicating about them, i.e., within science and engineering—and my career has never been better.
- Lead. To me, this means technical communicators have to manage not only the conceptualization, production, and distribution of communication, but also relations with departments concerned with management, product development, marketing, costs, revenue, and so forth. We’re not just writers we’re managers—or should be. Think, speak, and act like and executive and you should find yourself invited to the big table.
What else are you doing to become a technical communicator 2.0 in our rapidly changing field?
Growing up I was accustomed to a quiet world. Being the youngest of four children, I often think my parents sheltered my existence to some extent based on the potentially not-so-great decisions of my older siblings. Nonetheless, my stature growing up provided me the opportunity to fall in love with books. There was nothing I loved (and still love) to do more than a read a good book. I’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning immersing myself into another world of fiction. And then I grew up. Technology was an ever-growing force in my own generation. The need and want of that technology was overbearing and overwhelming at times, but I also had my books.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and my now ex-husband asked me if I would rather have a grill or a Nook for a Christmas. Well I chose the grill. I could not understand why someone would want a Nook. You lose out on the feel of the book as you clutch it through some of the most climatic points of a story. And the smell of pages from old library books that were well beyond used, and in many cases offering so many readers a chance at a break from reality. So again, why would someone want to miss out on the experience by succumbing to a piece of technology? What if something spilled on it or it died right in the middle of a good part in the story? A Nook just sounded silly. Years later, I finally succeeded to allowing someone to present me with a Nook. Now, I will say from the perspective of travel it has lightened my load significantly. Travelling with books, no doubt can be a true nuisance.
So why do I share in this personal story? In reading through Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I kept memorizing back to this moment in my life. In what seemed to be such a pivotal switch. What was it that finally prompted me to move towards something I thought I would forever loathe? Was it pressure? Was it an internal switch that told me I want something new and shiny? Was it just my time? While a large portion might have leaned towards a convenience factor, I think it was this very experience that really aligned with what Rachel Spilka, author of Digital Literacy, was driving that we [as technical communicators] begin thinking more critical about.
I’m sure many, if not all of you have heard of the following quote:
This quote in correlation with my personal experience was what was driving through my mind as I read the beginnings of Digital Literacy. There were two questions that Spilka called out that really got me to think about my role as a technical communicator:
- How can we make a difference, not by isolating ourselves or distinguishing ourselves from others, but rather through collaborative efforts?
- How can we contribute to the social good with our unique perspectives, knowledge, and strategies?
As technical communicators we do bring unique perspectives and experiences to our own work and it is through those experiences that I believe we have the opportunity to use that to make a difference. Just like advocating for “being the change we want to see in the world”, sharing our experiences / knowledge can advocate for this in our world of technical communication.
What I do somewhat disagree with in regards to the first question I called out from Spilka’s book, is that there are times and opportunities that we can take to build differences in order to show them through a more collaborative effort.
I am a “sole technical writer” of sorts in my organization right now (at least in my own department). Through the course of my work, I have developed policies, procedures, guidelines, and am in the process of implementing an internal blog for our department. Through this work (that I have done alone), I am able to showcase to others in the organization how we can be successful with communication by showing and referencing this work that I would not have others have had if I tried to complete it “collaboratively”. Let’s face it – in many organizations we often struggle with “who owns that particular [thing]”. By always working collaboratively, I think we often run the risk of over words-smithing or over-critiquing something. I also think that in some ways, it is not bad to distinguish yourself from others – especially if you can elicit good technical communication in order to help others become better at it themselves. Overall, I do believe that there does have to be some middle ground, however, it is at that point where we can actually begin contributing to that overall social goodness.
What are your thoughts around these two particular questions and how did you ultimately interpret them? Have you ever had experiences where it was beneficial isolate yourself versus working through it collaboratively (or vice versa)?
While Spilka and her contributors for Digital Literary for Technical Communication drove me crazy by repetition large chucks of text ( see pages 11, 13, 16 regarding who the target audience for her book is) and having a chapter summarizing all the other chapters, there are a couple of things that I learned, besides understanding that if I have to read any more of this book, I will either need a couple of aspirins or a bottle of vodka. These two things that I found most important were evolving and that technical writers must play well with others.
Yes, everyone should already know that technology is constantly evolving, and so its delivery methods and how technical communicators craft their messages need to evolve too. Without evolving, technical writers will fail to gain all the skills necessary for the latest publishing tools, such as FrameMaker and RoboHelp, to help their users and to continue building a positive reputation for whatever company is providing the products and resources. An example of this need for evolving ones skills is in the chapter titled, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” Dicks writes,
The nature of work for many technical communicators is changing so
rapidly that many now perform an entire task set that they did not even
know about five years ago (p. 51).
But evolving to keep up with the changing technology should be common sense, and Saul Carliner provides a chapter on history (just to show how fast technology has changed when companies, seeking higher profits use user input to create the desires of the customer – custom corporate software, better online help, easier desktop publishing, etc. By evolving, companies and people have saved money and time, which is usually one of the main goals of nearly everyone. And as for me, my goals are to learn FrameMaker, RoboHelp, and Illustrator, because I missed out on getting my resume read by hiring managers in the technical communications field because I did not have experience in those tools. I, too, must evolve.
Must play well with others.
Life would be great if everyone played nice and worked well together, and working well with others is an important soft skill that many people lack, especially for those technical communicators who have been working alone for so long. But in today’s technical communicators’ work places, it is necessary to work with others to gather information and for review. As Spilka states,
[W]hat seems most critical and meaningful is how we can contribute to
social, team, or collaborative efforts toward the greater good of large
scale projects…Our work is also more like than before to be
international scope (p. 5).
Thus, to be a desirable technical communicator, one of the main skills is knowing how to work in a team. By helping co-workers in a timely manner, work can be fun, enjoyable, and a success. As a valued part of the team, the technical writer may learn additional skills and be wanted for further projects, which new skills may be needed, so it would be a great opportunity to evolve again. That is why I would suggest to anyone in this field to always take a chance to learn something new. Take on a more challenging project to increase your knowledge and skills.
All in all, so far, I learned from this book that one must not be afraid of the latest technologies, and they should evolve by trying to learn how the latest technologies can benefit themselves and their work places. Besides learning the forever-changing technology tools, methods, theories, and etc., it is also important to know how to work with others, as most projects will involve many people who will be working on the same project, and the technical communicator will need to gather information, and give and receive feedback on the project, so that the project is a success. And if the project turns out not to be successful, have a drink, think about what could have been done to have made it successful, and then try it again next time. With that, you are evolving. Start your evolution now.
Dicks, R. (2010). The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 51). New York, NY: Routledge.
Carliner, S. (2010). Computers and Technical Communication (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 5). New York, NY: Routledge.
Spilka, R. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 5). New York, NY: Routledge.
Technology, the world and its people are constantly changing and advancing. Technical Communication is no different. As we transitioned from the industrial age into the information age, so will the standards of technology and technical communication.
I feel as though technology, Technical Communication and education are intertwined. As technology became more widely used, distributed, more affordable, as well as more complex, so did the job of Technical Communicators. In the past, technical communication was limited based on the technology at the time, but with the evolution of personal computers, better software programs and eventually the Internet, technical communication had to evolve as well. Those who could not make this transition from commodity work to symbolic-analytical work were unable to remain in this field of work. Education would become a determining factor on whether someone could remain a Technical Communicator for a company. Companies valued professionals who could do work that could not be easily outsourced to other countries, that did not need to be micro managed or have heavy supervision, who could work in groups, who understood current technology and most importantly, could adequately explain this information to costumers without difficulty.
Costumers became an important part in how information was being distributed. In the past technical communication was distributed in its printed form with limited ways to be customized but as technology evolved, it became more flexible and easily individualized. Costumers no longer even needed to look at an owner’s manual for certain products or call a hotline. All they needed to do was go online, find a message board and look for the answer to their questions. This made life for the costumer easier and more convenient, however it does have the negative effect of dehumanizing the costumer service and costumer relationship.
Globalization was another reason for this shift in technical communication. As our world became more connected, companies did not need to only rely on in house professionals, they began to seek independent contractors to do jobs on specific projects and even outsource those jobs to other countries. I see the pros and cons of doing this. The pros would be that with the decrease of Technical Communicator employees there would be less, layoffs or retraining of newly hired employees. There would also be less benefits or pension plans companies had to give out to long-term employees. This would be beneficially for the company but potentially bad for potential employees. The con would be that with the loss of management positions, Technical Communicators have more responsibility and have less room for error. This could be detrimental for company who hired a Technical Communicator whose performance is subpar.
As the world continues forward so will technology. Each year companies like Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Nintendo and Samsung, produced more advanced and unique items for public consumption. A Technical Communicator’s skill and education will have to continue to advance and improve to keep up with demand for these products. They have become more flexible, creative, versatile and educated. A Technical Communicator has evolved and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
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.
Fluidity, evolution of technology, and the technical communicator role is a focus of the first two chapters of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (2010). In it she defines digital literacy as “theory and practice that focus in use of digital technology, including the ability to read, write, and communicate using digital technology, the ability to think critically about digital technology, and consideration of social, cultural, political, and educational values associated with those activities” (p. 8). Saul Carliner on the historical perspective notes “In a few instances, people were hired with formal training in technical writing, but during the 1970’s, this employer typically emphasized technical knowledge over writing skill” (as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 23). Makes sense since technical communication was originally associated with scholarly and scientific writing.
Stanley Dicks states the technical communicator’s work has shifted from primarily writing and editing to a “complex, symbolic-analytic work involving not just developing information but also managing, re-configuring, disseminating and customizing it for a diversity of audiences and in a diversity of media” (as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 75). Yet, he says don’t assume all workers will be doing those tasks. Can small businesses afford to staff such a specialized position? The Small Business Association (SBA) reports that 99.7 percent of businesses are small, with the remaining .30 classified as large – those with 500 or more workers. In reality, many technical communicators won’t see a drastic change in duties because many businesses can’t keep up with the rapidity with which technology changes. Who can invest in business-wide computer and software refreshes only to have it be “old” in two years? Other businesses may have other departments absorb the duties. At my school, it’s done by Marketing.
Due to technology and digital tool use, redefining the technical communication field is inevitable – we already recognize authoring, publishing, and management as main roles, and jobs descriptions run the gamut. Will redefining the “who” be far behind? As Andrew Keen noted in his “Reply All” debate, “authors- formerly-known-as-the-audience” have invaded the Internet (2007, WSJ). Who’s to say they aren’t the next generation of technical communicators? Coincidentally, distance learning/ instructional technology mirrors the technical communicator “seismic shift” of more women than men (Hayhoe as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 51). At my school, only two of nine instructional technologists and designers are men – are women more adaptable to the technological changes? Should we revisit Mary Lay’s “Feminist Theory and the Redefinition of Technical Communication” (1991, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 5.4, 348 – 70, October 1991)?
Today’s employers expect more than a subject matter and writing expert. It may be a challenge for some technical communicators, but it can’t be a surprise. Digital literacy has, as Spilka notes, “transformed just about every work environment and the way that most of us do our work…and almost every aspect of our work has changed” (p. 2). In my field, I’ve seen technology both impact the role of higher education distance learning. Most Florida colleges had student support distance learning departments. Technology allowed us to build a sense of community between the school and online students, a key measure for high retention. But the more technology we embraced the more we let the student go. We disbanded a department and decided distance learning was simply a delivery method. Five years later and students still resist– they want dedicated staff to assist them. At my school, that’s just me. I predict a backlash and full circle; it can’t happen soon enough. Meanwhile, I adapt, acquire skills, take on more responsibility, and redefine my worth in order to stay relevant in a field that also continuously evolves. Technical communicators must do the same.
(Looking for ways to improve my blogging I came across this SlideShare by Marcia Riefer Johnson, author of Word Up & You Can Say That Again. It’s her presentation for selling yourself, company etc. through clear writing. It’s a 316 (???) yep, count 316-slide presentation.)
After reading “Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship” by Danah M. Boyd and Nicole B. Ellison, I couldn’t believe their definition of what a “social network site” actually was. I am taking into consideration this article is a seven year old opinion, (which is a bit fascinating because seven years isn’t incredibly long) and the concept of “social network/networking sites” is constantly evolving.
According to the article:
We define social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system.
The authors also were sure to distinguish social “network” from social “networking” sites by pin-pointing, “Networking emphasizes relationship initiation, often between strangers”. Although social “network” sites allow users to meet strangers, the majority of users use “network” sites to maintain previously established relationships.
I personally understand, and agree with this distinction.
The article went on to elaborate that the “backbone” of SNSs are visible profiles that display a list of friends who are also registered users. Also, that after joining a SNSs, users are required to fill out personal information fields (age, sex location), and are encouraged to upload a profile photo. The authors emphasized that the public display of friends is a “crucial component” of SNSs, as well as public and private messaging.
However, aside from Instagram, Snapchat is my second most beloved social network site. For backup, Wikipedia also agrees that Snapchat is a social network/networking site (Not that it holds any credibility according to Andrew Keen, or perhaps the “credibility” is opportune in this situation). We can use our discretion and apply it to the “network” category in relation to this article, as Snapchat is DEFINITELY not a service designed to connect strangers.
For those who are unfamiliar, Snapchat is a self-destructive social media application that allows users to post time sensitive text and images. Users don’t have visible profiles, about me sections, or profile images. Snapchat does not publicly allow users to view each others “friends” or followers, allows no public comments among followers, features no profile images/avatars, and lists no personal information about users.
The concept behind Snapchat’s design was to create a more private photo/information sharing environment, and to relieve the pressures of capturing the perfect Kodak moment for static online images and videos. The fact that images will be deleted allows users to be less self conscious and more human, and this is honestly what draws me to the app.
There are many similar SNSs to Snapchat like Wickr, Clipchat, and Slingshot. The Self-destructive photo-sharing app is a movement, and will definitely evolve in the near future. For the record, Snapchat is incredibly successful and in May of last year users were sending 700 million photos and videos every day, and Snapchat stories were being viewed 500 million times per day. Snapchat is apparently worth between $10 to $20 billion dollars and is gaining new members every day.
This major player in SNSs does not apply to Boyd and Ellison’s article, and I’m expecting to see many other sites follow in their footsteps. The traditional Facebook, and semi-traditional Instagram have very significant purposes in user’s lives, but privacy is an issue as well as the pressure to be perfect. Snapchat eliminates both of those pressures, while delivering an even more intimate SNS experience.
Boyd, D., & Ellison, N. (2008). Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13, 210-230.
Ishii’s article is somewhat dated, as the statistics for mobile telephone conversations have probably increased sine 2006 when the article “Implications of Mobility” was published. However, Ishii’s implications have merit eight years after publication. I was particularly struck with the three types of mobility (spatial, temporal, and contextual) outlined (p. 347).
Contextual mobility, while potentially liberating for users–as they can turn off their phone if they wanted–is a double edged sword. In the workplace, with mobile phones, the expectation is for all employees to be “on” at all times, no matter the hour. I have gotten emails from work at 9:30 at night. This mobility and the implications of so much mobility and accessibility is something that we must be aware of, and intentional about creating boundaries.
I’m not sure if I’m the only one, but after reading Turkle’s Alone Together, I’ve been reading all our assignments through the lens of whether or not we’re allowing the technology to dictate our attention spans and stress levels. Perhaps I should get a landline and an answering machine to cut down on my accessibility. But then again, how could I read that 9:30 pm email from my coworker right when she sent it if I didn’t have my cell phone near me (and synced with my email account)?
Zachry and Ferro’s article, Technical Communication Unbound, helped me organize my thoughts on a topic that has been circulating in my mind for some time: the value of a writer.
This particular part of their article was the source of inspiration for the topic of this post:
“..it now appears that the tasks of those working in the profession are necessarily expanding to include such concerns as real-time monitoring of texts and other communicative performances that circulate in the network of social media.”
Since the responsibilities of a writer are evolving and expanding, I would hope that this means that the respect and appreciation for tech writers is increasing with it.
In my own personal experience, this is not so. At my place of employment, more importance is placed on skills such as design or coding, which has been made completely clear to me from recent conversations with my boss. In fact, I’ve been told that my position as a content writer, “requires no real skills.”
With the emergence of social media and its emphasis on shorthand writing forms, it is easy for one to think less of writing or not even think of it as a useful skill at all.
I suppose that I worry that, with the increase of responsibilities, tech writers will be thought of more as an administrative assistant with a laundry lists of tasks to accomplish and less like a professional with useful skills.
Where do we come off knowing how a user will access the web? With Google, I can find something that’s deep within a site, and avoid all the crumbs to get to the page I wanted. In Spilka’s book, Ann Blakeslee makes the good point that technical communicators need to shift from “developing documentation based on what writers think their readers need,” to how they “will actually use the information to complete a task” (p. 216). Luckily, we expect repetition in both communication and online. So we can have the same information on more than one page on a website to make sure someone sees it, even if they skipped the two pages leading up to the page they sought.
That is the science. The art is how much to say and what to omit so as to keep the added value of visiting the site (so it’s not just ten pages of the same information over and over again). But, I think that’s a secondary concern. The first concern is to have a task-based infrastructure so that the audience can find what they’re looking for, and not have to sift through paragraphs of information. About the ‘how much to add where’ question, I think it’s a constant challenge to keep tweaking. From my personal experience, I’d rather have a straightforward answer to my query, and then I can dive into the hyperlink tunnel to find more answers if I so wish. That way I do get to know what the website has to offer, just not in a linear manner.
So should we change to a task-based communication? Yes. If you think not, I’d love to hear why; I am open to changing my mind on this if I hear a compelling reason.