Category Archives: Digital

Access to Health Care Information for Non-English Speakers

My final paper was inspired by one of my recent blog posts about digital literacy across cultures.  Digital literacy plays an essential role in how groups of all types of people access information.  My paper explores how non-English speakers access to public health information compare to the homeless.  Both are sensitive groups in America that would benefit from increased digital literacy.  This paper compares and contrasts how they are able to receive information.  It also explores two ways technical communication can be used to improve non-English speakers access to public health communication.  The primary is the use of public libraries and the subsequent will be through the use of English speaking helpers who help the non-English speakers gain access to jobs and information.

I wanted to compare homeless and non-English speaking communities because they have similarities and differences.  Some non-English speakers may also be members of the homeless community. Both populations tend to be sensitive due to lack of access to medical care, access to technology and both face a variety of challenges in their daily lives.  Both groups lack traditional communication tools which can hinder their access to health care information.

My main finding was the best way to get non-English speakers access to public health related information was to help them help themselves.  Public libraries are a great free resource to information, computers and internet access. One tool I found very handle was Google’s translate tool.  You can either type or copy and paste in text and select the output language.  This could be an easy way for a non-English speaker to translate their own health information to their native language without having to rely on others or a simplified version.

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Figure 1. Translate.Google.com

What I remember from going into a public library as a child is that the computers were set up with the library website as the homepage.  I was interested in looking at different websites for different towns to see what type of language support if any was available.  I was pleasantly surprised by my hometown library website.  There was a orange button in the lower right hand corner that hovers as the page moves.  It is a link to translate the page.  This is a great resource for non-English speakers.  It makes it easy for them to learn where to click to have the information translated into their own language.

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Figure 2. ecpubliclibrary.info

The conclusion I came to was the best way to help others would be to teach them to use technology, teach them where and when they can find access and help and encourage them to learn.  As non-English speakers become more comfortable with technology they will be able to find more resources on line for public health information but it will also improve other aspects of their life.  They could even learn English through a website in their native language making things much easier.  This could help them increase their job skills and potentially find a higher paying job as well which could also increase their access to health care information.

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Blending 70s and modern tech

While I was looking for sources for my article that discussed the military’s use of emerging communications and technology, I found this article from the Duffel Blog, which is the military’s version of The Onion. 

The article, “Navy Issues Tablets to Prepare Sailors For Careers Working With 1970s Electronics” isn’t wrong. In fact, the system I was trained the maintain, the AN/SLQ-32, was developed in the 1970s.

Duffel Blog “quoted” the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens: ““This is a cost effective way to replace the two books we issue at boot camp and it will also streamline the training process so recruits can spend more time folding clothes.”

Also true. And yes, I spent a lot of time in boot camp folding and ironing clothes. These mundane tasks are given to teach recruits to pay attention to details. Most of boot camp is designed around that purpose, actually.

However, while issuing tablets to Navy recruits can generate some funny stories, it signals a huge change in the service: audience analysis. Military service is often categorized by blind obedience, but the Navy is moving away from that philosophy. Leaders are encouraged to explain the “why” behind orders. And the military is creating training methods and knowledge management systems that mimic the devices and apps digital natives are already familiar with.

When the news about Navy boot camp issuing tablets to recruits, I joined in the ribbing around the ship that new recruits were spoiled. However, reading the story again through my technical and professional communication lens, I can appreciate Stevens’ revolutionary idea and I applaud him for making it happen. Because several of his salty peers would have dismissed the idea the way I originally did.

In addition to looking at new technology, I also examined the military’s use of social network sites. Overall, the military encourages servicemembers to use social media for its positive benefits, like keeping in touch while deployed. The military has even created its own knock-off version of Facebook. YouTube, Blogger, and Wikipedia. However, the military is still working on negating the negative aspects of social media: OPSEC violations and harassment.

Speaking of OPSEC. Check out this sweet declassified report I found.

Finally, I examined how technology was changing warfare tactics. I found a source that talked about Russia spending a lot of money to create #fakenews when it annexed Crimea in 2014. #shockedsaidnoone

However, #fakenews will be an issue for incoming servicemembers because multiple researchers found today’s students aren’t very good at discerning fact from fiction online.

Overall, I assessed the military’s use of technology and emerging communication methods as on the right track but with room for improvement.

Gatekeepers

This course has helped given me a different perspective on digital literacy. Looking at the speed at which technology is being created, I anticipate I will lose my touch if I were to even step away for a second. I can also imagine there will be much to talk about with the repeal of net neutrality in the next course.

For my final paper I chose to focus on social media and how it can be used to improve disaster relief situations. In my paper I started by revisiting the argument between Andrew and David, and looked their argument on Gatekeeping vs. Amateurs. I found that certain processes in disaster relief thrive better with amateurs and some better with gatekeepers.

In one paper I found, a crowdsourcing software implementation, similar to Uber, helped match people who were in need of help with people who needed help (Murali et al., 2016). This can be especially useful when disaster relief may not even be scheduled, but people are able to offer assistance to each other. The most interesting thing I found, though, was that in using crowdsourcing software, we mostly focus on people who are amateurs using the system, but the dynamic of a gatekeeper still does exist within the software. In the case I found the software punishes or rewards people who behave as expected. Additionally, people can be rated and this rating can be viewed by others. This is all to deter misuse and exploitation of the system. At this point we rely on whether or not the design and functionality actually work well enough to maintain a proper workflow so that as many victims get help from volunteers as possible.
I also tried to focus on how social media in the papers I looked at used different levels of communication as stated by Rheingold. I specifically looked at different levels of collective action and how certain applications may support networking, coordination, cooperation, and collaboration (Rheingold, 2014, pp. 153-154). I found that most applications these days are achieving a collaborative level of collective action.

I also wanted to quickly share some of the data from my case study. I did my case study on Equifax and used Twitter and Google’s Natural Language API to generate some meaningful data for my study. The Google API focuses on Sentiment which is basically how positive or negative the words used in a sentence are. I calculated average sentiment per tweet. I then used a free tool called Tableau to visualize tweets made by Equifax over time. I recommend Tableau for anyone who needs to make a chart and share it quickly, I found it about as good as any paid ones I have used in the past.

TwitterEquifax

Twitter Equifax Data

https://public.tableau.com/profile/miriam6169#!/vizhome/EquifaxData/Story1

References

Murali, S., Krishnapriya, V., Thomas, A. (2016). Crowdsourcing for disaster relief: A multi-platform model. 2016 IEEE Distributed Computing, VLSI, Electrical Circuits and Robotics (DISCOVER), pp. 264-268. doi: 10.1109/DISCOVER.2016.7806269

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net Smart. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Digital Literacy Across Cultures

This week I found an interesting connection between  Chapter 7: Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures in Spilka’s (2010) Digital Literacy for Technical Communication and the workplace. Spilka discusses that accessing and understanding digital media in some communication settings is one meaning of digital literacy. The chapter specifically focuses on the US EPA (EPA) and the Mexican Counterpart Semarnat.

I work for a state agency in the natural resources division.  Specifically  public dining water regulation.  This chapter made me think about the audience we had while regulating drinking water quality and how culture plays a part in who has access to the information and what information is available.

There are a few ways the public can receive heath information about possible contaminates in their drinking water.  They could initiate the gathering of information by accessing our website.  A significant amount of information is available and many  publications are available in PDF form to save or print.  The other way they could gather information is if they work at a business with drinking water issues and see postings in the break room and by faucets or fountains.  They also could go to a number of local businesses such as a church, bar or restaurant and find the same posted information.

Our publications have been created to include multiple versions for some of the hot topic issues such as lead and lead.  Both brochures are available in English, Spanish and Hmong.


Image: dnr.wi.gov

Another way we offer multi language support is through our customer service lines.  You can talk to someone on the phone, a chat through the website, or email in your questions.  All three of these services are available in English, Spanish or Hmong.

The main idea I had while thinking about this post was what happens when someone is no longer seeking this information out but a sensitive population that is unable to access this information due to cultural issues.  It is no secret that we have undocumented workers in Wisconsin.  If one of these undocumented workers work at a location with water contamination issues such as nitrates it may be difficult for them to understand they are at risk if the information is not given to them.

When there is a specific contaminate violation often times  businesses have to post a public notice that alerts the consumers to the public health risk.  While we do provide language in the violation that if they have 5% or more non English speaking consumers they also need to post in the most common language.  What percentage of these at risk non English speaking consumers will actually receive this information?

Further digging on our website came up with a number of resources specifically to translation and public notices.  These are great resources for businesses that need to public notice but I still feel like not all at risk consumes get the same amount of information as their English speaking counterparts.

Cross-Cultural Communication

Although we have built communication bridges across the ocean, the cultural differences in our adaptation remain unique in each cultural context.  Accommodating these barriers has proven to be one of the most difficult and complex tasks I have encountered.

I enjoyed looking at the different emails given by Barry Thatcher to the team in Mexico (Spilka, 2010, pp. 172-173).  It is evident that the emails are much more formal in Mexico than in the USA for business relations.  Beyond formalities, it is evident that the revised email follows some cultural process that just doesn’t exist in our culture.  Re-introducing myself in an email to someone would feel very awkward, especially if we’ve been communicating for a while.

world-map-large

Several times I have been in charge of managing an offshore team.  Many of the areas we have employed the teams from have very different “hierarchical and interpersonal values” (Spilka, 2010, p. 170).  Depending on the culture, the workers may be either too proud or too scared to communicate effectively.  When email is one of the main forms of communication, this can be very problematic.  The biggest issue I encounter is that questions that should be asked are not asked.  Sometimes I will need to take Barry Thatcher’s approach by formalizing an email that shows respect.  Other times I will need to show that I am approachable and accessible for them to communicate as a peer rather than a manager.  If we do have someone from the same cultural background locally we will sometimes employ them to help build the relationship.

I have travelled to meet the offshore team a few times.  It’s funny that even though technology has given us so much, travelling to meet and break some bread with offshore teams builds this relationship better than any email has ever done.  Even communicating with team mates across the USA is helped by being able to put a face to a name.  Bernadette Longo states that “People value human relations” (Spilka, 2010, p. 156).  This is evident in this case.

Barry Thatcher also examines cultural differences in layout and composition of a website.  Almost a decade ago I studied abroad in South Korea.  I remember trying to navigate the websites there and it was almost impossible.  Even if I was able to translate the page, the cultural differences in layout and process were much different.  I had also wanted to use the popular social media site, Cyworld, but was quickly denied because it required a Korean Social Security number.  Finding the correct websites were also difficult without the ability to read or write in Korean.  Although Google could bring up some results, the cultural knowledge was mostly inaccessible.

To try to accommodate communication gaps across cultures, my company has its own CMS specifically for different cultures.  Each user will have their own culture profile configured, and when they look up templates for documents, they will be specific to the region they are located in.  If they are creating a document to be distributed in a different country, they can retrieve the document for that specified culture.  This approach seems to embrace the fact that we all have different approaches to how we communicate digitally.  At the same time, I cannot imagine having to maintain that system.  Possibly, it may also create a sense of exclusion rather than inclusion for certain contexts.

Right now, the solution for cultural divides seem more human than machine.  I can’t really see this changing either, as cultural understanding requires empathy, and is a dynamic being.

 

11/16/2017 Edit:

Attaching some examples of emails from other cultures. The one on the left is an email to my husband from some Brazilian Vendors, and the one on the right is from Spanish vendors. It’s interesting to note the formality differences in the messages. 

Siestas by the sea and the importance of empathy

This summer, I briefly worked with the captain of ARC Almirante Padilla FM-51 during a multi-national exercise. During some town time, he told us that Colombia’s coastal cities, like his hometown of Cartagena, take mid-day siestas and businesses are often closed. Unfortunately, the Colombian navy does not siesta during lunch. The captain said sometimes this is frustrating when he wants to use his lunch break to run errands but all the local businesses are closed. He also pointed out that Colombia’s inland cities, like its capital Bogota, don’t siesta either.

ARC Padilla

ARC Padilla FM-51

Others asked the ship captain about Colombian food and the weather. No one asked about business communication practices. I don’t know how much value the Colombians place on e-mail communication, but is likely not as high as Americans. In Barry Thatcher’s (2010) essay “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” he pointed out Colombia is the only Latin American country that considers e-mail as an “in-writing” agreement and only if the senders and receivers can be verified (p. 182).

This week’s readings in Rachel Spilka’s (2010) anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication reminded me of working with the Colombian captain for several reasons.

  • Bernadette Longo (2010) noted in her essay “Human + Machine Culture” that “people value human relations. We want to feel connected to other people” (p. 156). She also observed that “since the 1980s, our interactions with people have become more and more mediated by electronic devices” (p. 156). I am glad my colleagues and I took the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation. After reading Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology & Less From Each Other, interpersonal communication skills are not something to take for granted.

 

  • Thatcher (2010) pointed out that Americans tend to assume the rest of the world operates the same way we do; however, many countries, especially Latin American ones, tend to value interpersonal values more than we do (pp. 170-171). Hearing that some countries still value siestas is a good reminder not to take everything so seriously.

I am glad my colleagues and I took the opportunity to learn more about Colombia because it added to my “empathy bank,” so to speak. Ann M. Blakeslee (2010) conducted case studies with five technical communicators for her essay “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age.” She learned only half of the writers were actually able to communicate with their audiences to learn what their preferences are (p. 208). The other writers were prevented from having direct contact with their customers and only received second-hand information from other company employees (p. 208).

In addition to direct customer communication, the technical writers used personas, trouble call logs, and user reviews and feedback forums to perform audience analyses (Blakeslee, 2010, pp. 207-210). These practices also contribute to the overall empathy levels of the technical communicators Blakeslee (2010) surveyed. I think Steve Krug (2014), who wrote Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability said it best: “Empathy is virtually a professional requirement for usability work” (loc. 2,627).

So my goals this week are:

  1. Take opportunities to communicate face-to-face instead of through electronic means.
  2. Continue to use empathy in my decision making.
  3. Nap.

Content Management in Job Searches

It can be almost funny when you find connections between real life and content in your assigned coursework. After reading Chapters 3, 4 and 5 in Digital Literacy I found myself in an ironic situation. My husband and I had to work together to create content. On Friday my husband came home from work and I asked him how his day was. He said it was fine and then I heard the real story. Corporate human resource represenatives came into the plant in our small town and said that all 40 employees would be laid off sometime between January 1 and April 1 2018. The company has a much larger plant about an hour and a 1/2 away that employees around 200 people. The employees were told they would be making 1/3 of the positions available in the larger plant but it would be open recruitment.

My husband hasn’t updated his resume since the last time he was job hunting 5+ years ago. Knowing there is such a high demand for these positions I stressed how important it would be for us to have a professional looking design with quality error free content.

My search for a new resume template started with Google search for free creative resume templates. Some pages I was afraid to click on because I was worried about the sources. Other pages had nothing but ads or still required payment. I spent a number of hours using a variety of search terms to find this content. There was very little if not zero content available that was professional, modern and clean designs.

My next search was to try to find content that was very low cost. I remembered seeing digital content such as clip art on ETSY and thought it was worth a shot.  I was able to find just what I was looking for using Etsy.com search for instant download resume templates that cost between $1 and $2

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To my surprise all it took was paying $1 instead of looking for the content for free. The template I picked had three templates with it. One for the resume, one for a cover letter and one for references. It included instructions and templates in a variety of formats. Both for the Apple software Pages and for Microsoft Word.

I think this taught me a lot about the availability and cost of content. No one wants to give up content for free. Even if it is just a dollar per download that adds a lot to the professionalism and quality of the product.

Rhetoric around the house

Dave Clark (2010) had a hard time finding a good definition of “technology in his essay “Shaped and Shaping Tools.” I feel confident seven years later academia has caught up and crafted a definition of technology that includes rhetoric. Because around my house, the non-humans are more adept at persuasive discourse than the human. Here’s my list, starting from the top:

1. Socks. I learned watching the Canadian Broadcasting documentary The Lion in Your Living Rooma cat’s meow is the same frequency as a baby’s cry. So Socks uses pathos to express his desires. Here he is asking to go outside.

2. Roomba. My vacuuming robot would be a great example of rhetorical technology because she uses ethos, pathos, and logos to communication and she’s not nearly as demanding as the cat. I’ll tell you how she accomplishes this using actor-network theory.

Clark (2010) touched on actor-network theory toward the end of his essay. I think actor-network is important to the discussion of rhetoric and technology because the theory states that “almost all of our interactions with other people are mediated through objects of one kind or another” according to John Law (1992) in “Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity (p. 381). In 1992, Law (1992) used an example of an overhead projector to make his point of how things mediate communication (p. 382). Today, Law (2010) would have several examples to chose from, including Twitter which was Clark’s (2010) “current techno-rhetorical obsession” in 2009 (p. 86).

I think Roomba shows some advancements in rhetorical technology because she communicates directly with the user; her communications are not mediated. Her ethical appeal is derived from the fact that she is capable cleaner. Some friends and recommended Roomba, but we were skeptical because of the $600 price tag, but she was worth the investment. Before Roomba joined us, the house needed to be vacuumed at least weekly to keep up with the dog’s shedding. I see Roomba’s logical appeal every time I empty her bin and dump out all the dog hair and cat litter she’s collected around the house. Roomba appeals to me emotionally, too,  because I associate her with positive experiences. After she completes a job, her associated cell phone app generates a map that shows me where she cleaned.

RoombaMap

Roomba’s success is due to the fact that her designers at iRobot did not just build a vacuuming robot, but they considered the other actors who would interact with the robot. In Roomba’s case, the other actors are people of varying technical backgrounds. The app offers written, photographic and video demonstrations on how to troubleshoot and conduct routine maintenance. And Roomba’s debris extractors are designed so the user cannot put them back in the wrong positions.

Hopefully, products like Roomba can help researchers like Clark (2010) better define technology and how products can use rhetoric to provide a better experience for consumers.

3. Husband. Does not use ethos, pathos, or logos, but still somehow manages to get his way … sometimes.

 

Content Management Systems and Digital Literacy

Hart-Davidson hits the nail on the head, Content Management Systems (CMS) “do not do that work by themselves” (p. 14). A CMS can give a company what they are willing to put into it. They are not a solution, they are a tool. They are exactly what we make of it. Hart-Davidson states that “technical communicators typically come to play many different roles and deploy diverse sets of skills over the course of a career” when using CMS (p. 134). The roles mentioned must be assumed, but to successfully integrate the CMS into the company, the company must also integrate one or more company processes into the system to really benefit from it.

Training or some kind of education on how the company uses a CMS is a key to success. I’ve used quite a few systems and have seen excellent and poor uses of them in companies. When companies don’t have any rules around how a CMS is used, it becomes a free-for-all of good and bad information. It’s confusing. There is a plethora of online content available online for learning how to use and manage CMS systems online. However, even if you know how to use the system, this may not be how the company uses it.  The video below only touches on some common mistakes in administrating SharePoint itself and it’s over an hour long.

Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski both discuss “mapping” and “signposting” in information design (pp. 112-114). These concepts are a big part of UX and extremely important to ensure users can become literate in a system. I’ve found these levels of user interface designs are not well applied to most CMS. At one of the companies I worked for I had to redesign the front-end of a SharePoint site to make it more accessible and simplified for others in the company. This tells me that we have a long way to go in our design of CMS from a design perspective. Confusion in using the interface itself will almost surely create inconsistent data, especially when most people will have access to the system.

Process in how you use a CMS is key to making the system useful. Yes, it can allow versioning of documents, but when people are not required to update or sign off on documentation, it can create data that looks trustworthy but is not. Most systems have workflows integrated into them, but unless going through that workflow is a part of a sign off process for the deployment of a product, then why would people go through the hassle?

To make sure our documentation is trustworthy, my team and I will link our documents to specific releases of software. This way it will be clearer in what context you can assume a document may be relevant for. In terms of metadata we make sure that everything is under our team’s section in the system. We also have the option to tag certain customers if the document is specifically relevant to that context. The process we employ around this ensures that we do not have to continually maintain every document, but instead deploy documentation at our own pace and as needed.

I don’t think I could live without a CMS at a company these days, because the alternatives are much worse. But literacy in these systems remains a problem. This is probably due to the fact that the users are not the same as the customer. Additionally, I see many systems treated as a golden solution instead of a platform. It will be interesting to see how these systems and their usages evolve over time.

Digital Literacy in My Life

The theme of digital literacy is one that I find very interesting.  I am lucky to have grown up around technology at home and in school but I also find myself relating to digital literacy.  The older I get the larger gap I am finding from being up with current trends and technology.  Digital literacy is something that needs to be a constant in your life.  If you find yourself on the path to digital literacy and decide to stop learning you can fall behind very easily.  Even though I have a strong technical background, things change so fast that I need to actively try to keep up.  Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.

In the workplace digital literacy has been moving forward rapidly in the past few years.  At the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources we are being pushed to be more transparent and to save money. This goes hand in hand with digital literacy.  We are now keeping digital files and utilizing software like SharePoint to share information within our agency and with outside partners.  Instead of sending hundreds of emails we are starting to store important documents in one central location.  This is also happening with the information we are sharing with our external partners.  In the past there have been instances where we give our County Health Department partners flash drives of documents they need to follow up on drinking water violations.  New this year we have set up an external SharePoint website that allows them to access this information.  This is also good for our agency because we can upload new information as needed and let the County Health Departments know it is available.  We can also make small changes to errors or typos.  This is much more efficient way to share information.  In the past we would need to send out a whole new set of flash drives to everyone.

In the academic world I don’t know if I have seen as much change as I have seen in the workplace. I started as an undergrad at UW-Stout in fall of 2003.  Stout had their Laptop Loan Program up and running. I believe I was one of the first few years where all undergrads got issued laptops as part of the tuition.  This was a wonderful idea.  During my undergrad years I took a number of online classes using the same software we are using today such as Learn@UW-Stout. The library had a number of online resources just like we do today as well.  Stout was very ahead of the game with the use of technology.  I am wondering what Stout is going to do now as to keep their high level of digital literacy and technology use among students and professors.  I hope this is a trend that continues and they always stay on the forefront of digital literacy in an academic setting.

In personal life it is much harder to keep up with digital literacy.  We often keep computers, cameras and cellphones longer than the technology is considered cutting edge which makes it hard to keep up with the latest and greatest technology.  In my family we keep cell phones until they break and then we will get a new one.  We don’t go buy the newest one every year.  As time goes on cell phone performance really declines.  It’s almost like they intentionally make performance awful to push you towards buying a new one.  Many things are not meant to last a long time anymore.  Products are being made cheaper and cheaper so when you replace what has broken you can upgrade to the next thing.

Another example of digital literacy being slower in personal life is my husband’s technology use. He had a very similar experience growing up with technology at home and at school.  He has an engineering degree and has always loved math.  For his 35th birthday a few years back I decided it was a big enough birthday to do something extra special so I bought him an IPad has always loved Apple products and I thought this was the perfect gift.  He opened it and said thanks but I didn’t get much of a reaction.  I asked if he didn’t like it but it turns out he didn’t know what a tablet was.  Fast forward a few years and this tablet has become his primary computer.  He doesn’t use a traditional computer at home anymore.  He uses his tablet for everything from bills, photography, music, mapping, spreadsheets to games.  We are no longer tied to a traditional computer plus the tablet can go anywhere we go from hotels to camping.  This advance in technology has been extremely useful in our lives.

Digital Literacy Embraced

Earlier this week I was chatting with one of my superiors who was visiting the regional campus from where I taught my IDL class that day. Of course, she asked me about my class (since I am required to take classes to keep my Speech certification). I told her what we have been discussing and told her about the case study I am doing on Western’s use of social media etc. She asked me what I thought of their Twitter posts. I mentioned that I enjoyed the content, but the spelling and grammar mistakes are plentiful. Her response was that in the more technical fields, grammar and spelling are second to content. I pointed out that the president of the college just tweeted and it contained an obvious error. She scoffed and said it was no big deal. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut, but I told her that Western’s Twitter followers may not share her view about spelling and grammar since many would see that as lacking an eye for detail or incompetence. He expression changed and she proceeded to a back office. So, I revisited that conversation when I read Dicks’ article, “The Effects of Digital Literacy” and his quote of Moore and Kreth (2005) stating “The days of being grammar cops, wordsmiths, and software applications experts are not over for technical communicators, but those skills are diminishing in value. . . ” (2010, pg 54).

Perhaps the English instructor in me has difficulty with letting those skills fall into second. I imagine many technical communicators may feel the same way. However, with the changes in responsibilities for technical communicator’s, I can see having to let something go. . . perhaps one has to put away the grammar cop badge and focus on other areas.

So many changes have occurred over the last 30 years, but many significant changes in the last decade have really eliminated many responsibilities of what I perceived many technical communicators do. In fact, I recently changed a writing assignment in one of my classes to a website review. I figured it would give them more of a technical view of writing and also get them to see what is considered when devising and evaluating a website[ Audience, purpose and content (as is for other types of communication)] verses an essay. The students (typical college students at a UW school) are much more engaged on this assignment since most are more technology-minded.

Technical communication is changing so rapidly, I am not sure I can keep up. I can’t imagine how challenging it must be for someone who has been in the field for 30 years. Dicks’ states, “Technical communicators watched some people leave the profession because they chose not to change the way they worked and because they insisted that true writing involved writing for paper (2010, pg 76). I see the same happening in my field. Some instructors at Western refuse to teach Online or IDL classes and refuse to use Blackboard. I find that a bit ironic since it is a technical college; however, it benefited me since I don’t mind teaching in either mode. I was pleased to hear that the college is finally making all instructors at least use Blackboard next year. Also, in some disciplines, faculty will have to teach Online or IDL if needed. Some may see it as an infringement of their rights (which I don’t understand), but technology is changing the workplace, not just for technical communicators, but for those of us teaching people who need some or all the skills of that field.

 

 

Epiphany on Professional & Personal Evolution

I include “Their Brains Were Small and They Died”, a 1993 folk song from “Cows with Guns”, as a soundtrack for this week’s reflection. It’s intended to be humorous and a cautionary tale on what happens when there is no evolution. That’s a disclaimer as my intent is not insult anyone.

“You’re just a technical writer”.

This accusation from a co-worker (with dangerous presumptions of her own credibility and skills), as well as Rachel Spilka’s  choices for her Digital Literacy for Technical Communication  (2010) and conversations in the past week with my wife (also a professional communicator) and my students have led to an epiphany.

If I am to evolve as a professional, if I am to thrive as a teacher, it doesn’t matter what I think of social media. It doesn’t matter that I believe government-by-tweet is dangerous to democracy and that I continue to find Howard Rheingold and the work of Zuboff and Maxmin described in R. Stanley Dicks’ article to be “increasingly optimistic and even utopian revelries about the resulting world”. (R. Stanley Dicks (2010), “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” p. 57)

What matters is what I do to help my students be credible communicators and that I help Network Health Plan employees communicate more effectively and access information in channels and methods most comfortable to them. Being open to new facets of “digital literacy” is key. (I did appreciate Spilka’s analysis of how she settled on her use of the term.)

For example, because I’m enamored of American history, I tend to use Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy as touchpoints. (No, I don’t play Dion’s song from 1968.) My students, on average, not only don’t know the references but they tend to think that the world started 20 years ago. I have made a radical upgrade in references (including not mentioning how much I miss my abacus and slide rule).

Turning to the reading, the epiphany started with the very first page of Saul Carliner’s “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century”. Like Carliner, my career in technical communication started with software documentation and has seldom strayed from that industry. I, too, have experienced the same change in duties and expectations as did Carliner.

In 1983, when I started in business-industrial communications, my role was, indeed, “just a technical writer”. The job required accepting Subject Matter Expert’s inputs, nearly exclusively in hard copy. Then I was to “fill in the blanks” applying corporate styles of appearance and content. My first technology-based tool was the then-revolutionary IBM system (green screen where a “return” was the same as a typewriter carriage return).

Fast forwarding through the last two decades, ever-evolving technology has enabled any stakeholder in a communication project to contribute content in nearly ready-to-use format (if not coherence or relevance).
evolve or die1
While not as draconian as “Evolve or die”, I found, just as Carliner describes, that I needed to be more than “just a technical writer” especially if I wanted to earn more than the $15 per hour that was, at the time, pretty much the standard wage. I paralleled exactly what Carliner experienced and my role became closer to the traditional roles of Business Analyst, Project Manager, and Content Management Administrator. I achieved that diversification of skills through classwork, do-it-yourself learning, and volunteering to take on tasks outside of my prescribed job.

That evolution in roles continues today where one of my goals is to empower my colleagues to produce more original content so I can concentrate on the delivery.

TC: The Madonna of career fields

If Madonna had stayed a “Material Girl” and never made “Confessions on the Dance Floor,” she likely would not have an active 40-year entertainment career. Technical communication has also continued to evolve to stay relevant. The key to success for technical communication is not getting too hung up on the name.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the profession as “Technical writers, also called technical communicators, prepare instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles, and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily. They also develop, gather, and disseminate technical information through an organization’s communications channels.” The Bureau of Labor also predicted the field will grow 11 percent–faster than the overall average–in the next 10 years because it will be “driven by the continuing expansion of scientific and technical products. An increase in Web-based product support should also increase demand for technical writers. Job opportunities, especially for applicants with technical skills, are expected to be good.”

In her anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Rachel Spilka (2010) said her collection “points to the critical need for evolution” (p.3). And Saul Carliner’s (2010) essay “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” illustrates how the field has been able to embrace new technologies to provide better support for customers. However, as the field continues to evolve, professionals in the field may not be called “technical writers” or “technical communicators.”

Eva Brumberger and Claire Lauer (2015) investigated the evolution of the field in their article “The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Posting,” which was published in November 2015’s issue of Technical Communication. The researchers analyzed 914 job postings from Monster.com over a 60-day period for a variety of jobs to include content designer, information architect, social media developer, technical editor, technical writer, UX researcher, and web writer (p.  The researchers only kept listings whose primary duties were rhetorical in nature, and divided the jobs into five fields: 1. content developer/manager; 2. grant/proposal writer; 3. medical writer; 4. social media; 5. technical writer/editor (pp. 228-229). In their analysis, Brumberger and Lauer (2015) discovered that all five fields place a strong emphasis on written communication [at least 70%] (p. 236).

According to Carliner (2010), technical writers in the 1970s were primarily producing written content to help customers understand their newly purchased mainframe computers (pp. 22-25). In current times, Carliner (2010) said, software engineers perform the roles of technical communicators (p. 25). Brumberger and Lauer (2015) reported almost 40 years later, technical communicators are expected to be strong in written communicators [75%] (p. 236).

While technical communicators first created books, most technical content today is found online, according to R. Stanley Dicks (2010) who wrote: “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” (p. 51). So, while a lot in the field has changed over 40 years, the core competency of written communication has not wavered. The emerging media platforms have given the field an opportunity to produce more meaningful written content because it has better communication channels with its audience. Dicks (2010) wrote that companies cannot hide common product issues because they will show up on product reviews, blogs, and message boards (p. 57).

Madonna has remained relevant for 40 years because she was able to keep a pulse on what was current. Technical communication has performed a similar feat by evolving but also by keeping audience analysis at the forefront. As long as the field continues to perform audience analysis and adapt, it will be a viable career opportunity for years to come.

 

 

Playbook

I found this week’s reading fairly awkward as it included software engineers as technical communicators. Software Engineer is a very misused term to begin with. Rachel Spilka’s book gave me the feeling that they used to be more document centric, but now they are more jack-of-all trades developers and managers, sometimes dev ops, and sometimes just programmers. A lot of software industry titles trend towards a jack-of-all trades type of job, hence the new title “Full-Stack engineer”. Full-stack engineers are usually developers who know all aspects of how to build a web application. Why pay multiple people when you can get just one that knows how to do everything? Initially, a technical communicator sounded like a far fetch in the software engineer’s knowledge tool-box.

When I was studying for my computer science degree, most professors seemed to verbally accept the fact that most of us were just not going to be gifted in the writing department. It was not a required or emphasized aspect even though I had a software engineering emphasis. In the industry, I cannot disagree with this either. Most legacy code I have worked on is not documented from the technical side at all. It’s not always because of talent or ability, but honestly the last thing most of my colleagues want to do after coding is sit down and write sufficient documentation for days after that. Additionally, one extra line of code has the potential to change most or all of a document on the system functionality. Documentation is looked at by our management as a nice to have, but it’s not a show-stopper if it’s not there. We are never interviewed on our writing skills. This first-hand knowledge made me raise an eyebrow when Spilka listed software engineers as technical communicators from the late 90’s to now.

What I realized part way through reading was that the documentation Rachel Spilka is referring to has changed just like how the job titles have changed. The documentation that a software engineer will generate is kind of dynamic and is not always a formal breed of documentation. Spilka states a couple times in the book that the job of technical communicators has changed audiences, that they have changed from being experts to novice. It seems to me that the responsibility for creating power user documentation has been assumed primarily by software engineers, architects and system engineers, while technical writers create more customer-facing or public documentation.

So, how do software engineers document? We document when we want to ensure that we don’t have to work more than we want. The documentation that we do produce is aimed at fellow engineers so we don’t have to repeat ourselves too much when new people are hired or start working on what we have already built. We also document for production systems for installation and troubleshooting guides for when things go very wrong. Both of these types of documents we call “playbooks” for our engineering sector. These playbooks seem very similar to the initial documentation that was created by technical communicators in the 70’s (Spilka, R., ed., 2010, 22).

Hand Drawing A Game Strategy

We keep these playbooks on a content management system that is accessible by the entire company, so if they want they can just go to our page and try to find the answer to their question before talking to us. We can also receive comments on the content management system so that all discussions on the documentation are public. Sometimes the documentation just looks like notes and sometimes it looks like a proper installation document depending on its purpose. We also document even less formally by creating static and dynamic charts and graphs for the design of our system. These can be the most useful in explaining functionality to other software engineers. We also document by putting comments in code to explain exactly what we are trying to do algorithmically. All of these forms of documentation fully take advantage of the technological changes that have been granted to us to make technical communication more efficient.

This book was written in 2010 so I feel like a revision could occur to navigate even more technical communication responsibilities in businesses today. For example, System Engineers have a huge role in technical communication between all components of a technical product. I feel like this specific role could be very helpful in identifying where some of the technical communication responsibilities have been dispersed in today’s world. Spilka does mention that the content would probably be irrelevant for the types of companies that I work at. Additionally, every company is vastly different in how they incorporate technical platforms and integrate with engineering processes. I can only imagine the challenges Spilka encountered in trying to compile the history of technical communication.

Digital Literacy: Survival Skills for the 21st Century

Unsettling? Challenging? Rewarding? How should we view the future of technical and professional communication? R. Stanley Dicks uses all of those words when wrapping up the chapter, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work.” I would argue that these three adjectives must almost always go together, for if we are settled, we are not challenged, and without being challenged, I don’t know how often we can feel rewarded.

I’m not saying I’ve never felt overwhelmed by changing technology. It is hard to even define the field of technical communication due to its many emerging subsets, such as usability and information architecture. The various tools of social media, content management, and distributed work, seem too many to count, let alone learn. But that is also what makes the field exciting.

I remember thinking it was funny that my dad (now 83) could not figure out how to use a computer mouse. Now my grown daughters laugh at the way my brow furrows when I’m trying to figure out a new app on my smart phone. I may not be as quick to pick it up as they are, but I still feel the excitement of learning to use new technology.

When I was starting out in the working world, as a radio broadcaster and copywriter, the clack of the typewriter and the finished page were the symbols of work and accomplishment. But the convenience of word processors overruled my nostalgia. When I took a class in HTML in the mid-90s, I found myself glued to a desktop pc for 8 hours at a time, enthralled at the way my text and tags combined to create a whole new, dynamic medium. I have found great usefulness in Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and LinkedIn. Today’s easy-to-use web tools, such as the blogging site I’m using right now, can also make for some very satisfying work. I embraced e-learning in a big way, going back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree, and now tackling a master’s program. I am excited to learn to put more tools to use. Just today I was wishing I had a real content management system to work with, as I found myself making the same revision to multiple documents.

It will not be enough, though, Dicks argues, to learn to use the tools. We will not be able to settle in to learning a set of skills and then turning out good work, year-after-year. But what fun would that be anyway? We will need to participate in developing new ways to use these tools. Workers who can produce the same results over and over will not have job security as the 21st century continues. Those jobs, as Dicks points out, can be outsourced. It’s hard to outsource ingenuity, though. Those of us who learn to undertake symbolic and analytic work will be valuable to our employers. As the support economy grows, allowing customers to drive service rather than rely on it, those of us who can devise better ways to serve them will prove our worth, and hopefully reap the rewards.

I gave considerable thought to trying some type of freelance or contractor work when I

TechCommimage

Image: University of California Irvine http://www.carsera.org

made a career change less than two years ago. I’m not sure I’m ready to work remotely just yet. I might not get out of my bathrobe. But I am getting used to collaborating with partners I have never met in person. That career change also led to a crash course in collaboration, as I find myself creating content that depends on subject matter experts to feed me the information I need and help me convey it accurately, designers to help mold it into a usable form, and social media experts to help get it distributed. Some days I find myself stretching further into one or all of these directions myself, as the need arises.

The best thing I can do to stay afloat in this flood of innovation is to keep stretching those skills, and, most importantly, keep developing the ability to work with these multi-disciplinary teams. I don’t have to be an expert in everything, but I hope, if I ever find myself in another job interview, to be able to confidently say I can work effectively on a team, manage widely varying projects, and contribute creative expertise that will help add to my employer’s bottom line, no matter what my job title is.

 

Breaking mindset

This is my first course for my certificate requirements. I wasn’t totally sure I would “fit” into the MSTPC program since my background is literature, and I have limited experience with technical writing and media. I saw it as a challenge of my boundaries of knowledge. However, as a reader of some of the class material, I felt I was not part of the target audience since I am not familiar with technical writer jargon etc. Of course, if a reader cannot relate to the material, it is a struggle to maintain interest and focus. Nonetheless, I kept on reading. As I was reading Blythe, Lauer and Curran’s “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” I began to relate, to focus and to reflect.

I teach mainly composition at a technical college, yet we still devise our composition classes as if they were for a four-year college. I have had some of my students complain about having to take one writing class since they felt it didn’t pertain to their program. Of course, in the end they understand that any writing genre (mainly essays) will help them communicate more effectively in their careers. However, the set curriculum may not be sufficient if many of my technological-minded students are going into careers where more technical writing would be the norm.

A student who graduates from a technical school is more apt to be required to write similar forms of communication as mentioned in Blyth, Lauer and Curran’s report. Figure 1 (Blythe, Lauer and Curran, 2014, p. 273) lists research papers only on the bottom of the type most valued column; whereas, emails, instruction manuals, websites, presentations and blogs are at the top of both the list of most often used and most valued. So, perhaps I can begin making changes in my courses to meet the future needs of my students.

 

I am not discounting the value of essay writing and the objectives of our mandatory writing courses, for it does require the skills needed to do many of the more technical forms of writing. However, perhaps exposing students to other genres of writing would be beneficial in that it may attract the interest of a more tech-savvy (or interested) audience and may lead students to feel like they are getting more out of their course that they can apply directly to their programs and future careers.

 

Perhaps being a student again (not originally by choice) has reminded me of how my students feel when entering my required classes. Plus, this class is broadening my understanding of writing and the value of different forms of communicating in today’s technical world. Hopefully, my students will feel the same.

Cultural Honesty in a Digital Reality

Hi ENGL 745 compatriots!

We have reached the end of the semester and it has been a long time coming. Looking at the web, digital literacy, and the effect of technology on society and relationships has caused me to ask a lot of questions.

Chief among them, how much of an effect does the ease of online and transnational communication have on intercultural communication and discourse?

icc

Source: (https://www.dal.ca/dept/interculturalcommunication.html)

Does it matter to anyone? Is it in any way our job to question the short-term and long-term effects our digital reality has brought?

Yes, of course it is. As technical communicators, we work in a field that runs on our ability to analyze trends in technology, craft content that has a global audience, and manage communications (social media, technical writing, editing, translation, etc) that represents both ourselves, our companies and clients, and our audience.

As audience members, we must also be aware of what we are taking part in, what we are allowing with the continued subsistence on technology and digital communications.

It is more important than ever that digital literacy become a focal point for study and reflection. Not just for those of us choosing this career. Not just for the audience members who have an interest in the cause-and-effect relationship society now plays with technology. But for every man, woman, and child to take an active part in educating themselves.

You also have to ask yourself: is this really a problem? It is a fact that in order to get something – a job, a car, a house, an education, security, we have to sacrifice something else – manpower, time, money, even more money, free will. It is the nature of the beast.

So in order to have almost worldwide communication, it makes sense that we would have to sacrifice the cultural minutiae, beliefs, axioms, concepts, ideas, and linguistic foibles that speak to a greater identity and connection to history, race, gender, nationality in order to be widely understood. In order to take part in the conversations that are taking place around us (anyone with an Internet connection and the ability to communicate is instantly apart of a greater whole), how we interact with content as consumers, creators, managers, and technical communicators comes from being able to understand and be understood in turn.

So what does this mean for us and for a world of people constantly online?

There are methods to become more culturally sensitive. Professionally, there are training sessions and programs and a gaggle of Human Resources personnel ready and willing to stamp their workforce as “actively seeking diverse candidates and new ideas.”

Academically, there are courses and programs designed around international and intercultural communication like the one at the University of Denver. Our program has two classes along these lines though they are not mandatory and have not been taught in a few years.

We used to be content with our letters. Reading and writing meant power and opportunity. That is no longer the case. Literacy is still not at 100% but digital literacy has become just as important for us all to learn.

web_iicpaintedface

Source: http://www.du.edu/ahss/mfjs/programs/graduate/iic.html)

If there is one other thing I have taken away from this class it’s that I am definitely going to be starting a blog for the new year. This medium is so flexible and a great mix of text and visuals.

It’s been an adventure these past few weeks. I hope everyone has a great end of the semester and rings out the rest of 2016 in style. Happy Holidays to everyone!

Hey, Look. It’s A Technical Communicator! What! Where! Who! When!

TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION, SOCIAL MEDIA, AND TRANSNATIONAL REALITIES

We have spent the past two months working to understand the breadth, depth, usage, analysis, audience, and users of social networking sites and emerging media in general. We have read articles, done our own research into companies and their social media presence, and experience a wide variety of opinions about the state of society in the Chrome Age we live in currently.

Thinking about the way we use social media in the different spheres of our lives is necessary if we are going to come to a consensus or even just a common denominator of standards and usage.

“Technical communicators are no longer able to control these new communication environments (perhaps they never really could), but technical communicators and teachers of technical communication are poised to understand content users now as producers and to work toward relationships between ICT and human interaction to design documents and content in this global context, allowing us to cross community boundaries (Longo p. 23).

I really appreciate what Longo had to say about the role of technical communications professionals and academics. If you’ve read my other posts, I do go back and forth about the role and mindset needed by academics and professors as we deal with a field that is constantly changing: partly because technical communication is still such an amorphous, inclusive field and also because we deal in technologies and platforms that are in a constant state of flux. It is definitely the definition of “blink and you’ll miss it.”

In my current role, I do see myself as straddling the world of information and communications technologies and the human experience. So much of what we do, as people, depends on the audience that exists almost constantly in our orbit. I work professionally to introduce people to different technologies through educational materials and technical manuals. I also manipulate content, create and Photoshop visuals (at a very basic level), and play around with layout design (bumbling around like an amateur) to make my content more streamlined and palatable to an audience that does not need or want to have the heavy technical knowledge required to fully understand the systems, softwares, apps, and other technologies they are using.

Large Man Looking At Co-Worker With A Magnifying Glass

Source: (https://www.theadvocates.org/internet-privacy-conversation/)

I also really loved what the article has to say about a non-American perspective on social media and knowledge management/collection. One of the great things to say about social media is that it connects us as a transnational community. Having said that, dealing with each other has started to form a sort of transnational shorthand (like the way English is taught all over the world while languages here are encouraged, but not taught in the same way English is all over the world) that sacrifices cultural knowledge and particulars to avoid cross cultural communications confusion.

COLLECTIVE KNOWLEDGE AND TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION

Thinking about our work (or future work) in the technical communication field, we as working professionals and budding academics must always question what we are learning and what value we can offer current and future employers. But how do we know where to start? Of course, the Society for Technical Communication (STC) offers a great place for us to network, job search, gain skills, and belong to as we start, or continue, on our chosen career path. The definition of technical communication offered by the STC website is a bit of a webpage full.

“Technical communication is a broad field and includes any form of communication that exhibits one or more of the following characteristics:

  • Communicating about technical or specialized topics, such as computer applications, medical procedures, or environmental regulations.
  • Communicating by using technology, such as web pages, help files, or social media sites.
  • Providing instructions about how to do something, regardless of how technical the task is or even if technology is used to create or distribute that communication.

What all technical communicators have in common is a user-centered approach to providing the right information, in the right way, at the right time to make someone’s life easier and more productive” (STC website).

stc

Source: (https://www.stc.org/about-stc/defining-technical-communication/)

Toni Ferro and Mark Zachary (2014) dive into the idea of technical communication, collective knowledge, and social media. What I focused on was what they had to report from others in the field about what the role of the technical communicator was and potentially could be again.

“Following this line of thinking, Johnson-Eilola (1996) suggested that framing technical communication simply as an activity that serves the real work of those engaged in symbolic-analytics disempowered both technical communication practitioners and those they supported. He posited that if technical communication was going to be valued in the new economy, it needed to be positioned as symbolic analytic work itself, rather than as support for that work (Fero and Zachary p. 8).”

This idea is not new but not one I had experienced as viscerally before. We are not meant to act as go betweens, connecting audiences to the work completed by engineers, mathematicians, scientists, and other insular, niche knowledge professions. We must work to cultivate our own audiences and we must find validation outside of the work we do after technologies and other fields have developed their plans.

What do you think about this idea? Was it very obvious to you? Am I just late to the party?

 

What Do We Expect from the Internet and Why Do We Expect that?

Thinking about how information is aggregated and shared online is a must, both as digital consumers and as technical communicators. But how do we make sense of it all?

We start by listening to Zittrain’s presentation. As he spoke on the “Is The Internet Taking Us Where We Want to Go?” panel, there were definitely a lot of interesting ideas spoken. The one that I want to talk about at length is the idea of Google and other Search Engines as “information fiduciaries.”

By using the examples of searching for information about vaccines and Jew, he starts to develop ideas about how we use Google and how it should be formatted at the back end in order to act in a more responsible and sanitized way. Now, when he talks about the search algorithms and the reality of Facebook programmers having the power to influence events and attention by manipulating the way the News Feeds shares and loads information, there are definite causes for concern.

We know that there are people creating and managing the content and websites we traffic on a daily basis. As technical communicators, it may be in some of our job descriptions to act as the information gatekeepers and analytic experts. Even our work on the blog represents this fact when we get down to bare bones. Our job is to use our assigned readings and real life experiences to craft content and drive attention to this site.  But how much of a look behind the curtain do we need to have or be aware of in order to be truly effective as technical professions and savvy as consumers? The answer is…to be determined. Zattrain uses examples such as mugshot.com and Amazon sellers to talk about how information is not just manipulated by the technology we use to access it, but also affected and altered by the consumers as they access it and use it for their own needs.

Image result for analytic algorithms

Source: (http://openclassroom.stanford.edu/MainFolder/CoursePage.php?course=IntroToAlgorithms)

But he continues to talk about search engines and our thinking when we interact with them. “Are they just tools or are they our friends as well? In my mind, the idea of Google as a friend is ridiculous. It seems to just be another way to remove the impetus of the user and place all of the blame on the technology that exists.

The idea of “being mad at Google” as Zittrain posits seem like a useless endeavor to me. Google is not Siri. It is not Cortana. It is a method for us to learn information and get our questions answered. To demand, or even suggest that Google constantly alter its coding to be more sensitive to potential audiences and potential searches would hamstring the service and all of us who use the service.

It is up to us as users to learn how to navigate the digital arena we live in now. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. We should not be willing to give up the autonomy of a “clean” interface for the idea of a more politically correct atmosphere. Even if that were something a majority of users or providers could agree upon, when so many users dependent on Google for answers, someone is bound to be offended unless we act like other countries and give the government control over which sites we can visit.

In my work, I do not work directly with websites or search engines, but I do use them as a source when I perform my research. It is my job to weed through the articles, pages, and offerings of sites like Google and other search engines in order to produce the best-researched product for my supervisors and my audience. If I felt in any way limited in my choices, however much I may already be unconsciously, I would have a hard time depending on the service to meet my needs in the future.

Image result for manipulating content

Source: (http://www.giantfreakinrobot.com/sci/facebook-scientists-experimented-users-manipulating-content.html)

In terms of talking about learning, I definitely agree with his closing point about the change in thinking that needs to occur among academics. If you read my previous post, you can tell that I have had a bit of a mixed bag relationship with educational institutions. I know that there is still a place for professors and other experts to instruct students; I decided to enter this program because I know that there are things I don’t know and find interacting with other professionals and technical communicators as we learn skills, competencies, and how to frame the questions and perform the research to delve into the topics of social media, rhetorical theory, and project management. There does have to be the realization that expertise in a field is a lot harder now than in the past.

The information we all have access to does not make us PhDs, but it does put the onus on the educators to continue pushing themselves in their fields, ask questions, poll professionals, and yes be open to the idea that a student twenty years younger than them can be an authority they should listen to.

Overall, there were a lot of ideas working in the presentation. A lot of which connect to what we are doing in this class and in the workforce as technical communicators. In your opinion, should we expect Google and other search engines, like Bing, Yahoo, and DogPile (does anyone else remember this), to be more conscious of what the algorithm is spitting out? Or should it provide us with the raw output and leave the decision making process up to us?

Filters in the Age of Amateurs

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.

kafka-1-300x256

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

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.

References:

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/

Collective Intelligence in the New Age

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.

An Ornery Answer

I’ve generally agreed with most of the readings so far this semester, but this week I found myself skeptical on a few points (perhaps my “crap detector” was overly sensitive this week).

Closeness in Online Communities

Rheingold enthusiastically presents the benefits of online communities, but most of his examples of truly strong communities had non-digital aspects. He talks about having dinner with people he met online, having a picnic for 150 people in an online group, and raising money to support families going through cancer. Interestingly, this actually fits with the first definition given by Merriam-Webster for community: “a unified body of individuals, such as people with common interests living in a particular area.” This understanding of community has a physical and even geographic dimension.

To be clear, Rheingold does distinguish between networks of “weak ties” and communities. He writes, “To me, the difference between an online social network and a community has to do with the quality, continuity, and degree of commitment in the relationships between members” (pg. 163). I agree that there is a difference between your broad social network and your actual community; however, I’m still not sure how to reconcile the physical/geographic aspect of community included in Webster’s definition and in Rheingold’s examples with a solely online group. I think it is certainly valid to develop online relationships and strong groups that support each other without ever meeting in person. Turkle has numerous examples of this as she discusses people absorbed in Second Life, online games, or other digital worlds. Yet as Rheingold’s own examples prove, his most meaningful online relationships also have an offline connection.

community-words

Herriman Community Newsletter. http://www.herriman.org/community-newsletters/

Managing Your Network

Rheingold’s point about social capital and cultivating your network certainly resonates with most professional development advice today. He discusses reciprocity and doing things for others as an investment for when you later need help yourself. I approach networking a little skeptically because I don’t just want to be using people for my own gain. According to this Forbes article, I’m not alone, and studies have shown that networking leaves some people, especially those lower in the power hierarchy, feeling “physically dirty and morally impure” (Morin).

I think networking is effective when people are bound by a common goal, have a more nuanced  relationship, or have a mutually beneficial situation. Rheingold argues for the return on investment for “weak ties,” but it seems to me that most weak ties never produce tangible outcomes (although arguably it takes only that single “weak tie” to help you land your dream job). A professor once advised me to connect with people on LinkedIn only who I knew well enough that I would be comfortable introducing them to someone else. In the sprawl of friends-of-friends, that’s a tough line to maintain, but I think it’s a good standard. Unlike Rheingold’s approach of collecting contacts even beyond Dunbar’s rule of 150, I think we can embrace the age of networking without just ballooning our friends list or using others.

The Power of “The Long Tail”

Rheingold introduces the concept of the “long tail,” and Chris Anderson adds as the first rule of the long tail to make everything available. This assumes that both the “trash” and the “hits” maintain their individual value independently of each other. However, I think that making more available can actually detract from the value of the “hits” by making them harder to find and decreasing overall usability. Anderson hints at this in his third rule and with the example of MP3.com, but he comes at it from the angle of leveraging the hits that people like to filter and identify obscure music that they might also like.

I think this approach misses the heart of the issue. People don’t want to wade through the long tail — they want to jump right to the best. The current economic model of elevating the hits and ignoring the long tail serves as an initial filter to identify what people are most likely to want. Yes, there are casualties as high-quality things are undervalued and fall into obscurity because of outside factors, such as marketing and promotional money, instead of based on their own merit. However, limiting the number of options instead of making all available helps cut through potential choice paralysis. As in the famous jam experiment, people buy more when they have fewer options (Tugend). This returns to the idea that we discussed earlier this semester, where technical writers serve as mapmakers or navigators. Consumers are looking not just for everything possible, but for direction toward what is best. An overwhelming number of options can actually make it harder to find the greatest hits and detract from the overall experience.  

choice-paraylsis

Behavioural Econcomics. https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/behavioural-economics-ideas-that-you-can-use-in-ux-design

 

References:

Behavioural economics ideas that you can use in UX design. Retrieved from https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/behavioural-economics-ideas-that-you-can-use-in-ux-design

Community. (n.d.). Retrieved October 30, 2016, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/community

Morin, A. (2014, Sept. 11). How to network without feeling dirty. Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2014/09/11/how-to-network-without-feeling-dirty/#10341b202ca3

Tugend, A. (2010, Feb. 26). Too many choices: A problem that can paralyze. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/27/your-money/27shortcuts.html

Collective Intelligence: Content Curation + Social Collaboration

For all the negative criticism the internet receives, it has enabled us to bring together more minds, thoughts, and ideas in one collective space than we ever thought possible. Howard Rheingold’s (2012) examination of collective intelligence combines content curators and collaborators, essentially a digital “think tank” that is available for the masses. “If you tag, favorite, comment, wiki edit, curate, or blog, you are already part of the web’s collective intelligence” (Net Smart, p. 148)

I’m intrigued with “content curator” from Rheingold’s (2012) chapter on participation, the process of collecting, organizing, and sharing information. This filtering process not only narrows down information, but it also allows you to become a sort of expert. Once you become a seasoned curator, you’ll build trust with followers who will likely contribute more to the conversation. With this collection of content and knowledge, you can share with others to create a collective knowledge. Because we know that “two heads are better than one” to solve a problem.

Social network sites, not only limited to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or a blog, but also anywhere that you’re able to contribute via a comment or share feature is considered social collaboration. Rheingold says the important elements of collective intelligence is combining participation and collaboration skills from virtual communities (p. 161).

collaboration concept. Chart with keywords and icons

Elements of collaboration. Courtesy of PaperlessProposal.com

Social collaboration and collective intelligence is how we’re able to create and improve everything. Matt Ridley, author of the Rational Optimist, says “collective intelligence produce the items we use in our everyday lives” (Collective Intelligence, 2015, YouTube). For example, improving cell phone technology. I remember the first cell phone I had was about the size of a walkie talkie and I could only use it for calling and texting. Through collaboration and collective intelligence, cell phones became compact and added technology to take digital pictures, connect to the internet, send photos via text,  GPS mapping, and so much more. Ridley and others share their ideas about collective intelligence in the video Collective Intelligence (start at the 2:40 mark).

What I found most interesting about collective intelligence is how it has enabled more people to participate and contribute to sites such as Wikipedia, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding (GoFundMe.com).

Sources:

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

“Collective Intelligence.” (5 Jan. 2015). OnEnglish Online. Retrieved October 29, 2016, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k7-CEDyoibQ

This is When Everything Changes: Cluetrain and the Technological Experience

If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?

The only thing that’s changed about this adage is that now we have the ability to Google the answer with the press of a few keys. Working in that atmosphere, where technology and the Internet have allowed us all to access an endless amount of information on a variety of subjects

Reading through the 95 theses from the Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business As Usual by Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger is an interesting little web page to look over. It’s full of a lot of sage advice and theses that I find to be completely obvious. Though there is power in making statements so I guess I can see the point in creating a very pointed guide for companies to read through.

Image result for puzzled face

Source: (https://www.123rf.com/photo_33013224_middle-aged-man-with-puzzled-face-expression-and-question-marks-above-head-looking-up-isolated-grey-.html)

Let’s break some of it down, shall we! It starts out by stating:

“A powerful global conversation has begun. Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter—and getting smarter faster than most companies.”

At first glance, this is all standard fare. Yes, we are now more of a global community. The Internet has allowed us to friend, follow, and tweet at anyone around with the world with WiFi and a digital social life.

More than that, we are discovering and inventing new ways to communicate and convey information. This idea is particularly important, to our greater class discussion and to the Manifesto. Outside of the limited amount of countries that actively limit the scope of the Internet for their citizens, surfing the Net is such an individual experience, mostly because no one can truly lay claim to it. We all have the ability to create blogs, websites, videos, music, and a variety of content, post it, and have it read 1,000 times before lunch. This freedom is something that is exclusive to the Web. As Americans, we live in a country where the Freedoms of Speech and Expression are protected, but as always, putting that into action inevitably causes friction with other people, groups, religious organizations, and/or the government.

The online space, as much as it is open to manipulation and abuse, is viewed as safer. We have the ability to hide behind screen names and anonymous messages, giving us the option of both utter honesty and utter depravity.

When the opening to the manifesto talks about relevant knowledge is where I drew up short. This might just be a personal opinion of mine, but what information can you not deem relevant? Yes, time period, setting, and other factors provide context. Your office job is not the place to talk about that rash you have, unless you work in a hospital or urgent care center. But that knowledge will come in handy eventually, like all knowledge.

What’s relevant to businesses is to understand that customers are people who cannot be neatly pressed into columns, lines, and graphs on a spreadsheet.

Image result for spreadsheet death

Source: (https://www.veeva.com/blog/death-by-spreadsheet-the-gremlins-paradox/)

As you have probably heard from a parent, professor, elderly person on the street, Turkle, the age of the Internet, mobile devices and social networking has brought about many detrimental changes to our society. We do not learn or retain information in the same way. We do not connect with friends and neighbors like we used to. We can’t understand how vital it is to connect with people face-to-face in order to be an actual human being.

They have done their part by creating a dialogue about this topic. It is now up to us, those of us working with technology now, and those of us who come later, reared in the cradle of mobile devices and online communities.

What’s relevant to us as content creators, digital consumers, and technical communicators, what we must all understand is that we do not live in binary opposition with technology. It is not either or. The human experience has to be allowed to evolve. Change comes when we’re placed into new situations. Technology has affected the way we relate to each other, yes. It has driven businesses to look online for customers. It has caused innumerable automobile accidents and driven progress in health care, defense, travel, and commerce.

Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger work to clarify the position of the audience as autonomous agents who do not need companies to tell them what to want anymore.

So where do you fall on the spectrum of this argument? Do you feel that the rise of texting, Facebook, Snapchat, and every other social networking site and digital communications tool has led to the simplification of meaning? How much does what you buy have to do with the method/medium you are exposed to it?

How to Avoid Drowning in Information Overload

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.

blog-info-overload-boat

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.

References

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

Understanding Your Audience

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.

focusgroup

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.

What Do We Learn? Skills. When Do We Learn Them? On the Job or Whatever!

Working as a technical communicator over the past two years without an undergraduate grounding in the skills, methods, and research tools has been enlightening. While it has given me a greater appreciation for the work being done by my coworkers and others in the field, it has also caused me to reach out to sources like the Society for Technical Communication and a master’s program in order to secure essential skills and new tricks to show off to supervisors and future employers.

What exactly am I looking for, you may ask? Social media, content management systems, Adobe Creative and Technical Communications Suite, User-Centered Design, and Project Management, to name but a few. Beyond the skills that I have a personal interest in or am curious about, I find that trolling through job descriptions to look for what will impress and keep me relevant in a community that is designing, defining, and streamlining what technical communications means and what is necessary to work in the field.

One of the key skills I am looking to pick up from the MSTPC program and put into practice is learning how to learn, and I have found that it is definitely a critical skill that I’ll need on my side moving forward.

Image result for technical toolkit

Source: (http://masstapp.edc.org/communications-toolkit)

As Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski (2010) said, “search and retrieval – or findability – as well as navigability become increasingly important as the information age produces more documents than ever. As the volume of information increases, designing for storage and retrieval becomes more important in the planning stages of writing. After all, information that cannot be easily retrieved when needed is useless” (103).

Now this makes sense when you’re talking about the basics of the technical communications field. Authoring, editing, designing, displaying, distributing, and analyzing all the content constantly put out by companies, universities, social networking sites, and academics takes a lot of time and effort by practitioners and academics under fire by Chief Financial Officers Wading through the amount of content that

When it comes to us as a class however, my mind starts thinking about how we as technical communicators work to gather, study, and disseminate information. Learning how to read, analyze, and write papers for my English undergrad along with internships for my Journalism minor made me an attractive, moldable candidate for the Technical Editor position I got shortly after graduating, but that position did not offer anything in the way of training documents or files.

It was entirely a mentor-based position. That was both a positive and a negative, I came to find as I delved into the world of technical editing. It was great to work side by side with practitioners who had years of experience in the field and in the government contracting sphere; I was exposed to a lot of insider information that no one bothered to write down because it was industry standard or specific. There were breakdowns in email content based on the office I was contacting and the military or civilian title in front of the person’s name.

Image result for mentorship

Source: (http://tweakyourbiz.com/finance/2015/03/16/top-online-business-mentorship-advice-resources/)

I learned quickly and started keeping my own folders and Word docs with acronyms, workflows, and Department-specific language no one would ever use (and I would get graded down for if I showed any of it to one of my professors).

The problem was that as soon as I was hired, the company started to lose employees. When I was hired I was told it was a stable contract with no turnover but everyone was leaving so all of the great mentors were jumping ship and it was up to those of us who were newer to train employees and help them learn the process.

So while we were learning we were also training new people, designing SharePoint sites, and teaching classes to government employees. Needless to say, the situation could have better. It was enjoyable to take more of a leadership role with incoming coworkers and I also got the chance to design a few training sites and standard operating procedures. Whatever problems I may have had with the company, it was clear that I had been allowed to really grow into a role and put on the different hats expected of me by the field.

My next job was a different story. I had walked into a great company with an understanding boss, but the work itself functioned on a sink or swim basis. I was expected to dive into the work and start working. No real oversight. Clear cut design and structural rules to follow but how I got there was all up to me. Yes, I was encouraged to reach out with any question but I wanted to make a great first impression so I just got my hands dirty with the research, writing, and designing of technical materials and documents for client approval.

The chapters talk about information design, content management, and the rhetoric of technology, but how do we use this in our full- or part-time job lives? For me, it’s become critical to seek the keys to staying up to date on information, technology, communication, and other trends essential to my work and moving forward in the field.

Citation

Spilka, Rachel. (2010). Digital literacy for technical communication. “Information design: From authoring text to architecting virtual space. Taylor & Francis Group. New York, NY.

Digital Literacy in the 21st Century

Working in 2016 as a technical communicator means that we have to stay on top of technology, but what I think is more specific is that we have to make sure to take a proper survey of technological advances, both personal and professional. What does this actually mean? Maybe your job doesn’t involve social media or other trends that fall outside of a cubicle. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use it in your job.

Digital literacy in the modern era is something that has to be cultivated and developed by current technical communicators. Professional organizations like the Society for Technical Communication do their best to connect practitioners, teach best practices and techniques, inform the public about the critical role of technical communicators, and establish a baseline for the field, a field that depends so much on who takes part and how technology will grow to meet the needs of users, those anticipated and those yet to be determined.

  digitalliteracy

Source: (https://writingforelectronicmedia.wikispaces.com/Digital+Literacy?responseToken=54ac9cf5a782233fc19c8f54d2a7a578)

Based on my personal journey, I can tell you that I had no idea what a technical communicator was before being approached by my previous employer for a Technical Editor position. I had worked as a writer and editor with work experience in magazine and newspaper publishing. The basic skills transferred, but there was a different way of thinking about the content and working with it that I had to learn on the job. My experience there was based on mentorship and learning as I went. We used technologically on a very basic level (working as a government contractor with technology years behind the times definitely did not contribute to my digital literacy) and had no digital tools for learning or analysis.

Working in this field means being willing and able to embrace change and build connections between disciplines and schools of thought that have their own unique structures. New technologies mean that any traditional idea of workspace, learning, businesses, and institutions have to evolve in order to continue competing and remaining relevant, especially to an audience that is being reared in an environment where technology is the new normal.

The schema of the modern world is such that information is deemed old within hours of its release and the news which may shock one individual does not phase the next because of the streaming coverage available to them practically wherever they happen to be at the time. The age in which verbal communication and oral storytelling were the be all and end all of knowledge gathering has long since passed and now, everything is shared at lightning speeds through shortened statements and improper sentences online and over the air. Literacy in this sense, means being able to access the forms of information sharing and collection that would permit a person to be active in their society and have awareness of the occurrences going on around them. And at this stage, the definition of literacy has already been ruptured beyond its basic level.

Personally, the advent of the Internet and emerging technology has made it easier than ever to communicate their thoughts, opinions, feelings, and ideas with a global audience. Given the fact that I work in the writing and editing field, I find it important to keep a close eye on how that has been affected by this trend. “Writing and editing will continue to be important activities for many technical communicators. However, they are increasingly being viewed as commodity activities that business considers questionable in adding value and that are candidates for being outsourced or offshored” (Pilka pg. 54). Working overseas, sending work out to freelancers and contract temps so that corporate can continue to meet its bottom line without investing too much in one of the critical areas in establishing and maintaining an appropriate presence.

It also matters a great deal to both me and to the field at large because of the ever increasing globalization effect that technology has. What worked in the past and what is working now to bind us together has made us more aware of our international partners. It has also made it more apparent that we have become reliant on the very technology that most take for granted nowadays. Utilizing technology at work and in the classroom is a prerequisite in the developed world and is looked on as lacking in third world countries and developing nations. Employees find themselves either without the latest and greatest technologies to draw upon or thrust into the deep end, developing content and creating standards for an evolving and shifting pool of apps, software, hardware, and devices most of which do not have any rules and regulations set in stone.

Blogging 101: How Did I Get Here?

If I had to describe it I would say that my experience with blogging thus far has been a mere flirtation;  I don’t come to the class with anything reaching formal or professional training.

I remember starting a blog in high school, in the late 2000s. I can’t remember what I called it but I would try and post every day about something that had happened. Maybe I had a particularly witty insight during Pre-Calculus. Maybe the teacher caught me reading a fantasy novel instead of paying attention to the projected history lesson. I recall that I would always end the blog with a section titled “Lessons from Lloyd” or something like that: a bulleted list of sage teen advice I would dole out to the masses.

I didn’t have any sort of real audience. My group of friends knew about it and would sometimes poke fun at me, but it was mostly a solitary endeavor, a way for me to write down what I was thinking and laugh at myself while I did it.

What strikes me to this day is two particular posts I wrote: movie reviews for Twilight and Harry Potter (whichever one came out around that time). I had fun ripping the first movie apart with my words and enjoyed figuring out why I liked the second one (but not as much as other films in the series).

When I saw this assignment on the schedule, I tried to Google my old blog. It didn’t really work out. Mostly because any key words I may have used have been buried so far in my subconscious, I’d never a brain biopsy to route them out. Also, because I’m not sure what platform I used; I think it was BlogSpot, but I didn’t get any hits when I searched.

Oh well. It’d be fun to find those posts again, a little time capsule of my writing style to look back on, but c’est la vie.

I had a literature professor who loved to make us blog in undergrad. She’d come up with these specific prompts and styles for us to use. I was terrible at meeting deadlines and she was quick to call me out.

Professionally, my experience with WordPress began in my last semester of college. I had a magazine internship that used WordPress to load select print articles to their website. I was in charge of choosing the stories, loading them to the site, and creating SEO tags for them. I had absolutely no training in search engine optimization, but it did expose me to what that meant so kudos to Guy for leaving it in my hands.

In regard to some of the readings, the term “academic blogging” interest me, mostly because it seems like, other aspects of academia, to suck the fun out of the experience. It is not enough to take part in this activity, it must be renamed and repurposed for proper discussion and acceptance.

Excuse me if I take a hard line, but I have strong feelings about the way academia re-interprets already existing things. For example, I took a Pop Culture class in college and we read a paper by an academic that went into a long spiel about the validity of fanfiction as a way to look at audience interaction with media and content. This author created a master list of terms and descriptions for already existing norms. These things are already valid and don’t need a PhD stamp of approval before the world can officially sign off.

What is it about the academic part that requires the creation of a unique subculture in the blogosphere?

Don’t feel obliged to answer that. I did research on so-called popular literature and subcultures in undergrad and I somehow manage to revive the topic every so often.

Maybe it has to do with the research-based mindsight that comes with a “Publish or Perish” higher education system. Maybe I’m just too sensitive about a perceived slight.

The world may never know.

I do look forward to interacting with the class and figuring out how to communicate with emerging media. From the glimpses I’ve read of past students’ work, this is a place for lively discussion and appropriately timed infographics and pictures.

If you’ve managed to last this long, thank you for indulging me on my trip down memory lane and my mini rant about…whatever the underlying point of those few paragraphs was. This blog post is the sole product of my particular upbringing.

Here’s to a successful semester of blogging!

Emerging from Emerging Media

thats_all_folks__by_gbetim-d5aydtbThis Course

Before taking this class, I tinkered with social media. After this class I suspect I will continue to tinker with it. Not because I don’t want to do more, but because working more than full-time and going to school full-time precludes pretty much anything else for the foreseeable future. But, when I’m ready, I know I will be very glad I took this class.

It has challenged me to think about what drives communication within social media, i.e., it’s rhetorical basis. It never occurred to me to think about social media from a rhetorical perspective. But, the great eye-opener for me was to realize social media is perfectly compatible with rhetorical practices.

For example, in social media, we think about how to put the message together: short meaningful sentences if possible. We group information under headings and use lots of pictures. What we are really doing is attempting to deliver a message in as palatable way as possible. In other words, we are thinking about the reader’s experience. And, from what I’ve learned this semester, nothing could be more important.

My Final Paper

Dr. Pignetti suggested my final paper could build off of my blog posts this semester. My strategy for those was to take the readings, think about how they apply to my past and present work, and form an advice-based post. (The advice was intended as much for me as anyone else.)

My paper presents a set of practical guidelines related to social media that can be applied by individuals or businesses. It’s a practical guide—a sort of owner’s manual.

This guide is organized into five components: communication strategy, channels, content, connection, and community. I formed these by thinking about how the principles around social media we discovered this semester fit together. Each principle or idea could be grouped under one of these categories.

Communication refers to the strategy that needs to be considered when engaging in social media. Channels represent the various types of social media individuals and businesses can publish information to. Content is a discussion on what types of information fits into your strategy whether that is self-generated or curated. Connection refers to how you connect your social media efforts to external content and themes. Community means the importance of building a sense of community around social media efforts.

It’s important to see these five components not as individual puzzle pieces, but as pieces of a solved puzzle—they work together to achieve an effective, and comprehensive social media platform.

Good Luck to You!

I have enjoyed reading your blog posts this semester. I learned something from each one and often that something caused to me think in a different direction, if only for a little while. But that, I’ve come to realize, is the point of education.

End of the Semester

future

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

Another End Brings New Beginnings

I often say that everything happens for a reason and at the time it should be happening.  But what I have found with my schoolwork over this past year-and-a-half is how the uncanny unfolding of situations at work parallel and seem to be answered by my school work.  This class was no exception.  For the past year, I have worked to try and create a blog just for my own department and for various political reasons it has not been very successful.  Fortunately this class has brought a number (too many to count) ah-ha moments. For example, developing a sound social media strategy is vital in order for organizations to survive in today’s digital world.  But the miss to this strategy is how we can also create a social media strategy as it relates to internal organizational communication.  Something I am now working to formalize with my role.

Just like the following image, however, aligning social media tools can be just as challenging to solving a Rubik’s cube.  Interestingly enough, the Rubik’s cube was actually designed by a professor to help his students look at how you solve an objects structural problem and solve individual problems without the whole object falling apart (Wikipedia).  The same goes for developing an internal organizational social media strategy.  While organizations may have entire strategies to build around this topic, it is looking at each situation that needs to be solved and understanding how that situation and solution fits into the whole strategy.

Rubiks

On that note, a sweet melody that brings to you my…

Final Paper Abstract
Many marketing and communication experts have defined this time in our history as Web 2.0.  It is the time in our digital history that highlights how organizations are required by societal norms and expectations to use social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook to communicate and connect with their consumers.  Kids, adults, students, even grandparents are using social media channels to connect with each other on a daily (sometimes even hourly) basis.  But the use of social media for organizations to communicate and connect with employees is uncertain and volatile.  In fact, in a study completed by Towers Watson (2013) the results concluded that just over 50-percent of companies are using social media to connect with employees in some way.  There seems to be little evidence and research into the social media structures and strategy for internal organizational communication.  Therefore, this paper will look at the social media channels that could be used to build an internal social media communication strategy for an organization and to begin identifying the effectiveness of these social media tools and tactics. 

Whew – nearly all of that in one breath.  I will say that the research aspects of this final paper have been tedious, exhausting, and exhilarating.  It can be like finding a needle in a haystack when there is little research out there.  But what has been an interesting challenge is to take the knowledge that has been built around social media and decipher and pull from it how internal communications could benefit from these tools and tactics.

tedius

And although this semester is coming to a quick close, the work around this class and this final research paper will drive my career and school work.  With that, while I could probably write to you for hours on this subject, I’m afraid I must bid you adieu.  Thank you all for such a wonderful semester.  Your thoughtful comments and intriguing posts truly provided for some great thought provoking conversations.

Feliz Navidad.  Happy Holidays.  Merry Christmas.  Happy Hanukah.  And to new beginnings.

Wrap-up and best wishes

At first, I found the final paper quite daunting due simply to all the research involved; however, once I started it, I was amazed at how much I was learning. For example, I didn’t realize how much social media users can circle back and help technical communicators improve their documentation. End users of technical documentation often leave feedback on social media such as a company’s Facebook page, which technical communicators can use to better organize their materials, improve content or add more illustrations or video. At the same time, technical communicators can engage with commenters online to fill in holes in documentation or answer questions, all which improves customer service and retention.

Also, I learned that today’s consumers consult how-to videos and online discussion boards before they read instructional manuals. I, too, prefer to type “how to . . . ?” into a search engine rather than pore through a cumbersome paper manual. In fact, companies are now offering more of the “quick start” type of instructions as an adjunct to the full manual; these types of instructions tend to be much more user-friendly and heavily illustrated with step-by-step instructions.

Lastly, I came to realize how much technical communication roles are changing for the better. Rather than being seen as an “add-on” to an assembly line product, technical communicators are taking a seat at the table as invaluable members of  interdisciplinary teams that are responsible for company growth and vitality. This means that we all need a robust education and can’t be content to conduct business as usual. I think this growth will present great opportunities for all of us.

Of course, emerging media are not without their disadvantages and dangers. We all have to be savvy consumers of information when doing research online. As technical communicators, we need to be quick to correct the errors that are prone to show up in online consumer help sites. And we need to be ever vigilant that our “need for speed,” which has increased exponentially since the advent of the Internet and social media, doesn’t affect the quality, originality, availability or appearance of our documents or audiovisual presentations in negative ways.

Abstract

Emerging media such as social media, email and the Internet have enabled us to gather and synthesize information faster than ever. We can accomplish tasks that used to require time, money and travel in just a click of a button. We can find and interview subject matter experts online at our convenience. And when we’re done, we can distribute our final document to the whole world, if we wish. But have these tools made our technical documents better—or just faster? This paper explores the advantages and disadvantages conferred by emerging media since the advent of the Internet. It gives concrete examples from the daily work life of a newspaper reporter and technical communicator and offers ideas as to how technical communicators can use emerging media to their advantage rather than to their detriment.

Wrap-up

This has been a great class, and I’ve learned so much from every one of you. Thank you for all of your thought-provoking comments, helpful suggestions and general feedback over this semester; it has been invaluable in both my coursework and my career. I wish you all a wonderful holiday season and good luck in your education and careers. Who knows, we may meet again!

Social Media’s Use in Higher Education Recruiting

The End

This has been an interesting class about blogging. I came into it unimpressed with the tool itself, as I previously found most bogs to be rants. Through the class I saw that another type of blog exists – one with research supporting the ideas, and with thoughtful commentary. It has been especially insightful to read posts from my peers. So many of you are incredibly talented in this social media platform and it’s been a pleasure to see your take and creativity in discussing the readings.

Working in higher education in a college that doesn’t use social media in a calculated way to attract students, I wrote about using several social media platforms for recruitment purposes. In addition, I made recommendations based on what I researched at schools that were utilizing social media effectively.

Abstract

Social media usage has seen a significant shift in the last ten years, especially with colleges and universities that are trying to attract prospective students. Not long gone but certainly less influential are flashy paper brochures, college open houses, and static websites. Colleges and universities recognize they need to increase their social media presence to attract students. Done poorly a college may be “clicked” past, but done well, a college’s social media presence can increase student curiosity and drive students to the college website. Is it working? This paper explores the importance of social media as a recruiting tool, how universities are using it, and, probably most importantly, how prospective students are reacting to it. It explores best practices that universities can follow and offers recommendations for effective, efficient use in student recruitment.

Reflections on Paper

Combined with my case study on the social use at my school, the addition of information from my research on it’s use in recruiting helped me shape suggestions for our Marketing department which included: a faculty spotlight blog, an “Eyes on the ground” student post and Twitter tweets about interesting or important daily events t each of our campus. This would be particulary useful in creating a sense of community between our six campus sites throughout the county.

Goodbye

It’s time to say goodbye. A few of you have been my peers in other classes and its been great to see how we’ve all evolved in our thinking about technical communication and social media. I’ve especially enjoyed the humor and camaraderie. To those of you completing this degree, I congratulate you. To those of you new, I wish you the best on this UW journey.

Dana

The Monster We’ve Created

Cell Phone Monster

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.

Who Are You?

What is it?

In Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World, authors Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul Curran (2014) pointed out graduates of this degree “…often begin their careers by gaining experience at several jobs or…struggle to find full-time or stable employment in the current economic market” (p.266). While I believe all of us start out in that scenario, Technical Communication, unlike more specialized degrees, is misunderstood by employers and often students themselves. When someone asks what degree I’m earning I know this will be a conversation rather than a statement. Say Technical and Professional Communication and even my college colleagues aren’t clear on what I’m studying. So I explain that for my purpose it’s primarily professional writing for technologies, business communication, media, and scientific fields, and incorporates rhetoric, ethics, and theory to deliver concise content.

 

St. Leo

What to do with it?

“What will I do with it?” they ask. So I explain relevancy to website revision, and moving into a faculty position to teach English. “Why not an English degree?” Well, I don’t care for literature (although I’m a voracious reader of it), and don’t want to be pigeonholed as an English instructor. “So why study technology?” My God, it’s gets tiring. But the point is that Technical Communication is not an easy degree or field to describe. Similarly, with my BA where I double-majored in Public Administration and Management, everyone understood Management – but Public Administration? So after awhile I went with “It’s Business Administration without taking quantitative methods.” Whew. Must have been widespread confusion because St. Leo University no longer offers the degree. No wonder students have a hard time defining what they do and finding relevant jobs. As Bernhardt (2010) found, “Our graduates are getting jobs, but it is becoming ever more difficult to say just what kind of jobs are out there and what kinds of skills they demand” (as cited in Blythe, Lauer, and Curran, 2014, p. 266).

 

knowledge workers chart

(Mari Pierce-Quinonez, “What You Need to Know About Management” https://www.techchange.org/2015/06/16/knowledge-management-explained/)

 

What’s new? 

Confusion continues as communicators embrace new media, roles, job opportunities, and trying to define themselves to meet employer needs. The “typical” communication is no longer. Communicator jobs are not only in flux, but non-fixed. In Coordinating constant invention: Social media’s role in distributed work, Spinuzzi (2007) stated, “Recent scholarship has explored how the ‘‘distributed’’ nature of this work affects career trajectories and work practices of professional and technical communicators (as cited by Pigg, 2014, p.60). Meanwhile, Pigg (2014) considers the decentralization of ”typical” office work, and see’s todays’ “symbolic-analyst” workers method of social media use to be whatever they need, accessed wherever they want. Additionally, Pigg (2014) found, “With knowledge workers increasingly disconnected from desk and office spaces on the one hand, and with contract and freelance work on the rise on the other, professional communicators whose work is symbolic-analytic often face a dual burden: composing an immediate time and space to conduct their work and overcoming a long-term lack of stability related to future professional opportunities” (p. 69).

 

GoogleTwitter

(Scott Abel (2013) “Technical Communication 2012: Our Biggest Challenge Is Thinking Differently About Being Different” http://thecontentwrangler.com/2011/12/13/technical-communication-2012-our-biggest-challenge-is-thinking-differently-about-being-different/)

 

Will it matter?

What will Technical Communicators face? Blythe et. al, (2014) indicated, “Job titles that seem to have arisen more directly from a Web 2.0 economy include social media marketing manager, SharePoint engineer, social media consultant, content strategist, knowledge base coordinator, and Web content editor” (p. 272). In their “tcworld blog” ), The evolution of technology, authors Monalisa Sen and Debarshi Gupta Biswas (2013) stated, “technical communication has transitioned from a conventional author-reader engagement to a realm of social collaboration.” Additionally, they redefine technical communication stating “With the use of Wiki and Web 2.0 concepts technical communication has transitioned from being instructional to interactive. A technical writer has truly become “an honest mediator between people who create technology and who use technology” (Sen et al., 2013).

 

Who Are We? 

For me, “Instructional to interactive;” nicely captures the new realm that technical communication has reached, while seamlessly tying in traditional purpose. Yet it makes me wonder – will the roles under this umbrella title continue to swell until communicator means little? Will Technical and Professional Communication become another degree that disappears? What does this mean for us? As the great Roger Daltry asks “Who Are You?”

What do think?

Eight Tips for Writing in Distributed Work Groups

3d character Working on computer connectet to globe. Conceptual 3d illustration

Let’s face it: Work life is dispersed. On any given day, we might find ourselves connecting with colleagues at their homes, in another city, or across the world.

If I stop to think about it, in the last two weeks, I’ve had meetings with people in Perth, Beijing, London, and remote parts of the Canadian North. These meetings led to collaboration on documents, document templates, training resources, and technical reports. That collaboration took place by phone, email, social media, video chat, and online meeting software.

I’ve had similar collaborations with colleagues from my office who happen to be working from home. I could also say I’ve had video chats or instant messaging sessions with coworkers down the hall or on another floor in my same building. (I could say that but I’m not going to. While efficient, it’s shameful.)

Stacey Pigg in Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work (p. 70) put it this way:

“Social media offer a means through which individuals can aggregate people and knowledge or, at the least, learn how existing webs of participation are held together.”

This is a thoughtful insight. On one hand she’s stating that social media (and I would add to this a number of online tools), provide means for group collaboration and knowledge sharing. On the other, she’s stating social media (and the other tools), when understood, provide a view to group dynamics.

You can call it distributed work groups with a focus on social media, as Pigg does, or remote collaboration, parallel work-sharing, or something else. But, whatever you call it, these group work tools and scenarios “offer unique affordances for overcoming fragmentation” (p. 73), if you have the right protocols in place.

Here are eight tips you can use to get the most out of distributed work groups…err…online group collaboration.

  • Hold a kickoff meeting. This may be the only time everyone in the work group is “together” at the same time. It’s a critical meeting where you can set goals and lay the ground rules. Don’t skip it!
  • Define roles and responsibilities. Who are the writers, the editors, the reviewers, the coders, the designers, and so forth? I like to make a contact list with roles and post it in a shared resource (e.g. an online file share).
  • Designate a document custodian. All documents from actual documents to web content should have a custodian. This person creates and manages the initial artifact. This person–and only this person–is allowed to up the revision number, which saves having to unnecessarily compile multiple versions.
  • Centralize assets. Graphics, sounds, fonts, video, and so on. They all go in a central repository. This is for three reasons: (1) you only need to go to one place to up upgrade or change them, (2) everyone can access them without bottlenecks, and (3) when the project is over it’s easy to archive them.
  • Create a style sheet. From terminology to capitalization to colors to handling bullet lists, insist on a one-page style sheet for every project. It’s one page. Everyone can stick to information on one page. (Not really. It boggles my mind, but that’s why we have technical writers and editors.)
  • Capture key communication. Put someone in charge of capturing key online discussions where ideas or decisions are made. This makes it easy for newcomers to get up to speed quickly. Using tags in social media is great for this.
  • Leverage time zones. For years, I’ve strategically hired contract editors in various time zones. When I’m done for the day, they pick up and vice versa. It’s almost as if there are two of me (a thought that frightens children and coworkers alike).
  • Manage Privacy. In Yammer, where I do most of my group collaboration, I close the group to only those working on a project, whenever it makes sense to do so. Despite our increasing ability to work simultaneously on single files and the like, no one likes the feeling of being watched.

These eight tips are a good starting point. Many others, especially for specific circumstances, could be noted. Feel free to add to the list by commenting.

Organizational Ethos in Crises Management

Crises Management in the Shadows of Self-Promotion

Melody Bowden’s Tweeting an Ethos:  Emergency Messaging, Social Media, and Teaching Technical Communication focused on the ethos that organizations encourage through their social media posting.  Her viewpoint that such groups have a duty to put their audience’s needs first was eye opening.  Meeting the reader’s expectations contributes to the organizational ethos, but Bowden also suggested that organizations have some responsibility in facilitating an informed community.

I think that most of us anticipate that an organization or corporation, when communicating via non-cyber media, will put their own agenda first.  Oh, sure… We expect them to spin their message so there is the appearance of truly caring about the audience; but, we still notice the shameless plugs, the product placement, or the solicitation for a donation.  We get glimpses of what the organization is really after and usually it isn’t just to be helpful, devoid of an ulterior motive.

Bowden’s study revealed that in a time of crises the Twitter posts by both CNN and the American Red Cross had the highest concentration of tweets fall into the category of “self-referential posts designed to promote the organizations’ programming and accomplishments” (P. 46).  I am not surprised.   But reading about Bowden and her student’s surprise, made me reexamine how I think technical communicators and the groups they represent should present themselves in social media and why social media is different.

Questioning How Social Media is Different 

She suggests that, for the sake of ethos, organizations should not focus so heavily on self-promotion.  She explains, “Technical communication scholars need to continue to study…how these forums can be used to promote a safe and informed citizenry as well as the objectives of corporations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies” (P. 50).  I find it interesting that she mentions “a safe and informed citizenry.”  This statement seems to be referencing the internet as a community.   This “community” concept has been a subject of controversy in many of our readings.  So, if we accept the internet as a type of “community” does this really make these groups responsible for fostering it?  Or, is she only referring to the specific real world citizens of the community where the crises is occurring?

Additionally, if she is saying that organizations should abandon self-promotion to focus on the needs of an actual non-digital community in crises, then why don’t we have those expectations of the communication that occurs in those communities offline?  Why is this study about the organizational ethos as it applies to social media and not championing organizational ethos as it pertain to all media?  For instance, I lived in Florida for the last 28 years.  I am no stranger to hurricane season.  The television stations, newspapers, radio stations, local organizations and even home improvement stores, grocery stores and convenience stores would get involved in storm preparedness outreaches.  And when disaster struck, they had a plan for reaching out to the community, but you could always see the company promoting itself alongside those efforts.  It was expected.

I am also wondering how an organization can afford to not take advantage of these situations. Perhaps they should not be so overt in their self-promotion, but they may not have this exact audience in front of them except in times of crises.  If they don’t get their message to them now, when will they?  The audience is using the organization for something they need.  Why can’t the organization saturate it in their own message?  Annoying?  Yes.  A bit uncouth?  Probably.  But expected?  Understandable? Kind of.

An Inspiring Future

Before anyone misunderstands my Devil’s advocate type thought process, I am not disparaging or arguing her ideas.  Bowden opened my eyes to a whole set of possibilities.  I actually like the idea of a technical communicator as a facilitator of community who provides a service-oriented message to the reader.  The questions about how to go about it and how to preserve ethos are fascinating.  I think serving the community while somehow satisfying the objectives of an organization sounds both challenging and inspiring.  The questions that I have shared are ones that I continue to play around with in my head.  I rather like this new vision of where technical writing can go and I look forward to seeing how these concepts evolve.

Examining My Informational Backbone

spine

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):

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 8.18.27 PM

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.

Social Media Relationships

I’ve become a regular at a cute diner in my neighborhood. There’s something cozy about the restaurant’s décor that reminds me of my grandparents’ kitchen. Similarly, I regularly visit Facebook, as there’s something about connecting with old friends and acquaintances that I enjoy. I am a creature of habit in my digital and non-digital life. Do I feel more connected or am I isolating myself? Some argue that social media isolates people. Users may have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but many of those people may not be strong social connections. I used to have a few hundred; seriously. Until I took a look and realized I didn’t “know” these people. Now I’m squarely at 45 and they all connect with my real life. Quality, not quantity is what counts.

Relationships formed through social networking sites may be positive and beneficial. According to the PEW Research Center  Facebook users were found to be more trusting than others and have closer relationships than the average “isolated” American. Technology makes it possible for us to maintain relationships with others in ways that were not possible a few decades ago. Conversely, that same technology has contributed to the decline of other technologies – when was the last time you saw a phone booth or used a traditional landline telephone?

Bernadette Longo (2014) in Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making points out that the way we use social media shapes us while we shape the media. Our digital world is now far more collaborative and interactive, and we expect that from all social media. At the same time, the world is shrinking and becoming “borderless” due to the opportunities new technologies afford us. This brings new challenges as different cultures bring very different perspectives. Where I may experience Facebook as a forum for sharing my individual life and experiences, someone from a more collectivist culture may see Facebook as a place to represent the community. The challenge is to recognize that there are multiple cultural perspectives and interpretations of technology and its uses.

Social Media HoneyComb2

(The Social Media HoneyComb, Business Insider, Jan Kietzmann)

Also, each social media platform fills a different role in our social lives. In Social Media? Get Serious! Jan Kietzmann, Kristopher Hermkens, Ian McCarthy, and Bruno Silvestre (2011) describe a framework for understanding social media through the seven functional building blocks: identity, conversations, sharing, presence, relationships, reputation, and groups.” (p. 243). Each platform allows users to experience these elements, but each platform gives users different tools that emphasize different building blocks. When Facebook added the feature of posting status updates, (and who doesn’t love seeing what someone cooked, or who’s at the dentist…) it began to emphasize the building block of presence and not just identity. One major building block of social media is the sense of community and how we connect with others. Longo (2014) states, “The desire for community seems to be so strong that we do not often consider how forming a community is as much an act of exclusion as it is of inclusion” (p. 25).

In many ways, social media connects to my life in a way that is different from my non-digital life; yet they clearly intersect. By positively reviewing my favorite diner online, I may help the business thrive and grow which may benefit my connections with the restaurant. Through my classes at Stout, my digital friendship with one classmate has turned into a “real” friendship and even though she graduated, we remain strongly connected. In speaking of the audience and tools of technology, Katz, 1992; Moses & Katz, 2006 stated “It is through processes such as this that we can come to greater understanding of the effects of social media on our relationships—how they extend our ability to engage people and how they impose a machine ethic on human relationships” (as cited in Longo, 2011, p.30). I may find technologies and social media frustrating at times, but I appreciate what it’s done for me. Without it I wouldn’t have found a new job opportunity, be completing my degree, or met a terrific new friend. And while that’s all really important, I have to go now.

Facebook needs an updated picture of my cat.

Buddy

Where’s All of This Going?

Puppets

Chapter 6 of Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication was pretty alarming. The title of the chapter, “Human + Machine Culture: Where We Work” by Bernadette Longo is almost misleading considering where this chapter took me.

The concept of this “all-inclusive” community where there’s a general understanding of “normal discourse” that crosses cultures seemed a lot like most social media/networking platforms I’m familiar with. Longo went on to aruge that any community being all-inclusive defies reason, as exclusions are what define a community.

I believe that even the rejects remain part of the community because upon their exclusion, their existence and identity is still defined by the community they are not part of. As Jameson pointed out (pg. 157) regarding traditional “misfits” such as the homeless, “No longer solitary freaks and eccentrics, they are henceforth recognized and accredited sociological category, the object of scrutiny and concern of the appropriate experts, and clearly potentially oraganizable.”

Relating this concept to the virtual community, Longo mentioned Rheingold’s model of inclusive community (pg. 151) excluding people who can’t afford computers, the technological illiterate, and the “uncool”. I partially agree with this, but I also see Jameson’s point that the members of these three categories are still relevant to mainstream virtual culture.

There’s an abundance of philanthropic organizations dedicated to providing the needy with computers and the training they’ll need to use them such as Connecting for Good, Computers with Causes and Angie’s Angel Help Network. They consider themselves to be “closing the digital divide” and not allowing poverty to prevent people from being connected. These people are very important in digital culture, and helping them become part of it is seemingly paramount.

The “uncool” individuals that have gotten themselves isolated are typically those who spew hateful, and indecent comments/information online. They’re not as relevant as the needy that can’t afford to buy or learn to use a computer, but they’re often the subject of criticism, mockery, and cautionary tales.

For example, I remember the rising reality TV star Tila Tequila who ruined her career with a series of blog posts sympathizing with Adolf Hitler calling him “a man of compassion”. She started out as a MySpace celebrity, and starred on a dating show called “A Shot at Love”. She released an album as a recording musician, and began appearing on reality TV shows more frequently.

In 2013, she began her Hitler blog and was immediately kicked off “Celebrity Big Brother”. I haven’t seen her on any show since, and the word “crazy” follows the only references I hear of her name. She is still part of the virtual world, she’s simply in an unfavorable category with her own following.

Aside from all of this, the “techno scientific categories of legitimated knowledge” Longo equated to the word of God in Western society is what shook me up. Katz’ example of the role technical communication played in Nazi Germany (pg. 155) really opened my eyes to the power technical communicator’s actually have.

He elaborated, “expediency is the only technical ethic, perhaps the only ethic that pure rationality knows”. On page 157, Longo elaborated on Jameson’s argument that, “We find ourselves—a situation in which the ethos of multinational corporations and technoscience profoundly shapes our lived experiences and therefore what we will find persuasive.” They even go as far as helping us relate it to nostalgic concepts we may or may not have even experienced.

As a member of this “all-inclusive virtual community” I do feel the control of the multinational corporations and technoscience influences. There are times I wonder if the options and information presented to me as acceptable are actually the best, but as Longo stated (pg. 164), “We [accept this] because we desire the benefits we derive from these positive aspects more than we reject the negative effects”. I agree with this completely.

My concern is how this situation will evolve. Who are the elitists running this puppet show, and what’s their ultimate goal? Technical communicators do as they’re told, they’re creating the content, but they’re following instructions. It seems as if this super elitist group has immeasurable power, and it will only get stronger through time. Who is holding this super power accountable? More importantly, who are they? The multi-cultural, all-inclusive community is real, and we’re at the mercy of these faceless puppet masters.

Five Topic Areas to Write About on LinkedIn to Survive In a Smart Technology Future

Evil angry robot . Render on blackbackground

As I watched the debate between Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain, Smart Technology – Future Employer or Job Destroyer, on AspenIdeas.org, I became uneasy. No, I became frightened.

I’m a middle-aged man working on a master’s degree. I’m attempting to stay relevant as younger folks enter the workforce and my knowledge and experience becomes increasingly dismissed. I think I understood this was a part of getting older. (It shouldn’t be, but it is.)

Now, it seems, I must also begin to think about how to contend with non-human competitors aka smart technologies.

What’s Up with That?

“The problem,” says Keen, “with this technological revolution—and your right, no one has any right to a [particular] job and no industry has any right to a continuing existence. The nature of technology…lends itself to permanent destruction. But, the problem is that these old jobs are going away and there doesn’t seem to be any new jobs.”

If you’re my age or older that means one of two things. Maybe you’ll squeak by and retire just before the smart technology revolution is in full binary bloom. Or, maybe you won’t and you’ll be displaced much earlier than you expected.

If you’re somewhat or much younger than me, you’re still faced with these two scenarios. But, you have more time to prepare.

On the Other Hand

What if we have nothing to worry about, young or old older?

“If you can find, I hate to use the word efficiencies,” says Zittrain, “because it masks just how rich what we can find is. But, if you find efficiencies, yes, then society faces a question of ‘We’ve just discovered way more abundance, how might we share it?’”

Zittrain is suggesting that allowing smart technologies to do our work would give us the freedom to do what interests us—mostly anyways.

So Which Is it?

Don’t ask me. I’m your competition. The non-robotic kind—or am I?

I will, however, offer five topic areas you can write about on LinkedIn that should, for the time being, be difficult for smart technologies to produce.

Resistance Is Not Futile

In Using LinkedIn to Get Work from the June 2010 issue of Intercom magazine, Rich Maggiani and Ed Marshall suggest LinkedIn is a good way to find and keep a job. They focus on profiles, connections, and job searches.

“The possibilities for getting work through LinkedIn are boundless,” they say. (Give’em a break. They wrote that in 2010, which is like sooooo like long ago like.)

But, they did give some sage advice: “Remember, though, that as a social media network, your chances are enhanced by relying on your [LinkedIn] connections. So cultivate them.”

These topic areas should help you do just that and they are smart-technology resistant:

  • Your Analyses. Only you can analyze an issue in your field, a book review, or a news item and provide your opinion. No smart technology can do that on your behalf.
  • Your Ideas. Smart technology can’t yet see what is going on in your head. Leverage your great ideas by carefully fleshing them out and documenting them in your LinkedIn posts.
  • Your Accomplishments. It’s okay to post your accomplishments. In fact, LinkedIn often does it for you. Be sure to share the takeaways and stick to relevant and/or significant accomplishments for the LinkedIn crowd. Won an award? Good. Finally cleaned the cat litter box. Not so much.
  • Your Experiences. Attended an industry event? Taken a class? Why not write about your experience and related outcomes and findings? Unless you sent your surrogate A.I. robot in your stead, you should have plenty of fodder for your LinkedIn posts.
  • Your Curation. No smart technology can curate content on your behalf. Sure you can enslave some feed aggregator to do the dirty work of compiling content. But, only you can choose what to curate. Don’t just focus on your interests. Build a curation profile that people can rely on.

Unless you are assimilated entirely by some social collective network (you know the one I mean), these topic areas should help you stay relevant—at least until the post-apocalyptic war between humankind and machines.

Would you add anything to the list?

My very own manual!?!?

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.

Impact of technology on jobs for the mentally disabled

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?

mental impairment1

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.

humantomachine

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?

How do I collaborate?

Community-Cutouts-edit11

While reading chapter 4 of Rheingold’s “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online”, I found some difficulty relating to the mentioned online collaborative communities illustrated through online gaming and Wikipedia pages.

If I had to categorize the bulk of my online activities, I would fall mostly in Ito’s “hanging out” situation defined on page 118 in chapter 3. I’ve never been interested in WoW or online gaming in general, and I certainly don’t “geek out” with any obscure Internet subculture. I understand concept of online collaborative communities, but it’s very difficult for me to translate this into my own life.

After thinking long and hard about this concept, two arenas came to mind: Linkedin and my job.

 

Although I absolutely do not frequent Linkedin the way I do Facebook, Insta, and SnapChat, I have a profile and have used the site while doing freelance assignments. The section on page 155 labeled “What Cooperation Theory Teaches Us About Life Online Today” could be the Bible for success on Linkedin.

At my current job, many of my coworkers are remote, and most of our daily assignments don’t come from a particular manager. There’s typically a collective interest (ex. Getting new products on the website, creating size charts) that can’t be completed without the collaboration of many people. These rules also strangely apply to this situation, as all of our interactions are online.

  1. Balance Retribution and Forgiveness. When you’re inquiring about a job on Linkedin, soliciting services or requesting a connection, do not harp on uninterested/untrustworthy people. If they don’t reciprocate or cooperate, try someone else and leave them alone. This rule also applies in the workplace, when people aren’t cooperating the way they should be, leave them alone and try one of their colleagues or their manager. In both situations, the “tit for tat” method maintains a healthy environment and prevents bad blood.
  1. Contribute publicly without requiring or expecting any direct reward. Public contributions make others more likely to help you in the future, it inspires others to contribute, and it builds team morale in both situations. There are many groups in LinkedIn that resemble forums, and active participants are what makes them thrive. People in the workplace also remember those who help them out, and will always return the favor.

 

  1. Reciprocate when someone or some group does you a favor. This ties into rule 2, and is what makes this dynamic work.

 

  1. Look for ways to seek a sense of shared group identity. At work, this is done by default as people are in different departments, and we’re all familiar with one another’s responsibilities. On Linkedin, this is done by one’s “connections” and groups they’re members of.

 

  1. Introduce people and networks to each other in mutually beneficial ways. The “connections” feature on Linkedin takes care of this for users. At work, this is done by using the cc feature on emails, and including people in conference calls.

 

  1. When progress is blocked by social dilemmas, create institutions for collective action. When it comes to Linkedin, the “report this user” and “block” features handle most social dilemmas. In the workplace, personal issues can be talked out or reported to HR in serious situations; it is unacceptable for work to stop due to a “social dilemma”.

 

  1. Punish cheating, but not too drastically. As with any online community, other participants are quick to publicly and privately call out bad behavior. If the issue persists, they aren’t afraid to report or block the offending user. In the workplace, minor offenses are addressed or coached by management. However major offenses are taken to HR, and may result in suspension or termination.

 

How do your relate to online collaborative communities?

Movie Hits Are Taking a Hit: Shifting from Mainstream to Streaming Media

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The film and TV industries have always been competitive for sure. You have your A-listers, your B-listers, and so called D-listers. The A-listers starred in hit movies and TV shows. Period. The B-listers did made-for-TV movies and some pretty good, if not short-lived TV shows. And, the D-listers, well, they popped up here and there. I’m noticing all that is changing now and I’m not the only one.

A-listers are appearing in TV series and mini-series. B-listers are appearing in movies—good movies, but no one expects them to be hit movies as blockbusters are few and far between. This applies to music and books too, but I’m a movie buff so I’ll mostly stick to what I know best.

Is This All There Is?

In days gone by, our means of accessing content (whether video, audio, or print) were limited. We went to a movie or drive-in movie for, uh, movies. We listened to the radio, groovy records, and later CDs for music and the like. And, we read daily newspapers, monthly magazines, and the latest from the book-of-the-month club.

What you found from those distributions channels were what executives (with the help of media experts and a lot of market study) thought would make the most money. Anything outside of this realm was more difficult to find. (Thinking about if from the other end, if you were the artist, it was difficult to produce because the market couldn’t reach you very easily.) I remember studying aspects of this as an undergrad in various mass communication courses.

But, the reason we see fewer hit movies isn’t because our preferences have changed; it’s because we are finally able to indulge our preferences.

Changing Channels

It’s not that big hits and mainstream content are going away entirely. The reason seems to be our ability to access streaming media—it’s easy. From the content producers end, it’s easier and more affordable to put content online even if you don’t have a robust following yet. The big hit producers are having to compete with these “alternative” content providers. To do that, they have be “in the media” their competitors are in.

A sentence from Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart (p. 251) gives some insight into this process:

“Social media are permitting people to seek support, information, and a sense of belonging from sparsely knit, loosely bound networks as well as the traditional densely knit, tightly bound groups.”’

Those loose networks can be thought of as non-mainstream, alternative content providers and their enthusiasts. So, it’s not that our tastes have shifted, but we’re finally able to access more of what we’ve always wanted to access. Chris Anderson explains it this way in The Long Tail:

“But most of us want more than just hits. Everyone’s taste departs from the main-stream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we’re drawn to them. Unfortunately, in recent decades such alternatives have been pushed to the fringes by pumped-up marketing vehicles built to order by industries that desperately need them.

Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody. Not enough shelf space for all the CDs, DVDs, and games produced.”

I would say it’s been more than recent decades though. It’s too vast a subject for a blog post, but if you look back on the history of mass media and go back just before it began, you’ll find what we call “niche” content today.

Someday soon, I believe that idea will fall away and we’ll just talk about the latest content whether it comes from big-house publishers or sole (and soulful) artists. Someday soon, we’ll watch the Oscars and hear: “And the Oscar for best documentary goes to that woman over there who filmed the entire thing on her mobile phone.” Very respectable.

Attention, Anxiety & the Internet

As I’ve often mentioned, my day-to-day life is very virtually centered.  My work is completely internet-based.  I am taking several continuing education courses online and I am now pursuing this program though Stout.  Even my social and romantic life have a significant digital component.  This week’s assigned reading from Net Smart,  by Howard Rheingold, was very relate-able.  In particular, I identified with the first chapter that discussed how our attention can be taken over by our use of digital media.

When email makes you anxious.

Media expert Linda Stone, hit a nerve for me when she said, “we’re putting our bodies in a state of almost low-level flight-or-fight (Rheingold, 2014, p.45).  Lately, I have begun to notice anxiety creeping in to my virtual world and not necessarily “low-level” as she describes it.

I have struggled with anxiety for most of my life.  The anxious state and panic can often occur just easily if I’m out in the “real world,” versus if I am behind my computer screen.  It really just depends on where I am when an anxiety-producing catalyst comes along.  Perhaps the only difference is that I can hide it a little better when I am in the comfort of my own home.

I have been noticing a peculiar shift lately.  Recently, my daughter was going through some health issues.  Because of some extenuating circumstances, I was required to rely extensively on emails to communicate with some of the specialists and insurance professionals that were involved.  Then during this same time period, I was negotiating some financial issues with my ex. I had a friend who was going through an exhausting emotional stretch and reaching out via email.  Then, there have been some very stressful work-related issues that are also being communicated primarily though email.  I am used to the internet being my vehicle to conduct much of life, but suddenly it was being inundated with negative interactions.

I am embarrassed to admit this, but several days, I have found myself lying in bed and not wanting to get up.  I can’t avoid the computer because a lot of the ways I use it, aren’t optional.  During the week, I actually share countless loving emails and instant messages with my significant other.  We are both single parents with a lot on our plate, so it’s our way to connect and share romance. This is a daily habit that usually drives me out of bed to see what is waiting there for me!.  Of course, there were some other positive emails I would be getting as well.  But, during this little pocket of time, the dread and anxiety I felt at having to go face my email box, and be ready for whatever stressful ones came in, was just overwhelming.

Attention isn’t always up to us.

Perhaps the gravity for me is because the internet is more than just “digital stimulation” for me.  It isn’t something that I am addicted to because I crave it per se.  It’s really the village I call “home.”  I shop at the store there. I communicate with everyone.  I work there.  When my marriage was crumbling, I (occasionally) felt that same way about getting out of bed.  I didn’t want to know what going to happen in my home with my ex-husband–but I knew once I got up, whatever stress there was to be had, would be unavoidable.  Now my “home” is more than a building. It is also a complex ecosystem of digital technology.  I cannot always control or mindfully avoid, some of the incoming data that impacts my “online” home.

I am going to spend some more time rereading this chapter as I am fascinated by the concept of “attention” and how we use it.  I also think it is worth considering that the degree to which one can control their attention or minimize where they turn their focus, is dependent on their relationship to digital technology–how much of their interaction with it is in the realm of optional, versus how much is a non-negotiable aspect of their day-to-day life.

How Google Is Making Us Smarter

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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?

The Un-Networked: A Story About App Development in a Bubble

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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.

But, why?

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.

How Influenced By Twitter/Facebook/Snapchat/Insta Are We?

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How well do I know the “technology” that has become the backbone of my existence? Are the programs that are the object(s) of my constant attention, primary tools of expressing myself, and preferred ways of communicating with friends and family structuring me in ways I’ve never realized?

I sat back and took a long hard look at this possibility, and the only way I could attempt to dissect it was to try and imagine how I’d behave without this “technology”. The issue is I’ve been heavily reliant on social media since 2004 (15 years old). I tried to remember how I expressed myself and communicated with friends before MySpace, as well as the way I used MySpace when I first joined.

Before MySpace, I met and built friendships with many people but when life separated us (ex. Changing schools, moving across town), we lost contact and I forgot about them. I wasn’t upset about loosing touch with these people, but I would think about them from time to time. However, I had no desire to keep tabs on every person I’d ever met for the rest of our lives regardless of our relationship.

Upon joining MySpace I was amazed to see profiles of old friends and neighbors I hadn’t seen in years. Aside from getting real time pictures and updates on their lives, I could also see what their siblings and parents were up to as well as their new friends. I began searching for and befriending these old friends and acquaintances to personally reconnect, and to snoop on their personal lives.

This completely evolved when Facebook became popular and people were constantly updating their statuses. I strategically designed my page to present myself in the most impressive fashion possible in sort of a pathetic attempt for people who hadn’t seen me in a while to think my life was better than theirs. I spent hours capturing the perfect pictures, and spent days piecing together clever statuses that supported the image I was promoting.

During the Facebook status update phase, I would scroll through my newsfeed looking for my “friends’” dirty laundry. I’d see couples getting married at 18 and 19 and get so jealous of the beautiful ceremonies and diamond rings. I’d later giggle and text my friends when they changed their relationship statuses to “It’s Complicated” and post long status updates about their marital issues.

Before privacy was a big deal, I even found my favorite C list actor and followed his move from Hawaii to California, his engagement to 3 porn stars, first marriage/divorce, and (more recently) second wife and 2 children. I even told him happy birthday on his real birthday and had a brief conversation with him. I also Facebook stalked his first wife where I learned about his male stripping career, and mistress he met on the job (who he’s married to now).

When my parent’s generation joined Facebook, I began to learn much more than I wanted about their personal lives and personalities. I saw my aunt’s ex-boyfriends, drunken pictures at “Old School” cookouts, and had them reporting my Facebook activity to my grandmother. For this reason, I stopped using Facebook as much and moved on to Instagram and Snapchat.

I mostly use Instagram and Snapchat to showcase how “awesome” my life is as terrible as that sounds. I only post videos and images that make me look interesting, attractive and outgoing while I search for the opposite on my friend’s/acquaintance’s pages. I use these sites to snoop and judge their lives for gossip with mutual friends. We justify our nosiness with “If they didn’t want anybody to know/see, they shouldn’t have posted it”.

As terrible as this is, social media has structured my life and personality. It has made me a nosey, judgmental, and vain person who looks to exploit other’s faults for my own validation. I can relate this to the Enquirer and tabloids of the early 2000’s harassment of  Brittany Spears. I also realize that I am not the only one, most people in my age group use these sites for the same reasons.

I recently remember reading that paparazzi make much less for celebrity photos because social media is a direct channel into their lives the same as everyone else. They make snooping and judging so convenient, effortless and common that people don’t even get paid for it the way they did before.

So to answer my question… Yes. Social media has structured my life, personality, and morals similarly to the rest of its long-term users. I am not proud of the habits I’ve developed, but realizing and accepting them is the only way to change. For the first time ever, I understand my grandmother’s condemnation of social media as a trashy “gossip column” that I shouldn’t be on.