Category Archives: Literacy

So you say you want feedback?

Greeting, everyone! It’s weird how quickly this fall has flown by, and we’re looking at the holidays in a little over a week.

For my final paper, I chose to research more about the Millennial student, the digital native, and the types of feedback that they respond best to. I teach communication skills courses, and Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together made me further analyze the students in my classroom and the way to best connect with them and help them learn. My abstract is as follows:

Today’s college students may enter the classroom physically or virtually. Because of emerging technologies, these digital natives, who are often Millennials, bring different communication habits and expectations to the classroom. For those who teach communication skills to college students to prepare them for the workplace and the world at large, it is critical to first understand these tech-savvy students and to give them feedback that will help them learn and improve. Because the modern-day classroom now involves various delivery methods, including video lectures, audio feedback, discussions, and phone conferences, to name a few, today’s educator must adapt different communication approaches best suited to those methods. This paper will attempt to answer the following questions: 1) What are the major changes in communication strategies and preferences for today’s college student (more precisely, today’s technical college student), and 2) How can communications educators provide better feedback to these students to help students improve their communication skills?

I love how research makes you question your own assertions and preferences. Before this research, I was admittedly in the curmudgeonly mindset that “Millennials these days need too much coddling.” Some research supports this, but with a better understanding of WHY they need more feedback, it feels less needy, and honestly, more reasonable.

Oprah

Courtesy of MakeaMeme.org

I came to better understand who the digital native-Millennial student is, why and how she operates the way she does, and what types of feedback she responds to best. I was able to remind myself that just because I was taught to do something one way doesn’t mean it’s the right way or the best way. So, I’ll be taking some of the research findings I learned through this final paper and employing them in my six classes this coming spring. My students will be getting more audio feedback, more specific feedback, more actionable goals, and more timely feedback. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to juggle all of that with six courses, four of which are writing intensive, but I did learn that audio feedback has some advantages for instructors, too, in that it takes less time and makes them feel more engaged with their classes and students, too.

ElffFeedback

Memegen.com

Overall, the research process reinforced the need to stay up to date on pedagogy, to keep learning and trying and growing. It’s something I try to instill in my students, and now I can speak from more recent, relevant experience with them about it.

Thank you all for your kind comments, suggestions, and posts this fall term. I hope you all have a fantastic holiday season and enjoy some much-deserved time away from studies and work.

 

Another Semester Down! Happy Holidays!

I can’t believe I am making my final blog post of this semester!  I came into this semester not sure what to expect and I found that I was pleasantly surprised as I enjoyed the course content very much.  It lent itself nicely to my current job – selling Pearls on Facebook Live videos.  I felt an advantage as I read through the course materials and was able to remember much of the growth of technology over the last 20 years.

The final paper has been a challenge for me – mostly because I am not employed in the field of technical communications right now and I struggled to find a good topic that also interested me enough to write about for over 15 pages.  I finally landed on the topic of student preferences for printed texts vs e-texts and why we should, as online students, choose to adapt regardless of our preference.

Here is the abstract of my paper:

As technology has advanced over the last 20 years, college students have found a world of opportunity at their fingertips via online courses that can lead to varying college degrees and online certifications.  However, as students are entering, or returning to, college life through online courses, many are finding that the delivery of online course materials through Portable Document Formats (PDFs) and electronic textbooks (e-texts) does not fit their learning preference for printed textbooks.  This paper discusses how universities have been driven to the e-text alternative due to costs and convenience, shares my personal struggle with e-texts as an online graduate student, details challenges that some college students enrolled in online courses may face with electronic delivery of reading materials, and reports previous research that suggests a general, overall student preference for printed texts over e-texts. It also evaluates the need for students to build the skill of adaptability and suggests ways that online college students can adapt to using e-texts without sacrificing their preferred learning style.

As I framed this paper, I had all intentions of discussing the disdain I had for e-texts and recommending that colleges consider students’ preference when assigning a text.  Then I found this article:  The Definition of Adaptability in the Workplace.  It changed my entire way of thinking!  According to author Neil Kokemuller, “Adaptability is a sought-after job skill as employers increasingly rely on flexible job descriptions and rotate employees into different roles. Your ability to adapt to changing situations and expectations makes you more valuable to a current or prospective employer. It also makes you more equipped for a variety of career opportunities…Adaptable workers find more employment and promotion opportunities because many people lack these critical skills” (Kokemuller, 2016).

Why do students attend college if not in order to best prepare for their future?  College students can adapt to being assigned reading material from an e-text in online courses when that medium may not be their preference – and that will be GOOD for them!  It is imperative that we, as students, realize that technology is not going to stop advancing.  Our employers will not always cater to our preferences, so why should our universities?  Being adaptable is a great quality in an employee and in a student!

Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one that is most adaptable to change.

Thank you Dr. Pignetti for a wonderful course and for all of your help and feedback on my final paper.  Thank you classmates for your responses throughout the semester to my blog posts and for such great discussions!  Have a blessed and wonderful Holiday and I hope to see some of you in my next course for the MSTPC program in January (User Centered Research).

Rebecca

 

Social Norms in the Digital Wonderland

We have so many discussions surrounding how our communication and empathy have been altered by digital culture and community.  We’re still trying to define it and understand our own behaviors in this rapidly evolving hot digital world.  But it isn’t tangible and there aren’t unspoken, yet understood social norms to guide us through it.  So, maybe it is a digital wonderland where everything we once knew is now quite possibly, the opposite.  Do social norms exist once we are interacting in a digital community?  How could we possibly uphold them, if they were even defined, when there is no physical context in which to shame someone for not conforming?

gettyimages-185276824-170667a

Mad Hatter Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland 

Photo source: Getty Images

Barry Thatcher, in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010, p. 175), discusses three human threshold values that identify what humans usually negotiate within cultures.  Although there are more, these three tend to cause the most dilemmas in cross-cultural contexts and are the most connected to different uses of digital media.  The author asserts that cultures vary in the way that they handle these dilemmas, there usually is a yin/yang balance but also tension in which side is predominate… And that is what defines each cultures’ unique cultural integrity.

gettyimages-631148483-170667a

Photo source: Getty Images

The first is shared across all cultures.  It is the dilemma of the “I” relating to others or to a group.  We are familiar with the American preference for individualism.  However, on the other side of that is collectivism.  This is when individuals see themselves as highly dependent within a social construct or community.  This is a cultural view holding social or family groups at higher importance than the individual, the “I”.  Collective communication patterns emphasize interpersonal relationships, social hierarchy, social leveraging, group identities, close personal space, and writer-friendly writing patterns. (Spilka, Ed., 2010, p. 176)  Can’t we see our digital interactions as both “I” and “We” driven?  Of course, but does it have the same construct as our traditional physical interaction?  It doesn’t seem so.  The rules seem to flip-flop a bit.

 

The second commonality is that all cultures make and enforce rules, but the reason they are created and the flexibility of their enforcement varies.  The universalist cultural approach is to establish the rules defining what is right to all individuals, regardless of social standing.  The communication patterns associated with universalist protocols include strategies of fairness, justice and equality.  However, the other approach is the particularist culture.  This approach is such that the rules and decisions are applied depending upon relations and context.  Thus there are specific sets of rules for each social relationship.  While both cultural types exist within physical construct such as the universalist culture being more applicable to countries such as the U.S., Western European countries, and Canada and the particularist culture more applicable to Latin America or Asian countries, how do these cultural communication types change when we interact online?  (Spilka, 2010, p. 177) Are Americans so universally standard in their digital world interactions or do they become more particularist, becoming more involved with individuals because of the anonymity our digital world offers us?  Could this be why people develop such strong digital relationships with people whom they’ve never met face-to-face?

 

Lastly, all cultures negotiate public/private sense of space.  This is the idea that human interaction is a degree of involvement across different spheres of life, and this usually involves some sort of divide and trust factor. (Spilka, 2010, p. 177). There are two different approaches to this, according to researchers.  Those are: diffuse or specific cultures.  A diffuse culture is usually collective; involving friends, coworkers, and other social acquaintances.  These are relationships that tend to involve aspects of your personal life, at times overlapping sections.  On the other hand, diffuse cultures can be those of high conflict, mistrust, and competition.  Quite the opposite, specific cultures are those of high public trust and ease that allow for relationships to exist within their own spheres with little crossover with others.  It favors more collaboration because the competitive piece is not relevant.  At what points do we interact collaboratively within our digital world and, then when do we behave more as in a diffuse culture.  I see the social media aspect of our digital world to be much more diffuse.  In one respect we are interacting as friends, but then also competing at who has the best life (from a digital perspective, at least).

 

All the aspects of communication and culture that are difficult enough to navigate in the traditional sense, seem to be at times upside down in the digital wonderland.

gettyimages-925615678-170667a

Photo source: Getty Images

Am I an Important Cultural Worker?

In Ch. 6 “Human + Machine Culture” by Bernadette Longo in Spilka’s text Digital Literacy, the definition of culture is easily broken into acts that include and exclude (p. 148). In order to feel part of a culture, whether that’s a college campus, a church, an ethnicity, or a city, one must draw borders and agree upon the boundaries of that community. This seemingly innocuous task is exclusionary. While it’s pleasant to believe in the democratizing force of the internet, we have learned in previous readings that the barriers to inclusion still exist, for rural areas, low-income areas, elderly populations, etc. From these last chapters of Spilka’s book we’ve also learned that cultural differences can exacerbate communication problems. Yet, we connect online despite these boundaries, contradictions, and limitations. Longo asks, “Can virtual social connections established within a human + machine culture satisfy our human need to connect with other people?” (p. 148). The answer seems to be no, not entirely, but they can alleviate some of those exclusionary tensions and we can work to draw a wider net around our culture(s).

cultural-differences_orig

Cultural Communication Differences, courtesy of meetus@US

 

Longo also makes clear that as technical communicators or anyone who works with language, we have the “power to invite people in” because we are “important cultural workers” (p. 151-52). Because Longo deconstructs the idea that the online culture is universal or homogenous, she forces us to question how to make the communication tools we produce accessible to all in order to extend the cultural boundaries. As producers, we have the privilege and responsibility of deciding whose culture and knowledge will prevail, and historically we have erred on the side of science and logic do the effect of decimating other histories and cultures (p. 153). We prioritize the rational, the technique while subverting the imagination, nature, art, and pathos (p. 158). I went into the liberal arts because of those subversions, but I’ve immersed myself in logic, technique, and intent. Just as our society has evolved to prize the extrovert, the loudest, and most gregarious, it doesn’t mean that those people always have the best ideas. Does the same mentality apply to technical communication? Do we fall into the fallacy of doing things the same way because that’s the way we’ve always done them? I buck against the notion of free-flowing and “flowery’ help design menus but I’m basing that mostly on my own cultural training and preferences.

homogeneous

Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous, courtesy of Thesaurus.plus

I know I have been guilty of the worker (or user) as victim trope when designing technical documents in my early years (p. 159), but Longo illustrates that try as we might users will figure out their own ways to use our documentation, oftentimes not in the way we intended. People are ingenious and impatient. Doesn’t it behoove us to give them the benefit of the doubt, ask for their input, and design with their usability in mind rather than assume we know better than they do because we know more about the product than they (presumably) do? As usual, I will apply this to my current position as an educator. When I started teaching, I was terrified that students would ask me a question that I didn’t know the answer to and that I would have to admit that I didn’t know. I shake my head at how naive and pompous that now feels. Of course I don’t know everything, and my students’ experiences enable them to see content from entirely different perspectives than my own. Isn’t that richer? The more I’ve let myself stop being the primary keeper-of-knowledge and made my classroom collaborative and interactive, the more engaging it has become for all of us in the room.

SitandGet

What it feels like during many mandatory professional development meetings (sitting and getting), courtesy of techlearning.com

 

control-freak-quote

Control freaks unit!, courtesy of Psychology Today

I’m a planner and a bit of a control freak. I like to know what’s coming and I like to steer, but sometimes I learn more (and my students learn more) when we put the planner down and see where we end up. In Chapter 7: “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” author Barry Thatcher asks technical communicators to return to the tenets of purpose, audience, and information needs, but also to organizational strategies and style preferences (p. 190). Perhaps that means that we have multiple forms of the same content but tailored to the audience. Maybe that means audiences can design the best content solution to fit their needs (though I don’t know how that’s engineered or executed well)? I am very much for examining our own cultural biases and ethnocentrism, but I acknowledge that it’s hard, dirty work. Just as jurors can never be completely objective (nor can any human being), it’s hard to set aside our own inherent cultural upbringing and fully understand or appreciate that another culture does it completely differently. Even as a I read the case study of the US vs. Mexican communication differences, I found myself automatically preferring the Western style. To me, it just made more sense.

Perhaps we start there. We stop to analyze why and to realize that people from other cultures feel equally justified in finding their way the “right way.” If communicating effectively came easy, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching ourselves how to do it. It doesn’t. Human beings are complex. Digital audiences are complex (p. 221). Blakeslee (Ch. 8) recommends we keep researching and applying what we learn, and we keep asking ourselves the hard, uncomfortable questions. That’s where the growth lies. As one of my favorite poets and late-great songwriters wrote,

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (Leonard Cohen).

Looking at Digital Literacy Through Different Lenses

Research Participant Lens

During my senior year in college, I worked with the electronic company, Magnavox, as a human participant in several research projects they were conducting to get a better feel for what their audience needed/desired with regard to installation instructions.  In each instance, I would be put into a room, alone, with their boxed product and asked to simply set it up based on the instructions in the box.  I was also asked to make edits to the instructions that I felt would help me, the user, to understand them better.  At the time, I was in it for the $100 paycheck I received after each task was finished.  However, looking back I realize that I played an important role in their consumer feedback!

In Chapter 8 of “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication” (Spilka 2010), author Ann Blakeslee discusses the subject of, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” by conducting five case studies with technical writers from three different companies.

The findings from the five case studies, as a whole, support a problem-solving and contextualized approach to audience in digital environments in technical communication.  In particular, they suggest that while technical communicators may not know their exact audiences, the complexity of the product and the typical environments in which the product is used provide them with guidance in understanding their prospective readers.  Digital audience adaptation, therefore, requires a problem-solving approach that allows writers to identify and analyze their audiences and to learn about their audiences’ contexts and uses for documentation (p. 204).

Her research showed that, “writers have always used a set of heuristics and strategies for learning about their audiences and addressing them specifically.  (Her) findings support the continued use of such heuristics and suggest some specific ones for learning about and addressing digital audiences…some of (which) depend on or are facilitated by digital technologies.” These include:

    • targeting specific users and situations as a way to respond to and address audience needs;
    • developing personas;
    • Interacting with users;

Returning to my experiences with Magnavox, I can see that they put the first heuristic into practice.  However, the last three were not applicable/necessary.  Once I began my work of assembling and wiring the electronic devices, I was left alone (watched through a two-way window) and no help was offered.  I also did not receive any response to my feedback from those conducting the experiment.  As a matter of fact, I was instructed to put my feedback in a box on the table and leave the room when finished.  I picked up my check from the receptionist on my way out.  My only “response” from Magnavox was when I was contacted and asked to participate in the next round of research (I always assumed that meant I did well and my feedback was helpful).

Looking through this lens, I see the importance of giving feedback as a customer.  I like the idea that my voice will be heard, and more so, that someone may actually be listening.

Technical Writer Lens

Just a year after my research work with Magnavox, I began my own career as a Technical Writer for the small water heater company that I have written about several times this semester.  At that time, we didn’t have online documentation (2001), but as the writer of their print documentation, I often felt the need for audience feedback.  Much like Blakeslee’s case study writers from Tax Soft and Secure Net, my company prevented me “from having direct contact with…customers” (p. 208).  Most of my feedback came from the customer service representatives who would field calls from the (usually irate) customer and pass it down to me.  As case study participant, Amanda, said, “…we have to deal with it after the fact and so basically we have to find out from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (p. 209).

I am not sure if I have shared this before, but my husband currently works for this company at which I was employed in 2001-2002.  It is no longer the small water heater company it once was as it was purchased about 10 years ago by the largest water heater manufacturer in the world, and now employs eight technical writers across the United States.  My husband is the Engineer/Manager to which the four writers at his facility report.  Of course, him being the “boss” keeps me from being able to return to work there as a technical writer (can you even imagine working for your spouse?), however, it also allows me to stay informed and have insight on the way things have changed since I worked for them as their only writer 16-17 years ago. In discussing this chapter with him, I asked whether the company had gone to any kind of digital communication.  He told me that they have, but only in the form of a searchable PDF file of the use and care manuals and installation instructions on their website.  None of those are set up in a way where the “user can access and go directly to the parts pertaining to them” (p. 205) or use them as “walk-throughs” (p. 206).  My husband also sits on the board and is acting Chairman of the ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) committee, and, with further questioning, he reminded me that the safety standards (such as ANSI and CSA) require that certain warning labels pertaining to appliances be visible at all times in a written format.  That means that the documents cannot be easily taken apart and sectioned in a type of digital, click-what-you-need format.  If the information appears without a certain safety label in close proximity, the company stands liable should any harm be done or death occur.

While my husband’s company does not put a lot of written literature online due to standards issues, they do produce instructional videos such as this one A.O. Smith Water Heater Pressure Relief Valve for consumers looking to better understand or make small repairs to their water heater.  In fact, they have an entire website dedicated to water heater education called A.O. Smith University. They also have a section where they do live, recorded videos and they allow customers to text them questions during the show to be answered live.  Not exactly top of the line in digital literacy since the customer would have to know when the live show is being held and tune in at just that time to have his questions answered, but it is a start.

Looking through this lens, I see the challenges some companies and writers face when trying to keep up with the ever advancing technology and digital literacy.

Consumer Lens

As a consumer in the digital world, I like instant gratification.  Last week, I received an automated text message at midnight that I was almost out of data on my cell-phone.  How can that be?  The bill just cycled!  Several years ago, I would have placed a phone call to my cell phone provider the next morning and discussed the issue/options.  However, for this instance, I grabbed my iPad at 12:04 am and went to the Verizon app where I instantly began an online chat with customer service.  The representative was able to direct me to the portion of the app where I could see my usage where I realized that I had done a 5-hour live Facebook video the night before while on data.  OOPS.  Regardless, I chatted with him for over an hour while watching Criminal Minds on Hulu and painting my fingernails. I also made a bowl of noodles and called (loudly) for the dog who went outside at one point and hadn’t returned.  As the consumer in this situation, I preferred that hour long chat to a 15-20 minute phone call because it was convenient.  At the end, I received a customer satisfaction survey.  I marked each item accordingly and went back to watching my show on Hulu with a new, unlimited data plan for my next oopsie.

Looking through this lens, I certainly appreciate a heavy online, night or day, presence from the companies with which I do business.  I see the importance of understanding digital literacy and of a company putting it into practice.

b4-1

Image from Helpsocial.com

Teaching Take-aways Concerning Digital Literacy

 

CollaborativeWriting

Collaborative writing, courtesy of KQED

This week we tackled Chapters 3-5 in Spilka’s 2010 text Digital Literacy. Working backwards with Chapter 5: “Content Management,” the chapter’s author William Hart-Davidson reassures us that technical communicators should not be so fretful about their profession since the proliferation of content management in the digital age will make their jobs more valuable, not less. However, he shares that “in an information economy, more workers will write” (p. 129). So while content management will alleviate some of the fears of job loss that technical communicators face, they must accept that more people in their organizations will write. In some ways, this gives technical writers even more to do; as in, do they become the gatekeepers of all communication? Realistically, they cannot. With an already-expanding job description, technical writers cannot manage all the tasks of content creation plus content management in a silo or as a solitary member of the team. They need help, which is where educators can help to reinforce the need for strong writing skills, across disciplines. Quotes like those help reinforce for my undergraduate students that they all need better writing skills, no matter what profession they are going into. If “communication is why companies operate,” then all workers must be better communicators (p. 135).

Blackboard

LMS like Blackboard offer educators chances to act as technical communicators again. Courtesy of AppAdvice

As I read chapters 3-5 of Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010), I realized that as the instructor/content manager of multiple Blackboard shells for multiple classes, I am acting as a technical writer for the classes I teach. With a background in technical writing, I hope that I am skilled at thinking about usability, audience needs, and communication when I create those shells, but putting myself in the mind of a technical communicator can possibly allow me to see the areas where my students struggle, particularly important for online courses. In Chapter 4: “Information Design,” authors Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski explain how “technical communicators are well situated to contribute to the development of information spaces and to advocate for users needs in emerging digital spaces” (p. 105). My primary job as an instructor is to help my students understand and apply content, so it is in my best interest and theirs to give more consideration to how they use our digital spaces. Much of what the authors cover in this chapter aligns with what we discuss when reviewing audience analysis and writing purposes. The same tenets apply to critical literacy.

Salvo and Rosinski made me ponder how I apply the notions of granularity, mapping, signposting, metadata, and pattern language in my classes. Over the last several years, our college has created and mandated a standard template that all instructors must use in designing their Blackboard (like D2L) shells. The left-side navigation is all the same, and there are standard buttons we must all use; however, we can customize the design (colors and flair) of the Blackboard shell, add buttons, and arrange the content within the shell as we so choose. When this change was first proposed, there was faculty outcry about academic freedom, but the changes were user driven. Our students had complained about the lack of consistency from instructor to instructor, course to course. Looking over the shoulders of students as they try to find information helps me see where more or fewer signposts are needed. The authors caution that we shouldn’t expect users to remember a virtual space’s ambience, so adding in additional maps and signposts could be helpful (p. 12).

Signposts

Signposts, courtesy of Hillcrest Primary School

Finally, with Chapter 3: “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” author Dave Clark highlights three main theories we can begin to apply to the “rhetoric of technology” to better understand it, or to assess the “broader implications” and “potential influence” that technologies have on how we communicate (p. 87). This chapter inspired me to create an assignment that asks students to analyze their expectations of, experiences with, and performance of a certain tool, say Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. I’ve formerly assigned a rhetorical analysis of a piece of writing, but asking students to perform a rhetorical analysis on a tool of communication may be valuable to them and could reveal some real benefits and issues with those tools.  

No doubt that new technologies and tools will carve new avenues of consideration for technical communicators and educators and will affect how we talk about and practice the rhetoric of technology. Just as the World Wide Web had to outgrow its ugly baby stage to reach maturation, all new tech tools will force societies to determine their best uses, standards, and rules. Again, the overarching theme of all of these three chapters seems to be to remain flexible and open to change, and to consider the hows and whys of what we do and how to do it best.

What’s in a Blog?

Have you ever noticed what makes you continue to read a blog or bounce after the first few moments?  Is it the blogger’s words?  Too many, too little, too boring, too complicated, or completely irrelevant to your search?  Or could it be the layout?  Overly cluttered or not broken up with images?  The appeal of a blog is unique to each individual.  So, how can a blogger create a product appealing enough to gain traction?

Paper on vintage typewriter with words blog typed on paper

Photo source: Getty Images

Throughout the Communication Strategies for Emerging Media course, we learn how to create relevant and appealing blogs that embody the ideal structure and flow for effectiveness. Blogging, like all forms of technical communication, has its own style and character.  What’s done on Twitter or Instagram, doesn’t have the same appeal or value in a professional blog. I’ve learned through this course and then analyzing my own interaction with blogs, that the simpler is better.  I’m much more likely to read something all the way through if it is concise and not overly wordy.

 

Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (Spilka, Ed., 2010) offers good technical writing practices that apply well to blogging platforms.  Granularity is a term used in technical writing that explains effective digital spaces should have a balance of text-based information chunks and multimedia applications.  However, depending upon the audience, the way that is done is not always the same.  We must understand our audience and the message we are trying to deliver. Granularity furthermore, has three levels of magnification to consider: microscopic (close perspective), mesoscopic (middle perspective), and macroscopic (far perspective). The microscopic perspective involves aspects such as text size, font, paragraph placement and length, and white space.  While mesoscopic and macroscopic perspectives consider broader matters such as, multiple document delivery over various lengths of time. (p. 111)

 

Mapping or blog arrangement are also very important to audience appeal.  An overly cluttered blog without a clear content menu leads to audience uncertainty or distrust.  Organization is a strategy that can build blog appeal and reputation.  The content itself should be clean and well arranged.  However, a blogger should also consider ads or the minimization of, also in the mapping schema.  No one likes to try to read a blog with ads blinking all around the content.

Simple web flowchart or sitemap with space for your content or copy.

Photo Source: Getty Images

Ambience is a critical factor in all works of art and design, including digital communication.  Ambient design allows the audience to to understand the purpose and content of a blog.  The design should be created in a way that this perspective can be gained by only a quick glance.  This allows ease of use and guides the audience through the blog interaction. (p. 120-121)  Furthermore, this overall design strategy establishes trust and audience comfort, which are crucial in a popular blog.  Images are important in creating the intended ambience.  To choose the correct supporting images, it is important to have a well defined blog purpose and to understand your desired audience well. Aesthetics are also very important to creating an appealing blog site.

IMG_0042

This is a photograph of mine, with some filter experimentation.  It creates a unique feel that could be appealing in certain blogs involving photography, art, or even cats.

 

Folksonomy is also known as social tagging, social indexing, tagging, etc.  It is a method by which content can be created and managed, via tags, to categorize the content.  (p. 118) This method of tagging and categorizing content is done all over social media, the Web, and in blogging.  As we write our blogs, we choose the categories/tags we want connected to our content so that it appears in relevant user searches.  Aside from administrative blog tools, we can also accomplish this via hashtags which are trackable throughout social media (if our blogs are shared to those platforms) and the Web.

 

As technical and digital communication advances, we also make changes to improve the functionality and appeal of our blogs.  While blogs are still very relevant, vlogs are quickly gaining attention.  With that in mind, it will be interesting to see  how the technical communicator roles develop should consumption of media become more video based.  The technical writing practices could shift into video production.  One could argue that they already have…

gettyimages-912895022-170667a

Photo Source: Getty Images

The Yin Yang of Technological Advancements

Since I have been out of the field of technical communication for the last 15 years, this week’s readings framed my understanding of some of the changes that have taken place since I left.  It seems there has been a major shift to all things digital.  While I have no work experience in the field to share and relate to this week, I did find that I was able to relate my direct sales experiences to those of my mom 25 years ago.  Much has changed, and the shift has seemed natural and easy.  As a matter of fact, I am quite thankful for many of the changes and I am beginning to see that, while I have not been a professional writer over the last 15 years and I have not had experience with the changing publishing software, I have certainly kept up with the changes in digital and social media by virtue of simply keeping with the times.

Twenty-five years ago, my mom decided to begin selling Mary Kay Cosmetics on the side to supplement the income from her full-time retail management job.

Message-in-a-bottle-party-invitation-idea-Add-a-handwritten-note

Source: candiecooper.com

I was fourteen and she would often enlist my help in handwriting her party invitations that she would give to friends in the mall where she worked.  She personally handed out each invitation and answered any questions the guest may have.  She also asked that each one RSVP if they planned to attend.  The night of the party, she would usually have each person that RSVP’d show up, occasionally with a friend, but not often.  In the end, she had a small circle of friends who purchased their make-up from her.  After a few years, she lost interest in the business and became more active in her full time career and that was the last I heard of direct sales until I was an adult, married with children, who had decided to put my career on hold.

As soon as I entered the world of direct sales, I knew much had changed since the days of helping my mom with her Mary Kay party invitations. My business is done almost completely online.  My invitations are events that I create on Facebook through my business page and share with my customers or give to my party hostesses to share with their friends and family members (see section “More on Facebook Events” below for my thoughts on this aspect).  My actual parties are done via my phone camera and broadcast as a Facebook Live video.  Gone are the days where my mom would spend hours cleaning the house and baking treats for her Mary Kay guests.  I go into my office, put a photo screen behind me to block out any mess from the day and keep my video background clean and focused, and hit “go live.”  I am also not limited to an audience of my friend circle and their friend circles.  My reach extends across the US as people share my video with their own Facebook friends and family.  While I find myself having some nostalgia for the “old way” and that “personal touch,” I admit that my business is much more successful than my mom’s because I am able to reach so many more customers due to the way I use social media to conduct my business.

I am also constantly looking for ways to use social media more effectively for my business.  As things continue to change in the world of technology, I often find that something that “worked” for me last month has stopped drawing the same response or interest.  That is when I go searching for answers online.  Check out this blog post I recently found:  42 Facebook Post Ideas from Businesses Who Know What They are Doing.  Fellow Students – I think it could also be helpful as we begin to write our final papers for this course.

More on Facebook Events

Facebook Events seem to be the social media preferred way to invite people to do almost anything.  It is simple in that the host just creates an event, fills in the details, and invites most of their Facebook friends list with the click of a few buttons.  To see just HOW easy, check out this quick YouTube Video on How to Create a Facebook Event. The drawback?  Those invitations have lost that personal touch in a way that seems to be affecting the outcome of the event.  While wedding and graduation invitations are still sacred and more personal (usually snail-mailed), I receive about fifteen invites on Facebook each week to join a direct sales online party, to come to a friend’s child’s birthday party – even to attend our family Thanksgiving dinner!

In chapter 4 of Spilka’s “Digital Literacy for Technical Communication,” authors Salvo & Rosinski discuss Johnson’s (1998) research and ask us to,

“Consider memos, parking tickets, wedding invitations, white papers, and reports for decision making: each of these genres carries part of the message in visual design and physical presentation.  The design indicates a range of possible responses to the text.  One can accept or decline an invitation…Johnson reminds technical communicators of the power of inherent design and presentation: while innovation is possible, it comes at a cost.  Innovative documents man not carry with them clear boundaries for readers” (p. 108).

This paragraph resonated with me especially as I considered the part about how, “One accept or decline an invitation…” (p. 108).  Facebook events are so impersonal and so generally disregarded by most people that, often, invitees will click “maybe” on an event and never show up.

download

Source: graphjam.com

Maybe they never intended to show up, maybe they had some interest and lost that interest before the event, or maybe they forgot.  Whatever the case, Facebook events are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to any kind of RSVP or guest count abilities.

In my business, I will create an event for my customers who wish to host a party.  That event links me with their friends so they can invite and I can share what this party is all about and how they can go about shopping.  While this method of inviting is convenient (most of my hostesses live across the country), they aren’t always the best method when it comes to getting friends interested and to actually attend the Live party.  So many hostesses will complain after the party, “My friends said they were coming and only x showed!  I can’t believe it!”  Well, I can.  It happens every time.

Another ongoing issue with Facebook events is that sometimes the invitees never see the invitation.  Recently, a dear friend invited me to her son’s birthday party via a Facebook event.  I never saw the invite.  She called me a week after the party saying that they missed me and I was totally clueless.  Technology is awesome, but nothing beats getting a small, hand-written birthday party invitation in the mail.  It shows me that I wasn’t an afterthought to my friend – or part of her, “I’m in a hurry, click, click, click” guest list, but instead I am a treasured friend for whom she made time and gave an effort to invite.

3faaa8c4655d8bdcc783d8f8039b7f4c5a0e2b7c74c584a052f8282df7f5236f

Source: Imagur.com

While I am appreciative of technological advancements for business purposes, I wish it wasn’t also taking over in regard to the way we communicate with true friends and family.  Where are we going to draw that line?

Web 1.0 to Web 2.0: A Brief Evolution of Technical Writing

We are currently in the Web 2.0 World Wide Web era.  It is a concept that was developed by Darcy DiNucci in 1999 and then popularized by Tim O’Reilly.  It is the idea that the internet we engage with now is participatory of social in nature. The date of full Web 2.0 is not exactly determined.  However, we do know that this change occurred in the mid 2000s.  Prior to participatory web (Web 2.0), Web 1.0 is considered a one-way exchange of our information.  While users could search and engage somewhat over the World Wide Web, the information was pushed or projected to the user.  Even most question and answer or company managed chat forums were moderated by the company or organization source.  There were limits to the amount in which users could actually interact with each other or companies.  Web 2.0 introduced World Wide Web users to social media platforms, blogs, and other interactive technologies.  Wikipedia Web 2.0

fullsizeoutput_155

Photo source Wikipedia

The change in internet user engagement also effected technical writing professionals.  The traditional static content of books and Web 1.0 content, now needed to be an interactive, living document.  Digital advancements in technical writing during the Web 1.0 era included creating microgenres of content such as Frequently Asked Questions or online forums and also the PDF that allowed content to maintain its intended form for printing.  Fast forward to Web 2.0, and technical writers are finding themselves becoming technological experts.  Some of the ways technical writers have had to evolve their knowledge and specialties are: learning the digital publishing software tools to create user friendly and accessible content, understand web content and be able to use those platforms to create user-engaging content such as embedded maps, videos, calendars, etc., and to also be able to create engaging micro-content for webpages as opposed to writing long documents or novels.

In additional to content creation and management for general World Wide Web users, e-learning has also opened up many opportunities in technical writing.  In Rachel Spilka’s book, Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (2010), she references that in 2008, the Society for Technical Communication (STC)’s Instructional Design and Learning Special Interest Group has grown significantly and 20% of all STC members belonged to it.  Some technological knowledge required by technical writers in this field include: authoring tools used to create e-learning content such as Dreamweaver, Flash, Captivate, and Illustrator, learning content management systems (LCMS), and learning management systems.

Many other specialty avenues exist for technical writers thanks to the development of Web 2.0.  Although the transitions over the most recent decades have been an uphill battle at times, technical writers have also gained the ability to diversity their career and have more interaction with content consumers.  Web 3.0 is beginning to be rumored about.  This will mean much more Artificial Intelligence involvement into our World Wide Web.  It will be very interesting to see how the technical writing career field evolves involving Artificial Intelligence.  Could it mean more new opportunities or could Artificial Intelligence take over some technical writing roles and responsibilities?  I sure it won’t be long before we begin to transition to Web 3.0 given the rapid advancement of internet technologies.

Aging Gracefully in Tech Comm

MiddleAge

Happy middle-aged people, courtesy of Daily Express

This past year, I turned 42, and I’ve had to start admitting that I’m now “middle aged.” Gasp. Forty was harder than I thought it would be, and I’m trying to age gracefully, but I hear poet Dylan Thomas’s ghost whispering to me, “Do no go gentle into that good night!” I get the same feeling every time I read about the evolution of the technical communication field. Practitioners and textbook authors seem positively anxious about what’s happening in the field, and I would argue unnecessarily so. Each field goes through growing pains, and as a former technical writer and a teacher of writing, I’m less concerned about what we call it and more concerned about what we do and how we continue to evolve gracefully within the profession.

When entrenched in any field of study or interest, it’s important to understand its history. The historical timeline that R. Spilka (2010) chronicles in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication covers some obvious changes that have occurred in the last several decades. Changing social norms, technologies, and business practices have had the largest impacts: more women are writers, more work is online, all technical communication work is done using technology, and as a result the skill set that technical communicators need has expanded. This is true of most professions. My mom taught in a two-room schoolhouse. She didn’t use a learning management system (LMS) to display course content or let students and parents review grades online. As a twenty-first century instructor, I use an LMS daily, most of my classes have computers, and we’re offering many more online courses. The profession changes, and so do we as practitioners.

When I graduated in 1999 and shortly after was hired to be a technical writer for an internet-based start-up company, I wished that my undergraduate degree had prepared me more for the technical aspect of the field. I had used Word to write essays, but that was about it. I had to teach myself some HTML, graphics, and the new-at-the-time RoboHelp program. Spilka notes that when the internet bubble burst a few years later, more employers were looking for the technical communicators who had those technical skills (p. 37). Teaching myself those skills was good for me. It made me more motivated and confident, but it would’ve been easier to transition quickly into the field with more computer software and technical skills.

At my first writing job, I was a lone technical writer in a group of computer software engineers. As I moved on to my next writing job, I would start to mimic some of the changes that emerged from Phase 3 to Phase 4, according to Spilka. In the early ‘00s as the Internet became part of our workplaces and households, my work broadened to include website copy, marketing brochures, both print and online, and working within a team of writers for multiple clients. By this time, the Internet and the websites on it had a less rinky-dink and a more professional appearance. Internally, we developed standards guides that we distributed throughout the company and expected everyone to adhere to. Rather than just seen as “translators,” we were included in design and

Google

Early Google landing screen, courtesy of Telegraph

marketing meetings. Quite honestly, I liked it better that way.

Spilka caps off the second chapter of Digital Literacy by writing, “technical communicators’ work is undergoing significant changes at a rapid pace” (p. 75). He later admits that all industries are.

No longer is it enough to just be a writer. Technical communicators (aka symbolic analysts) must be Jacks and Jills of all skills and must keep those skills up-to-date with the changing needs of the market–as must most employees in this information age. The largest take-away from these two first chapters is the need for technical communicators to keep demonstrating their value, and that means their dollar value. With the threat of downsizing and globalization, the author posits that technical communicators must muscle their way to mission alignment and administrative recognition. It seems like this shouldn’t be necessary, but I suppose it is. 

Spilka ends Chapter 2 with “While the period ahead may be at times unsettling for practitioners and educators alike in the technical communication profession, it also promises the kinds of challenges and rewards as such periods always yield” (78). That’s right, Dylan Thomas! We won’t go gently, but go we must.

Dylan Thomas

Seductive Dylan Thomas, courtesy of Literary Hub

 

 

 

P.S. Googling images of middle-aged people is an exercise in humility itself. It results in a lot of Truman Show-esque couples in weirdly smiling embraces.

 

 

 

Change is Good!

This week’s reading was very nostalgic for me!  During the last semester of my senior year of college, I began an internship with a software company where my role was to work with RoboHELP to develop online help for their medical software.  In May of 2001, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts in English with a focus in Technical Communications and went to work within the next three months as a Technical Writer at a small water heater manufacturer in Tennessee.  I was quickly trained on using Freehand10 to create and edit their use and care guides and installation manuals.   During this same time-frame, I had a local bank contact me and offer a freelance project to re-write all of their training guides.

'Day old Bread, 50 off' & 'Day old software, 75 off.'

Image Source: cartoonstock.com

I remember recommending Macromedia Freehand10 and they actually purchased the software and I did the work transferring all of their documents in the new program.  I cringe a little now when I think of that.  I was new to the field, and I had no idea how much software would change over the next decade.  In my defense, Freehand10 was a great program for layout and design work when compared to their previous software choice, Microsoft Word. It made page layout so much easier by having each part in an easily movable “box” – text boxes, photo boxes, etc.  It eliminated that (still present) issue with MS Word where everything adjusts itself to the next page the second you close and re-open or print the document.  In “Digtal Literacy for Technical Communication,” Chapter 1 writer Saul Carliner says that, RoboHELP was… “later sold to Macromedia which was sold, in turn, to Adobe” (Spilka p. 37)  Today, Macromedia Freehand10 is a thing of the past – and had been replaced by Adobe inDesign – at least at the water heater company where I first learned the ropes of Freehand10.

Failure to Evolve with Changing Technology

In 2003, I put my career on hold to stay home with, and later home school, my two sons.  The oldest graduated in 2017 and the youngest will follow in 2022.  As I begin to consider re-entering the work force in my field, my biggest worry has been whether or not I will be able to learn the new technology.  Last year, when my oldest graduated from our home school, we participated in a co-op style graduation ceremony with a local home school group.  Because of my background as a tech writer, I was asked to create the graduation programs using inDesign and get them sent off to the printer.  I was able to get a copy of inDesign and I set to work – only to realize (very quickly) that my learning curve was going to take a bit longer than the time I actually had to reach the deadline on these programs.  I had to ask a friend who works in the field to do the layout for me and then I was able to plug in the photos and information.  It was disappointing to me and added fuel to my fears of whether I am going to be able to survive in this field given how much the technology has changed over the last 15 years.  Initially, I chose to work toward my masters degree in hopes that I would somehow get back up to speed with regard to technology as well as everything else.  Unfortunately, that has not been the experience thus far.  “Digital Literacy…” Chapter 2 author, R. Stanley Dicks says,

For academic programs in technical communication, a primary issue is the extent of training they need to provide.   Most academic programs have limited resources to purchase costly publishing software; especially prohibitive financially is complex enterprise software like content management systems.  More significantly, the purpose of an academic degree is to serve the student for decades after graduation by providing durable skills and knowledge.  Technology skills and knowledge are perishable, often outdated within five years.  On the other hand, employers expect students to develop skills with publishing technology as part of the education process, so avoiding technology altogether in the academic curriculum is not an option.  Each program has to find its own balance (Spilka p. 47).

Distance education has made it even more difficult for students (like me) to learn technology skills as part of the education process as it is impossible for me to utilize any of the software that may be available on the UW Stout campus because I am in Tennessee.  Likewise, it would be quite costly to purchase a personal copy of each software that I may want to learn, and, as I found out quickly when trying to work on the graduation invitations, difficult to teach myself these new programs.  I hope that employers will take this into account as I return to the work force and allow for the training I will need to get technologically up to speed.  The good news is that I have stayed current on using technology when it comes to e-mail and social media, and I do tend to learn new programs easily when I have the time to “poke around” with it.

A Whole New Way to Work

In his section on “Distributed Work,” R. Stanley Dicks says that, “Improved communication technologies mean that workers can collaborate without being co-located (i.e. without being in the same physical space, such as an office” (Spilka p. 73).

remote2

Image Source: teambonding.com

In the early 2000’s, when I was working in the technical communications field, the idea of “working from home” was not quite yet available.  Although my company had considered this and was beginning to consider the idea, technology had not yet advanced to the point where my they felt comfortable allowing it just yet.  Now, my husband works for this same company as an Engineer Manager and he often holds meetings with company executives across the globe.  He went into work at 6AM last week so he could have a teleconference with the folks in Japan!  Had this been an option to me, I may have never had to put my career on hold to raise my kids; perhaps professional parents in 2018 can now have the opportunity to simultaneously do both!

 

Forming Virtual Communities with DIY YouTube Videos

woman using laptop for home repair

Howard Rheingold writes about collective intelligence, why social networks matter, and how using the web can make you smarter in the last three chapters of Net Smart. The ideas and information discussed in these chapters apply well to First Monday’s 2016 special issue that focused on critical perspectives of a decade of Web 2.0.

The Meaning of Web 2.0
The term Web 2.0 was invented around the turn of the century as the dot-com bubble burst, and it was popularized in an article by Tim O’Reilly in 2005, What is Web 2.0. O’Reilly and his colleagues realized that even after the dot-crash in 2001, the web was more important and useful than ever. New applications and websites were being developed and deployed with increasing frequency and having far-reaching implications on the integration of technology in our everyday lives.

Screen Shot 2018-10-14 at 4.51.28 PM

As the chart shows, instead of creating personal websites in Web 1.0, people were blogging in Web 2.0. Instead of only consuming published content that transmitted information in one direction in Web 1.0, people were participating in Web 2.0 by developing and contributing content themselves creating two-way, interactive information transmission.

Do-It-Yourself YouTube Videos
For First Monday’s special issue on Web 2.0, Christine T. Wolf writes about “DIY Videos on YouTube.” Do-it-yourself videos on YouTube are good examples of user-generated content that illustrate the ideas outlined by Rheingold including collective intelligence, social networks, and how using the web can make you smarter. Wolf describes how YouTube has blurred the line between expert and lay person. Knowledge is shared among peers, and social groups are formed. In fact, YouTube content creators refer to themselves as YouTubers and as members of a specific community of YouTubers. In Chapter 4 of Net Smart, Rheingold refers to these characteristics of the web as mass collaboration and virtual communities.

In her article, Wolf focuses on the home improvement community. As Rheingold states, members of a virtual community seek to learn from each other as well as teach each other. Do-it-yourself YouTube videos are educational, instructional, and social. As Wolf suggests, they combine “personal, social, and economic realms of everyday life.” She also examines how algorithms shape social networks and in the case of YouTube, they affect the videos that are presented to the user, and in turn, what the user watches affects what additional videos they are shown, and which videos similar users are shown.

Wolf explains that the subject of home repair emerged during the data collection phase of her study. Of the 21 participants in the study, 20 reported using DIY YouTube videos to complete home repairs. I can relate to this because as a woman who lives alone, I have also used DIY YouTube videos for home repair. I have used videos to help me replace the knobs of my bathtub faucet and the seat of my toilet. Recently, I watched a YouTube video to figure out why my home intercom system started to make a nonstop humming sound. I was relieved to be able to fix it myself without having to spend a lot of time and money on it.

Effects of Virtual Communities
During interviews with the study participants, Wolf found that watching DIY YouTube videos affected:

  1. Information practices – subjects questioned the relevance of other media such as books
  2. Self-efficacy – subjects felt empowered and more confident in their abilities
  3. Credibility – subjects used common sense to assess the credibility of the information in a video (Rheingold refers to this as crap detection in Chapter 6 and other chapters.)

In Chapter 5 of Net Smart, Rheingold addresses the impact of a virtual community on users when he discusses social network analysis. He writes about the data that show if your friend’s friends are obese, unhappy smokers you are more likely to be obese, unhappy, and smoke. Likewise, if you are in a DIY home repair YouTube community, you are likely to feel capable and self-reliant. Being in a virtual community also offers social capital that you can use when you have a specific question. You can contact one of the YouTubers in your community to ask for help or advice.

It is important to use the five literacies that Rheingold outlines in Chapter 6 when viewing video content on YouTube: Attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network smarts. Wolf concludes, “Through everyday information practices, people are continually made and remade through their exposure to ideas — these ideas shape identity making by influencing perceptions of what is or might be possible.”

Talk to Me!

In this week’s readings, I made a connection between Howard Reingold’s talk of “Net Smart,” Scott Kushner’s article, Read Only, The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0and my personal business – specifically my Facebook Live Videos.  Kushner says that, “…Consumer habits research reveals that a wide swath of the social media user base lurks: these users read, watch, and listen to content, but they do not contribute any of their own.”  Reingold reminds us of these “invisible audiences” of which we must always be aware (p.235).  In my business, I am acutely aware of the invisible audience or the lurkers.  When I hit the live button, I can literally watch my viewer count go up and down throughout the live show.  Often I will have lots of conversation moving in the thread, but it will be the same handful of people responding to me and corresponding with one another during the live video.  I may have 40 viewers, but only 10 people talking.  And of those 40 viewers, very few will remain constant throughout the video.  Many will click on and off of the video to do other things on the internet (or offline); some will simply tire of the live video content and leave prematurely.  Lurkers may feel unsure of what is going on in the video and prefer to watch quietly so they do not ask any questions that seem silly or insignificant.  I have built a group of viewers that are very accepting of new faces, but that have also gotten to know one another on a personal level and that choose to Facebook friend one another outside of my videos.  I am sure that can be intimidating to those who lurk – but I count on the interaction between those connected viewers during my lives!

27459391_10211540318569091_6147606431748569152_n

Image from Rebecca Snyder, Vantel Pearls Independent Leader Facebook business page.

Why I Work to Increase Viewer Interaction – and How

Facebook operates on a series of algorithms and one of those is that live video interaction/participation directly correlates to how much exposure Facebook gives your video.   Kushner says, “At the end of the day, it is still the eyeballs that matter to Facebook.  In this case, participation becomes ornamental, and the forms of easy participation that today serve as gateways to increased participation may sink into platforms’ ever more sophisticated boxes of content-targeting tools.”  Reingold says that, “if you tag, favorite, comment, wiki edit, curate, or blog, you are already part of the Web’s collective intelligence” (p. 148).  Later, he reiterates, “Participation can start with lightweight activities such as tagging, liking, bookmarking…then move to higher engagement…” (p. 249).  While I realize that people have many reasons for only watching (or lurking) on my videos, I try to stimulate these passive forms of interaction by often calling on my viewers to click the hearts when we open an oyster.  I may say, “Give *insert name* some love and let’s see what color she gets for that gorgeous Caribbean Shore bracelet!  Start those hearts!”  Sometimes even the most passive lurker will add to the anonymous heart collection.  Likewise, I discourage mad faces and my admins will block people who come onto my videos giving mad faces as this is often a tactic of trolls to get their buddies onto your videos.  They, too, know that interaction drives up viewers.

As an extension of my live videos, I run a VIP Group for my customers/viewers.  Joining is completely up to them – I do not put them into this group myself; they must request to join.  During days that I am not live, I (or my admins) will put up interaction posts – for the sole purpose of eliciting interaction from my group.  It is a tool to keep my followers interested in me and what I am doing;  I am showing my active members that I have not disappeared just because I am not on a live party.  I am also working to bring my lurkers out of hiding (on the live videos) by getting them more comfortable in the VIP group first – as it has proven to be a less intimidating, slower-paced setting.  Here is an example of an interaction based post that was amazingly successful!  You likely see these all time on Facebook whether in a friend’s feed or on a business page.

Screenshot (93)

Image from Grad School Pearl Girl VIPs Facebook group page.

And notice that, just as Reingold suggested, I am not only asking my customers to participate, but I am showing a “reciprocating cooperation” (p. 149) by responding to each comment they make on my post, in some way.  I am furthering the interaction by interacting back.  I never realized how important that small detail was until I joined the VIP page for a very successful make-up gal.  She would ask a question and hundreds of people would respond, but she never uttered a word.  It was obvious that she was not trying to connect with us but simply working to keep the algorithms ever in her favor.  It is a delicate dance to make Facebook like you by keeping your viewer responses up while also making sure to not seem like you are posting ONLY to keep your viewer responses up.

My Rule Looks a Little More Like 60-20-20

Kushner brings up Neilson’s work on participation inequality and his idea of a “90-9-1 rule” and describes it as being “where 90 percent of users lurk, nine percent ‘contribute from time to time’, and merely one percent ‘participate a lot and account for the most contributions.'”  In my personal experience, I have more of a 60-20-20 rule.  60% of my nightly viewers tend to hop off and on all night, never speak, and mostly just help to make up my viewer count.  20% of my viewers actively participate by commenting on the pearls during my live videos and placing orders with me which forces them to speak in the live feed as they choose their oyster and answer any questions I may have about their order.  The other 20% are my tried and true viewers.  These are the core of my business as they are the ones who will share my videos often, talk back and forth to one another, click the hearts for me if they see the viewer count go down, open an oyster to get the party going, and purchase from me almost nightly.  These are the people that I count on completely.  If you average that out – I keep around 40 viewers per night.  The math says that 24 of those viewers are passive lurkers, eight are contributing from time to time, and eight count for the majority of the contributions.

A Little Appreciation Goes a Long Way

After reading “Net Smart,” I have realized that I am doing a lot right in terms of networking.  I have always found that the best way to increase participation on my videos and in my group is to give my viewers and customers a reason to interact.  The simple/fun posts help keep the thread boosted to the top of their news feeds and thus keep my VIP group in the forefront of their minds even when I am not live, but that is not enough.  Reingold says, “Small talk nourishes trust.  Trust lubricates transaction” (p. 251).  I allow and encourage my customers to connect with me on a personal level by sharing parts of my life with them.  It makes me “real” and thus helps to establish trust with them.  For instance, I have talked on my live videos about my oldest son moving away and how hard that transition can be for me at times.  I also share my accomplishments with them – making sure to let them know that my business accomplishments could not happen without them!  For example, I recently received a gift from my leader for having sales of over $250,000 in 20 months!  That is their accomplishment as much as it is mine!

43163659_442960506107975_6164844036310958080_n.jpg

Image by Rebecca Snyder

Just as they celebrate my triumphs and tragedies, I celebrate theirs.  Some of my customers know that I am a Christian and they will ask for prayers in the video.  Many keep in contact with me via Facebook messenger and some have sent me friend requests on Facebook.  I try to make sure my interactions are not just organic reach but are personal and connected.   Most importantly, showing customer appreciation is key!  A little bit goes a LONG way to keep customers coming back and loyal.  We all need to feel valued and appreciated.

31514080_1313725622104606_327298545484300112_n

Image from Grad School Pearl Girl VIPs Facebook group.

DIY, with Help from the ‘Bots

Allergens_GOT

Stark wisdom, courtesy of imgflip.com

After this past seven weeks of reading, I’ve come to a “if you can’t beat them, join them” mentality about my involvement in the digital world. Reading Rheingold’s book Net Smart urged me to start using my social media platforms in a more interactive way, including creating my first Twitter account. To put this new digital immersion to the test, I thought I’d try to elicit some advice from Facebook friends by asking for allergy remedies. Pollen counts were high in Wisconsin this past week, and I was suffering, so I took to Facebook for advice. Because I so seldom post, I wasn’t expecting much of a response, but I had about 10 people comment. The jokesters in my life recommended scotch or gin with a dose of “wait it out”, but several other friends offered real advice and remedies. One such recommendation was the use of essential oils. Intrigued by that option, I decided to delve further by Googling “how to use essential oils for allergies.” This led to several DIY videos and articles.

Small-World Network, Old-World Coffee Klatch

By calling out for this allergy help, I was doing what Rheingold called collaboration and cooperation, “humans solv{ing} problems collaboratively” (p. 149) wherein “virtual communities are technologies of cooperation” (p. 151). I directly asked for help in an effort to learn something, knowing that small talk like this builds trust in this virtual community. I used my “small-world network” where network implies a “sparsely knit/loosely bound” community to seek advice. Twenty years ago, I might have asked two or three friends (aka coffee klatch) the same question face to face.

CoffeeKlatch

Coffee Klatch, courtesy of Hubpages

By asking my network, I received answers from Duluth and Houston, from men and women, from young and middle aged. I diversified my answer, and at the same time, I broadcast that answer to other people in my network or “personal learning network” (Rheigold, p. 229).

Using Rheingold’s analogy of “gardening” in the online community, I thanked all the contributors, responded directly to a few, and ignored the ones that were off-topic (p. 166). When someone in my network poses a similar question in the future, I will use my “social capital” and look for ways that I can contribute to the discussion (Rheingold, p. 212).

I know it when I see it, but who showed it to me?

Decades ago, the idea of obscenity or pornography was defined by a federal judge as broadly as “you know it when you see it.” As Christine T. Wolf writes in her June 2016 article “DIY Videos on YouTube: Identity and possibility in the age of algorithms,” online credibility is often judged this way by viewers, including me. My common sense credibility detection involves:

  1. How many views has the video gotten?
  2. How many subscribers does the video producer have?
  3. How is the video titled and tagged?
  4. How is the video shot (professionally/amateurishly)?
  5. How credible do I perceive the speaker to be? Does the speaker tell me?

Like the participants in Wolf’s study, I employed CRAP detection, but I didn’t give much thought to how or why specific videos appeared in my feed. She notes,

The particular mechanics of the platform — the how and why of what videos are presented to them — sink into the background. Given the central role media like these videos play in constructing notions of self, ability, and confidence, the seeming invisibility of the platform — particularly the algorithmic sorting that provides a heavily customized experience — raises concerns over the potential power algorithms wield in shaping social realities” (Wolf).

My “how to use essential oils for allergies” search resulted in videos by yogis, doctors (of natural medicine), beauty gurus, mommy vloggers, and people selling essential oils. I have a YouTube account, a Facebook account, and a Google account. Of course, my reading/watching habits are being shared across platforms. I would like to test what my search results would yield when I am logged out of all those accounts, on a public computer or friend’s computer.  I strongly suspect the results would differ.

Act, or Be Acted On

My biggest take-away from this week’s readings are the need to stay ever vigilant, skeptical, and curious. Rheingold’s closing remarks caution readers, “If you aren’t an actor in a democracy, you are the acted on” (p. 242). That applies to voting, consuming, and prosuming. I can use his advice to realize that even my search results are curated by invisible forces that I should consistently question. However, I’m also heartened by the notion that Web 2.0 is dismantling some of the hierarchies of knowledge that have been in place (Wolf). With YouTube, I can DIY just about anything I wish to. And it is building confidence. My husband and I have replaced a sink, fixed a toilet, and restarted a flaky water heater, tasks we probably wouldn’t have even attempted in the age before YouTube. That’s empowering. The next time a household DIY comes up, we just need to ask a few more questions as we evaluate the videos we’re watching. If nothing else, I might start doing a few out-of-the-norm-for-Amery searches to see if I can throw off the prediction-bots. 

Put the Phone Down, Filter the CRAP, and Hit it Big!

Social Media is more than just a distraction to some.  The reading this week made me really step back and evaluate myself with regard to my own level of distraction caused by my response to the notifications from social media and e-mail.  I spent and entire day being acutely aware of my habits in a way that I had not previously, and here is what I discovered:  I am a social media addict with unchecked OCD!

Each morning, my alarm sounds (on my phone) 15 minutes before I have to get out of bed.  This is purposeful because it allows me to silence the alarm and spend those 15 minutes waking up while scrolling through my e-mail, text messages, missed calls, and of course my Facebook business page/messages.  I have been known to stay in bed doing this for 30-45 minutes, often missing my opportunity to shower and beginning my day with a coating of dry shampoo and body spray.  On days when I do have time for my  shower, I take the phone into the bathroom with me and will often prop it against the wall at the top of the shower so that I can be sure to not miss any important messages or phone calls.

When I am out of the shower, I check my phone again for the temperature and the daily weather so that I can get dressed accordingly.  By then, it is usually time for me to wake up my youngest son to begin his day (we home school).  I often Face Time him as his wake up call, you know, to save those 10 steps I would make to his bedroom.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon as a slave to the pings and bings of notifications.  If I am waiting on an important call or email, I find my (actually diagnosed) OCD pattern of checking every few minutes rears its ugly head.  I will admit that, often, this pattern does not change when I am in the car driving.  In his book, “Net Smart,” author Howard Rheingold notes that, “Texting while driving kills…(and) the fact that anyone would risk life and limb for an LOL is a clue that something about texting hooks into the human propensity to repeat pleasurable behaviors to the point of compulsion” (p. 45).  ACK!  He is right!  Try as I may over the years of driving with my son’s in the car and teaching the boys to drive, I still can’t say that I am 100% cell phone free while driving.

texting and driving

Image from quickmeme.com

My brain knows I need to be, but something almost uncontrollable begs me to check that phone at every ping.  And, turning the volume off doesn’t change that desire to check.  In fact, it almost sends it into hyper-drive as I worry that I have missed something imperative!

Most evenings I work my business by doing online Facebook parties to open oysters and sell jewelry.  During this time I am totally plugged in – working while checking a barrage of private messages, keeping up my online presence, and reading/responding to live comments as they come through my feed.

To finish my day, I lay in bed and scroll through Facebook or read articles online that interest me until I get tired enough to fall asleep.  I can’t even speak to how many times I will be reading through an article or a friend’s Facebook timeline only to find myself in the circle of links and clicks that lead me to chase a white rabbit down the social media rabbit hole.  If you aren’t sure what I mean about the rabbit hole, here is a great article I read recently after a night of chasing that rabbit for about 3 hours:  Following the White Rabbit Down the Social Media Rabbit Hole

Fine Tuning my CRAP Detector

In Chapter 2, Rhinegold points out that, in order to be smart in our use of the internet, we must learn to filter out what is true and what is false.  Rhinegold says, “Don’t refuse to believe; refuse to start out believing.  Continue to pursue your investigation after you find an answer.  Chase the story rather than just accepting the first evidence you encounter” (p. 78).  I am going to take a second here and get really personal in an attempt to give an example of a broken “CRAP detector” (p. 89) and the toll it took on my quality of life for over a year.  I mentioned above that I battle OCD.  My OCD doesn’t come in the form of counting or repeating steps for fear that something bad will happen.  My OCD presents itself with health anxiety – I am a hypochondriac when I allow my mind to take off in whatever direction it chooses.  Rheingold assures us by saying, “What person doesn’t search online about their disease after they are diagnosed?”  After my youngest son was born (15 years ago), I went through a severe bout with my OCD/hypochondria where I determined from Dr. Google that I was dying from a brain tumor.  I lost a good year of my life with worry and anxiety, but I was too afraid to see a doctor or mention these concerns because I just knew I could not handle a horrible diagnosis in my fragile mental state.  According to the internet, I had every symptom.  I was dizzy, I felt my speech was stumbling and slurred at times (even though friends and relatives had no idea what I meant and had not seen/heard any issues when speaking to me), occasionally my vision was blurry and I was experiencing flashes and floaters.  I was feeling like I was in a memory fog and often felt clumsy and off balance.  I often would run to a mirror and stick my tongue out to see if it went straight down or off to the side -Google told me to try that.  Unfortunately, Dr. Internet failed to tell me that brain tumors generally affect one area of the brain at a time.  So, if I had blurry vision caused by a tumor in my brain, it would be located behind my eyes (most likely) and symptoms would all be related to that one tumor in that one place.  A tumor behind my eye would not cause me to have slurred speech, a foggy memory, or to lose my balance unless, of course, it was metastatic.  It took me a year and a Lexapro prescription to tune my crap detector enough to realize that I had been feeding my unfounded fears by seeking worst case scenario CRAP on the internet.  I am happy to report that I continued with that Lexapro prescription and I no longer live my life in fear of dying from whatever Google diagnosed illness I may have.

dr google

Image from me.me

Working to “Hit It Big”

In Chapter 3, Rheingold begins to discuss meaningful ways that we can participate in social media.  Because social media is such a great tool in my business as a network marketer, I can’t just decide to unplug completely.  Instead, I can make small changes to the way I operate on social media (perhaps beginning with locking my phone in the glove box when I drive).  My inital interest in this graduate course came from my desire to learn how to better present myself online and how to be intentional in my participation on social media.  Reingold reminds us that, “The good news is that learning to participate effectively online (like learning attention and crap detecting skills) is a matter of mindset and practice – and the payoff can be big.  Knowledgeable online participation can help you land a job, find a mate, organize a movement, or sell a product or service.  As citizens, professionals, and consumers, we hit it big, manage to get by, or fail utterly in large part because of our ability to connect and converse with others by way of digital networks…” (p. 114).  I am ready to do what it takes to “hit it big!”

 

 

 

“This Change Isn’t Minor, and It Isn’t Optional”: Becoming Multi-textual

Several years ago, my co-worker invited me to watch Daniel Simons’ “gorilla basketball” clip that Rheingold references in his book NetSmart (p. 45), a clip on selective attention that asks viewers to count the number of passes between basketball players. I watched the brief clip and didn’t noticed the gorilla. I was intent on the task I was given; I was selective with my attention. The same co-worker uses this clip in her College Success course to illustrate how we can tune into and out of the items we deem most important.

GorillaBasketball

Gorilla Basketball, courtesy of https://gorillabasketballvideoaln.wordpress.com/

We’re Being Augmented, not Damaged

The thesis of Rheingold’s first three chapters from NetSmart is that we can train and improve our attention, a task that will be necessary to thrive in this technology-drenched era. As someone who practices yoga regularly, I was eager to read more about how paying attention to my breath (something we do all the time in yoga) could help me  hone my attention even more. I also felt validated to read about “email apnea” because it’s something I have seen my husband do when answering work email from home; he momentarily stops breathing (p. 45). Mostly though, I was heartened to read that rather than harming us, digital media could simply be augmenting us (p. 40). The past several weeks’ readings have made me worried, but Rheingold’s book offers some concrete steps for us to facilitate the augmentation that is happening to our brains already–hopefully for the better. 

A Digitally Literate Democracy

These chapters offer copious opportunities for noteworthy catch phrases that describe our new world: “volume control,” “attention-deficit culture,” and “artificial sense of constant crisis” (pp. 55, 56, 57). We recognize these symptoms and look wearily at the repercussions they have on our ability to communication and connect. However, what made me the most hopeful was how Rheingold compared digital citizenry to literacy. We are not born readers, and even the great philosophers Socrates and Plato both feared “the written word and its effect on us”, particularly for its loss of control over knowledge (p. 60).

458px-Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle

Socrates & Plato

They feared that just because more knowledge would become available to more people that did not mean that the people would understood that knowledge. The owners of that information also lose their ability to translate the knowledge to suit their purposes. We see this today with our plethora of media options, cries of fake news, and echo chamber preferences. We know now that literacy was a democratizing development; I am hopeful that digital literacy will be, too.

Pay Attention: A How-To

We touch on the methods that Rheingold lists in Chapter One in classes I teach, and I’m happy to use the suggested toolkit in future classes and help students understand that there is a connection between mindfulness and improved grades (Hall Study, p. 68).

pay-attention

  1. Be mindful by “paying attention on purpose” (p. 65).
  2. Ask, ‘Have I drifted?” (p. 73)
  3. Meditate (or at least focus on breathing) 10-15 minutes a day (p. 71)
  4. Give yourself meaningful chunks of time to focus on one task, uninterrupted. Turn off technology during that time (p. 75)
  5. Decide what types of tech tools you use at home, where and when, such as “no screens at the dinner table”)

Crap Detection, AKA Information Literacy

In my classes, I ask my students to be skeptical, not cynical. When they do research, I ask them to use a worksheet titled “CRAP,” which is an acronym for currency (how recent), reliability, authority, and purpose/point of view, which is precisely what Rheingold deals with in NetSmart’s Chapter 2. I’m happy to integrate the triangulation technique (find three sources that agree) to their researched assignments as well as some of the websites he recommends: https://www.snopes.com/, FairSpin, and FactCheck.org. He writes, “Information literacy is the answer to growing information pollution” (p. 89). This is a helpful metaphor to use, especially when he frankly asks, “How much work is it to check three links before believing or passing along information” (p. 91). It’s not, Mr. Rheingold. You’re absolutely right.

Participation Points

Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet about the power of introversion, admonishes educators who promote participation points that often go to the loudest students, not the most knowledgeable or most thoughtful. She must be excited by the potential that digital participation has for the quiet kids. Rheingold reminds us that “young people are using digital participation tools for learning and creating” not just socializing (p. 117). Need to learn how to fix your specific brand of toilet? There’s a YouTube video for that. Have a question about the Civil War? Google it. In the scant few decades that the internet has been alive, we have created an unimaginably large database of knowledge, accessible now and for free (mostly).

I’ve taught literature for several years, and it wasn’t until teaching it online that I fully got *almost* all of the students to contribute to the conversations about the texts. It’s entirely too easy to stay quiet in a face-to-face class. It’s pretty easy to let the loud or the smart (or in some cases both) kids who’ve read all the material do all the talking. The participatory culture of the digital world, while scattered and sometimes shallow, allows for instant depth and connectivity. Rather than read an article in the newspaper, drink my coffee, and forget about it, I can read the article, read about the author, click to find out where Azerbaijan is, and understand more fully why there are tensions there.

FCO 394 - Nepal Travel Advice Ed3 [WEB]

Where is azerbaijan? Courtesy of Google Maps

Rheingold ends the chapter with, “Attention literacy is reflection. Crap detection is analytic. Participation is deliberate” (p. 145).  Understanding the intention behind his NetSmarts will help us evolve into this more digital world and become better citizens for it.

Out with the Old – But Wait a Minute!

In this week’s readings, we take a look at how social media has changed and, in some cases, re-defined the role of a Technical Writer.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading through the research collected by Blithe, Lauer, and Curran in their article, Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World.  They point out that the job title of “Technical Writer” seems dated in this current Web 2.0 world, and the authors quote Bernhardt (2010) in saying:  “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” (265).

I graduated with my Bachelor’s Degree in English with a Technical Communications concentration in May of 2001.  My first job out of college was a Technical Writer position with a local water heater manufacturer.  I was the sole writer at the time as the position had been created not long before I came on board and had only been filled prior to myself by a graphic design/CAD operator who had some writing aptitude.  I recall applying for positions and many companies having absolutely no idea what a Technical Writer was or what I could possibly do for their company.  I can’t even count the number of times I was asked if I was, “some kind of secretary.”  To say that our field has progressed by leaps and bounds since then is an understatement and, perhaps, social media has  played a role.

tech-writing-dilbert-4

Image from dilbert.com (August 3, 1995)

Some of the data that I found most interesting from the Blithe, Lauer, and Curran study was that most writers responding to their survey seemed to be under the age of 40 and the authors, “…admit that the survey results give us a more reliable picture of what younger alumni are doing, and a less reliable picture of what older alumni in advanced positions are doing” (270).

am-i-qualified-enough-to-apply-to-this-job

Image courtesy of http://www.prepary.com

So, what does this suggest for someone like me – someone who graduated in the field 17 years ago, took a great deal of time off, returned to graduate school, and will graduate and return to the field in the next few years as someone in the over 40-years-old category?  While I feel that my current job with Vantel Pearls has helped me to gain some social media skills and aptitude, I question whether it will be enough – or whether I will be skilled enough in the advancing trends in social media to prove competitive with my younger colleagues vying for the same positions.  I had better get to work learning these social media nuances!

But – Where is this Headed for the Social Media Illiterate?

In her article, Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South, author Bernadette Longo states that, “We in technical communication applied our expertise in what Maggiani (2009) described as ‘one-to-many’ communication” (p. 23).  “In contrast, …Maggiani argued:

In a social setting, the skill set of the technical communicator grows.  The ability to successfully apply these skills, however, become more transparent.  Ultimately, though, while the line of authorship blurs, content would become richer, deeper, more useful, and would include multiple ownership or collaboration.  A collaboration through social media, properly undertaken, results in the truest form of audience-centered content” (p. 24).

During my time as a technical writer for the water heater manufacturer, we went through an issue where I was only receiving feedback from the engineer and the voice of the user was not being heard when it came to the manual design and content.  We tried bringing in representatives from the customer service department to help bridge the gap, but it never was quite enough to make the voice of the people fully heard.  I left the position in 2003, but a few years ago, they decided to use social media to allow customers to give feedback on the usability of their current manuals.  Much has changed since this was done and the manuals have become much more novice user friendly with actual photos (rather than CAD art), larger print, online access, etc.  – check it out:   Residential Electric Water Heater Manual – Photos/online. While this social media outreach was successful, some voices were still not “heard.”

Longo speaks mostly to the way that social media is not available to everyone around the world (in developing countries) the way that it is here in the US.  But, she fails to mention that many people in the US still do not have access.  I know families in my area who still live “too deep in the woods” or “too high in the mountains” for internet providers to be able to connect them to a line – or cell phone tower signals to be able to reach their remote locations.  Then we also have to consider age as well as expense when it comes to constant connectedness.  My mom is almost 70.  She has a cell phone but feels she can’t afford monthly internet access on her fixed income.  She doesn’t own a laptop or PC and she uses her cell phone date for anything she may want to do online.  While that does mean that she is “connected,” she does not have the benefit of a a large screen or keyboard, and some companies have very unusable mobile websites.  As social media takes center stage in the lives of the current generations, some in the older generations are being left behind.  My momma would much rather make a phone call or go by and visit someone than to go find them on social media or send them a personal message through the messenger app.  As a human, that matters to me.  When we are discussing peoples’ “voices being heard,” I don’t like to think that we are phasing out the elderly and the poorer people and nations.

confusedcomputer

Image courtesy of 11point.com

I suppose you could say that, in my advanced age, I am accepting change a lot more slowly than I once did.

Creating Agile Communicators: Teaching Writing with ICTs

This week we read several scholarly articles on the technical communication field, where it’s going, how it’s defined, and how it uses social media. As a writing instructor, my major take-aways from the readings by Ferro, Longo, Blythe et al, and Pigg include:

  • The need for more collaborative writing
  • The need to understand the importance of emergent technologies
  • The need to understand how writing will change because of those technologies
  • The “need for social and communicative agility” (Ferro, p. 19)

Ferro asks, “how do we teach students to write in forms that do not exist?” (p. 20), while Longo argues that “teachers must understand their roles as mediators and integrators of ICTs [information and communication technologies]” (p. 23). While I don’t specifically teach technical communication, this question and assertion can guide what I do in the classroom to ensure that my students are prepared to communicate well in the 21st century.

We can start by using the  ICTs that students use in their personal lives. As a department, we’ve recently struggled with how to address the issues of “fake news” and the broadening complexity of information literacy.

lib-info-lit-chart

Information Literacy, courtesy of Otis.edu

Now that ICTs allow us to tailor our news feeds to show only what we want to see, how do we promote a more comprehensive analysis of news and information? As teachers, we tend to shun the use of social media in our classrooms, but perhaps we are fooling ourselves while simultaneously doing our students a disservice. Recent links on this blog indicate that fewer students are using Facebook, but we why not integrate lessons using Instagram, SnapChat, or blogs? Some may bristle at the notion of interacting with students this way (it’s too personal, too gimmicky, too much extra work), and we will have to embrace that once we’ve finally figured out how to use a certain ICT, “those darn kids” will be on to the next one. However, incorporating more ICTs in the classroom could make the classroom more relevant to the current technological climate as well as help students become more agile in the future technological climate.

Using ICTs can help students understand the concept of audience better. Longo’s article “Using Social Media” emphasizes that users have become producers. One common complaint of composition students is that they feel their writing is “just for the teacher” and that the notion of a real audience is therefore false. If educators can create content that supplies student writers with a real audience (even better, a real audience of their peers) perhaps they will invest more in the content they create? If they are already composing SnapChat group chats and YouTube videos, asking them to write a five-paragraph essay for their instructor can feel archaic and pointless. By using social media, “we can design documents that are more explicitly responsive to audience needs” (Longo, p. 24). Using social media in the classroom provides educators a way to “recreate a professional setting where [students] learn about users directly” (Longo, p. 31). This real-life writing assignment provides immediate feedback for students from a larger audience and can allow them to carry that writing portfolio with them relatively seamlessly.

Using visuals is increasingly important in communication. Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article, “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” reports that surveyed technical communication alumni are increasingly responsible for visual communication (not just written communication). We are largely a visual society, and though the uptick in emoji use makes some of us nervous

HieroglyphsEmojis

How far have we come? Are we just circling back around? Courtesy of Steemit

(me included), visuals help to contextualize the written word and ensure greater reader comprehension. The social media applications that younger people are using are more visual (Instagram/Snapchat), but visuals will not replace the written word. Learning how to use both well cannot be a detriment.

HieroglphHumor

Source: Medium.com

Students should practice critical thinking as often as possible. Blythe et al recommend that technical communication students should be “exposed to situations in which they must choose the best channels for communication”, that they should be “exposed to a wide range of technology that will facilitate that process”, and that they should be “versatile with multiple media” (p. 281). I’m no longer a technical writer, but one of my most bemoaned complaints as a new technical writer in the early ‘00s was my lack of technical training. My college classes taught me how to be a better writer, but I had to teach myself how to use the technology. Aligning technology with communication is training students, no matter what their final profession, to be skilled in all forms of communication: audience analysis, visual communication, and content creation.

Creating better communicators across disciplines serves all of us. As more and more of us become both producers and consumers (“prosumers”), embracing the changes in teaching and technologies keeps our work interesting and makes our global world a more interactive and understandable place.

Always Open for Business

In chapter 9 of Mary Chayco’s book SuperConntected: The Internet, Digital Media, & Techno-Social Life, the author discusses the subject of “constant availability” with regard to digital and social media connectedness.  Chayco says, “People who live in tech-intensive societies can come to truly depend not just on digital technologies, but on the convenience they afford” (p.183).  She quotes an interviewee of hers that said, “The pro-side is I’m available, and that is the downside, also” (p. 183).

Fortunately, and unfortunately, this rings true for an online, social media based business as well.  If I need to contact a local store, someone at the post office, or even a restaurant, I have to wait until they are open again for business.  For instance, yesterday (a Saturday), I visited my son and found that the cat he recently adopted from the Humane Society is having some sneezing.  Of course, I wanted him to take her to our veterinarian for a check-up.  Unfortunately, the vet we use does not open again until Monday morning.  Considering that sneezing is not a medical emergency, there was no warranted reason for him to take her to a special 24-hour Emergency Vet Clinic.  So, alas, we will call on Monday.

My online business operates much differently.  One might say, I am always open – even though my hours are clearly posted on my website.

Screenshot (89)

Image from: Rebecca Snyder, Vantel Pearls Silver Leader Facebook business page.

images

Image from Vectorstock.com

My posted hours do not stop customers from messaging my business page AND my personal page all hours of the day, every day of the week.  …And, I am guilty of doing the same.

My son and I decided we wanted to get similar tattoos recently.  We knew that the tattoo shop was closed at 2am when we were discussing this idea, but that did not stop me from contacting the shop that came most highly recommended (by my local Facebook friends) via private message (yes, at 2am) and asking about availability for the next day.  To my surprise, the reply came almost instantly with the tattoo artist who was available to do our artwork and what time we should plan to show up as walk-ins.  And, when we showed up that next morning, the owner remembered our message and got us right in for our tattoos.

 

 

As users of  24/7 social media, where do we draw the line?  Or better yet, are most even aware that they could be crossing a line?  An argument can be made that, anyone who does not want to be contacted outside of business hours can simply ignore the messages until they are back “in the office.”  However, as simple as that seems, Facebook has made it complicated to ignore a message.  It dings, it sits in the notifications and haunts us with that little red number at the top of the app letting us know that we have UNREAD MESSAGES, and, if that isn’t enough, Facebook also shows our customers that we have read the message by having our little profile picture circle move down the message thread.  No denying we received it – or even what time we read it!  Thanks Facebook!

 

I suppose the worst that could happen is that I lose a customer for not responding quickly enough to a message she may feel is urgent enough to send at 2 am.  For some businesses, that probably would not matter as they have many customers and many more to come.  In my smaller customer base (around 400 buyers total), it takes each one to make this work for me.  So, I truly can’t afford to lose even one customer – and I find myself jumping through hoops and answering messages as quickly as I receive them, even if that is in the middle of the night.  Chayco speaks to this and suggest perhaps it is not the fault of digital technology.  She says, “Keeping up with a flood of stimuli and information can be challenging and burdensome.  Tasks may start to snowball;  people can feel they need to work and/or be digitally connected day and night, lest they fall behind the curve…but…these stresses are not caused by digital technology us.  In fact some of these stresses are simply the ‘cost of caring'” (p. 191).

 

 

Overwhelmed or Emboldened? I Choose Emboldened

Frankenstein

Courtesy of Amazon

This fall I’m teaching an online Introduction to Literature course. The first piece of fiction my students read is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a 200-year-old Gothic novel that asks the same question that Mary Chayko does in Chapter 10 of her 2018 book Superconnected: “what does it mean, really, to be human” (214). In a discussion board post, my students agreed on three major requirements:

  1. the desire for knowledge and learning;
  2. the ability to form connections with other human beings and show empathy for them; and
  3. the ability to feel intense feelings like love, faithfulness, rage, and vengeance.

Some critics believe Shelley wrote Frankenstein as a warning against the ever-reaching power of man. Essentially, they claim it is a treatise against the notion of “playing God.”  I ask my students to think about how Shelley’s monstrous creature relates to today’s modern advancements like cloning and artificial intelligence. Much of the content throughout Chapters 8, 9, and 10 of Chayko’s text made me feel anxious, hand-wringy. Then I came upon media theorist Douglas Rushkoff’s quote:

“Living in modern technologized times can be a shock to the system [. . .] the more we become aware of these challenges—economic troubles, climate change, wars, any of a host of social problems—the more we can become overwhelmed with the prospect of actually solving them” (Chayko, p. 215).

Yes! That’s how I felt while reading this week’s content. That’s how it feels right now when I go online or turn on the radio. A recent New York Times article, “It’s Not Just You: 2017 Was Rough for Humanity, Study Finds,” shared that reported negative feelings were at an all-time low across the globe (Chokshi, 2018). Quite frankly, worrying about internet surveillance is the last issue many people (including me), already tired, stress, and overwhelmed, want to add to their worry list.

NorthKoreaTrump.jpg

Kim Jong Un and President Trump, Source: Time Magazine

However, like many other big issues (greenhouse gases, suicide prevention, North Korea) that we individually can only do so much about, individually we can educate ourselves on these issues and talk about them with friends and family, or blog about them on platforms like this. We can pay more attention when headlines about “net neutrality” pop up in our Facebook newsfeed. We can read works like Chayko’s and try to answer the questions she asks. As people privileged to live in a technologically-adept and responsive society, we have an obligation to make sure these new advances that make our lives easier and more efficient aren’t thwarting the human rights of others, that they don’t do so already.

Mary Shelley warns of “playing God,” but we know since Frankenstein’s publication in 2018, we have seen advancements that would frighten and mystify her. “As science writer James Gleick looks at it, ‘We can be overwhelmed or we can be emboldened’ (2011, p. 419)” (Chayko p. 215).  I choose emboldened, with the knowledge that liberty isn’t free. As Sam Cooke puts it: “A change is gonna come.” We have to be ready for it.

Superconnected: The ownership of ideas and information security

While Dr. Chayko discusses information and communication technology in a number of ways, I was particularly intrigued with her discussions about idea ownership and information security. In this post, I’ll outline these ideas and contribute my own thoughts about idea ownership and the security of information within digital systems.  

Ownership of ideas

Dr. Chayko questions the ownership of ideas in chapter four. She ponders if we own our ideas and how we can attribute ownership to something that’s not yet tangible. I ponder this questions often in my professional and academic work. Of course, I cannot claim someone else’s ideas as my own, but at what point can we truly trace the origin of an idea? My freshman composition professor also used to tell my class that no idea is truly original because we always got it from somewhere else (he would always make this argument so we would source our information in essays). This is something that has always intrigued me.

Our ideas evolve from interconnected and disconnected empirical experiences. Sometimes, it can be difficult to know the origin of an idea or if it is truly my own. This begs the question of what is more important: the idea itself or the execution of the idea? Chayko notes that, while “specific intellectual contributions are legally protected”, general thoughts are not.  

As such, differentiating between general ideas and intellectual contribution is something that I personally struggle with as a writer. When I’m writing an article about a new IoT (Internet of Things) initiative, I am often inspired by things I see and hear around me.  In order to codify this ideas, I try to apply my own interpretation in the form of execution — going beyond the ‘what’ and venturing into the ‘how’, ‘why’, and ‘what’s next’.

That said, the current speed at which information propagates makes it exceedingly difficult to trace the origin of an idea or that idea’s originating execution. We seem to be in an era where the only way to truly keep our ideas private is to keep them to ourselves or to try to pursue legal ways to copyright and trademark ideas. Dr. Chayko is also not the only one who is pondering this question. There are many articles, like this article from the Guardian, that explore the idea ownership and plagiarism in the digital age. In this article, the author seems to conclude that the application of the idea is more important than the original idea.

I personally believe that we can be inspired by what others have written and be allowed to write about similar topics. With the speed of which information propagates, I don’t see how this can’t be a reality. However, I do believe original ownership of ideas should always be sourced from those who originally inspired us. We cannot copy the structure of their idea, (i.e. we should add to the conversation, not copy what they said.) To do otherwise would just be dishonest. In that regard, II believe the original idea and the execution of the idea are both important. 

Secure communication and information

Chayko made me ponder secure communication and information accessibility. She states, “It is important to consider exactly how accessible and open computer systems should be – how various kinds of information should be accessed and who should do the accessing.”

If only information security was as simple as stock photos make it out to be. Source: CG Business Consulting

My company deals with this type of question almost everyday with the line of work we do. We help customers connect physical objects or systems to the Internet – these objects or systems can be anything, but most businesses use us to connect valuable infrastructure or assets that they would like to keep an eye on from a remote location. However, when you connect an object or system to the Internet, it is now sending and transferring tons of data and information into internal systems and other places. My company helps make this process secure and safe so none of this data can be hacked or used for nefarious means.

But this is the problem with connected systems. While every IoT company will promise that they will safeguard against these things, there is no way you can ever stop someone from hacking into something if they truly have the means. Nothing can ever be completely secure, which opens up the question, “What should and should not be connected to the Internet?” While we are connecting physical objects to solve real-world problems in the world, should we?

Personally, I believe there are certain things that should be connected and there are some things that just shouldn’t be connected (for instance we don’t need connected basketballs and connected hairbrushes — yes, these are real things). The only objects that should be connected are the ones that offer continuous, recurring value for the business and for the customer. I believe businesses are responsible for making sure the products they are connecting add value not just to their business, but their customers’ lives. Only then can they justify connecting their systems and gathering information from objects and systems. 

Crowdsourcing is Key in my Social Media Based Business

Before I discuss crowdsourcing and its necessity in my social media based, direct sales business, let me give a bit of background.  I work for Vantel Pearls as an independent consultant and team leader.  This company began as an in-home party sales company much like Tupperware or Thirty-One Gifts.  However, with Facebook’s invent of the Live Video Streaming feature, Vantel Pearls consultants began to take their parties from the living room to the live video platform, thus allowing them to reach an audience well outside of their local social circle.

During my live videos, the customer makes a purchase, selects the oyster they would like to open, and I shuck the oyster, live, to reveal the pearl inside.  That pearl is then sent to our home office to be set into the jewelry piece they selected and they will receive their jewelry in 2-3 weeks via US Mail.  It may seem simple – Hit the “Go Live” button and voila, everyone in the USA sees your party, hops on, and makes a purchase!  Right?  Well, no.  As a matter of fact, Facebook algorithms make it virtually impossible to reach more than a small handful of even your Facebook friend’s list, much less those outside of your circle.  This is what makes crowdsourcing so important in my business.

Mary Chayco’s book SuperConnected: The Internet, Digital Media, & Techno-Social Life discusses crowdsourcing in depth in Chapter 4.  She says, ” Online attention can take the shape of a single glance at a photo or a more active step: a like, a follow, a share, a comment” (76).  It takes time and effort to build a social media presence.  My business began with my local social circle and a select few of my Facebook friends who had interest in the product and experience I was selling.  I encouraged those friends to host a party with me; they became the “hostess” with the promise of earning free jewelry based upon the purchases made by their friends and family (their circle).  They invited these friends and family members to the party and by doing so, increased my “circle” a bit more.

During my live parties, I spend time engaging with my customers and making sure they are having fun.  I wear silly hats, play games, bring on special guests and offer prizes to buyers as well as to people who SHARE my video on their personal pages.

32169642_1704498566308326_7056918158258470912_n

Image from: Grad School Pearl Girl VIPs Group Page

By having them comment a phrase with the hashtag sign in front of it  (#Just1morepearl),  I am able to randomly choose a “Share Winner” though FB feature called “Woobox.”  I ask that they make all shares public so that I can verify the share was made once the winner is chosen.

Mary Chayco says, “This is, indeed, a kind of economy, and it is one that has come to matter to many of us.  Attention is attracted as something shared is acknowledged online.  A kind of compensation follows in the form of likes, follows and comments.  More tangible rewards like social connections, jobs, and money can even follow” (76).  Facebook allows me to keep track of likes, shares, and follows via “Insights” that can be found on my Facebook Business Page.  It keeps track of the trends week-by-week so I can see the ebbs and flows in the number of people who are seeing and interacting with my page.

Mary Chayco points out that, “Attention online is subject to increasing returns.  That is, the more one has of it, the easier it is to get more.  …To succeed in such an economy, it helps to create or re-mix attention getting content and then to rapidly capitalize on bursts of attention as soon as they occur in hopes they will follow back and engage in return” (76).  This is something I find myself doing often.  When I change the times I go live, or the prizes I give away on a given night, sometimes my live viewers will jump dramatically.  When they do, I immediately take that cue to mention liking and following my page, joining my VIP group, or signing up to receive my text notifications.  I rev up the energy, start singing – anything to get those people to take it one step further and like or follow my page in hopes that they will, over time, see me pop up in their feed and ultimately, become interested enough to make a purchase.

However, all of this has been more that I can do alone.  Around Christmas, I enlisted the help of four “Admins” to help me run my Facebook Business and VIP pages.  These four individuals are responsible for making posts to increase interaction on my pages during times when I am not live, booting trolls from my live videos who, as Mary Chaco describes them, are “individuals who… “hijack”…and provide extreme, irrelevant responses in an attempt to pull focus away from the…original intent” (74), and sharing my live videos in groups to increase viewers.  I suppose you could say I outsourced crowdsourcing.

In March, Vantel Pearls sent me to Rivera Maya, Mexico in an all expense paid trip for being in the 125 top in sales.  My gratitude went to my customers, because, without their constant shares, post interactions, and purchases, I would not have a business.  While I am certainly not famous nor the absolute top seller in the company, I count my business a success because of my customers’, Admins’, followers’ willingness to share me with their friends and family – their willingness to crowdsource!

Is social media driving traffic to blogs?

Blogging for my work organization

I am an idea contributor to the UW-Madison Department of Mechanical Engineering blog as part of my full time duties in my current position. This blog is rebranded on our website as “Department News” highlighting stories about our faculty research contributions, student group successes, and alumni stories. It is entirely composed of articles, there are no videos, podcasts, or other forms of media listed.   

The blog itself is separated into content categories of alumni, awards, educational innovation, faculty, in the media, newsnotes, perspective, research, student services, students, uncategorized, and Wisconsin Idea. Each article is tagged with one or many of these items based on what it relates to. Additionally, each article is tagged with the primary or affiliated departments (i.e. Mechanical Engineering and Industrial and Systems Engineering) for the specific topic.

I am not the primary contributor to this blog. We have a fully developed External Relations Team housed within the College of Engineering whose primary job is to find and tell these stories about the College of Engineering. My role comes in two-fold, 1) when the idea is just an idea and 2) when the newspiece is produced. I am a collector of information from faculty, students, and alumni and I share that information with our External Relations Team. I make sure that those individuals are informed of the story idea, the important contacts for getting the information, and any photography that might accompany the story. Once our External Relations Team produces the piece, I share the story on our Department of Mechanical Engineering Facebook page.

Sharing blogs to social channels

As mentioned, once a blog is created it is my responsibility to share the information to our Facebook channel. The article “What Blogging Has Become” by Robinson Meyer discusses the organization of old blogs in “reverse-chronological order” within a connecting set of topics. However, now with Twitter and Facebook there is a whole new tone to blogging. Meyers says, “They [Twitter and Facebook] made blogging easier, because a writer didn’t have to attract and maintain a consistent audience in the same way anymore… they were supposed to bring it’s attendant emancipation to the masses” (“What Blogging Has Become”). I totally agree with that. When I am posting the blog posts our team created to our social channels, I already know I have an engaged audience. The followers of my page have some interest already in what I am posting, and in turn are following these social posts to the blog page of our website. It seems clear at this moment, that Facebook is driving traffic to the website, not vice versa. It will be interesting to see how this is affected as the social media landscape continues to shift. As Meyer’s highlights in this article, the social channels organizations are using is one of the primary contributors to driving traffic to blogs today.

Beyond participating in my organization’s blog, I do not have any other online blog presence. I do occasionally visit blogs, primarily thanks to Pinterest, where I click on pins that typically lead me to a individual’s blog post who is sharing a recipe, fashion advice, or home decorating tips. Blogging is a much different art form than social media, where I am heavily present. Whereas some individuals dive into their blog, it is much more likely that peers will see me on social channels like Snapchat and Instagram.

From Mommy Blogs to YouTube Vlogs

HeatherArmstrong

Heather Armstrong (Dooce.com), courtesy of ProBlogger

I began reading blogs when I was a technical writer in Fargo, ND, in the early 2000s. Professionally, I followed some technical communication blogs, and personally, I read a handful of “mommy blogs”, one of which was the famous Dooce.com (Heather Armstrong), who has gone on to write several books about her experiences with mental illness and parenting. I still read a few of those lifestyle blogs, but many of the bloggers quit blogging after five years or so. I also had a personal blog for about six months where I mostly recorded my thoughts and observations for the day or week. I quit because it felt odd when people started commenting on my posts.

According to Nardi et al (2004), people are motivated to blog for five reasons: 1) to document their lives; 2) as a form of commenting on events; 3) as a way to process topics (catharsis); 4) to figure out how they feel about a topic (“thinking with computers”); 5) to build community with like-minded individuals (p. 43-45). My personal blog was a version of motivations 1, 3, and 4, and the other blogs I read were for similar reasons. I agree that these are reasonable motivations and that many bloggers touch on all five of those motivations at some point in their publication history.

When I began reading blogs, most of the bloggers posted at least several times a week. As their blogs grew their audience and perhaps the bloggers’ personal lives became more complicated as a result of that, their postings became less frequent, which is also a trend that Nardi et al (2004) note; they call it “blog burnout” (p. 42).

Nardi et al’s article “Why We Blog” was published in 2004, and a considerable change has occurred in that 14 years. Kissane (2016) chronicles the five most important trends in blogging include: 1) the end of the blogger and the advent of the influencer; 2) the size of posts becoming longer and more substantive; 3) removing or at least responding less to viewers’ comments; 4) incorporating more and better graphics; 5) measuring how long viewers stay on the site versus whether they visit the site. I definitely see these trends happening. Though I watch more YouTube now than I do read blogs, I hear more and more people refer to themselves as “influencers” or “creators.” Graphics have definitely become more elaborate, and I know that Google/YouTube provide tools for users to perform data analytics, which tell creators how long people are staying on specific pages or videos. I’m not sure I see the trend of fewer comments, but I know some creators choose not to reply to comments or even to block or remove distasteful content (troll behavior).

To have an online presence, be it blog or vlog, influencers must stay up-to-date on technological trends and essentially become mini producers. They have to know how to edit, tag, add music, know the rules around adding content (like music), keep on top of comments, police the comment community, and keep content fresh. Several of the big YouTubers have management teams, and more advertisers are recruiting these influencers to help sell products. That’s an entirely other can of worms regarding ethics and rules.

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.

7726B0F3-D73C-4B2E-A2E9-7466F100F25A.jpg

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.

C2DA0BFA-C615-4C7C-90C3-B7F49A22E009.jpg

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.

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.

Utilitarianism and Technology?

As I read Dave Clark’s “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” I was immediately brought back to rhetorical theory class with Dr. Dana Heller at Old Dominion University. I envisioned the chalkboard (yes, that long ago!) with drawing about sign, symbol and signifier of de Saussure  and interpretrent, representamen and object of Charles Sanders Pierce.

 

7245689_orig-1

Source

Of course, I teach my students how to write a rhetorical analysis in some of my composition classes, but we usually don’t delve into theory, so I enjoyed reading about it again in another graduate class, albeit 20 years later, and to learn about applying it to technologies. According to Clark,  rhetorical  analysis is “a loose grouping of related types of work that share a common goal: complicating common-sense understandings of technologies by analyzing them from a variety of rhetorical perspectives that demonstrate their immersion in social and rhetorical perspectives that demonstrate their immersion in social and rhetorical processes” ( 2010, pg. 92-3). Clark discusses how the classical rhetorical approach can be effective; however “Johnson suggests that as a field we must argue for a rhetorical approach to technological design and implementation that places the users, rather than the systems, at the center of our focus. . .(2010, p. 93). I agree, for when I teach my students about technical writing, I  have them focus on audience, purpose and context. This line of thinking done before drafting is similar to one who designs and builds technology. Those designers must consider the user, their purpose and the context of which they will use that technology. When I have my students write website reviews, they critique the design, function, userability, etc. as it relates to the user. These reviews are written for a website designer in order to make the website more appealing and functional for the users.

If one is going to create technology, it is only logical to consider the audience who will use that technology, how they will use that technology and with whom they will use that technology. Therefore, activity theory considers groups and individuals who “are analyzed with a triangular approach that emphasizes the multidirectional interconnections among subjects, the mediational means or the tools they use to take action and the object or problem space on which the subject acts” (Clark, 2010, 98-99).

So, since technology emerged and reshaped man’s ability to communicate and complete tasks, the rhetoric of technology had to emerge and be shaped to meet the more complex world we live in.  There is an obvious correlation between classic rhetorical theory and activity theory of technology today.activity_theory_triangle_engestrom

Source

Technology today is embedded in our lives and we need to examine the contexts in which we rely on them in order to understand, assess and design them in order for ease and use of their users.

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 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.

 

 

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.

 

Not your mom’s Web 2.0

 

Although I felt I had a good grasp on using the web (and some forms of social media)  really did not understand its full potential, history and cultural influence until this class. This week’s particular readings engaged me into researching articles to learn even more. I feel like I discovered a new world, and at the same time, wonder how I could have limited my vision over the years.

First of all, although I find the web, social media etc. informative and entertaining, I never truly saw it for all it’s worth —  for its communication and collaborative abilities as discussed in Rheingold’s Net Smart. Now I understand and agree with Wayne Macphail’s statement, “You need coordination to dance, cooperation to dance with a partner, and collaboration to dance with a flash mob” (Rheingold, 2014, pg. 153). Himmelman’s Taxonomy of Networking, Coordination, Cooperation and Collaboration helps me understand how online communication works to bring people together, share ideas, learn, explore and more. e218_ol_fig7_01

(Partnerships and Network)

In fact, I immediately related it to my teaching pedagogy. My classes do incorporate  networking activities by chatting with other students; coordination activities by sharing resources helpful for class; cooperation by peer revision/editing and online class discussions; and collaboration by creating a group wiki or project.

From observing my kids’ (ages 16, 21 and 30) online interactions, I see they even use their social media in the same way. For example, my son uses his Facebook and Instagram to to network and meet other teenagers who share similar interests in music (jazz and rap) and sports (football and basketball). He has joined social groups to delve into those interests more. This has led him to collaborating with others he wouldn’t normally meet. He now has friends he creates music with and with whom he either physically meets to play a sport or plays fantasy football with or even plays with on Xbox. He may not socialize the way I did as a teenager, but he is definitely communicating with others on a variety of levels through differing modes of communication.

These communication skills are essential in today’s world, for it can lead to innovation as

a result of collective intelligence. Yes, the idea of collective intelligence is not new. In Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome Collective Intelligence article, MIT Center for Collective Intelligence not only reviews basic Web enabled collective intelligence, but also examines more modern examples and the structure that leads to their success. Although MIT’s “map” gives a  clear picture of how collective intelligence works, it does coincide with Rheingold’s useful tool’s discussed in chapter 4 of Net Smart.

On another note, in the article above, MIT Center for Collective Intelligence discusses examples of collective intelligence such as having a YouTube channel:”In YouTube, every user is associated with a “channel.” On these channels, users can upload their own videos and/or link to selections of other users’ videos, via a favorites option. Users can subscribe to other users’ channels and receive notifications when their favorite channels have been updated. Users thus form social networks that affect their choices of what videos to watch.” In this way, You Tube can help expand the knowledge of a group. However, in “DIY Videos on You Tube: Identity and Possibility in the Age of Algorithms, ” Christine T. Wolf examines “. . . how the social and material aspects of YouTube are entangled in search practices, we can see how these experiences might work to narrow, rather than widen, individuals’ information worlds.” Nonetheless, I imagine that this is not the case with most modern forms of web-based collective intelligence.

The use of collective intelligence and crowdsourcing has been quite prevalent (unbeknownst to me) in the business world. I have found several blogs and articles online about  how “In today’s marketing community crowdsourcing is often seen as a modern marketing technique due to its technological influences” ( Mateika).

Kaytie Zimmerman says, “The idea of crowdsourcing is fairly new, with the term only being coined within the last decade. Because it is so cutting edge, millennials have comfortably taken on the idea as part of their daily lives” ( Zimmerman). So, since my students (many going into business) consists largely of millenials, I am interested in learning more about crowdsourcing and how I can incorporate this new knowledge into my classes.

 

Blogging Literacy, Trends, and Journalism

Back in the days of LiveJournal and MySpace I got into the groove of writing blogs for everyone to see.  I would primarily write about emotionally driven subjects that nobody would ever listen to in person.  There was some fun in waiting to see if anyone would comment or view the posts that I made.  I especially loved DeviantArt because I could get public feedback over artistic pieces I posted online.  Over time the concept of privacy and permissions became more popular so I stayed with social media platforms that only displayed content to people I knew.  Additionally, the culture of blogging changed as well.

 

These days I use blogs for sourcing a lot of my information for work.  I read technology blogs often to get first hand experiences of how to create things with certain technologies.  They often give new perspectives that you cannot find from any book. You can also publicly solve problems online with groups of people you would not be able to find locally.  This aspect of technology blogs is a great way for engineers to network or get hired with new companies.  Technology blogging gives a great feeling of community and inspiration.

 

This article highlights the trends in blogging in today’s digital world.  Blogs are bringing more graphical inspiration, less comments, more content, and more inspiration.  Many blogs don’t even have one dedicated blogger, but a collaboration of many influential writers.  In regards to graphical inspiration, you can observe the new, or not so new, trend of food blogging.  Rather than a lengthy post about one topic, food blogs have a specific graphical standard they are upheld to. Many food bloggers benefit from a great camera to take pictures of the food.  I will find myself choosing recipes specifically for the beautiful pictures, regardless of whether or not the recipe seems to make sense.  I find myself actually trusting visual aids more than the content of the articles. And I can’t seem to stop myself.

 

Upon reading many of the articles on blogging literacy, I find myself wondering what the real difference between a blog and a news outlet is.  I suppose at this point they seem to be the same, as many examples listed, like Huffington Post, are treated like news outlets.   Now that everything has a digital version it is hard to differentiate between the two, especially when the content is the same.  Additionally, certain goals seem the same, more content and more viewers.  Unfortunately, the concept of journalism does not seem like a shared goal.  With the emerging technology, trusted sources of news may not be so easy to find.

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!

What about internal social media?

In their 2014 Technical Communication Quarterly article, “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices,” Toni Ferro and Mark Zachry discuss “knowledge workers engaging in communicative processes outside the bounds of their workplaces by using public available online services (PAOSs)” (p. 6). That is, non-proprietary social media services “that are often not available through enterprise-sponsored, proprietary systems” (Ferro and Zachry, p. 6). However, I wonder if they focused on non-proprietary services because most companies don’t provide non-employees access to their proprietary systems. Therefore, I would like to discuss my company’s internal proprietary social networking system and how it relates to my work as a technical communicator.

My company is a Fortune 300 financial services provider (credit cards, banking, and loans) with about 15,000 employees. Much like 1/3 of the participants who participated in Ferro and Zachry’s study (p. 13), my company blocks access to many PAOSs (as well as personal e-mail sites like Gmail and Hotmail) for cybersecurity and regulatory (rather than productivity) reasons. Instead, my company has an extremely comprehensive enterprise intranet system, built on the Jive platform, that combines most of the features found on the most popular PAOSs.

jive-n_prod_feat_str2bus

A sample Jive team page, not unlike my team’s intranet page. via

Here are some of the features available:

  • User profiles for all employees (auto-populated with their title, team name, manager, department, contact info, building location, etc., with the ability to customize with additional information such as work experience or profile photos)
  • The ability to “follow” other employees and receive updates on their activity
  • The ability to see who has followed you and whom other people have followed
  • The ability to view any employee’s reporting chain
  • Microblogging in the form of Facebook-esque updates
  • Public (i.e., anyone in the company can view) and private (i.e., only designated employees can view) sites, pages, and subcommunities
  • Wiki-ing
  • Blogging
  • Announcements and articles
  • Photo and video sharing
  • Ability to create surveys or polls
  • Ability to upload documents and request feedback (or disable feedback)
    • Version control
    • Approval process
  • Ability to follow any of the above
    • Notifications of changes/updates
    • Customized “news feed” of changes/updates
  • Calendars and events
  • Discussion boards
  • Private messaging
  • Tagging (topics or users)

The first three bullets fulfill the definition of social network sites provided by dana m. boyd and Nicole B. Ellison in their Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication article “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship” (2013, p. 211). The others are familiar features from PAOSs like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, WordPress, Wikipedia, Instagram, and many others. Additionally, team sites on the intranet can be linked to a team’s SharePoint, which opens up features like synchronous document editing similar to that offered by Google Docs.

In addition to the obvious benefits for team collaboration, the company’s intranet fulfills many functions that are vital for a large company with a worldwide user-base and many silos. Although speaking about PAOSs, Ferro and Zachry’s words hold true for my company’s intranet:

Social media provide knowledge workers new avenues to find and leverage resources, enabling work that is increasingly important in the new economy such as developing and strengthening connections, finding and leveraging information, and participating in a professional community consisting of a vast and varied array of people and resources. Recent studies of social media use in business illustrate the important role specific types of social media services (e.g., blogs, microblogs, online forums, wikis) play in supporting knowledge work. (p. 9)

I also find it breaks down silos. I can communicate with anyone in the company, whether in my own department or any other. If I need a particular resource from outside my own silo, it is fairly easy to figure out who to contact to find it.  Here are some examples of how I use the social media features of the company intranet to carry out my work as a technical communicator (“public” in this context means available to all employees within the company):

  • Our documents, which are relevant to large populations within the company, are available on our subsite. I use the wiki feature (with me set as the only editor) to link to the documents and additional resources. I use the announcement feature to announce changes. Finally, I use the blog feature as a publicly available changelog.
  • When I needed to find the most recent version of a style guide, I posted a comment on the outdated version. The person who uploaded it was able to direct me to the owner, who provided the updated version.
  • I administer my team’s SharePoint site. As such, I frequently visit the SharePoint Team’s page to read or comment their documentation, ask a question, or help other users who post questions. They also host monthly “user groups” where people share their experiences and projects–these are coordinated via the intranet’s event and calendar functions.
  • I participate in non-work related discussions and surveys with employees from all over the company (and all over the world). I created a survey about how green/yellow/speckled people prefer their bananas. I have perused our local classifieds page. I participated in philosophical discussions and asked for advice about good laptops to buy. The company allows and this behavior despite it being unrelated to work. I suspect this is because the company is very focused on the company as a united community. And, as Rheingold observes in Net Smart, “small talk” such as this builds trust among community members–it is, as he puts it, collaboration lubricant (2012, p. 155).

These are just a few of the ways that I use our social media-esque intranet in the course of my job duties (and non-job duties), but I think it illustrates how an enterprise-sanctioned proprietary social media platform can serve many of the same functions as the PAOSs in Ferro and Zachry’s study.

TPC: More than a Writing Degree

technical-writing-Dilbert-cartoon

Technical writing is misunderstood. Reproduced: Scott Adams, Dilbert, United Feature Syndicate (1995)

Technical and Professional Communication vs. English Degree

Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer and Paul Curran’s (2014) article, “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” reaffirms the breadth and depth of communication and web 2.0 knowledge that is needed in many job positions. However, this article specifically took account of Technical and Scientific Communication as well as Professional, Technical, Business and Scientific Writing degrees, but English degrees could also fall in this category. Since English majors potentially are doing the same types of writing, collaborating, and web 2.0 work, I’m not sure if employers valued a technical communication degree more than another English or related writing degree.

Methodology and Results of Survey

The authors surely provided an extensive methodology to discover the types of communication that TPC graduates used in their lives and the graphics equally supported their results of the study. Surprisingly, TPC graduates are employed (or studying) in “education, technical and scientific communication, and publishing and broadcasting” (p. 271) as well as more women were employed in the software, hardware, and network industries. However, the authors did say these numbers were “skewed” based on the number of male vs. female respondents. Other noteworthy statistics from this article was the most types of writing done and the ones most valued. These numbers were from the respondents; however, I wonder how their supervisors/managers’ opinions would differ? For example, Grants/proposals was eighth on the list of type of writing and sixth as most valued (proposal was not included on most valued list) and Definitions was fifth on type of writing and did not appear on the most valued list (I’m not sure what definitions means anyway). Would supervisors/managers agree with these statistics?

More Technologies Used in Writing Process

Email, not surprisingly, is the most popular type of communication written and most valued. Does this mean that colleges should teach students how to write effective email more and less about blogging? According to Russell Rutter (1991), college graduates discover that what they learned in college do not always correlate to the writing type/purpose/audience in the workplace (p. 143). On the other hand, as Blythe, Lauer and Curran (2014) noted, technical communication graduates use a multitude of technologies during the composing process from pencil and paper to social media (p. 275); likewise, Rutter noted, “technical communicators must know how to do more than write –  do more than inscribe, type or keystroke” (p. 145).

I still argue that English and other related writing degree graduates could accomplish similar tasks with a similar amount of success. Writing skills can be taught, but writing seems to be a natural ability. Rutter (1991) asserts, “Education should seek to create sensible, informed, articulate citizens. Some of these citizens will want to become technical communicators…” (p. 148).

References

Blythe, S., Lauer, C. and Curran. P. G. (2014). “Professional and technical communication in a web 2.0 world.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:4, 265-287. DOI: 10.1080/10572252.2014941766

Rutter, R. (1991). “History, rhetoric, and humanism: Toward a more comprehensive definition of technical communication.” Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 21:2, 133-153.

Mini case study of an online game guild

(I apologize for the length and tardiness–this ended up being much more than I intended to write. I could have written more, but I needed to end it somewhere!)

While most of the content in Net Smart has been both useful and relatable, none of it has resonated with me so much as Rheingold’s frustrated, “Don’t tell me that my life online isn’t real” (163). Partially because of introversion and partially due to being geographically dislocated from my support network, my “online life” is a very important part of my day-to-day. In fact, much of my former “real life” has become “online life” due to moving. Outside of my workplace, all of my social relationships (other than my husband) are based online, even if they didn’t begin there.

Rheingold’s discussion of virtual communities (guilds) formed in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) was of particular interest to me because my husband and I ran one such guild in a game called Final Fantasy XI (FFXI), a precursor to World of Warcraft, which is mentioned in the book. Thus, I am providing a mini case study here to showcase Rheingold’s ideas.

final-fantasy-xi-megjelenes-dobozkep-414de532f9396ae3f7ce-large

My original copy was on 6 CD-ROMs, back in 2005. via

The FFXI guild TEAMSeaSlug (or TSS—the name was derived from a Japanese anime popular at the time) began directly due to the building of social capital. My husband defeated a monster that only appears once per day and generally requires a small party (6 or more) of players to defeat. A player competing for the same monster requested my husband’s help the next day. My husband agreed to help this stranger, and they joined forces for several days. Over the course of these days, the stranger brought friends who also needed the monster, so my husband helped them out as well. Recognizing shared interests, a high skill level, and a shared need, my husband formed the guild with these new friends, with himself as the leader (and ultimate arbiter) and myself as second-in-command (serving a sort of “human resources” function for the group). Through this guild, my husband and I would benefit many times in excess of the original help he provided strangers who needed that monster—and we would help many others as well.

TSS was formed to solve a social dilemma. FFXI at the time was based very strongly on collaboration. Most high-end monsters and dungeons required large parties (12 or more players) to complete, so many well populated guilds (50 or more players) existed to conquer these challenges. However, with more people come more complexity, more opportunity for interpersonal conflict (I had recently left a guild due to such), and more chances of freeloaders (a particular pet peeve of mine). TSS solved this social dilemma by being a small (fewer than 20 players at its peak), tight-knit core group of highly skilled players who could take on much of the game’s content with much smaller parties. While there was still occasional conflict, the smaller group size meant it was worked out more quickly and cleanly.

This group was very successful for several years, likely because we fulfilled (completely by accident) many of the suggestions Rheingold lists for successful online social systems. For the sake of brevity, I am only providing two examples here:

“A small number of simple, clear rules, sparsely enforced, with an explicit expectation that the community’s own norms will emerge later” (166).

We only had two major rules: 1) Be respectful. 2) You get one “freebie,” (item, monster kill, etc.) after which, you are expected to reciprocate by continually helping other guild members. This rule built a large amount of general social capital (Rheingold, p. 221) between guild members, who were always helping each other out. It got to the point where if you mentioned you were frustrated by something, somebody would inevitably help you out without being asked, whether that meant they showed up to help you fight a monster or resources miraculously showed up in your in-game mailbox.

This rule also served to weed out free-loaders. Sure, many people showed up for the “freebie,” and were never heard from again–or they would stick around without reciprocating and get frustrated that they never got anything else—and were never heard from again. This suited us just well—we were only interested in those guild members who self-selected for reciprocity and generosity. While we preferred having highly skilled players, we would always make room for a generous person with room for improvement in their game skills.

More rules did sprout up as needed, but they were generally specific to certain dungeons—loot and resource distribution and the like.

“Social capital is also key to the power of online social networks, where individuals and groups can cultivate, grow, and benefit from it” (p. 218)

Rheingold contrasts networks and communities. If our guild was a community, then the rest of the guilds and individuals was a network. Our policy of reciprocity served us well, as it allowed us to build social capital on the network scale—our guild members self-selected for generosity, and they would rarely hesitate to help anyone in need, regardless of their guild affiliation.

Rheingold adds, “The same networks that foster norms of reciprocity also facilitate the flow of reputational information” (p. 221). As our guild members went around helping strangers and building their networks, word got around that TSS was a pretty good guild to work with—both highly skilled and generous. Each member was a bridge to another network, whose members could potentially reciprocate at any time. This helped us face our greatest weakness as a guild: our low member base.

The nature of FFXI was such that some challenges required higher numbers of players, no matter how skilled. In these cases, TSS was left behind, unable to muster the manpower on our own. However, because each member built their own networks based on reciprocity, we were able to call upon willing  outsiders to help us defeat these challenges—and they came because of the social capital we built as a guild. Sometimes, this even resulted in growing membership for our guild, as people who came to our call decided to stick around.

There were still certain challenges we could not face. The short term solution was to individually join specialized guilds specifically for those tasks (some of which required 24 or more players). However, our long-term plan was to begin teaming up with other guilds like ours: small, highly skilled, with high social capital. Sadly, that never came to be, as the game developers made some drastic changes that eventually led us to quit.

However, TSS lives on, and some of those core members are among our closest friends. Our paths have crossed in subsequent MMOGs, and we teamed up successfully in those, raising the TEAMSeaSlug banner each time. Our paths have crossed in real life, as well. We have been to each other’s (real life) weddings. We’ve commiserated with each other’s frustrations and celebrated life’s milestones.

So when anyone questions the validity of online communities, I react the same as Rheingold: Don’t tell me that my online life isn’t real!

Thinking about thinking about thinking about…

In several of the readings we’ve encountered this semester, we’ve encountered sad stories of parents neglecting children on playgrounds in favor of their smart phones, of adolescents exhausted by the demands of social media, and people who have nearly died from information overload. The theme we are seeing over and over again seems to be that technology – and social media in particular – is a one-way train to the downfall of society. And we are riding it gleefully.

I’ve found myself quite frustration by these doomsayers. Sure, technology has its downsides, but it overall has a net positive if treated properly. The same can be said for other communication technologies that were heralded in their days of harbingers of the end of civilization. For instance, for Socrates, reading itself was a threat to society. In fact, in Net Smart, Howard Rheingold identifies a cycle wherein 1) a technology arises to massively increase communication efficiency, 2) that technology causes an information crisis and panic about the future of society, and 3) humans develop methods to handle the new technology and information it presents (p. 100). This cycle occurred for writing, books, the telegraph, the telephone, etc.

The question then becomes what tools do we need to develop to adjust to the current information crisis? The doomsayers argue that the only solution is an abstinence-only, zero-tolerance policy toward these technologies–quitting them cold turkey. To Rheingold, this is not the answer. “Human agency, not just technology is key,” he argues, “teaching people how to practice more mindful mediated communication seems the most feasible remedy” (p. 56-7).

Rheingold argues that the solution already lies within our own minds: metacognition (thinking about thinking) and mindfulness (paying attention to the way you pay attention) (36). By exercising these skills, we will be able to filter out all but the most essential information and focus our attention productively to complete goals.

Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is so powerful that, according to Rheingold, just thinking about thinking about thinking starts change the neural networks in the brain. It takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity to teach the brain new tricks.

Mindfulness, or paying attention to the way you pay attention, allows us to develop control over our attentiveness such that we actively choose to perform activities relevant to our goals and intentions. It allows us to “attune to the part of [our] information environment that matters most, and tune out what is irrelevant, at least for the purpose of [our goals” (p. 42-3).

Getting started, Rheingold says, is as simple as breathing. Seriously, the first step in creating attention awareness is to pay attention to breathing (p. 45). From this humble starting point, “attention processes… can be strengthened through exercise” (p. 62). He argues that small steps, repeated at regular intervals become habit–in other words, repetition of mindful cognitive tasks start shaping the brain’s neural networks in ways we want. By the end of all this, we become capable of focusing only on information that helps us reach our goals, while filtering out all of the other “noise” that distracts us away from our intentions.

I am personally quite familiar with mindfulness. I’m still an amateur, but I have applied it to my life in a number of ways, including improving my eating and spending habits. I am more aware of my posture, and I even try to be mindful of the way I walk–I am trying to consciously correct a slight limp that I didn’t even notice I had until I started paying attention.

Mindfulness is a very powerful tool that enables you to make conscious decisions rather than moving through life on “autopilot.” However, after reading these chapters of Net Smart, I would like to pursue mindfulness further, perhaps even beginning meditation. I have a very active (i.e., disruptive) mind, and I would like to develop tools to quiet it or, even better, harness that activity to complete goals.

Is the Internet a cesspool of folklore and truthiness?

Or The Internet is full of adventure and can we learn to love and live with it?

It takes time to understand the fluency of the Internet. The wool is never pulled over my eyes when it comes to the junk the Internet has to offer. However, how can you blame the Internet for tricking us? Anyone with a connection can post whatever they want to get our attention. In the book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold says that “the web undermines authority (by enabling anybody to publish)” (p. 89). The amount of content waiting for our attention is enormous. Whenever I see dubious posts that talk about folklore or “truthy” on the social media, I do a quick search on Google to see if the content is real or fake.

Sometimes Google search results give me a Snopes.com article. I tend to believe the Snopes website because it has been around busting urban folkore and “truthiness” for over twenty years. If you think I made that up, check out Rob Walker’s profile on the person behind the most well-known website for clearing up the internet’s (dis)information. Because of the amount of information out there these days, “we need Snopes more than ever” (Walker, 2016).

In the Futurama episode, “Attack of the Killer App,” the characters get eyePhones installed in their eye sockets, which the device mimics features found on actual iPhones. Bender, the narcissistic robot, uses his eyePhone for the purpose of getting attention through the device. He posts on the social media site, Twitcher (a parody of Twitter), about his kayaking trip around the world while sitting comfortably at a pizzeria.

img_4902img_4903img_4904

Screenshots and captions from “Attack of the Killer App” from Futurama.

Bender then says, “Can you believe 50,000 idiots swallow that crap?” and he accidentally sends that message to his followers. This example is a great one to showcase that people will believe anything and somehow Bender amassed a following of people who believe he is an authoritative figure. In a sense, do we believe what people say online as true or do we need to step back and question the content we consume?

Working out that skepticism muscle

I think it’s time we start working on our skepticism muscle. I propose using this analogy: work out your skeptical muscle on the internet by critically thinking about the content you consume. You will get better exercising that skepticism muscle every time you get a chance to.

In my case, I research a lot of information and gauge the data by how well the website presents itself and if it is corroborated by other reputable sources. Rheingold says “journalists talk about ‘triangulating’ by checking three different, credible sources” (p. 79). I know whatever’s on the web should be taken with caution and I question everything before I believe it to be true. However, critical thinking should apply not only for the internet, but anything else posted elsewhere, such as the yellow and tabloid journalism peddled at checkout aisles in grocery stores.

During my earliest days using the Internet, I learned quickly how to tell what was true and fake. Rheingold says that “age can be a factor in crap-detection fluency, experience and engagement may be more important” (p. 84) I agree that it takes experience and years of reading online content to gather that kind of heuristic for detecting what is junk and what to believe. “The danger of … credulity is made possible by digital media” says Rheingold, and there is something we can do about it: “make skepticism [our] default” (p. 77).

Rheingold includes Dan Gillmor’s five “Principles of Media Consumption” (pp. 95-96) as a good guide for figuring out how to work that skepticism muscle in order to process information better and not take anything for granted.

  • Be Skeptical
  • Exercise Judgment
  • Open Your Mind
  • Keep Asking Questions
  • Learn Media Techniques

Gillmor says that we need everyone to understand that “we are doing a poor job of ensuring that consumers and producers of media in a digital age are equipped for these tasks [of consuming media appropriately].” Additionally, Gillmor and I agree that in order to build these skills, “this is a job for parents and schools” and unfortunately “a teacher who teaches critical thinking in much of the United States risks being attacked as a dangerous radical.” Luckily, in my educational upbringing, I was told to question and research everything before I decide to accept it.

Can we patch the human?

Lastly, I am fascinated how people could fall for most well-known digital scam: phishing. In my last job I worked with an information security team as a technical writer. One of the security measures the team would test for was phishing and my co-workers were good at hacking the human since most of the computer systems were already hardened with security patches. How easy it it to fall for the everyday phishing email? Very easy. You’d be surprised that despite all of the security efforts made to secure systems so hackers can’t get in, people always were the weakest chain.

It boggles me how anyone can be so trusting to give away passwords!

In essence how can we train ourselves to figure out scams or fake authoritative figures via email? Can we “social engineer-proof” the average person to catch subtle hints everywhere on the Internet to be aware of? I think it is possible to help everyone to detect these types of scams instead of relying on software to filter the scams out of our email.

We need to educate people early on how to detect these kinds of things on the Internet. I would hope that these days, not only parents, educators teach online literacy. That doesn’t mean scaring kids and teens away from the internet, but teach helpful skills in consuming media like using Gillmor’s five principles. Whenever a friend or family member posts a hoax on Facebook, I check it and decide if it’s worthy to explain to them that they posted junk information. I gently prod them by posting a link to Snopes.com, like what Rheingold mentions we do to debunk online rumors (p. 81) because it’s important to stop the junk from misinforming other unfortunate souls.

To me, I liken it to telling people Comic Sans and Papyrus are terrible fonts and you need to use something like Gothic or Perpetua or Cambria. You don’t need to suffer awful junk from the digital world. We can do better.


References

Gillmor, D. (2008, December 26). Principles of a new media literacy. [Web log message]. Retrieved from https://dangillmor.com/2008/12/26/principles-of-a-new-media-literacy/

Rheingold, H. (2012). Net smart: How to thrive online. The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA

Verrone, P. (Writer). (2010). Attack of the killer app. [Television series episode]. in Cohen, D. X. (Executive producer). Futurama. New York, NY: Comedy Central.

Walker, R. (2016, October 19). How the truth set Snopes free. Webby Awards. Retrieved from http://webbyawards.com/features/how-the-truth-set-snopes-free/

5 Things You Didn’t Know About Digital Media Literacy

meaning-of-life-cartoon

Digital media literacy is not universal in different cultures.

  1. Digital literacy has different interpretations. According to Barry Thatcher (2010), it means “accessing, understanding, and appropriately using digital media in specific situations” (p. 169). While Bernadette Longo (2010) defines culture in the context of digital communities as, “ways in which people relate to each other within a particular social context” (p. 149) and technical communicators can learn about digital cultures by “studying the language and the social relationships embedded in how people use it” within these communities (p.149). Ann Blakeslee (2010) delves further by explaining that digital media audiences can be targeted for a specific situation or reader; however, she explains there hasn’t been enough research to understand the unique needs of readers with digital documentation (p. 204). (Refer to #3 for digital audiences.)
  1. Digital media literacy is not universal. What is understood in one country is not true for another. Thatcher’s experience working with Mexican and U.S. collaborators clearly identifies that digital literacy has differing rhetorical and cultural traditions that require greater understanding for cross-cultural projects (p. 169). Technical communicators should research and collaborate with other technical communicators and translators in other countries if the another country will be one of the audiences targeted. By due diligence, Thatcher “developed a framework to compare features of human life that all cultures share regardless of their value(s)” (p. 175) rather than follow an ethnocentric methodology – an assumption that another cultures uses digital media the same way that another does (p. 170). Specifically, Mexican culture and their rhetorical traditions regarding digital media.
  1. Digital media audience needs are specific. The internet is vast and digital media provides many outlets for various audiences to interact with media besides reading. Consider online documentation to operate your mobile phone or troubleshoot your PC. While this documentation is available to everyone, it also has a specific audience – those seeking answers for the equipment. Ann Blakeslee (2010) explains the characteristics of digital documents have implications “how audiences perceive the documents, how they use them and what expectations they bring to them” (p. 220). It is the responsibility of technical communicators to research intended audiences as well as tertiary audiences when they are creating digital documents (media). Audiences who not only read, but use and respond to digital media. Blakeslee states that to understand audience needs in response to digital literacy more research is needed (p. 222-223).
  1. Digital media needs to be user-centered. The shift from paper to digital documentation requires a “seismic shift” from system to user-centered. Documentation, to be useful and effective, requires consideration of its audience, their needs and digital literacy knowledge. This is difficult to acknowledge and understand since paper documentation was always one sided and did not receive much feedback from the user. However, almost all digital media requires a user-centered approach.
  1. Digital media literacy has its own rhetorical genre. Longo, Thatcher and Blakeslee (2010) all reference “rhetoric” or “rhetorical genre” in their articles and the importance of understanding and/or researching digital media rhetoric. Digital rhetoric, a definition evolving as much as digital media, is “the application of rhetorical theory (as analytic method or heuristic for production) to digital texts and performances” (Eymand, 2012, Digital Rhetoric Collaborative). Longo asserts that technical communicators contribute to digital rhetoric with identifying audience inclusion or exclusion as well as understanding the “human+machine culture” (p. 147). While Thatcher says to develop cross-cultural digital literacy, technical communicators must, “adapt their communication strategies to the different rhetorical expectations of the target culture” (p. 169). Finally, Blakeslee identifies that content and context need to be continually revised so that the application meets the needs of the end-user thus changing the role of rhetoric with each type of digital medium.

The list above provides a few key takeaway points from Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Rachel Spilka (Ed) (2010) Chapters 6 – 8.

A new breed of technical communicator

If Part I of Rachel Spilka’s 2009 anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication was intended to frighten the reader of portents of being outsourced (and presumably destitute as a result), then Part II was meant to assuage some of those fears. In fact, my concerns about managers playing the “everyone can write” card was almost directly addressed by William Hart-Davidson in chapter 5, “Content Management”:

But managers do need to recognize the following: that writing needs to assume a high status in corporate work, and be viewed as a critical means to just about every organizational end. The lingering idea that writing is somehow a “basic skill” rather than an area of strategic activity for a whole enterprise sometimes causes managers to make poor choices…. Many see these as a chance to automate or, worse, eliminate the work that writing specialists do. I hope this chapter helps to dispel that myth and prevent such decisions. (pp. 141-2)

In other words the “writer” should be so much more than a writer. Hart-Davidson’s chapter describes how a technical communicator can pivot into any number of essential job roles related to the managing of content.

Similarly, in chapter 4, “Information Design,” Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski argue that to be truly digitally literate, technical communicators must understand information design and information architecture and by doing so, remain relevant and vital to their organizations. In fact, they state that technical communicators have always had a greater task than writing alone: “Effective technical communication has never been simply about writing clearly, but rather, about effectively organizing written communication for future reference and application” (p. 123).

Both chapters agree that although writing is still essential, the structure, high-level design, usability, findability, and reusability are all vital parts of content generation. Technical communicators are uniquely suited and situation ensuring all of these needs are met while anticipating potential future needs.

Salvo and Rosinski provide several reasons why technical communicators are ready to evolve from content production to information architecture and design. First, technical communicators have historically applied effective design principles regardless of context (p. 106). Second, technical communicators understand historical principles of user-centered, which can be built upon to innovate, yet still advocate for the user (p. 106).

Finally, technical communicators have ensured that good design remained a focus, even as the scope of documentation evolved from simple content writing to building full Web sites. One part of this was making sure that design was driven by context; that is, the designs developed were appropriate for the context in which they would be viewed (p. 108).

Taken together, these three points argue that technical communicators can either call upon past experience, genres, and conventions and apply them to new contexts or develop new practices and styles for these contexts, all while anticipating and meet the user’s needs. They are able to effectively straddle the documentation of the past and the information design and architecture of the future. However, Salvo and Rosinsky point out, this requires that technical communicators maintain an ever-increasing knowledge of publication contexts—in other words, they must be digitally literate and remain so.

Returning to chapter 5, Hart-Davidson tells us, “Today’s technical writer… is typically expected to… perform a host of other tasks that relate directly to the management of content and not necessarily to its creation” (p. 128). In addition to content-creation tasks like writing or designing templates, the technical communicator must also manage the documentation, how individual pieces of documentation are related, and the workflows and production models used to produce and publish content.

When considered together, Hart-Davidson and Salvo and Rosinsky’s advice offers two ways technical communicators can remain relevant in a world that—regrettably—no longer values traditional writing or editing skills. The first is to shift from creating content to developing new, modern ways of presenting information in never-before-seen contexts—or adapting preexisting genres and conventions to these contexts. Second is to manage the content in addition to creating it—and also manage all aspects of content creation.

Combined, these new modes of technical communication should lead to a new breed of technical communicators that become future proof by continually adding new value to their organizations.

From Stories to Cartography

At my company, customers access much of our documentation by searching a central repository. Far and away, the most frequent feedback that we receive about our documentation is “I can’t find what I’m looking for.” So I was very interested in “Informational Design: From Authoring Text to Architecting Virtual Space” (Salvo and Rosinski) and their discussion of the necessity of search and retrieval and of designing our documentation for better navigation.

map

Findability

Salvo and Rosinski talk about envisioning documentation spatially to help users’ navigate and find their destination. They give the example of knowing user context when searching for “broccoli” in order to return the best results. There is no question that findability is hugely important in how customers locate and use our documentation, and search engine optimization (SEO) has become a big business. It doesn’t matter what we write if the right audience can’t find it at the right time.

Interestingly, I saw this user-context-based search engine patent filed by Google in 2006 (published in 2013). They discuss the known limitations of search engines and their invention to return search results by categorizing the information based on external context clues. The example that they give is figuring out that a given web site is an encyclopedia based on the surrounding words, and then using information about the user to determine whether they are looking for an encyclopedia.

I think having more context-aware searches would be a boon to technical communication and continue to accelerate our path from content creators to content managers, who look beyond the sentence level to strategic documentation processes.

The second piece of findability is not just locating the right document, but then navigating within it. The Wired article “Findability Will Make or Break Your Online Business” talks about both halves in the context of marketing your business, but I think the same is true for helping readers through technical documentation. The tips on providing user-relevant content and appropriate links (as well as the astounding statistic that 30% of visitors use site search) are certainly relevant to how we create and envision documentation.

Ambience

Salvo and Rosinksi make a closely related point about using genre conventions and creating a document environment that orients the audience and primes them for a response. By using signposts and making it clear what kind of document they are reading, we can set expectations so the audience knows what to look for and how to respond.

The diagram below actually comes from a SEO company, but the accompanying article “Are You Marketing to Search Engines or to People?” makes a surprisingly counter-serving claim that the best strategy to getting read online isn’t just tricking search engines but creating high-quality content. Documentation that is designed for the audience and understands their needs is more effective in boosting overall findability of both the website itself and particular information within it.

findability

In “Shaped and Shaping Tools,” Dave Clark also addresses genre theory and how we can create standards and templates that help users know what to find. Although perhaps not as obvious as a wedding invitation, what are other ways that we can be using signposts and ambience tools to define the genre of each document and subconsciously cue the audience on what to look for and where to find it?

Salvo and Rosinski quote Johnson-Eilola as saying “the map has started to replace the story as our fundamental way of knowing.” In light of human history, that seems a shocking thing to say, but I do see it being borne out, at least to some degree, as the amount of information grows exponentially and the challenge of navigating it becomes more important. I still fancy myself as a writer about a cartographer, but managing documentation for findability is an increasingly key part of the role.

References:

“Are You Marketing to Search Engines or to People?” KER Communications. 29 June 2010. Accessed 30 Sept 2016. https://kercommunications.com/seo/marketing-search-engines-people/

Hendron, Michael. “Findability Will Make or Break Your Online Business.” Wired. Accessed 30 Sept 2016. https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/02/findability-will-make-break-online-business/

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.

Anybody can write.

This post’s title was inspired by the lament of technical communicators on discussion groups and message boards in the late 2000s and early 2010s. Frustrated writers and editors were being downsized because budget-crunched companies saw little reason to hire people just for writing. After all, everybody learns to write in school, so why not save money by having the engineers and programmers write the documentation? After all, they’re already more familiar with the product being documented.

It was clear from these posts and e-mailed discussions that employers no longer valued writing or editing ability, favoring instead technical ability. However, being anecdotal conversations in e-mails or message boards, perhaps these technical communicators’ observations and experiences are apocryphal.

Unfortunately, they may be correct. In Rachel Spilka’s 2010 anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, two authors share their research and advice regarding the past and future of technical communicators. In “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century,” Saul Carliner provides a perspective on the history of the field from the 1970s to the modern day. In “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” R. Stanley Dicks offers an assessment of the current technological landscape as it applies to technical communicators and makes recommendations for technical communicators who “worry about how they are perceived and evaluated and whether they might be likely sources for being reengineered and either eliminated or outsourced” (2010, p.64).

Carliner illustrates how technical communication has changed throughout the years, describing the audiences, tools, outputs, and skills of technical communicators throughout the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. From his description, basic writing and editing skills were only truly valued during the late 1980s, when documentation was no longer written for expert audiences, and the lay user needed an advocates who “[supplied] their versatile base of skills (writing, editing, and illustration) to explain products.. to users” (Carliner, 2010, p. 26). Prior to and following this period, writing and editing skills were not valued by employers compared to product expertise in the 1970s (p. 23), interface and web design skills in the 1990s (p. 28), and expertise in publishing tools (DITA, XML, etc.) (p. 29) and Web 2.0 technologies (p. 41) in the 2000s. In other words, he says, “Hiring managers gave priority to applicants with technical skills” (p. 37).

In the modern of advanced publishing tools and easy access to spelling- and grammar-checkers, Carliner points out, “Those who develop and produce content has been facing dwindling work opportunities” (2010, p. 44).

Dicks (2010) also acknowledges that writing and editing are no longer sought-after skills in the Information Age:

Writing or 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. (p. 54)

Dicks further quotes Moore and Kreth, who say, “…Today, technical communicators who add value to their organizations do not merely write or edit documents” (p. 54).

In short, because everyone (including offshore employees for whom English often is a second language) can write, technical communicators must demonstrate their value beyond mere writing and editing. In short, technical writers must “learn new talents and tools” (Dicks, 2010, p. 61).

While I do understand the need to stay relevant and maintain one’s relative level of digital literacy, it makes me sad that writing and editing are now largely unvalued. I have seen firsthand the emphasis on tools expertise over writing. While applying for jobs, I have been told several variations on, “Well your writing is great, but unfortunately, we need somebody with expertise in xyz.” With xyz being the publishing tool du jour or Agile or whatever.  It was disheartening.

Yet many other fields are having to modernize—old dogs learning new tricks to stay relevant and add value. Why should technical communicators be any different? In fact, I believe that the width and breadth of technical communication makes it much easier to adjust to these changes. We have to learn technology to document it, so learning technology to use it should not be a very large jump. And no matter what tools, systems, or work methodologies we are forced to learn, we will always be able to write and edit—and we care about that even if nobody else does.