Category Archives: Literacy

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.

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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.

Becoming a Symbolic-Analytic Worker

Theodore Roosevelt is attributed as saying, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” As a relative newcomer to technical communications, I appreciated the overview in Carliner’s article “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” of how the field has developed over the past 40 years. He lays the groundwork for understanding how changes in content management and publication technology has shifted what it fundamentally means to be a technical writer. Because of the advances that he describes, notably in GUI development and the emergence of the Internet, our primary function has evolved from “crank-turners” for publication to a more nuanced understanding of content creators.

This is the shift that Dicks further explores in “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” and that I find fascinating both in light of my current job and future opportunities in the field. The key phrase that caught my attention in Dicks’ article was the evolution of technical writing into “symbolic-analytic work,” which he attributes to economic, management, and technological trends. In “Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age,” Johnson-Eilola further describes symbolic-analytic work as it applies to technical communication: “Symbolic-Analytic Workers possess the abilities to identify, rearrange, circulate, abstract, and broker information. Their principal work materials are information and symbols, their principal products are reports, plans, and proposals.”

Twenty years later, Johnson-Eilola’s description of the evolving role of technical communicators certainly seems to have borne out. Technology has advanced to the point that the nuts and bolts of the publication process are no longer a burden. Technical writers no longer contribute value by knowing which lever to pull, so to speak. Instead, in order to add value to the post-industrial society that Dicks describes, we need to be performing higher-level tasks regarding how content is created, managed, distributed, and understood.

This shift is happening throughout many sectors of the economy, as shown in the chart below, and technical communications is one example of it:

changing-skill-demand

In my own experience, I was hired in 2012 with the elaborate job title of “Writer.” The next year, the company changed the name of our division, and there was a mild identity crisis as all of our business cards changed to say “Technical Communications” instead. Although some of my more romantic colleagues were dismayed by losing the artsy flair of being “writers,” I thought that the shift was a much more accurate reflection of the scope of our work. The majority of my work day is not spent strictly writing, but rather investigating new projects, deciding which information is the most meaningful for our audience, and managing content at a much higher level. As Dicks points out, we need to re-envision ourselves not as merely documenters but “strategic contributors”.

In “The Effects of Content Management on Writing in an Administrative Office,” McCarthy brings it full circle and argues that just as the scope of our work was initially limited by the technology available to us, we should now seek content management systems that support our new roles. He states, “With the missions and desired outcomes of organizations now closely entwined with how they manage their knowledge, the ability to develop tools that support the formation and coordination of the textual representation of knowledge is extremely important” (McCarthy p. 5).

I think Carliner would agree. Technical communications evolved in direct response to the available technologies, and as we complete the shift into symbolic-analytic work, we need to seek development of tools to support it. Although I think these tools will likely look a little different in each industry and context, at the heart they need to support collaboration, flexibility, interactivity, and ease of use, allowing us to focus on the higher-brain tasks of communication and our evolving audience.

Personally, I’m excited about working in this new world where I have the opportunity to think critically, explore new ideas, and continually redefine successful communication. I find it a much more dynamic and engaging environment than simply being a “routine manual” worker, as Dicks cautions is quickly going extinct.

References:

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan (1996). Relocating the Value of Work: Technical Communication in a Post-Industrial Age. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(3), 245-270.

McCarthy, Jacob E. Effects of Content Management on Writing in an Administrative Office: Building a Way of Organizing Writing. Proquest, 2009.

Spilka, Rachel (Ed.) 2010. Digital Literacy for Technical Communications. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

Van Damme, Dirk. “21st Century Learners Demand Post-Industrial Education Systems.” OECD.

 

 

Past, Present and Future of Tech Communicators

I was fascinated by the history of technical communications and the progress of technical communicators from Rachel Spilka’s (2010) Digital Literacy for Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice. Working as a technical writer with a large oil and gas corporation, I identified with several of the changes in the technical communication field from having knowledge of writing to understanding digital literacy. I was surprised that technical communicators will likely experience “reengineering” or periods of work and non-work during their careers. The future of technical communication jobs is uncertain; however, technical communicators need to assert certain digital skills and prove their value to the company/industry to maintain employment.

progress-lies-not-in-enhancing__quotes-by-khalil-gibran-35

Courtesy of Hippoquotes.com

I have experienced many changes of roles and responsibilities with technology and writing throughout the past several years. As JoAnn Hackos explains, “the roles and responsibilities of technical communicators are changing rapidly – in some cases for the worse” (Spilka, 2010, p. ix). As technology evolves and changes, people have to learn, adapt and apply new technology to advance their expertise. Spilka (2010) states that in Part III of Digital Literacy technical communicators need to explore the answers to past theories or develop new ones to better understand how technology has transformed our work (p.14). I have not considered past technology and methods for communicating has an effect on future ones.

I haven’t been in my current position just over three years and I have experienced a dramatic change in our standard writing procedure and content management system (CMS). We started with MS Word generated documents, received hand written signature approvals, and used a file transfer protocol (FTP) to upload them to an archaic CMS system. This process (writing and receiving approvals) often took months or even years to complete and was not efficient or effective for those who needed to follow the standards every day. Two years ago we underwent a complete overhaul of our process and CMS system. Most parts of the process are auto-generated with email reminders and a CMS that uses HTML and XML files for creating standards that are compatible with multiple platforms. No more written signatures or filing papers in file folders since most of the workflow process is completed within 60 days or less. Although the system has several drawbacks and oftentimes has “bugs” that hinder our process, we’re still better than before. Management is researching the next system since technology becomes outdated as soon as it becomes popular.

We’re in the Web 2.0 era, but will digital literacy, advancing globalization, and technical communication survive the “seismic shift” that will likely lead to Web 3.0 in the near future? R. Stanley Dicks (Spilka, 2010) examines the drastic changes technical communication has been experiencing the last couple decades and it doesn’t appear to moving backward either. These dramatic changes will test our skills and value in the workplace. Dicks says to remain a valuable contributor, we’ll have to add a “strategic value” to increase company profits which comprises of having leadership skills, training and education as well as being more than a writer and editor. Technical communicators will have to be “symbolic-analytical” workers.(Check out this SlideShare about Johnson-Eilola’s research.) I’m still trying to visualize this concept, but I understand that we’ll have to know and do more than just write words. We’ll have to be the researcher, theorist, rhetorician, translator, and collaborator to prove our valuable skill sets to remain employed.

 

 

 

Step 13 says I need a catchy headline.

While not an expert, I do not consider myself a stranger to social media, despite being a late-adopter of Facebook and other Web 2.0 social media. I was active in America Online chat rooms in middle school and joined forums for various purposes throughout high school–while not the same as modern social media, it can definitely be argued that they are indeed in that class.

In high school, my friends introduced me to LiveJournal, which was arguably one of the earliest blogging platforms. Most of my friends used it as a diary, expressing their teenage woes and triumphs and commenting on each others’. However, some artists I knew at the time used it as a platform where they could communicate with their customer base–very similar to how some modern blogging platforms are used.

I was in college when I first heard the term blog. And like any proper Luddite, I hated it. These crazy Internet portmanteaus are ruining the world! (As an aside, I still hate the term vlog, despite accepting blog. Grudgingly. One can only go so far.) While blogging was somewhat common, wikis were more my speed. We used them for collaboration and discussion in class, and I wrote my senior thesis on them. I have since come to realize that a blog is simply a wiki with a single editor.

While I skipped the MySpace craze, I finally gave in to Facebook late in my college career. To this day I don’t have any other social media accounts. My cat, however, has both a Facebook and an Instagram–my husband curates the Instagram because I just won’t! Any day now, Tau become the next Grumpy Cat, and we’ll be able to retire. Or that’s what we tell people who look at us oddly for having feline social media.

I have a personal blog, which I actively posted to when I was looking for a job and had lots of spare time. I considered it a vital part of my “brand,” which also included my resume and portfolio. That fell by the wayside despite all of my intentions of resurrecting it. Meanwhile, for the past two years, I was the webmaster for the Chicago chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. While not a traditional blog, it it is a WordPress site, so behaved very similarly to my own blog/site.

In addition to being a producer of social media, I am a fairly avid blog consumer. I read many blogs in various genres: cooking, crafts, gaming, webcomics, science, and many more. I’ve been following some of these blogs long enough that I’ve seen them evolve as the landscape has evolved. They are constantly challenged by staying relevant, keeping and growing their readership, and staying profitable. I’ve seen at least one blog fold completely because it just became insolvent.

And I understand the struggle myself, as somebody who wants to make it big on Facebook–it’s simply very difficult to do, and often feels random. Sometimes it seems like all you can do is dream that something you have goes viral, and hope that once it does, your existing content is good enough to hold readers while you churn out as much new content as you can (while still retaining quality, of course).

That’s why I get very frustrated when I see articles like Belle Beth Cooper’s 2013 offering, “16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners.” Articles like these are all over the Internet, and many of them have conflicting, or simply inapplicable, advice.

The first “top tip” in this article is one such example: “Get ideas from your audience” (Cooper, 2013). The gist of this tip is to use your preexisting audience as a topic resource. That’s great and all, but if I’m a new blogger (the “for Beginners” part of the article’s title), I don’t have an audience to get ideas from. How does this tip help me right now, while I’m a beginner? Tip number five, “Love your existing readers,” also strikes an odd note for the same reason (Cooper, 2013).

Ironically, number two is, “Know your audience” (Cooper, 2013). It seems that Cooper failed to follow this very advice when compiling this article. Otherwise, why have so many tips that don’t apply to truly beginning bloggers?

Not all the tips seem as nonsensical, however. Tips six, eight, nine, eleven, and thirteen all seem like very good advice. But they are good advice for any writing–not just blogging.

Blogging 101: How Did I Get Here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The world may never know.

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

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

Here’s to a successful semester of blogging!

Emerging from Emerging Media

thats_all_folks__by_gbetim-d5aydtbThis Course

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

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

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

My Final Paper

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

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

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

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

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

Good Luck to You!

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

End of the Semester

future

I have really enjoyed this class, and interacting with all of you on this blog. This course has helped me see my current (and future) workplace situation through different lenses, and I feel this has made me stronger professionally. I chose to write my paper on what skills technical communication professionals need to succeed in the modern/future workplace. I have pasted my abstract below, please let me know what you think!

Emerging media has completely changed the face of traditional technical writing. The introduction of Web 2.0 has created user needs that supersede the tangible printed and bound instruction manuals that previously defined the field. As a result, workplaces have established new requirements for the skills ideal technical writing candidates must possess, and universities have strategically designed programs to keep up with these trends. Successful technical writers are now faced with the tasks of interpreting the most effective structure to present information; the best terminology for particular users; the appropriate design strategies to maximize accessibility; and the optimal platforms/technology to deliver products. This paper will define modern technical communication, and highlight the essential skills and abilities required for success in the industry. This paper will be concluded with my personal experience with these dynamics as a technical communications professional in multiple workplace settings.

The skills I then listed are to:

  • Understand business operations and corporate financial goals to prove their value to the workplace
  • Possess the collaboration skills, and ability to work in a team environment
  • Maintain a thorough familiarity with leading industry tools and trends
  • Possess solid writing, composition skills, and oral communication skills
  • Possess the ability to evaluate their own work performance as well as those of others
  • Possess document design knowledge
  • Possess the ability to execute tasks and projects with enthusiasm and to meet deadlines with little support from management

Wrap-up and best wishes

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

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

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

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

Abstract

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

Wrap-up

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

Expertise versus Skill: The Dichotomy of a Technical Communicator

When I first began my journey to finding a master’s program that had to do with something around technical communication, I kept telling myself it was to gain more validity with my career and give me the necessary expertise that I needed.  Within my role, it has always been a struggle to claim my position as a real “job” and not just something that needs to be done, for example, drafting e-mails to the rest of the organization about a particular issue that occurred in relation to technology.

But this idea of a dichotomy came up for me in a recent article I had written for another assignment.  When does technical communication change from just being a skill to it being considered an expertise or career?  This is often something I have contemplated, but it seems to be coming up and more and more, even in Pigg’s article on distributed work.  As Pigg discussed the skills needed for technical communication, one of the problems she conjured was that “technical communicators’ expertise is threatened to be reduced to functional technological skill (p. 72).

I often ask myself what does technical communication really mean to me?  Of course, this is in the context of my own work environment and experiences that I have had, but I am beginning to wonder if that question is ever attainable?  As we think about the growth in technology, it wasn’t until about the last 40-50 years that modern day technology really began to shape our human culture.  With this sharp increase it will only began to increase at the same rapid pace.  So what is our role as technical communicators within these changes?  Can we even bare to handle all aspects?  As organizations continue to grow, consumers begin adapting new technologies, and distribution begins to happen in our everyday lives, the role of technical communication will become even more distributed.

evs1Source: http://asgard.vc/tag/acceleration-growth/

In looking at my current organization there are many areas where the skillset of a technical communicator is needed but often times it is covered by a technical, or even non-technical, subject matter expert.  For instance, our business analysts are often reaching out to members of our organization to gather requirements for technical projects.  The work they do surely involves some type of technical communication skill but it is not something they are necessarily trained in.

evs2

Source:  http://www.sharkbelief.com/skills-are-better-than-talent/

I saw this Bruce Lee quote and it really seemed to tie in nicely with my article this week.  As I thought about this idea of skillset versus expertise, I actually disagreed with Lee’s quote.  It has to take expertise to know 10,000 different kicks versus, being able to do one really well (which is a skill in and of itself).  Practice makes perfect, right?

In correlation with Pigg’s problem statement referenced earlier, I believe it is important that we distinguish between what skill and expertise mean for the field of technical communication.  Otherwise, I too fear, in alignment with the work Slattery conducted (Pigg, 2014), that all technical communication roles will be subjected to a skill rather than an expertise.

Understanding Social Media Stakeholders and Their Needs

As I read through the Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making, Tweeting and Ethos, and Technical Communication Unbound articles there were two main concepts that really seemed to jump out at me – the idea of social media stakeholders, how those stakeholders use their social media tools, and how [as technical communicators] we may need to adapt our communications based upon social media channels.

SMpic1

The idea of stakeholder analysis is a way to analytically look at individuals who are impacted by a particular event/situation/problem/etc. and understand how they are impacted.  As technical communicators, by conducting stakeholder analyses we can better articulate the communication messages and more effectively design systems to better suit the stakeholder needs.  As Longo stated in her article on Using Social media for Collective Knowledge-Making, “technical communicators and teachers of technical communication are poised to understand content users now as producers and to work toward relationships between [information and communication technologies] and human interaction to design documents and content in this global context, allowing us to cross community boundaries” (2013).

This statement defines the importance around establishing stakeholders in order to build those relationships Longo describes.  If we can understand how those stakeholders use social media, we can in fact, better communicate and refine our messages to those individuals.   The following graphic by Meritus Media shows, at a high level, how many stakeholders there can be and drives out what they value.  How a customer uses Facebook is different than how an employee uses Facebook.  If we can begin to identify and analyze those stakeholders, we can truly begin those targeted communications that means something to our readers.

SMpic2

One thought, however, that was raised after reading Bowdon’s article on Tweeting an Ethos, was on how [technical communicators] use these channels.  As Bowdon found in a study he conducted, “[technical communication students] had trouble discerning and articulating the values of their various organizations, but all of the groups faced great difficult when trying to product content to post on Twitter and Facebook in order to keep up a consistent, meaningful presence on behalf of their organizations.  They were unsure how to translate that understanding into a Twitter or Facebook thread” (2013).  What this called out to me was that we, as technical communicators, need to be cognizant now only about stakeholders and how they use social media channels, but how we use social media channels to communicate with those stakeholders.

One of the biggest challenges for us will be to effectively use and communicate via social media channels.  To Bowdon’s point, delivering a message on a social media channel can be very different than drafting an e-mail or writing content for a Web site.  Learning how to translate our messages to a 140-character tweet and learning when it is most appropriate to use Facebook to share messages will become part of our skill sets that we will need to master.

SMpic3

Examining My Informational Backbone

spine

While reading Toni Ferro and Marc Zachry’s “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge, Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices”, I noticed some striking similarities to my own job. This article basically analyzed technical communications professionals’ workplace usage of publicly available online systems (PAOS), and I can completely relate to their findings. The table below explains this in greater detail (pg. 16):

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 8.18.27 PM

I’m an eCommerce Copywriter for multiple retail brands, and sites like Wikipedia, Google Docs, Skype/WebEx, and Amazon.com are literally my backbone. In order to write product descriptions, I either need a sample (which is never available), or a product description from a vendor/competitor’s site. Literally 50% of my workday is spent researching products and putting existing descriptions into my own words.

The table above mentions 60% of participants reported using Wikipedia for “learning about a topic”, and this is true for me personally as well. There are times when I’m given products for sports/hobbies I’ve never even heard of and I depend on Wikipedia to explain what they are. For example, last week I was given 100 SUP accessories to write on our company website, and had no idea what the acronym SUP even stood for. Wikipedia saved the day with a robust explanation that helped me write my product descriptions like an expert.

Google Docs is another program I couldn’t do my job without, as when writing these products, other departments like imaging and merchandising need real time visibility into our progress. Most lists of products that need copy are distributed in a Google spreadsheet, and as we complete copy, we simultaneously check products off the list for the next step that needs to be initiated by other colleagues. Google Docs is our go-to for sharing and editing documents, and its absence would make everyone’s job nearly impossible.

Ferro and Zachry went on to ask, “What is the relation between what we are designing our classes and overall curriculum to achieve, and the things students will be doing after they are with us (pg. 19)?” I had been anticipating this question from the second I read through the survey data. With the amount of rapidly changing technology we’re facing and growing increasingly dependent on, PAOS are no longer a workplace/educational distraction. I personally feel students could benefit from a course geared to helping us identify and maximize these resources. I’d even be interested in taking a course on how to create these resources.

I was also happy to see the statement in the Pedagogical Implications section, “Technical communicators today rightly express concerns about how we should teach students to write in forms that did not exist 3 years ago – and some that do not yet exist (pg. 20)”. The ability to predict, effectively navigate, and communicate in the PAOS environment can make or break an employee’s success in the workplace. Employees who can create and monitor expert Wikis, become masters of developing associations and relationships online, and internalize electronic planning/coordination are greater assets to their companies than employees with identical work knowledge/experience who lack these additional qualities. I’m very interested to see how educators will introduce this material, and how this change will reflect in the technical communication discipline.

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

Evil angry robot . Render on blackbackground

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

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

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

What’s Up with That?

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

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

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

On the Other Hand

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

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

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

So Which Is it?

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

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

Resistance Is Not Futile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you add anything to the list?

Impact of technology on jobs for the mentally disabled

After watching the Debate about technology and jobs between Andrew Keen and Jonathan Zittrain, there were a number of topics that peeked my curiosity in this 60 minute video.  One, in particular, was this idea around how technology is taking over a number of different jobs within our society.  One thing Zittrain came across in his own research was the idea of: if a robot could do something a human could do, than ultimately it was beneath a human’s capacity to do that work.

But is it?  One of the things Zittrain noted was that if technology does impact a person’s role, it is also important that there is meaningful work for people.  But what if this is meaningful work for some?

mental impairment1

I have an uncle who has down syndrome (DS), which is a type of physical and mental impairment.  Although the developmental delays vary significantly between individuals with DS, it can hinder their capacity of “contributing” to society.  My uncle, for example, has the development that an 8-year-old would have.  Nonetheless he is able to work.  I would say, however, that type of work while meaningful to him could potentially at any point be performed by technology.

So what happen to the dissemination of unskilled labor then?  If we take that away and replace unskilled labor with technology, do we take jobs away from individuals who are elderly or have mental disabilities?  In their article on Technology, Society and Mental Illness, Harvey and Keefe found that technology does in fact have an impact on populations that include the elderly, those with mental illnesses and disabilities.

humantomachine

But, can individuals with mental illness (or even the elderly) strive in this “human+machine” culture that Longo refers to (in Digital Literacy) – against the claims made by Harvey and Keefe?    One of the most fascinating things about my uncle is his own ability to use and adapt to technology.  He can play Wii games and find his way through levels upon levels.  Does he struggle with some things?  Sure – but if he were living in this digital culture would his online counter parts know he was mentally disabled?

In fact, in her article titled, What effect has the internet had on disability, Aleks Krotoski argues that physical impairments become non-existent in the virtual world.  Without having the stigma assigned to them, those with disabilities have the opportunity to flourish online.

This idea aligns well with the information the Longo provided in her chapter on Human+Machine and the importance of investigating and understanding how this human and machine culture works and how it is not equal to the “human+human culture”.  In a human to human culture, as Krotoski found, those with mental or physical impairments are chastised, but in an online virtual environment – when it comes down to humans plus machines – those individuals have the opportunity to participate in society without human barriers.

How do you feel the Human+Machine culture might impact the elderly or mentally disabled populations?  As technical communicators, how do we account for communication to these audiences if they were in fact online participants?

You better buy the cow, because I do not work for free.

Some of the themes in Howard Rheingold’s book, Net Smart, seem to be

  • give your full attention to people online and off-line
  • check your privacy settings on Facebook and be mindful that whatever you write online, because it will be there forever
  • to participate to help others and build your social capital

I found these to be common sense and good ideas. However, there are things such as remixing of copyrighted materials, which I did not agree with.

No copyright infringement for you!

As a small business owner who has dabbled in photography and videography, I do not agree with people taking works and remixing it into their own works and calling it “fair use,” if these people are getting paid for it. I fully stand by the copyright law, and I believe that people must ask for permission before using it. If there is a fee involved, fine. The artist has spent a lot of time creating his or her artwork, and they should be paid for it.

Now, if that artist wishes to create things for the public domain, or as Rheingold calls it, “collaboration” with others, that is fine too, but in the latter, the artist was asked if they want to share their work for free, when another person wants to create a project with that artist’s help.

I can do it, but it will cost you…

Moreover, just like with “playbor,” where people are doing work that seems more like play, but they are not getting paid for it, people need to know this upfront. While Rheingold said that many people do playbor to help the greater good, I, personally, fit into the group that refuses to be exploited. I, unfortunately, have been in that position of doing work and not getting paid for it before, and I will not let it happen again. I believe this is one of the reasons why corporations keep making a profit, while their employees who earn so little, continue to make so little, because there is no reason for the corporations to pay a decent salary when there are people who are willing to do the work for free, or for mere pennies.

Similarly, Rheingold mentioned to help others and to pay it forward, so that others will help you when you need it. He says that he helps everyone who contacts him. But, in my opinion, this is only possible if you do not work a full-time job and or have a family to raise too. Free moments should be spent with the family and relaxing from work. And for those who receive so much email and other messages, this sounds like too much work. I do believe that we should leave the world a better place than how we came into it, but helping others all day leaves little time for oneself and one’s own needs.

Understand, that I know for a fact that if I tried to respond to every message on Facebook or email, providing advice or whatever is needed, I would spend an entire day and not be done, because people respond back with even more questions. I do understand the importance of giving my full-attention to whomever I am talking to face-to-face, but online? I can maybe do that with a couple of people who I have a good relationship with, but if I did that for every email and message, I would not have any time for the most important people in my life, which is my family. Thus, I am happy to fail at gaining online social capital.

Disappearing websites? Say it ain’t so!

After reading Rheingold’s how-to instructions on Facebook privacy, I was wondering why his publisher would allow this information to take up space. Rheingold, himself, has stated, Facebook changes its privacy settings often. Thus, his steps for changing Facebook’s privacy settings probably became obsolete within a month or two after his book’s publication.

Now, as someone who has written for online publications before, naming that amount of websites that he did is a big no-no, and for the same reason that I mentioned in the above paragraph. Websites can go obsolete or change their urls within weeks of publication. I would assume that adding website urls in a printed book would be a much bigger taboo. But since it has been years since I last had something published in physical form, perhaps the rules have changed.

Anyway, I think that Rheingold’s book is good for beginners who are looking to enhance their social capital, build good online networks, know where they could go to participate in collaborating, and to learn what not to do online. While there were times that I thought, “Oh, yes, I should do that more,” I did not leave learning something totally new. This may be because I may be a more advanced user of social media…who is trying to actually back away from social media as it was taking up too much of my life. It will be interesting what I do next with my life in regards to social media. How about you?

How Google Is Making Us Smarter

google_brain

While reading the first few chapters of Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, the section in chapter one titled “(Using) the Internet Makes Us Stupid (or Not)” really related to me. I constantly hear my friends say things like “autocorrect is making us stupid”, and “We’d be nothing without Google”, but I’ve always thought the complete opposite.

On page 52, Rheingold introduced and explained Nicholas Carr’s article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He went on to say:

“A search engine often draws our attention to a particular snippet of text, a few words or sentences that have strong relevance to whatever we’re searching for at the moment, while providing little incentive for taking in the work as a whole.”

I don’t understand how Carr has skewed this situation, but I feel the exact opposite. People Google information they do not know, or else they wouldn’t need to Google it. The “few words or sentences” that are generated from their searches are specifically what they needed to know. Regardless of whether or not they read the entire document, they have already learned something that they will not forget.

Carr feels, “We are substituting the web for personal memory, and emptying our minds”. However, I do not forget the information I look up on Google, ever. He’s thinking along the lines of easy come easy go, but that’s really not the case in this situation. In terms of neuroplasticity, I feel we’re actually training ourselves to absorb more information than ever before in the history of human existence.

I can go through more information online in a year than my grandmother has in her entire lifetime. I have the world’s knowledge at my fingertips, at my disposal whenever I feel like conjuring it. Our generation are masters of information, we’re experts at searching and locating exactly what we want to know in a matter of seconds.

Carr says, “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it”, and we engage in, “nonlinear, scattered, perpetual scanning at the expense of depth and concentration”. I think my skipping and skimming habits are more like an ability to speed-read and pinpoint information I’m actually looking for than an Internet based attention deficit disorder. Web based authors also format their documents for this purpose, making information easier to find in less time.

In situations where readers need more elaborate explanations of the subject of interest, references to “traditional” texts are always linked to the content. In just a simple click, we jump from the “few words or sentences” to a printable PDF version of a book, or a link to buy a hard copy on Amazon.

It’s law in the United States for every child to attend school, or else their parents are held responsible. According to the National Center of Educational Statistics, American illiteracy rates have been around 14% for the past 10 years, I highly doubt Google has been as influential as immigration, poverty, or drug usage. Most Americans are capable of reading, and will read in the traditional sense when the occasion calls for it. It’s simply a matter of optimizing time, effort, and using discretion.

As Rheingold said on page 52, “A search query, like a Wikipedia page, is often a bad place to end your inquiry, but an excellent place to start”. In most cases readers jump through multiple pages of information, and have the option of a robust explanation of what they are looking for through multiple resources. Google and sites like Wikipedia put them on track to find these resources, and long form text is always an option.

Tools like Google, Wikipedia and even autocorrect give us instant answers and correction that we wouldn’t have without it. Is it better to not have access to information outside of a 2000 page book, or to instantly get what you’re looking for with the option of exploring additional resources?

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

evernote_logo_4c-lrg

In early 2008, I signed up for Evernote® and became a premium subscriber. It quickly became my digital brain and I used it daily. In 2012, Evernote acquired Penultimate, a note taking app for iPad that allows you take handwritten notes. In 2014, Evernote launched a new version of Penultimate that led to their having to issue an apology to their users.

But, despite their claims of listening to feedback, many Evernote users suggest otherwise in the app’s forums. I believe this “development in a bubble” has led to the company’s CEO, Phil Libin, having to step down and to the company’s having some serious trouble with public relations if not finances, as reported by BusinessInsider.com: The inside story of how $1 billion Evernote went from Silicon Valley darling to deep trouble.

But, why?

I’m no business analyst so I’ll skip the charts and graphs. But, I can tell you why I left Evernote last year as a premium subscriber and active user in favor of another app. I believe the following are some of the main reasons Evernote is struggling—all of which have to do with Evernote being un-networked to its user base.

We’re Listening But Not Really

Howard Rheingold, Author of Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, says “The aggregated by-products of digital participation add up to a marketable commodity…” (p. 135). In theory, yes, but only if the company is listening.

In Evernote’s case, I and other users called for certain features or feature tweaks for years in the user forums. What we got were new apps that eventually died (e.g. Hello and Food), features no one seemed to be asking for (e.g. Work Chat), or redesigns that turned long-standing workflows on their heads or made them impossible.

The net effect went something like this over and over again: “We didn’t get to that fix or feature you wanted, but look! We created a food app because Phil, our CEO is a foodie, and, well, food app!”

We Know What’s Best for You

At the front of the online book, the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto: The End of Business as Usual list the 95 theses found within it. Number 25 is “Companies need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.”

Evernote boasts over 50 million users worldwide. It’s my feeling this gave them so much confidence in what they were doing, they became dismissive of what users were saying.

Go to the forums—virtually any forum. I’ll bet you won’t have to scroll long before you find an Evernote team member effectively saying “Let them eat cake!” In other words, they indicate they understand the concerns, but they know what’s best. Whether or not a feature request is in the development pipeline or not is not the business of end-users. At least, that’s how many of us felt.

Drink the Kool-Aid or Else!

Power-user bullying of everyday users is rampant on the forums. Evernote is silent. I’ve read dozens of comments from self-identified power-users in reply to average users’ concerns that leave me speechless.

Effectively, these power-users seemingly become defensive on Evernote’s behalf and will shut-off whiney users: “Evernote is great. I use it 1,000 of times a day and have for 50 years. You just don’t know what you’re doing. I’ve given you two work-arounds, a life raft, and a helicopter! If you don’t like the way Evernote is set up or don’t like my work-around. Leave!” They don’t actually say this, but it does effectively represent their intent and tone.

The fascinating thing is that Evernote lets it go on. And, the next thing you know, that power-user bully has published a post on Evernote’s blog. You start to really feel hopeless as an average user.

A Note from the New CEO

A month ago, Evernote’s new CEO wrote to the user base explaining why the company was laying off talent and closing offices globally. He said some important stuff that may represent the bubble is being popped and Evernote will begin focusing on its user network (and hopefully employee network, if you read the Business Insider article):

“I believe that a smaller, more focused team today will set us up for growth and expansion tomorrow. Here are two things that you can expect from us over the next several months: we will launch major foundational product improvements around the core features that you care about most, and we will pull back on initiatives that fail to support our mission.”

He’s saying the company is going to focus on improving its core product THAT USERS CARE ABOUT MOST. I hope that means the same thing users have been telling Evernote all along: “Great product, but we need it do to A, B, and C, and by the way this needs fixed.”

I’m not going back to Evernote. Not yet. Maybe never. But, I’ll watch from afar to see what happens.

Trying my best to not spoil the broth!

As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization.  When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”.  But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization.  At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it).  But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs).   And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.

cartoon

I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs.  In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking.  Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say.  But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).

I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world).  In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.

I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.

inforgraphic-learnmax

This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training.  But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.

As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about.  Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need.  It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication.  Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).

  • This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
  • Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
  • We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.

Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above.  It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience.  Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61).  But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.

For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages.  The content, design, and layout was all brutal.  In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff.  Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle.  At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.

So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?

References

Dicks, S. (2010).  Digital Literacy for Technical Communication.   In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81).  New York: Taylor & Francis.

Relying on Heuristics in Digital Communication

I spend nearly every work day reviewing science and engineering reports and memos. Virtually every one of them follow the same structure: introduction, methods, results, and discussion or IMRAD as it is sometimes called. IMRAD is a viable heuristic for what is historically a paper-based, long-form argument. (If it weren’t, it would likely not be so prevalent.)

I’m also asked frequently by the marketing department to review content for online distribution. To help them along and save myself significant substantive editing time, I’ve attempted to provide that department—some of whom are trained technical writers—with heuristics (what I call writing prompts or an outline of sorts) which they can use to author within the various information types they are responsible for. So far, I’ve developed heuristics for blog posts, social media posts, brochures, flyers, and so on.

They’ve come to rely on these heuristics, essentially canonizing them, which was never my intention. I’ve been thinking a lot about why this has happened and its appropriateness. I’m beginning to be cautious about developing heuristics especially for digital communication.

Paper-Based and Digital Communication Are Different

Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski wrote in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (p. 105) touched on this dilemma:

“One difference between paper-based and electronic communication is that the forms and designs of older analog media have been internalized and naturalized…Use, familiarity, and comfort within these newer information spaces are therefore, to some extent, generational, and technical communicators must now consider how to bridge these generational boundaries that are likely to express themselves as technological preferences.”

I suppose what I’m saying is that the bridge between paper-based (with their traditional heuristics) and digital communication (which lets admit can be a free-for-all) is not heuristics.

Moving Away from Heuristics

What I’ve come to realize is, when it comes to digital communication, heuristics are effective starting points, but should never take the place of authentic communication. By authentic communication, I mean communication conceived of and designed to serve its particular audience and the content itself. This is the opposite of content designed to meet a preset structure (such as IMRAD).

In other words, instead of developing heuristics for digital communication (e.g. “A blog post has these five components” or “The services page on your website should cover three things”), what if we simply approach each rhetorically? Dave Clark in Digital Literacy discusses the “rhetoric of technology” which he contrasts against IMRAD without using that concept specifically.

So, the next time the marketing team wants some help structuring digital communication in particular, instead of writing up a heuristic they can use over and over again, I’m going to write a set of rhetorical questions they can rely on.

Culture and Society Rules You

I think that I am getting the hang of this “rhetoric of technology” now since Clark simplified it to “technology and rhetoric are…co-bedded in culture,” and that for technology to be a “real cultural phenomenon,” people have to start bickering over it (Clark, 2010, p. 85). Additionally, it has been drilled into me that all these technology analyzing tools are based on society and culture and its users, which in combination also plays a part in the workplace. I will be discussing my role as a contractor in the workplace with this cultural theory in mind.

According to Clark, who invokes Johnson to confirm that

[T]echnological design and implementation that places users, rather than systems, at the center of our focus, and that we have an ethical and cultural responsibility to learn and argue to collaborative approaches… (Clark, 2010, p. 93).

For my last assignment, we did just that. We had our users in mind – new people who had no training, and who were from another country – when we were told to update our content managing system (CMS) to be more user friendly, go through all documentation to either update or delete them, and to create new documentation if the documentation did not exist. The CMS was cleaned up, updated to have visuals such as icons and graphics, and had proper meta tags added each document to make them easier to find in searches.

While this fury of work was being done, we joked about how we are providing so much helpful documentation that we would all be out of a job. And we were. Once everything had been completed and tested over a month in another country, all of us contractors were given notice that all of our jobs were now going overseas, and that those people overseas would be actual, hired employees. But everyone here had a job to do, even though we knew we were putting ourselves out of a job. Thus, when Hart-Davidson wrote, “[T]he combined threat that many technical communicators have confronted firsthand: outsourcing and work fragmentation,” I could only nod in agreement and wonder what I have gotten myself into, again (2010, p. 141).

To make matters worse, when Hart-Davidson goes on to say that “users providing their own help content…actually present dramatic new roles for technical communicators to play,” I wanted to throw this book because he never explains which new roles that these were going to be (2010, p. 141). I do not want generics, I want real answers. Maybe being a consultant or contractor is a dream job for many, but when you have a family to take care of, bills to pay, and you are the nearly the sole wage earner, hearing that you only get so much time at a job is scary. In my opinion, it is sad that companies seem to only care about the bottom line and their customers, but not their employees. Employees used to be the ones valued, and their worth was rewarded with stock options, PTO, health benefits, etc. No more. The companies’ real value is information, which Hart-Davidson writes is the true “valuable commodity” (2010, p. 128).

Now, at another assignment, which I already know the exact date when to start packing up my stuff, I have tried to get them to be more efficient with their workflow, work instructions, and etc. But just as culture and society have certain conventions, rules, and guidelines, so does this workplace too. I have already been told that once a decision on how the templates were made, no further changes will ever be made. I understand that with global companies, they have to think globally, and when there is a change to the standard, then that change needs to be reflected in every document, which costs money. But working with these old templates creates extra work, as some things are duplicated, and there are fields on there that no longer apply, in my opinion. I believe that these templates could be edited for efficiency, remove confusion for the user, and look more professional, but the “power relationship encoded” in this template has limited what I can do with it (Salvo & Rosinski, 2010, p. 103).

Additionally, there is an issue of storing these documents and templates. It has been repeated throughout this course so far that there is a need for companies to store their information for others to find it. I brought this issue up in two meetings at work, with the reply of being that they know it is a problem, but it is not important enough to deal with. I would have to disagree. Even Salvo and Rosinki remark that “information that cannot be easily retrieved when needed is useless” (2010, p. 103). And if information is a “valuable commodity,” as already referenced above, then there is a problem that needs to be resolved sooner, rather than later (Hart-Davidson, 2010, p. 128).

In the end, while I learned that technology is based in culture and society, there are limits, rules, and guidelines that I have to play by. Some companies may be open for change; for others, they are more ridged due to political concerns. Many contractors understand that have an ethical and cultural responsibility to their client, even if it is to their detriment. While some scholars are hopeful that there will be plenty of jobs for technical communicators, some are not, and this theme continues to be weaved in and out of texts, which makes me hope that when I am on my deathbed, I can look back and know that I made the correct choice. Otherwise, dang it.

Resources

Clark, D. (2010). Shaped and Shaping Tools In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.

Hart-Davidson, W. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.

Salvo, M.J. & Rosinski, P. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 93). New York, NY: Routledge.

College Website Content Management

Content management as it applies in Digital Literacy by Rachel Spilka refers to “a set of practices for handling information, including how it is created, stored, retrieved, formatted and styled for delivery” (p. 130). My first thought was of college and university websites – who creates the online image, who maintains it, and how do you know if it’s effective? When your website looks different, are you being original, savvy, an “outside the box” thinker or someone who looks like they don’t know what they’re doing? A standard design helps you find information, “validates” it, and to a certain degree creates “credibility” – an implied added value that brings users to your site. Visit 39 Factors: Website Credibility Checklist (http://conversionxl.com/website-credibility-checklist-factors/), and web design is the first standard. And it needs to be attractive with bells and whistles. University of Melbourne’s (http://www.unimelb.edu.au/) Dr. Brent Coker states, “As aesthetically orientated humans, we’re psychologically hardwired to trust beautiful people, and the same goes for websites. Our offline behavior and inclinations translate to our online existence. As the Internet has become prettier, we are venturing out, and becoming less loyal” (The Melbourne Newsroom: http://newsroom.melbourne.edu/news/n-575).

 

The annual Webby Awards (http://www.webbyawards.com/winners/2015/) selects the best of the Internet including websites and mobile sites and apps. I took a look at the awards for college and university website design, because I have the chance to redesign my page. Stephenson University was a top winner; take a look – http://www.stevenson.edu. Notice anything different? My eyes went straight to the left navigation – where is it? Stevenson dumped it on their homepage, but click any link on the center block of information and you get one. Whew.

 

Stevenson

 

I’m not a technical writer, but I write for work. No one at my college is a technical writer, but everyone with access to the Novus Content Management System (CMS) writes for our website. In Digital Literacy, William Hart-Davidson asks, “what does a writer do when the whole company writes (Spilka, 210, p. 137)? In the case of my school, you get a fragmented, out-sourced variation of styles and priorities. My college’s website design is awful. Don’t get me wrong, I love where I work, our students love us, and we engage with and support our community– but our web appearance really bothers me. Take a look at Hillsborough Community College: http://www.hccfl.edu/

 

HCC

 

The left navigation isn’t alphabetical or listed in order of importance; certainly, “Dining Services” isn’t as important “Searching for Classes. In the middle we have “Steps to enroll” and “Apply Now;” “Apply Online is also on the left – everything leading to the same information. Part of the problem is the use of a content management system (CMS) – Novus – that longer meets our needs. And until recently we employed one web manager and no other web staff to maintain the college’s web presence. As Hart-Davidson notes, “content management (cm) systems provide resources for enacting the kind of work reflected in Table 5.1, but they do not do the work themselves. Nor do they help those who lack expertise in writing studies learn best practices” (Spilka, 2010, p. 141).

 

This is an area that interests me and I have a chance to practice what I learn with our Distance Learning website revision. But in an educational organization with so many layers of administration, and committees who make most of the decisions, how does one promote a new content management strategy? Do any of you in higher education employ technical communicators to assist in website design and maintenance? And how do you measure the success of your website?

 

 

Become a Technical Communicator 2.0

Change Same Buttons Showing Changing Or Improvement

I remember an intense discussion a few years ago at the local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication where members were debating the efficacy of the titles “technical writer” and “technical communicator”. Were they the same? Were they different? If they were different, in what ways? Did it matter what we thought if employers couldn’t get it? How did employers view persons who worked in technical communication?

It was interesting to me to observe how members, based on their experience in the practice, answered these questions. For the most part, those with say 15 or more years of experience clearly remembered being technical writers per se. They also recognized they were much more than that today—at least most were. The less experienced folks in the discussion mostly sat wide-eyed (not because they were impressed, but because I think they were trying to stay awake). For the most part, they saw themselves as technical communicators, but without a full understanding of that term. But, I recognize the more senior folks, including me, didn’t fully understand either.

What everyone these days seems to recognize is that technical communicators cannot just be technical writers. As Rachel Spilka puts it in the foreword to Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, which she edited: It’s not about survival, it’s about evolution. And, I believe she’s right.

Five Steps to You 2.0

Below are five steps we can take to evolve from technical writers or even technical communicators to technical communicators 2.0. A what? R. Stanley Dicks in chapter 2 of Digital Literacy (p. 77) notes that not only has the technology technical communicators use become more complex, so has the their core job of developing text and graphics. So, technical communicators 2.0 are themselves subject matter experts or must become so. Here’s how:

  • Keep up on changes in the field. This seems like a no-brainer, but we’re just as busy as CEOs (although our golden parachutes are more like cocktail umbrellas). It’s critical to make time in our schedules to examine what is going on in our field: attend a conference, hop on a webinar, or, uh, get a graduate degree.
  • Integrate with other teams. The idea of integrating has a sense of equality about it. I think that is often missed by technical communication professionals. We’re not below the development team or just a cost center as far as the sales team is concerned. Well, let me say it this way, we need to promote ourselves within our organizations as specialists within a practice that requires a high degree of skill and knowledge—not because we want to be but because we are.
  • Learn new technologies strategically. Saul Carliner in chapter 1 of Digital Literacy (p. 45) groups technical communication technologies into three categories: authoring, publishing, and management. This is brilliant. While I’ve tried to stay up with technology throughout my career, I think I’ll now look at doing so across these categories. The key will be doing so strategically meaning I can’t keep up with all technology, but following some in each category is 2.0 thinking.
  • Develop a subject matter expertise. About eight years ago I moved from high tech to science and engineering. It required me to gain an understanding of science and engineering concepts. In any given week I deal with, from a content perspective, anything from soil mechanics to geochemistry to frozen dams. Now, I’m not a subject matter expert in any of these things, but I am a subject matter expert in communicating about them, i.e., within science and engineering—and my career has never been better.
  • Lead. To me, this means technical communicators have to manage not only the conceptualization, production, and distribution of communication, but also relations with departments concerned with management, product development, marketing, costs, revenue, and so forth. We’re not just writers we’re managers—or should be. Think, speak, and act like and executive and you should find yourself invited to the big table.

What else are you doing to become a technical communicator 2.0 in our rapidly changing field?

How Personal Experiences Can Drive Teamwork Foundation

Growing up I was accustomed to a quiet world.  Being the youngest of four children, I often think my parents sheltered my existence to some extent based on the potentially not-so-great decisions of my older siblings.  Nonetheless, my stature growing up provided me the opportunity to fall in love with books.  There was nothing I loved (and still love) to do more than a read a good book.  I’d stay up until the wee hours of the morning immersing myself into another world of fiction.  And then I grew up.  Technology was an ever-growing force in my own generation.  The need and want of that technology was overbearing and overwhelming at times, but I also had my books.

It wasn’t until I was an adult and my now ex-husband asked me if I would rather have a grill or a Nook for a Christmas.  Well I chose the grill.  I could not understand why someone would want a Nook.  You lose out on the feel of the book as you clutch it through some of the most climatic points of a story.  And the smell of pages from old library books that were well beyond used, and in many cases offering so many readers a chance at a break from reality.  So again, why would someone want to miss out on the experience by succumbing to a piece of technology?  What if something spilled on it or it died right in the middle of a good part in the story?  A Nook just sounded silly.  Years later, I finally succeeded to allowing someone to present me with a Nook.  Now, I will say from the perspective of travel it has lightened my load significantly.  Travelling with books, no doubt can be a true nuisance.

So why do I share in this personal story?  In reading through Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, I kept memorizing back to this moment in my life.  In what seemed to be such a pivotal switch.  What was it that finally prompted me to move towards something I thought I would forever loathe?  Was it pressure? Was it an internal switch that told me I want something new and shiny?  Was it just my time?  While a large portion might have leaned towards a convenience factor, I think it was this very experience that really aligned with what Rachel Spilka, author of Digital Literacy, was driving that we [as technical communicators] begin thinking more critical about.

I’m sure many, if not all of you have heard of the following quote:

gandhi - change

http://www.peaceproject.com

This quote in correlation with my personal experience was what was driving through my mind as I read the beginnings of Digital Literacy.  There were two questions that Spilka called out that really got me to think about my role as a technical communicator:

  1. How can we make a difference, not by isolating ourselves or distinguishing ourselves from others, but rather through collaborative efforts?
  2. How can we contribute to the social good with our unique perspectives, knowledge, and strategies?

As technical communicators we do bring unique perspectives and experiences to our own work and it is through those experiences that I believe we have the opportunity to use that to make a difference.  Just like advocating for “being the change we want to see in the world”, sharing our experiences / knowledge can advocate for this in our world of technical communication.

What I do somewhat disagree with in regards to the first question I called out from Spilka’s book, is that there are times and opportunities that we can take to build differences in order to show them through a more collaborative effort.

Two men in a canoe rowing against each other.

Two men in a canoe rowing against each other.

I am a “sole technical writer” of sorts in my organization right now (at least in my own department).  Through the course of my work, I have developed policies, procedures, guidelines, and am in the process of implementing an internal blog for our department.  Through this work (that I have done alone), I am able to showcase to others in the organization how we can be successful with communication by showing and referencing this work that I would not have others have had if I tried to complete it “collaboratively”.  Let’s face it – in many organizations we often struggle with “who owns that particular [thing]”.  By always working collaboratively, I think we often run the risk of over words-smithing or over-critiquing something.  I also think that in some ways, it is not bad to distinguish yourself from others – especially if you can elicit good technical communication in order to help others become better at it themselves.  Overall, I do believe that there does have to be some middle ground, however, it is at that point where we can actually begin contributing to that overall social goodness.

What are your thoughts around these two particular questions and how did you ultimately interpret them?  Have you ever had experiences where it was beneficial isolate yourself versus working through it collaboratively (or vice versa)?

I do not always play well with others, but I will evolve.

While Spilka and her contributors for Digital Literary for Technical Communication drove me crazy by repetition large chucks of text ( see pages 11, 13, 16 regarding who the target audience for her book is) and having a chapter summarizing all the other chapters, there are a couple of things that I learned, besides understanding that if I have to read any more of this book, I will either need a couple of aspirins or a bottle of vodka. These two things that I found most important were evolving and that technical writers must play well with others.

 

            Evolve.

 

Yes, everyone should already know that technology is constantly evolving, and so its delivery methods and how technical communicators craft their messages need to evolve too. Without evolving, technical writers will fail to gain all the skills necessary for the latest publishing tools, such as FrameMaker and RoboHelp, to help their users and to continue building a positive reputation for whatever company is providing the products and resources. An example of this need for evolving ones skills is in the chapter titled, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work,” Dicks writes,

 

                        The nature of work for many technical communicators is changing so

                        rapidly that many now perform an entire task set that they did not even

                        know about five years ago (p. 51).

 

But evolving to keep up with the changing technology should be common sense, and Saul Carliner provides a chapter on history (just to show how fast technology has changed when companies, seeking higher profits use user input to create the desires of the customer – custom corporate software, better online help, easier desktop publishing, etc. By evolving, companies and people have saved money and time, which is usually one of the main goals of nearly everyone. And as for me, my goals are to learn FrameMaker, RoboHelp, and Illustrator, because I missed out on getting my resume read by hiring managers in the technical communications field because I did not have experience in those tools. I, too, must evolve.

 

            Must play well with others.

 

Life would be great if everyone played nice and worked well together, and working well with others is an important soft skill that many people lack, especially for those technical communicators who have been working alone for so long. But in today’s technical communicators’ work places, it is necessary to work with others to gather information and for review. As Spilka states,

 

                        [W]hat seems most critical and meaningful is how we can contribute to

                        social, team, or collaborative efforts toward the greater good of large

                        scale projects…Our work is also more like than before to be

                        international scope (p. 5).

 

Thus, to be a desirable technical communicator, one of the main skills is knowing how to work in a team. By helping co-workers in a timely manner, work can be fun, enjoyable, and a success. As a valued part of the team, the technical writer may learn additional skills and be wanted for further projects, which new skills may be needed, so it would be a great opportunity to evolve again. That is why I would suggest to anyone in this field to always take a chance to learn something new. Take on a more challenging project to increase your knowledge and skills.

 

All in all, so far, I learned from this book that one must not be afraid of the latest technologies, and they should evolve by trying to learn how the latest technologies can benefit themselves and their work places. Besides learning the forever-changing technology tools, methods, theories, and etc., it is also important to know how to work with others, as most projects will involve many people who will be working on the same project, and the technical communicator will need to gather information, and give and receive feedback on the project, so that the project is a success. And if the project turns out not to be successful, have a drink, think about what could have been done to have made it successful, and then try it again next time. With that, you are evolving. Start your evolution now.

 

 

Resources:

Dicks, R. (2010). The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 51). New York, NY: Routledge.

Carliner, S. (2010). Computers and Technical Communication (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 5). New York, NY: Routledge.

Spilka, R. (2010). Introduction In R. Spilka (Ed.), Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (p. 5). New York, NY: Routledge.

 

Digital literacy: The ability to use technology for communications and beyond

Digital literacy, as defined by Spilka, does mean something different today than when I started working 25 years ago. At that time, digital literacy meant that you could use a dot-matrix printer and type on a typewriter, correcting errors as you went with Whiteout or one of those white correcting strips.

Today, in my job, digital literacy means being able to use a PC, software, high-speed printer and digital camcorder and being able to use the content management systems for my company’s Internet and intranet. I’m expected to understand Internet and intranet design, including user experience testing and implementation of those findings. I have to be able to read and analyze the analytics on both the Internet and intranet. And I need to have at least an elementary background in social media–and I’m pretty sure more will be expected of me in this area.

It can be difficult to keep up in the latest and greatest innovations and gadgets and in what is new and cool in Web design. Is it OK to make Web site users click more than once or twice to get to the page they’re looking for? Is it better to employ an endlessly scrolling design or one in which everything sits “above the fold”? What about those sites that have an austere minimalist design with maybe just a few words and you have to click on it to get to any sort of “real” information: are they suitable for our company?

Yes, there has been a “seismic shift” in technical communications. The shift from “blue collar work” to knowledge work means that it is a rare person who is still “just” an editor or writer. It is far more likely that we are editors, writers, Web designers and “new media” experts. Rarely am I now referred to as a “grammar” expert. Not that that role is any less important; in fact, it’s more crucial than ever. But my job goes far beyond knowing when to say “compared with” rather than “compared to” and when to use “which” versus “that.” That knowledge is part of the continuum of my job, which on any given day, could mean communicating with staff, senior leaders, media relations or the board of directors.

Teamwork has always been important, but never more so than today. No one works in isolation completing the same tasks over and over again. Every staff member is part of at least several different teams with different accountabilities. I work with technical staff, other communications professionals, leadership and administrative staff on different projects, because we’re all expected to go beyond the narrow tactical tasks of our resumes to work on strategic directions for projects, teams and beyond.

At the same time, if need be, I can do the work of several people to produce something like a brochure, user manual or e-newsletter. Today’s software packages and easy-to-use programs such as Microsoft Publisher allow me to do the work of a graphic designer, desktop publisher and printer.

Dicks says that the roles of grammar police and wordsmiths are not over for technical communicators but are diminishing in importance. I would argue that these roles are still extremely important–today more than ever. If social media are eroding young people’s use of grammar, spelling and architecture, we need to be there to make sure our writing and communications are of the highest quality. This, of course, goes beyond just grammar and wordsmithing to things like targeting the correct audience, keeping each piece of writing concise and precise, and avoiding “corporate speak” and jargon.

I, for one, welcome any new technology that is going to make my work easier and faster while still preserving high quality. Doing anything else is risking become an impediment or barrier to the work of an organization–or worse, irrelevant. Technology is going to keep evolving, and as communicators, we need to keep evolving right along with it.

Digital Literacy

Fluidity, evolution of technology, and the technical communicator role is a focus of the first two chapters of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy For Technical Communication (2010). In it she defines digital literacy as “theory and practice that focus in use of digital technology, including the ability to read, write, and communicate using digital technology, the ability to think critically about digital technology, and consideration of social, cultural, political, and educational values associated with those activities” (p. 8). Saul Carliner on the historical perspective notes “In a few instances, people were hired with formal training in technical writing, but during the 1970’s, this employer typically emphasized technical knowledge over writing skill” (as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 23). Makes sense since technical communication was originally associated with scholarly and scientific writing.

 

Stanley Dicks states the technical communicator’s work has shifted from primarily writing and editing to a “complex, symbolic-analytic work involving not just developing information but also managing, re-configuring, disseminating and customizing it for a diversity of audiences and in a diversity of media” (as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 75). Yet, he says don’t assume all workers will be doing those tasks. Can small businesses afford to staff such a specialized position? The Small Business Association (SBA) reports that 99.7 percent of businesses are small, with the remaining .30 classified as large – those with 500 or more workers. In reality, many technical communicators won’t see a drastic change in duties because many businesses can’t keep up with the rapidity with which technology changes. Who can invest in business-wide computer and software refreshes only to have it be “old” in two years? Other businesses may have other departments absorb the duties. At my school, it’s done by Marketing.

 

Due to technology and digital tool use, redefining the technical communication field is inevitable – we already recognize authoring, publishing, and management as main roles, and jobs descriptions run the gamut. Will redefining the “who” be far behind? As Andrew Keen noted in his “Reply All” debate, “authors- formerly-known-as-the-audience” have invaded the Internet (2007, WSJ). Who’s to say they aren’t the next generation of technical communicators?  Coincidentally, distance learning/ instructional technology mirrors the technical communicator “seismic shift” of more women than men (Hayhoe as cited in Spilka, 2010, p. 51). At my school, only two of nine instructional technologists and designers are men – are women more adaptable to the technological changes? Should we revisit Mary Lay’s “Feminist Theory and the Redefinition of Technical Communication” (1991, Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 5.4, 348 – 70, October 1991)?

 

Today’s employers expect more than a subject matter and writing expert. It may be a challenge for some technical communicators, but it can’t be a surprise. Digital literacy has, as Spilka notes, “transformed just about every work environment and the way that most of us do our work…and almost every aspect of our work has changed” (p. 2). In my field, I’ve seen technology both impact the role of higher education distance learning. Most Florida colleges had student support distance learning departments. Technology allowed us to build a sense of community between the school and online students, a key measure for high retention. But the more technology we embraced the more we let the student go. We disbanded a department and decided distance learning was simply a delivery method. Five years later and students still resist– they want dedicated staff to assist them. At my school, that’s just me. I predict a backlash and full circle; it can’t happen soon enough. Meanwhile, I adapt, acquire skills, take on more responsibility, and redefine my worth in order to stay relevant in a field that also continuously evolves. Technical communicators must do the same.

 
(Looking for ways to improve my blogging I came across this SlideShare by Marcia Riefer Johnson, author of Word Up & You Can Say That Again. It’s her presentation for selling yourself, company etc. through clear writing. It’s a 316 (???) yep, count 316-slide presentation.)

I am a happy go-lucky monkey cockroach.

Why is it when people want to relax after a hard day at work that some self-appointed authority figures want to try to ruin it for the majority? These uptight authority figures are scholars who found the treasure trove of social media, and have decided that the best way to keep their paychecks rolling is to argue and complain about how social media is not being used to the scholars’ intelligence standards. Well, I cannot argue about them making money with their complaining about social media, as making money from social media is one reason that social media exists.

Most of the people who are posting their thoughts and experiences in social media are using a wide variety of media, such as texts, photos, videos, and etc. Most people are posting for their friends and family; they are not doing it to establish an audience. While some people believe that if you do not like a posting, just move on or post a complaint, or, even better, just block that person, scholars such as Andrew Keen decided write nasty opinions about social media websites’ users. According to The Wall Street Journal‘s article “Full Text: Keen vs Weinberger” (2007), Keen claims that social medias websites’ users are “monkeys” and “cockroaches,” and that our postings are “infantilized self-stimulation rather than serious media for adults.” Furthermore, he states that users’ copy and pasting media (such as YouTube videos, Pinterest, etc.) is “creating a generation of media illiterates.”

Interesting theory, but Keen is wrong. If Keen wants serious adult time on social media, he could create his own online group, or stay at work. When most people need a break from adulthood, they turn to social media, so what? The medical field has stated that we need a work/life balance, so relaxing with a cat video that someone copied and pasted from a social media website is perfect. And from someone whose mother is learning how to use the Internet, copying and pasting anything online is a skill, thus I cannot believe that any generation is media illiterate. Many social media websites were created for connecting with others and allowing users to show off their personality, so social media was created for entertainment, not specifically for intellectual debate, although there could be groups created on these websites for such discussions.

So, how are these scholars finding all of our postings, which are leading to a “digital abundance …to intellectual poverty” (WSJ)? It turns out that what many scholars find disgusting about our postings, they cannot wait to read and analyze. boyd and Ellison, in their article, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” stated that scholars gather information from users’ profiles, forums, and discussion groups for research, and that this information “offers unprecedented opportunities for researchers” (2008, p. 224). I find this very disturbing, that some stranger may be taking much of a user’s posts, friendship connections, and etc. and then analyzing this information for a paper. (Should not the user first be contacted, asked for permission, and receive compensation?) I believe that other people who know about these scholars’ plans do not like this as well, because of the following message that can be found posted on a great number of profiles on FetLife:

fl

I had often wondered why people would have this message posted on their profile page. Who would research people’s profiles? I had never thought to ask, but after reading bodyd and Ellison’s article, I understand that users’ posted information is indeed being used for many purposes. Besides one purpose to tear social media websites down for users’ “digital narcissism” (WSJ), another purpose may be to shape how we see the world, done by website companies themselves.

Now, in Jonathan Zittrain’s talk on the “Is The Internet Taking Us Where We Want to Go?” (Aspen Institute, 2015) panel, Zittrain states that websites like Google and FaceBook use algorithms, that can control what a user sees in a search or in their news feed. For example, he reports that these companies have altered searches (Google can remove people’s history, among other things) and change what appears in a news feed (not letting certain news stories to go viral). In these cases, I do not mind companies not allowing us information because these are free websites, and they have to make their money somehow to pay for all the bandwidth that users burn through. However, if users were paying to use these websites, then whether these companies liked users’ postings, content, etc. or not, users should be able to see everything, and the companies should not be able to force their opinions on the users of how they think the world should be.

Thus, for some social media websites, many users may not be aware that the social websites that they are using for enjoyment and staying connected to others are using their information in way that the user may have never wanted. Because many of these social websites are free to use, some users would be fine with having their information used for marketing, but not for research and analysis. For those who do know what the scholars are doing with their information, some users have posted messages telling people not to use their information for research purposes. If having one’s information used as research was not bad enough, there are scholars complaining how we are using the social media websites for play and not for intellectual discussions. For those scholars, I believe that they need stop forcing a false doomsday on people and enjoy what was meant to be enjoyed. If these scholars feel that they really do not like a path that social media is taking, then they need to stop complaining and find a way to make it better. If they cannot, they can always build something for people like themselves. The Internet is large; there is plenty of space for them, the cockroaches, and the monkeys too.

 

References

Aspen Institute. (2015, July 4). The Internet Taking Us Where We Want to Go? [Video File]. Retrieved from YouTube https://youtu.be/rGUvi5qv6BU?t=29m34s

boyd, d. m., & Ellison, N. B. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 224.

The Wall Street Journal. (2007, July 18). Full Text: Keen vs Weinberger [Web log  comments]. Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB118460229729267677

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Relationship Between Technical Communication and Social Media

Chelsea’s Test Blog 2

The relationship between technical communication, social media, and even the use of Technology is becoming more and more apparent in our everyday lives.   As I was reading through the article The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media, it dawned on me how why this very topic is so important.

Software companies (like Microsoft) are incorporating in their new software releases, the capability to participate in social media much easier and without having to know how to write HTML5 code and still publish to the Web.  Let’s look at Microsoft Office.  As I draft this blog article, I now have the option to publish this article as a blog post right to my blog site.

Snapshot of Microsoft Word 2010 - Save and Send Features, Taken by Chelsea Dowling.

Snapshot of Microsoft Word 2010 – Save and Send Features, Taken by Chelsea Dowling.

Moreover, as Hurley and Hea demonstrated the impact of social media and technology is becoming even more prevalent within the medical field, where they provided an example of a 48-year-old individual who was punished for providing enough information about a patient that their identity was eventually revealed.   Might this explain the increasing Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations?   Just the other day, a friend’s mother who works as a dental hygienist was explaining the increased HIPAA training they are required to take each year.  In fact, EHR 2.0 published a presentation on Social Media Compliance for Healthcare Professionals.

But overall, one of the most striking points that Hurley and Hea eluded to in their article, was the importance of educating students and communication professionals around the critical theory aspects of social media.   While it is important to deploy social media in our own efforts / initiatives and to debunk the negative assumptions around the use of social media (Hurley & Hea, pg. 58), we also need to understand how / where these assumptions fit within our own situations.

Overall, I think this is one of the most important factors that we need to keep in mind.  For example, in my current social setting, I would say there is a large difference in how people of all ages use social media.  For example, being in such a rural area of Wisconsin, many Gen Xers and Baby Boomers  are limited to the amount of exposure they have to social media as well as limited to the desire to access that type of channel.   Therefore, as we begin to understand how we reach out to our stakeholders, we can use critical theory to allow us to “consider how social media fits into our professional lives” and be able to evaluate and use social media responsibly (Hurley & Hea, pg. 58).

Generational Technology Gap

Image from: How does social media as a technology affect sleeping patterns?
Posted on April 26, 2013 by insomnicacs

Hurley, E.V. and Hea, A.C.K. (2014).  The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media.  Technical Communication Quarterly, 23(1), pp. 55-68.

You’re New Strategy: Technical Social Communication Media

I have noticed for several years that technical communication and social media are becoming close knit—as the title of this post suggests. Dozens of examples likely exist, but here are four technical communication strategies, in particular, you should be thinking about.

Provide User Assistance

Years ago before social media came along, I put together an annual user conference for the high-tech firm where I was working. My experience the first year, gave me an idea: What if our power-users did most of the talking next year? In essence, I was hoping to get users sharing what they knew and what they wanted to know.

Granted this user-driven training (i.e. training users develop) wasn’t what you might call “user assistance” in that it wasn’t necessarily about performing specific tasks. Rather it was about developing and executing strategies around the technology my company had created.

It worked! Users flocked to hear other users.

Since that time I’ve noted how much easier the Internet and social media have made fostering user-driven training. Users seem to like helping other users—at least they seem to engage in a quid pro quo. Hurley and Hea (p. 57) identify this as one aspect of reach that enables technical communicators to address user interests.

Share Knowledge

Akin to providing user assistance is knowledge sharing. Specifically, uninitiated knowledge sharing. This is knowledge one puts out into the world even though it wasn’t specifically requested by someone. But, the creators of this content know someone wants it somewhere likely because they wanted it at some point themselves.

Examples where this type technical social communication takes place is on sites like Quora, Slideshare, and, uh, blogs.

Gather Research

Hurley and Hea (p. 57) call this crowd sourcing or “the practice of tapping into the collective public intelligence to complete a task or gain insights that would traditionally have been assigned to a member of or consultant for an organization.”

Those of us of a certain age remember the importance of building personal networks (sans social media). We went to conferences, joined local interest clubs, read trade journals, and sometimes wrote questions to the authors of articles from those journals. It’s how we got our careers going.

This research gathering—usually engaged in to access group think to solve a problem or gain an insight—is nothing new. It just happens so much easier thanks to new technologies like social media.

Develop Visible Expertise

“Students need to be able to deploy social media as part of their own efforts to create online personas…” (Hurley and Hea, p. 58). Not just students but everyone.

Books and books have been written on developing visible expertise, which is far easier to initiate than it used to be; however, there’s still the problem of being lost in a sea of so called experts.

Fortunately, technical communicators have something everyone needs: content. You can have all the best technology on the planet, the coolest science, and totally wow engineering, but if you can’t communicate about it effectively, well, you end up like Tesla not Bell.

Now, more than ever before thanks to social media, technical communicators can talk not only about communication but about the stuff they are making usable. That is they are becoming visible experts just like the scientists and engineers they work with.

A Means to an End

You may have noted I’ve been reminiscing how these four strategies used to be done. If so, then I made my point.

Social media is becoming integrated into technical communication. The point not to miss is this is a means to an end and not an end in and of itself, as they say.

Engaging in social media for social media sake is, well, useless. But, understanding the end game will certainly make “technical social communicators” far more valuable right now and better prepared down the road when the next thing comes along.

Reference: The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media by Elise Verzosa Hurley and Amy C. Kimme Hea

Managing Collective Knowledge

When reading through Howard Rheingold’s (2014) “Social-Digital Know How” in his book, “Net Smart”, I was struck by the correlation between the management of collective intelligence and the author’s previous examination of attention.

First, the author outlines various positive outcomes from collaboration superpower, the “…desire from early childhood to cooperate, to coordinate activity, and to strengthen group bonds…” (Rheingold, 2014, p.156). This innate desire has, with an infused element of gaming, produced collaborative efforts from Olympic games to political inquiry. While collaborate effort has long been instilled in human nature, it is never long-lived unless efforts are rewarded or reciprocated. This is why I

Source: VirtualSpeechCoach

Collective knowledge management will require an in-depth focus on audience wants. Source: VirtualSpeechCoach

appreciated the author’s point that skill are needed to “…participate in and instigate collective intelligence activity…” require an ability to “…create a synergy between personal knowledge management and collective knowledge management” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 160). Specifically, the author states that individuals must be able to “…connect to people and find information sources, then filter, select, and categorize information for your own purposes” (p. 160).

In light of last week’s reading, specifically the overview of an increasing demand for attention from content available online, I found this statement intriguing. As attention span diminishes and content availability increases, this vital (yet somewhat overlooked skill) will determine who succeeds in audience attention. It will also force focused messaging, meaning that some companies/organizations will need to forgo the latest platform if it isn’t inhabited by their core audience.

What do you think? Will a discipline and skill in whittling down information to serve both individual collective purposes force a forgoing of some audiences? Why or why not?

Its Starting to Come Together

After reading the third chapter “Participation Power” in Rheingold’s book, I couldn’t help but post on a thought sequence I experienced during the reading.  Rheingold gave several different ways the use of emerging media has influenced society, but one sentence in particular resonated with me.  “The difference between seeing Twitter as a waste of time or a powerful new community amplifier depends entirely on how you look at it-and how you grasp it.” (p 141)  A knife can be used to cut up food and allow a cook to recombine them in a way that creates a wonderful meal.  That same knife in the hands of a trained warrior can be deadly.  Emerging media is a knife and in the hands of a trained user, it can be deadly.

Consider the example on page 111 where he talks about the youth using their Facebook organizing to overthrow the dictatorship in two weeks.  How many hundreds of millions of dollars have governments, including our own, spent trying to change regimes in the past?  How much time has been spent and how many lives have been lost to those endeavors?  Using Emerging media, the citizens toppled a government in two weeks.  Think about it, more powerful (effective) than the U.S. government.

Speaking of the U.S. government, the tidbit on page 125 that explained how bloggers could have possibly changed the 2004 election.  Both political parties were represented as liberal bloggers forced the cancellation of a documentary in favor of the republicans and conservative bloggers debunked information about Bush that led to Dan Rather being fired.  Dan Rather had been on CBS longer than I had been alive at the time of his departure.

The readings on digital literacy, social networking, blogging, and technical writing are all very informative individually, but collectively, they are a recipe for something bigger and more profound.  They are an instructional journey that could enable anyone with an internet connection to help change the world.  It may seem overdramatic, I too thought of emerging media as people “liking” posts on Facebook and “following” Ashton Kutcher on what zany nightclub he was at.  That is how I looked at emerging media.  I don’t know if it was an issue of how I grasped it, but perhaps that I failed to grasp it at all.

Rheingold described how to start organizing your lists to follow the right people, contribute useful content, and how to get in the groove, but I feel so behind.  There is no shame in being a cook and continuing to check statuses on Facebook and lurk for information in my favorite online forums.  However, I want to take my knife from the kitchen and teach myself how to be an emerging media warrior.

The vicious cycle of supply and demand

Perhaps most intriguing among Howard Rheingold’s (2014) first chapter on attention was positioning of intellect versus knowledge. Specifically in relation to the scattered, snippet forms of content available through search engines, the author states that “Sometimes you want an answer…and sometimes you want knowledge…” (p.52). Perhaps the overwhelming availability of information has instilled an expectation that answers matter more than process, thus continuing a cycle of shallow inquiry.

The idea of “…shallow inquiry—the uninformed way in which many people use search engines to find answers” (Rheingold, 2014, p.53), is perpetuated by the innate human habit of multitasking. Technology has, I would suggest, merely augmented

The cycle: As more content is available, more content is demanded. Source: https://www.wetfeet.com/articles/busy-work-how-to-manage-a-heavy-workload

an age-old human trait. History repeats itself, and if the continual lose of our “…capacity as a society for deep, sustained focus…” is leading cultures “…toward[s] a new dark age” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 56), then would it not be advantageous to observe history to predict what will happen next? Sherry Turkle’s (2012) overarching premise in “Alone Together”, is that human expect more from technology and less from each other. However, in light of Rheingold’s (2014) assertion that technology has “…encouraged the development of a culture of simultaneity…” (p. 56), I would ask what role human expectation has plays in the process of shallow inquiry. Is it that more content is expected at a faster pace, and heightened access to more information demands faster results. In a very basic sense, it is the idea of supply and demand. More information is supplied, and the natural tendency is to demand more in order to increase supplied content.

What do you think? Is the cycle of scanning information versus wrestling with knowledge a cyclical problem? Is it a problem?

Relevant Topic. Dated Examples.

I appreciated the expansion Salvo and Ronsinki (2010) give to the idea of digital literacy, for it allows for the fluency with which digital evolution changes communication. They state that “Digital literacy cannot be just the ability to use certain technologies. Rather, the term must apply to the thoughtful deployment of technologies…” (p. 123). What specifically intrigued me was the somewhat ironic application of the chapter’s message to the chapter itself.

Parts of the reading seem like rhetorical history in technical communication, especially when the authors focus on ambient findability. Much of the technology the authors wish existed during the time this chapter was written, already exists. For example, the authors say that “…search engines barely register any distinction between…desktop or laptop” (p. 122), but Google Analytics has incorporated these (and many more) aspects in its services. Furthermore, the authors foreshadow Facebook’s revolutionary EdgeRank Algorithm and advertisement cookies, wishing for a web browser which delivers advertisement based on “…maximizing applicability and relevance” (p. 122). These technologies exists, and has changed not only social media integration in marketing, but also the way information systems are designed.

However, I would offer an alternate approach to their statement  that “…as soon as a design is out of the author’s hand and launched in the world, we see how effective that design can be.” (p. 124). In a digital architecture, system creation does not have to be one deliverable which cannot be altered. Examples include Content Management Systems (CMS), web sites, app development etc. Each of these digital platforms allows for a responsive design. With responsive design of digital space, authors are no longer bound and “…cannot control how users interact with digital space [them]…” (p. 124). Responsive design, created from careful analysis of users’ current behavior within a space, gives the author freedom to adjust to a user’s interaction. This concept, I feel still ties in with the authors’ main point on the fluidity of trends within technical communication. The ability to remain flexible, alert and engage new technology with older methods, is still a cornerstone to digital communication, even when considering responsive design.

I would love to hear from my classmates, however. What do you think? Does Salvo and Rosinki’s chapter seem dated in its examples of non-emergent technologies? What are your thoughts on how responsive design’s ability to give authors real-time response to user interactions? 

A Rose by Any Other Name

After reading the first two chapters of Digital Literacy by Carliner and Dicks, I find myself thinking that their entire premise is flawed.  Each refers to a Technical Communicator as a job title and not a skill.  By doing this, they have contradicted themselves in their message or are at least naïve in their conclusions.

Carliner summarizes the impact of digital technology on technical communicators.  He explains how changing technology impacted technical communicators negatively and forced them to take on new job titles or alter how and what tools they used to complete their work.  He also alludes to the shrinking market for technical communicators.  I disagree.  The same technical communicator, by job title, may be someone such as a web designer.  Instead of constructing information bulletins for easier interpretation by the end user, they are constructing a website to enhance the end users experience during their visit.  He continues his negative outlook by stating “However, those who develop and produce content have been facing dwindling work opportunities.” (p44)  Just two pages earlier he contradicts this statement when he quotes Shank 2008 “e.g., the home page of newspapers changing every 15 minutes”. (p42)  Wouldn’t a website which changes content every 15 minutes create more opportunities?  I believe this would especially be true with a content provider that needs to be clear and concise with their information and would require a professional that was capable of executing this effectively.

Here is a perfect time to insert the argument that technical communicators document or convey scientific, engineering, or other technical information.  Surely you can’t document the changes in technology and how it impacts technical communicators over the last thirty years and assume that the definition of what a technical communicator is would remain static to the old industrial mindset.  Clearly a technical communicator is anyone who effectively addresses the arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, and tone (Kostelnick and Roberts) when presenting persuasive or instructional information.

Dicks goes on in the second chapter to go through changing business models and their negative effect on the job outlook for technical communicators.  Again, in the 1982 definition, he would be correct.  However, I reiterate my opinion that “technical communicator” is not just a job title, it is a skill.  The general contradiction I find in this chapter can be summarized by Dicks himself “… many communicators are seeing the nature of their work altered considerably.” (p75) I would argue that the communicators are the ones altering their work to fit their new environments.  On page 60, Dicks highlights the problem of value added for technical communicators.  Except for sales people’s production measured in dollars and a manufacturer’s production in units, how does any employee justify their value added?  Marketing, management (except for sales and manufacturing units), lab workers, IT, and engineers are all examples of employees that must adapt and evolve to show their value to a company.

If the two author’s purposes were to inform, they should have allowed the context of the technical communicator to evolve with the world in which they work.  If Dicks and Cauliner were trying to persuade, they did a poor job in my opinion and their work is more apt to gain a following in the next Yahoo article of five ways technical communicators jobs are changing.

Staying Abreast of Trends

When reading Digital Literacy for Technical Communicators (Spilka, 2010), what struck me was the concept of assumption mentioned in chapter two, “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work.” Author R. Stanley Dicks gives an overview of the technical skill involved in technical communication, and it’s rapid evolution with rise in the digital age. He states that “It is too easy to look at the latest trends and assume that all workers will be doing those new, different tasks in the near future” (Spilka, 2010, p. 51). Technical communicators see the fundamental process of their jobs changing rapidly. When this happens, a shift in work production ensues. Is this due to the time adjustment for learning new technical processes? Perhaps, but Spilka states that it should be remembered that trends “…largely have to do with the tools and technologies associated with the discipline, and not with the core competency skills that the discipline continues to require” (Spilka, 2010, p. 52). Perhaps a core skill for any technical communicator is the ability to adapt quickly to shifting trends.

For educators, the shifting trends can be especially problematic when deciding what aspects of curriculum to change, and which resources to seek. Are the trends universal or isolated to a niche aspect of technology? Are there enough resources to adequately teach fundamental skills? These questions, among others, face educators in technical communication. Spilka acknowledges this and says that educators can “…continue to develop internship and cooperative education opportunities and to encourage their students to take advantage of them” (Spilka, 2010, p. 76). This kind of cooperative relationship between educator and student allows teachers to keep track of changes in the nature of technical communication.

In the concept of emerging media, however, are there sufficient opportunities for students? Will educators follow up in order to know what emerging trends will face their future students? These are all questions I found myself asking when reading this week’s work.

So long, farewell, see you next semester!

I spent the semester reading, discussing, and connecting those readings and discussions to my current technical communication role. My goal in this program is to become a better technical communicator, and this class has been an excellent start for me. All of our readings and discussions have helped me to think about what communication strategies I am already using and what new methods I can try.

I found the Spilka text especially helpful and relevant, as it framed the evolution of and current trends in the technical communication field within the context of traditional technical communication roles and responsibilities. As I am new to the field, all of this background really helped to orient me and help me understand how my job role became what it is today. In my final paper, I traced three themes through the different authors in the Spilka text and applied them to my own role as a technical communicator.

It was extremely helpful and interesting to read all of your creative blog posts and insightful comments on my posts throughout the semester. Thank you all for creating a helpful and supportive discussion environment. Best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season and a great new year! The abstract for my paper is below.

Abstract

The emergence of digital technology has had a profound impact on the field of technical communication and its actors. This paper explores changes in the field of technical communication and in the roles of technical communicators, evolution of the technical communication audience, and Information Design and Content Management Principles. My intent with this exploration is to establish where my current technical communication strategies are consistent with the field literature and theory and identify areas upon which I can improve and new methods that I can utilize.

 

Emerging from my “blog fog” to say farewell and thanks!

I have thoroughly enjoyed my investigation of using blogs in our Introduction to College Life classrooms, but I feel like I’m emerging from a “blog fog” and I can’t quite relate to anyone who’s not steeped in this subject at the moment.  My husband has learned to include the word “blog” in any conversation he attempts to engage me in – “Are we getting a Christmas tree blog this year?,” “Would you like scrambled or fried blogs?,” or “Have you talked to our son,Sam blog, this week?”

 But seriously, this was a great learning experience for me. I researched the use of blogs in university classrooms and designed a plan to use those findings to create a blog for our Campus Read program, which is just two years old.  Campus Read programs always list “building a sense of community” as a goal, and “community” is almost always listed as an adjective associated with blogs, so I thought it was a natural fit. One thing I learned, however, is that the community-building nature of blogs doesn’t automatically happen and that a great deal of work will have to be invested for my vision to materialize.

I gained this insight from reading about the Julie/Julia project, which was made into the movie Julie & Julia with Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in 2009.

Even though Julie Powell’s blog was very popular, visitors only reported feeling a “moderate” sense of community and the community dissipated when Julie Powell discontinued the blog. To the degree that people did report a strong sense of community, it was associated with the comments function of blogging – both writing and reading, which makes sense if you think about community as being dialogic. Anyway, if anyone is interested in reading more about the Julie/Julia project, I recommend Anita Blanchard’s article “Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a sense of Community in the Julie/Julia Project.” You can retrieve the article here at the Into the Blogosphere series through the University of Minnesota, which offers a lot of great articles about blogging (http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/blogs_as_virtual.html).

 Aside from my insights about community, I learned a lot about my own campus’s policies and preparedness for 21st century learning.  Probably the most interesting insight I came away with is the degree to which we’re still groping with how to effectively use new media.  I read an article that described all of the “invisible” issues we might have to consider in creating a campus blog and initially I put it in the “not relevant” pile as I was sorting through my research.  It kept bubbling back up to the top of the pile as I had discussions with people on campus about how to implement a blog.  (You can read the article, “The When of New Media Writing” by Danielle DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeffrey Grabill at http:// www. Jstor.org/stable/30037897). It wasn’t that anyone was being obstructionist particularly, but with any large institution, people and departments aren’t always communicating or communicating clearly. As I put the finishing touches on my paper, I still wasn’t clear about what I might and might not be allowed to do with regard to technology, sometimes for practical technological reasons, and sometimes because of local, contextual constraints.  I hope I am being sufficiently vague.

 Finally, I just have to briefly mention the role of audience and blogging. Because of my role in our Writing Center, I knew that the concepts of blogging and having a sense of audience were linked, but I didn’t expect that I would spend so much time thinking and writing about it for my paper.  We always tell students to “imagine” an audience with certain characteristics and so forth and not to think of the professor as the sole reader, but that’s always a difficult exercise because ultimately, students know that their professor usually is the sole member of the audience. Having a blogging experience, though, can fundamentally change the way students think about an audience and motivate them to write—this was probably the main learning outcome I had from my research project, and it isn’t really the one I was prepared for, since I thought my main goal was to use blogs to develop a sense of community.

 Which leaves me to you, my “audience.”  This experience was very educational for me, and I want to thank you all for your support during my graduation to the 21st century (well, at least from elementary school to middle school!). It has been my privilege to take this course with you.

 And now, in a nod to Lori’s sendoff from Michael on “The Office,” I leave you with these words from Creed  Bratton’s Blog, also from “The Office,” apropos of the fact that we are now fully immersed in Wisconsin winter:

 “Almost winter. Time to turn my tennis racket into snowshoes.”

 Good luck to all on final projects!

Farewell and enjoy your winter break!

Seasons greetings!

I have now completed my final paper.  The topic I chose for this lengthy process involves technology, digital literacy, and the degradation of quality and rigor in student learning.

The title of my paper is The Ugly Side of Technology: A Breakdown of What’s Happening to Education and Strategies to Maintain the Quality and Rigor of Student Learning.  Below, I have posted my abstract.  Enjoy!

Technology affords people innovative learning opportunities, such as using digital tools to shape understanding.  However, it produces many adverse effects that can overshadow the benefits, including the degradation in the quality and rigor of student learning.  Unless parents and teachers take action, student learning will continue to suffer.  In a detailed analysis, the author discusses the growth of technology by acknowledging the digitally literate generation and discussing the digital literacy narrative of a young woman.  Next, the author highlights the benefits of technology, but contrasts them with the many negative effects technology causes on student learning, including the breakdown of reading for comprehension and the increase of multitasking.  Finally, the author provides strategies for both parents and teachers to help maintain the appropriate and necessary use of technology.  Parents and teachers must provide students with strategies so they realize that technology does not replace traditional learning and that digital literacy requires the same, if not more, rigor as traditional reading and writing.

Therefore, I say farewell and enjoy your winter break! I am glad to have shared the experience of this course with all of you and I hope to collaborate again in another course.

Happy holidays!

Parlez-vous français?

http://www.journaldesfemmes.com

. . . . I sure don’t but I had interesting experiment last semester communicating in a language I don’t know the first thing about! To clarify, I am talking about ENGL-712 Communicating in Multilingual Environments. As part of the final project for the class, we had to find a foreign language site and use Google Translate  to try and not just write a post or comment on the site, but get actual responses back from the other users.  I chose a French site thinking that since two kids are learning French, they might be able to help me out if I got in a bind. Wishful thinking that was, but it was still a fascinating experiment.  This was just a small part of a semester long class in understanding how a company that  has international clients that don’t speak English as their primary language, communicates with these clients.

http://notalwayslearning.com/excuse-my-french/31070

I ended up enjoying this class so much that when I took ENGL-637 this summer, I focused on a small local company that had found themselves becoming an International company without really planning on it. They are a manufacturing company and they have quite a few instruction manuals that they are in the process of updating.  I went in intent on finding out how they handle (or take into consideration) their international clients as they are updating the manuals. Do they translate them? Do they do any adjusting for translation on the other end? What special things do they need to take into consideration as they write manuals with  non-native English speakers as their end users?  The answer I found out pretty quickly was – NOTHING.  They found translating to be cost prohibitive (which it is even for large companies) and since they are selling their machinery to a middle man – a distributor – they seem to be legally covered safety-wise without needing to translate the documents. I also found their attitude to be similar to Thatcher’s (2010) comment:

“Unfortunately, this kind of ethnocentrism—assuming that another culture will simply use digital media the same way as your own—is actually quite common in much U.S. research and theory, a point I discuss more thoroughly elsewhere (Thatcher, 2005).” (p. 170)

When I asked more questions about their lack of translation, the comment was, (I am paraphrasing here) “Oh we don’t need to worry about it,  Everyone we deal with speaks English really well”.  I was pretty shocked!  Interestingly enough, when I posed a similar question to my husband, whose company is also International, he said almost the exact same thing.  When  I asked my husband about translating legal documents, he said they have the plant in that location hire a translator to do that. Similarly, the company I worked with this summer relies on the end user to do all translating.  When I asked my husband how they know the document (in his case usually contracts) says what they want it to say, he kind of stared at me with a blank face.  When I pointed out to the summer company that their distributors may be able to speak English but (a) it is probably British English (and there is a difference) and (b) just because they can speak it doesn’t mean they can read it well enough to put machinery together,

http://api.ning.com/files/4n9BlpDOVH72SyPYsjv5RkbLvQhELoJWtn4QFQ-hwkT5qaknQMnxh4km9vspN-fIcjYPlvwbqBjiSXgvpd-1Ptxz7ZHmJYmW/726965_1278282334417.47res_419_300.jpg

they stared at me with blank faces (I love stumping people with an attitude!). In both cases, they just don’t know what they don’t know.  The company from ENGL-637 is just now venturing into putting all of their documents online in digital format with the intent of eventually having it be an interactive online-help system. If their digital literacy is anything like their  (albeit, currently being upgraded) manual-writing-system literacy where international clients are concerned, they will need more help than they realize.  Digital literacy is still a new and expanding field even in our own country, much less understanding how other countries will use this form of communication. Unfortunately, our embarrassing ethnocentric attitude may get in the way of ever being completely digitally literate where foreign clients are concerned.

Oh, how the audience has changed!

In our Digital Literacy reading this week, I found much interesting content, and I got stuck on the idea of audience in the digital age from Chapter 8.  Now with technology allowing writing in the digital age readily accessible to potentially all Internet users or to anyone who can access  an online document, this much broader sense of audience really does cause some serious consideration for technical communicators.  Who, exactly, are they trying to reach and why?  Are they friends, fans, or followers?  The idea of considering the target audience has taken on new meaning in our Internet, user-driven, and social media run online world these days.

I found that the five case studies offered to us by Blakeslee were helpful in gaining an understanding when thinking about the much bigger “audience” a tech writer now must consider.  She notes, ” …we still need to approach audiences as contextual, unique, and particular, just as we have been doing all along” (202).    This finding made me think of the old adage, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”    I cannot help but think that audiences will  always be very specific, very particular, and  very clear in what they want.   I think this line sums it up nicely, “Such evidence also points to the need to tease out the unique and complex characteristics of modern digital audiences” (202).    It seems that digital communicators these days, much like in days past, should still seriously consider their audience and its needs to really reach the users.

This idea of heuristics was brand new to me; “the digital environment gives writers various mechanisms, or heuristics, for this learning–in other words, it provides them with alternative methods for understanding user needs and a means to solicit user feedback during both early and later phases of learning and research; it also helps them respond to and interact with users” (204).  It is this new age of interaction that really has me intrigued with today’s digital communication age.  The entire concept of audience in the online arena has changed with the way we can and do interact with each other on the Internet.  Now, digital communicators work in a world where they know their audience might prefer interaction and the opportunity to offer feedback right away compared to earlier days where this was not necessarily possible.   The audience of today is a bit more demanding.

With the demands and desires of audiences today, digital communicators who realize that this process is much more user driven today will benefit and be able to target and retain their audiences. Those who ignore their audience needs or oversimplify their needs will not achieve success at reaching their audience.  It must be acknowledged that digital audiences are complex and will require a bit more than what we might have called an audience in former days.

I think the audience has more power today than ever before to affect how digital communicators must write.  Noted by Blakeslee are three very important ideas about how digital communicators must continue to gain a contextualized understanding of their audiences, and I think it is worth it here to point them out again:

  • 1) need to know how readers will read and interact with their documents
  • 2) need to know how and in what contexts readers with use their documents and
  • 3) need to know what expectations readers will bring to their digital documents

I am not sure that in the past authors in the print or early digital realm really considered point three very much.  However, in this time of heavy user interaction, those who fail to realize and address the expectations brought by the reader will not reach them the same way others might.

Audience has really opened up quite a bit with the Internet and its power of interaction and immediate feedback.

Location changes audience demands and the Internet can cure depression?

I’ve never traveled out of the country, so I find it interesting the reading this week stated different countries have websites that show information differently, for example they use less pictures.  This does make sense to me because I think about living in NJ and traveling to other places within the US.  It’s amazing how different things can be in different states.  I know NJ is very fast paced and when I travel sometimes it’s like being in a different country!  In some places people are much more relaxed and friendly.  I liked the example website provided in the reading, but would have enjoyed a deeper dive into examples of websites in different countries and why they are created the way they are.  I did some Googling and found a website in Spain and Ireland, and both have a combination pictures and words.  It looks like they’re laid out similar to websites that I’d expect to see in the US, so I’m not sure if I’m missing something, or not researching enough sites/locations.

Example sites:

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http://www.enlavaguada.com/W/do/centre/inicio

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http://www.thymerestaurant.ie/

Some of this is over my head information wise as I’ve never built a website, but there’s plenty of information on the web about how to build sites that will be used in different regions and how important it is to communicate with people in their own language.  The site below provides a lot of information on this topic.

http://searchengineland.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-multilingual-and-multiregional-seo-157838

I find it interesting the readings mentioned that studies haven’t really been done on how audiences are adapting to the digital age.  I found the case studies that were done though to be interesting.  The one mentioned how they use their support calls to help create content.  When I managed a knowledge base I used to do the same thing.  I’d go through the customer support ticket logs and listen in on phone calls to see what customers were asking and how they were asking it.  This helps get insight into what the customer needs to know and helps build the structure of the knowledge base so the customer could find it.  The reading also mentioned that the online environment is designed for quick feedback.  This is a very good point because in most knowledge bases users can leave comments or choose to give a thumbs up if the article was useful and a thumbs down if the article wasn’t helpful.

The reading did mention one of the issues with online content is that the information is available for everyone.  I don’t think this is true though, as some websites you have to log in to get access to content.  It is true that the content can be emailed to someone and be shared quickly and easily, but paper content can be photocopied and passed around too.

I also found The Implications of Mobility study entertaining.  I’d like to comment on three points I picked out:

  • 58% of business users agreed with “mobile phones restrict my freedom”

I can really understand this comment.  I have a work cell phone and I agree it restricts my freedom.  For example, there are two big meetings this week on Tuesday and Wednesday I’m managing material for.  I’ve been receiving emails/texts and working over the weekend because I’m accessible via my work phone.  I feel the days of having a weekend to myself are gone!

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http://joyreactor.com/post/470277

  • Mobile phones blur the boundary between public and private space

I agree that it seems people have private conversations in public places.  Just waiting online at the grocery store you can hear more about a person than you need to.

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  • Internet could reduce depression by providing a means to obtain social support

I’ve never thought about the Internet being helpful to people in this way, but I guess it really could.  I think if someone is being bullied and they find a support group and bond with people, it really can turn their attitude around.  Even if they’re talking to someone across the globe, it’s someone that relates to them and understands them.

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