Category Archives: Society

The Shared Nature of Teaching and TPC

Albert Einstein is credited as saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The first time I heard this quote paraphrased I was being instructed to explain the concept in a way that even a six-year-old could understand. That idea has shaped the way I take any idea or skill in my curriculum and work to translate it into what my students will actually see and hear. For example, before I cover advanced punctuation issues in my students’ writing, I have to go back and review the parts of speech. Do I think (and maybe do you think) it’s a little ridiculous to be covering nouns and verbs in higher education? Sometimes I think that, yes. Does it change the fact that it makes a noticeable difference in whether or not students are able to grasp the other more “college-worthy” topics that we shift to within the same class period? Yes. It does. In the end, what I, a professional with nearing decades of experience in the content, think doesn’t trump what my audience (students) needs. If my objective is their learning; my product must meet them where they are. 

For teachers, it should go without saying that the audience determines how the required curriculum is communicated. I’d bet, though, that anyone reading could share stories of teachers who seemed unable to bridge the gap between their own content-area expertise and the lack thereof in their students. 

Technical writers have the same challenge. If they cannot access the needs of their audience, their products will fail. And, as much as a classroom is made of individual students with unique needs, those who engage with the technical products of TPC professionals have just as many idiosyncratic demands. Anne Blakeslee writes in “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age” (2010), chapter 8 in Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, “It is dangerous, especially in cyberspace writing, to presume that your writing will have a limited and well-defined audience” (p. 201). It might seem that teachers have the advantage over their technical communicator and writer peers here because they do work personally with their students, but what advantage they’ve ever had, if there was one, is disappearing in online classrooms.  Essentially, everyone has to find out “after the fact… and from other people that we failed in order to succeed later” (Blakeslee, 2010, p. 209). In both cases, these come in the form of personal complaints, online ratings, and failure to meet objective measures of success. 

Interestingly, it seems that the same procedures and practices to address this issue serve both professions. Blakeslee offers three pieces of information that writers [teachers] should seek out regarding their readers [students]: “How readers [students] will read and interact with their documents. How and in what contexts readers [students] will use their documents. What expectations readers [students] will bring to their digital documents” (p. 213). Whether we read these suggestions from the perspective of a technical writer crafting documents for the user of a new pressure cooker or a student in a math classroom, the deliverables crafted and shared in either case will be more successful for having the information listed above about their specific audiences.

The recent disruption to traditional education has accelerated the overlapping spaces like these between the professions of education and technical writing. These new digital spaces that have merged with and sometimes replaced our classrooms will never go away entirely. In “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communication Practices,” Ferro and Zachry assert that, “extending the field’s longstanding concern for people and their informed engagement with the products and processes of technology, technical communicators have a role in ‘the new work processes’ wherein individuals are ‘cooperative and flexible’ with the ability ‘to act as an interface between new technology and human interaction’’’ (p. 18). As students of all ages learn to navigate various online learning management systems, work their webcams, blur their Zoom backgrounds, and still learn the assigned content, teachers are pulled in to support all those elements. Now, regardless of their subject, they are teaching their students how to engage in and build shared knowledge via technology. 

Dr. Stacy Pigg highlights similar ideas in “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work,” writing “Writers must construct relational networks among people with shared interests and sense opportunities for future action and consider when and how to shift practices or discourse in response to them” (p. 70). If that’s not what a teacher is doing within their classroom, then I don’t know that it’s actually happening anywhere. 

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that most people have had more than one experience with a teacher who in some way failed to make their user/audience/student the center of their teaching, usually with frustrating/boring/disastrous results. Perhaps a clarification of teacher as professional communicator would be enough to improve those teachers and their classrooms. For those teachers struggling to find their new groove in this remote/hybrid/synchronous/asynchronous environment,  an acknowledgment of the very real, very professional and technical, and very valuable realities of their work could likewise help them find their teacher identity in these new responsibilities. 

In any event, regardless of the context and the content, the needs of the audience have to rule the priorities of the communication in both formally recognized professional and technical communication as well as in teaching. Maybe those professional communicators can learn from the attention good teachers have always paid to their students’ needs, and teachers can benefit from viewing their work through a TPC lens of supporting technology integration and modeling, as well as practicing, knowledge work.

Coman (Computer + Human) Friends

As Longo (2014) mentions, “Technical communicators traditionally had authority to produce knowledge about technologies for users… but now… how can technical communicators use these new devices and the social media…?” (p.22) To answer this question, Spilka (201) presents “Content Management” and “Developing Content Strategy.” Both of them sound like really nice methods, but then my question here is “How can technical communicators manage content better and develop a timely content strategy?”

As I teach students from K1 to G12 as well as businessmen in the ESL environment, I hear many things from them related to their studying, interests, and work. Young male students talk about computer games they like, and they make examples out of those games in the class. Teenage students keep bringing up pop singing groups while business men like to talk about how a new project is going at work or what their plans are for the weekend or vacation. While I correct their grammatical mistakes or teach them new vocabulary and expressions, I also get plenty of information from what they know, and I, especially, feel very excited if the information is something I never knew or something I would never try to know if it were not for my students. In addition to the communication with my students in the classroom, I talk to them via email or virtual room such as a chatting space online. While chatting online, we have a conversation about our class and assignment. In the chatting space, students can ask questions anytime they want, and most of the time, my students are told to upload their homework in that cyber chatting space.

To some, it might be more likely to make sense if I say I might be letting my students say what they want to say in the class, however, I see all of the process as communication as well as a type of method for knowledge-making. When I gather some new information or knowledge from the communication with my students, I look up some of the information if I consider it important or relevant to my work or studying. Needless to mention, the communication helps me to build rapport with my students, and sometimes I make friends with my students especially when the students are grown-ups on top of collecting knowledge.

In conclusion, I found a very similar idea when Spilka (2010) quotes Longo: “… in a virtual environment, together we will form some kind of community and culture based on those relationships and communication” (p.147). After all, for the sake of relationships and knowledge-making, we – especially technical communicators – need to swiftly adapt to the digital culture that is computer-mediated and “comprised of human + machine (Spilka, 2010, p.147)” as it is said, “Inhabiting virtual worlds is another aspect of postmodern life” by Longo (Spilka, 2010, p.155).           

Video Conference. Woman At Home Chatting With Friends On Computer Screen,  Online Communication With Coworkers, Video Stock Vector - Illustration of  cyberspace, conversation: 194210126
Image from Dreamstime.com

The Power Of People

So, I’m in graduate school, right?  During an aspirin-and-an-antacid-every-two-hours election year.  Drawing conclusions from the readings and sharing them will my class cohort is especially tricky when my mind is overwhelmed with social issues.  This week’s response is tangential, but it’s where my mind took me.

Our readings this week are about content management, information distribution, and the differences between ‘real life’ technical communication jobs and online collaboration needed to do them well.  The authors both go beyond the job site, though.  They discuss what it means to form a society, a culture, and the norms that take root therein. This happens almost anywhere people gather (virtually or not). Two quotes stuck out to me and had me thinking about how information moves groups to act, which is as important at work as it is in society right now.  First, Spilka (2010) wrote “from a cultural perspective, the important question is this: Who gets to decide whose culture and knowledge will prevail, and whose will be silenced?  Determining whose culture and knowledge will prevail will lead to decisions about which group of people has the power to make things happen and to prevent other possible things from happening” (153).  Spilka opines that culture and community are fundamentally built upon the inclusion and exclusion of different groups just as much as they are physically built upon concrete.  Second, Longo (2013), though she’s speaking about technical communications careers specifically, also has a view about human relations: “as connected and open as we would like our work to be, we still rely on the relations we build with people in a physical world.  The reality is slightly disappointing in the sense that it is still very difficult to build bridges across our global contexts” (29). Longo says communities are stronger when people can interact face-to-face (or otherwise foster personal bonds).  Only communicating perfunctorily online does not suffice for optimal knowledge making.

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

The most visible niche cultures we see today are protests.  People participating are, in Spilka’s terms, trying to prevail, which often means overriding or silencing the opposition.  Longo is right in this context that it takes more than an online movement to truly connect others with similar views and force change.  I thought specifically about the protests in Poland, which delayed the implementation of a law and may well alter their constitution.  Women came out in droves. The sheer numbers gave them the power to make things happen, forced the government to acknowledge them.  Opposition was all but silenced in the coverage of the protests.  The Guardian described the protests as a “backlash against patriarchal culture.”  Norms were established to maintain volume and longevity.  There was indeed a community born.

Ok, so I know protests are an extreme example of how culture, society, and norms are formed, but they’re definitely not altogether different.  Spilka’s view that it’s about who’s included and excluded equally was a succinct eye-opener for me.  Longo’s view that cohesion is more effective IRL is definitely viable in this example, even when groups like Anonymous are challenging those limitations. I know there will be a lot more protests in 2020, and where and how they organize will be interesting.  

Technical Writer by Day, PSA Creator by Night

The research study (2014) by Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul G. Curran gave a close look at the professional lives of technical and professional communication program alumni. I had seen this research in a previous course, but it struck me differently this time. Before, I focused on the types of writing technical communicators were reportedly doing: email, instructional manual, website, blog. These were the physical proof of a hard day’s work. When asked what kind of job I’d be looking for in the field, I would say I could write online help documents to help people use their smart devices.

This week, I looked back at my notes and saw that I had skipped over one of the charts. Table 3 on page 274 lists the purposes for the types of text written. In breaking down whether the writers completed projects for work or as part of a personal project, a number of categories only receive attention at work. I was surprised there was not more carryover except for blogs and emails.

This sample of writers did not find a high percentage of personal or public uses for infographics, instructions/procedures/manuals, and usability materials. At the time of this survey, these writers left companies and agencies in charge of the decision to spend the money and resources to produce these instructional documents. I can see how writers may have not seen a need to produce and design to the caliber of an infographic or user guide if they just had a few concepts or ideas to share. A well-structured blog did the job and an email is the fastest form.

Even though some types were deemed strictly workplace materials a few years back, it is worth a present-day look at the gap between the professional and public occasions of these text forms. Should writers produce them at a similar rate for their communities and networks as they do for workplace projects? If they are chosen as an effective communication tool in the professional world, why should they be ignored in favor of narrative blogs?

For example, would it not be great to scroll through a feed of infographics that educate the public on healthcare topics? The CDC website evolved to include infographics for every facet of life in response to the pandemic, including its most recent guidance for trick-or-treating. While that was likely accomplished in a writing department at work, technical writers could also do this work to spread other types of text to their non-professional network. I appreciate that resources likely already exist on the web, and may even have been generated by writers, but I think this could be a natural outlet for improving communication by those who know some best ways to do it.

As I thought about this informal PSA- role for technical writers, it is not without a few challenges. For example, the technical writer is not necessarily the subject matter expert. It may be more likely that an individual could spread inaccurate information if it is not revised and approved in the workplace. The reader may not trust the content posted at 9 p.m. by a user who does not explain credentials or authority for posting without a recognized agency. The other big problem could be engagement. While a bank publishes great content on financial wellness, many individuals do not want to tune into that topic enough to get a firm handle on it. Even though technology allows for improved communication possibilities, the only way these things take shape is when someone works to prove it is worth our time.

Digital Flux: Just Nice?

While reading Spilka (2010), I was once again able to read through how digital technology developed and in what ways it affected the job market. This compact content is very useful for me to understand the crucial historical part of the digital technology and to see the changes brought to our work from a wider point of view. As Spilka (2010) mentions, due to the development of digital technology, the skills and titles for the job as technical communicator have changed: writer, editor, illustrator (p.22), spelling/grammar checker (p.47), or information developer (p.26); also in my perspective, user-centered researcher. On top of this, “[N]ot only did the volume of content expand, but so did its reach” (Spilka, 2010, p.41). Due to the expansion of the reach supported by digital technology, people as well as technical communicators can be interactive with one another beyond physical borders, and I believe this also worked as catalyst for globalization in a way.  

However, Spilka (2010) also points out that “the movement from blue collar work to knowledge work (Druker, 1993)” that requires “education and expertise” caused unemployment in our society (p.53). Although Spilka (2010) is expecting a rosy future, saying, “advances in technology continue to shape our work” (p.48), I argue that the unemployment problem caused by the labor replacement of robots will be very/more serious and should be resolved both for current and future generation. Otherwise, there will be serious extra labor force issue and unemployment problem in the near future. Both of these problems can be a threat to the economy – both domestically and internationally, initiating problems in each community. Therefore, I contend that we should not only take advantage of digital literacy but we need to be prepared for the side effects of digital technology.

*Image from Google

Kids These Days

I teach reading, writing, and communication skills to undergraduate college students. Before I made the jump to post-secondary ed., I taught high school English. I have a MA in English and am working on a second masters degree in Technical and Professional Communication. I love to read and learn. School is clearly my happy place. But that happy place is increasingly that place where I’m looking at the young people around me in horror, wringing my hands about what will become of the world when these kids get hold of it.

In the past five years, I’ve had several situations where I’ve finished my semester thinking the most lasting and impactful thing I’ve taught my students is the importance of taking notes and having a planner. I used to enjoy thrilling class discussions early in the research essay process when students were trying out their arguments on each other to identify holes in their reasoning. Students also used to tackle big topics and seek out unique solutions to the problems they identified. Lately, though, I’ve pivoted to spend far more time trying to incentivize students to do more than simply Google the specific information they need to prove what they think is the truth. Why go to the bother of struggling through the science on climate change when I can Google “climate change hoax” or “climate change polar bear”?

I don’t think this is personal failing on the parts of these students. I really don’t. In measurable ways, they are hardworking, and too many of them struggle with real anxiety and depression on a daily basis. This is less a case of “kids these days,” as it is a “what have we done?” situation. Chayko points out that “In general, people who attempt to multitask regularly and chronically suffer cognitive and behavioral deficits. They have difficulty recalling information and are slower at processing information.” Between infinite choices on the television thanks to cable, Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and the like, as well as their smartphones and social media accounts, we brought them up in a world that demands they multitask or be left behind. Now I’m going to expect them to focus and dive deep on issues when everything in their lives has rewarded them for doing the opposite? I can try, but it’s not going to be pretty.

And that anxiety that can sometimes cripple an otherwise successful student to the point that they fail the class because they can’t bring themselves to write a final essay I have proof they are perfectly capable of writing? Chayko has that covered, too: “Anxiety can be experienced even when people are simply unable to answer their ringing cell phones. In a study by journalism professors Russell Clayton, Glenn Leshner, and Anthony Almond (2015), iPhone users who were unable to answer their ringing phones while completing a puzzle reported feelings of anxiety and unpleasantness. Their heart rates and blood pressure increased. Their cognitive functioning was impaired, and they had a hard time paying attention to the task at hand.” The very presence of their smartphones creates anxiety. Unfortunately, the absence of their phones does the same thing. Solve that riddle for me, please. Students either check their phones for communications and risk the loss of focus or ignore their phones and risk the loss of focus.

Schools should be the place where we teach students how to resolve these paradoxes in their lives, how to manage their distractions and find the joy of deep focus and thought. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps. We did some bad things to our educational system at the same time we were creating these other distractions, though. “It can be argued that many aspects of a society, including social systems such as education, health care, and the government, have become McDonaldized—so concerned with moving people through their systems in predictable, calculable ways that individuals are becoming more controlled, less empowered, and somewhat dehumanized in the process.” 🤦🤦‍♀️ Ooops?

It’s possible that the human brain that is weaned on an iPhone will be able to handle the multitasking better than brains that started with boring paper books and local channel television options, and I trust teachers to find the spaces in between the standardized requirements to sneak in inspirational, life changing learning experiences for students. This is probably no different than previous generational disagreements about priorities and values. I’ve heard that people thought books would destroy the fabric of society when they were made more widely available. Imagine how it might have been for our great-great-great-great grandparents trying to pry their child away from a book to engage in conversation. Slip a phone into that picture instead of the book and it looks awfully familiar! So maybe it isn’t as bad I think, but these distractions, this anxiety, this lack of critical thinking and sustained focus can’t be ignored, either. For sure, though, the blame is not on the kids. It’s on us.

Surviving Virtual Life

There are a lot of conversations happening, and evolving, around the use of technology in scholastic settings.  Before 2020, there was a majority opinion that phones and laptops can be disproportionately distracting during classes.   Kentaro Toyama, Associate Professor of Communications Information at the University of Michigan, sat down with James Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, at a 2015 talk presented by the Aspen Institute where they discussed their preferences for the students’ use of technology in their classrooms.  Overall, they didn’t support it, saying that it can distract from the lesson and the student interactions. They asked students to refrain from using cell phones and laptops during lectures, saying that when screens are on, our tendencies to wander through social media are stronger than the desire for deep learning.  Though putting screens out of reach can cause some distress initially for the students, by the end of the course most expressed appreciation for the ability to focus solely on the content without the temptation of social media distractions.   

The drive to be constantly entertained by screens, and an equal apprehension about giving that up, is perhaps most common with younger generations, but it’s part of everyone’s life to some extent.  It’s part of our normal, both when seeking out information and maintaining relationships. Mary Chayko talks about this quite a bit in Superconnected (2015): “we require some kind of continuity and sameness from day to day.  Taking part in techno-social life online can provide this type of constancy for it is always, dependably, there” (202).  Additionally, “being plugged in can provide us on a very deep level with the comforting feeling that we are not alone” (201).  Nevertheless, Chayko touts the benefits of unplugging: “it can be enriching to be bored sometimes” (200). 

Today, however, things are different.  Students are online remotely from kindergarten to graduate school because of the pandemic.  It’s no longer a conversation about avoiding distractions in the classroom; it’s about being online in order to participate in the lessons overall.  Even Steyer’s Common Sense Media site has been overhauled to support remote learning for students and parents alike and provide support during Coronavirus.  There are new challenges now – how can we do MORE online while maintaining a healthy life balance?  Common Sense Media offers advice on motivating students, taking care of our mental health, even hosting and attending remote birthday parties. 

It’s counterintuitive when Chayko declares “while modern people certainly experience their share of stress, digital technology and social media users do not generally have higher levels of stress than those who are less digitally connected” (192).  For me personally, this isn’t the case in 2020.   Reading the news, not interacting with neighbors, working and studying remotely – they all take their toll on my stress levels and I struggle to unwind.  The CDC site has an entire section about coping with stress during the pandemic.  Am I in the minority here? Are others settling into this normal better than I am?  I’m especially curious about how kids and parents are doing with online school, and how they’re balancing that with few social interaction opportunities offline.  I bought a bike to try and find some balance, but in WI that’s a temporary solution.  I am open to others’ ideas.

Sharing Entailing Many Issues

As Chayko (2018) notes, people these days share lots of information online and that kind of information accumulates a lot and spreads in public, which Chayko  (2018) refers to “crowdsourcing” (p.73). Sharing useful information for free of charge with unlimited access can benefit a number of members in the community of social media. However, as Chayko (2018) points out, it has emerged as an issue that people do not acknowledge how much of their personal information is exposed or illegally used for the matters they are not even aware of (p.67). As Chayko (2018) touches the very sensitive part, so called, surveillance, I believe that it becomes a more sensitive issue to discuss when it comes to considering if surveillance is “asymmetrical” or “vertical” (p.84). Although there would be many side effects such as data mining and hacking, I argue that there should be a certain type of system or organization to protect the personal information of online civils.         

The issue that I desire to focus on is the one about “fake news” (Chayko, 2018, p.82). As the content of the post is up to those who post it, it is actually true that posters can upload whichever content they want as long as it is not directly against the posting rule (eg. In S. Korea, direct swearing can be deleted without any notice to the poster who posted it). To take an example of fake news that caused a huge turmoil in S. Korea, there was a positing on the biggest portal web site, called Naver, in S. Korea a few years ago. Some person posted that N. Korea is preparing a new type of arms so that they can suddenly attack S. Korea any time soon. This post became so influential that people started to get food and necessities from grocery stores. Soon there formed lines in front of grocery stores, and people buying instant noodles and canned food were broadcast on TV. Looking back, I am so glad this fake news was proved untrue before long and moreover, that there was no riot or violent crowds due to the chaos from public worries about war. However, what if there were? What if this little piece of fake news became so big that it affected so many people and provoked crowds’ violence inside. My questions are: “Who would catch this kind of fake news makers which I consider a cybercrime?” “Who would punish them and how?”        

The Ongoing Discussion Around Online Content

There are a lot of high-visibility, high-impact cases happening right now regarding online content. From the battle over net neutrality, to copyright infringement cases (see Oracle vs. Google) to attempts at quelling fake news (see Facebook’s QAnon battle) to the ongoing battle to end cyberbullying, they all straddle the line between free speech and public responsibility. The outcomes will affect our experience online, and thus, as Mary Chayko discusses in Superconnected (2018), our online socialization experience.

Who we are online should not be considered different than who we are in our daily offline lives. “It makes sense to think of the self that is created, performed, and exhibited online as a manifestation of the self that exists offline as well” (118). This is especially true for those that are growing up in technologically rich environments. They “generally become rather comfortable with technology and are less likely to view the online and offline experience as separate contexts” (129). It is thus reasonable for us to expect the same litigious, participatory, diverse, and consequential culture online as we are afforded offline. It is also reasonable for communities to react strongly to the cases that affect their social development (how they see themselves and how they’re seen by others).

What is different is the amount of data mining and surveillance we’ve become accustomed to when we’re active online, and how this is used by others. “Online communities are characterized both by watching and by a high awareness of being watched” (89).   If this were to happen in our daily lives, there’s little doubt anti-harassment and anti-stalking laws would be leveraged. Instead, we participate in what Chayko calls an “attention economy” (76) where the attention we’re paid when we’re online is the real currency. This attention can empower us to reveal beliefs and habits that we may not otherwise find a niche for in offline society.  The more time and attention we invest in these niches, the more we’re likely to find groups of individuals with the same non-mainstream thoughts and habits.

Digital media provides individuals with platforms and tools that can be used to express all kinds of ideas and impulses.”

Mary Chayko, Superconnected (2018, p119)

The success and longevity of these groups, which sometimes develop into reaffirming echo chambers (82) and narrow agents of socialization (115), are affected by the outcomes of cases pertaining to our online experience.  In a litigious society like the US, this is unsurprising, but it nonetheless has an impact as to how we’re socialized and develop our sense of self both on and offline. We form opinions based on what’s legal, on what’s morally justified, on what feels like corrupt overreach.  Sometimes, a legal verdict is seen as biased censorship, forcing groups underground, sure of their oppression, an attempt to hide the truth (here’s an interesting conspiracy FB profile I sometimes scan).  Other times, it’s seen as a sensible means of protecting gullible consumers from being deceived or corporate developers from being deprived of what they’re justifiably (and financially) entitled to.   

I’m not sure how I feel about online censorship and copyrighted vs. public domain code overall. I think there is danger in misleading content around government and health, but I do not know who should act as the source of and enforcer of ‘the truth.’  I think net neutrality is crucial for innovation and healthy self-identities but can be harmful for kids if they stumble on the ‘wrong’ content.  I think the Oracle vs. Google case can create a messy minefield.  I think that conspiracy theories are endlessly entertaining, and I struggle with censorship.  I have also seen friends fall hook, line, and sinker into ridiculous echo chambers fraught with wild ideas that take away from genuine enrichment.  How do you feel about the pending cases, their impact on our online lives, and how this may or may not translate to our experiences offline?

Reality vs. (Virtual) Reality

Chayko’s book “SuperConnected” helped me to see the beginning of the digital era and its process more in detail and also from a different perspective. Chayko (2018) explained how technology and internet we have now such as internet, computer, smartphone, social media, etc. have developed in a well-organized way with numerical data. It is also interesting that Chayko sees technology as part of social systems. This issue also leads me to think about “To whom will the technology give greater power and freedom?” as Chayko (2018) quotes Postman (1993). Regarding this, I would always thought that whoever can develop new technology and up-to-date gadgets might be able to grab the power and freedom in modern society depending on the level of technology, where Chayko (2018) explains, “individuals in technology-rich communities and societies tend to live techno-social lives.”

Also, the sociomental spaces that Chayko (2018) introduces are interesting that people have a collective, shared conscience there and that the space behind the monitors has been enlarged and had an intersection with the physical space as Chayko mentions. As neighbors living in the nearby area get together often and feel a sense of belonging with one another, people develop a shared identity, culture, purpose, and fate, as well as feelings of togetherness and belonging in the same online communities. Likewise, space – whether it is online or offline – is an important factor in the era of technology. Chayko even explains that this space can be shaped and reshaped and that people enter and exit different spaces. The author also mentions that digital environments are directly related to reality and that they are eventually reality.

I especially want to focus on how deeply digital world is connected with the physical world/reality. Chayko (2018) says, “Digital environments are so fully enmeshed with the physical world… [O]ne need not even be online to feel the impact.” If this phenomenon happens in a positive way, that can be helpful to both those who are online and offline. However, if that affects in a negative way, like what happened in S. Korea a few years ago, that can cause serious social issues. A teenage boy killed his friend because his friend annoyed him. This teenage boy said that he felt like he had to kill him just like he killed his enemies in computer games he had been playing. This tragedy happened because the boy couldn’t distinguish reality from the virtual reality. Hope people who spend time in virtual reality can be educated to distinguish these two realms so that there would be no more tragedies like this in reality.  

Sticks and Stones: From the Playground to the Web

Man in pillory

Punishment, whether in abstract or concrete terms, is something most humans grow up knowing to avoid. From childhood, the messaging is consistent: “wrong” choices/actions/words = negative consequences. Whether it’s soap in the mouth, a spanking, standing in the corner, a time out, or loss of privileges, we’re trained to make the “right” choices/actions/words in order to avoid that pain. Who establishes “right” and “wrong” varies a bit from one community or culture to another, but ultimately those norms are communicated through rewards for adhering to them and punishment for failing to do so. 

In spite of recent real-world pivots away from punishing bad behaviors in favor of things like Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS), Chapter 4, “Social-Digital Know-How: The Arts and Sciences of Collective Intelligence,” of Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, notes how this long-standing social principle applies in the digital world. He first notes that “reciprocating cooperation, punishing noncooperators, and signalling a willingness to cooperate are useful for individual[s], as well as the groups they contribute to.” Later, he says, “Punishing those who break the institution’s rules is apparently essential to cultivating cooperation; ‘altruistic punishment’ may be the glue that holds society together.” First its our parents, then our classmates, and our colleagues; of course, it we do this online, too.

The challenge for those wishing to innovate is to find a way to subvert the rules that maintain the status quo without triggering those very same punishment mechanisms. I wrote my master’s thesis on this phenomenon in the social-problem novels of Industrial Revolution England. In each of the novels I highlighted as evidence, the heroine worked to protect those around her from the worst of the fallout hitting the working class, and in the end, was rewarded for her efforts by getting what she wanted for herself and then being removed from society to some idyllic, less industrial location, usually with a husband. Ultimately, even the writers whose books sought to spark change in their communities knew enough to punish, albeit relatively altruistically, their own characters for breaking those accepted rules. So this tension between progress and homeostasis is nothing new to the human race. 

Rules in the 3-dimensional world evolved over time and only changed from one community to another, requiring that one had to physically move to encounter those rules. Because a newcomer would be alone in their efforts to change any norms they disliked, these communities were often allowed to remain static for generations. Digital users, on the other hand, are able to interact with any number of unique communities on a daily basis. These overlaps allow for far more rapid evolution of community rules. While this has some advantages in terms of change agility, the lack of centralized leadership in these communities can mean that real change or progress is stymied by constant uncertainty about the rules of engagement. 

In “Get Lost, Troll: How Accusations of Trolling in Newspaper Comment Sections Impact the Debate,” Magnus Knustad explores the ways that calling out “trolls” in comment sections can impact the discourse within that community by potentially shutting down ideas that don’t agree with that of the majority. In this, he identifies the term “troll” as a type of punishment intended to alienate the person challenging the status quo opinion from the rest while also invalidating the ideas themselves, thus vanquishing two threats with one insult. Knustad notes this, as well, “The activities of trolls, real or imaginary, and how they are responded to, can affect how people communicate in comment sections, the trust between commenters, and the inclusion of all those who want to participate.” And this is the complexity of this method of encouraging conformity for the collective good: it exists for a reason, but its existence stifles collaboration and progress.

xkcd comic: throwing rocks

Until digital communities can reconcile this contradiction, meaningful growth will continue to languish under competing desires for coordination, cooperation, and collaboration, against our human need for continuity. It’s a battle between our basic needs and our self-actualized aspirations. The potential for what might come assuming we manage this, though, is mind blowing. 

Critical Thinking in the Deep Ocean of Information

Nicolas Proferes’s perspective on the limits of individual and collective power resonates with me, and it helped me to think about the issue of collective power and mob mentality that forms online. I’ve been always worried that these two ideas can bring about negative effects that could lead to producing scapegoat due to the diminished critical thinking skills as Michael Zimmer and Anna Lauren Hoffmann mention in “Preface: A decade of Web 2.0 – Reflections, critical perspectives, and beyond.”

Ever since the advent of Web 2.0, netizens have been actively participating in generating context based on their own private points of view and experiences. This also has been serving as foundation for the growth of social media. Users started indulge themselves into using the abundant information online and freely exchanging each other’s opinions. Hereby, my concerns are: Who will confirm if the information online is correct or not? Can younger generation avoid blindly accepting the information online, trusting the effect of collective power?

As I see that many social media influencers actively present their ideas and sometimes products, I worry that they can hinder (especially but not necessarily) younger users from developing critical thinking skills. This can lead to a serious issue in the future, highly possibly causing the side effect of mob mentality (meaning not thinking neutrally) by naturally accepting the information online without filtering. Users might trust a certain type of information just because many other users like it or because other users think that sounds correct or useful as Rheingold (2014, p.201) notes, “[N]etworks of activists are reconstructing civil society at local and global levels… [S]mart mobs are redefining socially.”

In conclusion, it is essential for users to acknowledge that there is a limit to their power in the Internet world and to prevent users from unconditionally accepting undiscerned information online. In order to do so, it is crucial that older generations need to pay more attention to younger ones so that the young users can obtain how to discern the right knowledge and how to critically think when they are faced with inundated information online. Therefore, I believe that this is the assignment left to all of us, not just to those who use the web contemporarily.

Lurkers Gonna Lurk

It’s been a minute since ‘Web 2.0’ (“the second stage of development of the World Wide Web, characterized especially by the change from static web pages to dynamic or user-generated content and the growth of social media” –Oxford) became our standard.  It’s hard to imagine one-way-Web at all, really.  How our online lives thrive (or don’t) is a precarious balance between lurking, contributing value, and damage control.

Howard Rheingold, in Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2012) sets an excellent example of how collaborative actions online can contribute to a sense of community and confidence.  He discussed his online communities; how they have contributed not only to a collective knowledge bank, but how they have enriched each other’s lives IRL, too, by building trust over the years.  Trust is the tricky part of the equation, he acknowledges, as is true of our social lives overall: “social dilemmas are the conflicts between self-interest and collective action that all creatures face in daily life-situations in which a lack of trust in the potential cooperation of others prevents individuals from acting together in ways that would benefit everybody” (151). 

The simplest things can help to build trust in a network, be it online or elsewhere.  Rheingold outlines the basic tenets of doing so (p155-6):

  1. Small talk and idle chatter build trust and lubricate collaboration
  2. Move from mutual benefit to common interests by building trust and negotiating goals
  3. Take risks to demonstrate that you are willing to modify your own activity in pursuit of common goals
  4. Be generous
  5. Seek to learn from and teach your collaborators.  Be willing to change your behavior in light of learning, and be willing to help your partners enhance their own position

The common factor in Rheingold’s book is collaboration; contributing to live online rather than ‘lurking.’  You might even call this ongoing role User 2.0 in that the two-way street is dependent upon those at the keyboard.  Scott Kushner doesn’t like lurking, which he says is when “users read, watch, and listen to content, but they do not contribute any of their own.”  In his article Read Only: The Persistence of Lurking in Web 2.0 (2016) Kushner “argues that lurking posts a threat to the prevailing logic of corporate social platforms.”  But there’s a line between contributing value and simply filling space: “the true value of Web 2.0 platforms is derived from knowledge work, not mindless status updates.” This is where I latched onto Kushner: I don’t need to know what conspiracy theory is being perpetuated this week when I spend time online.  I (should) need to know how people healthfully navigate life, what they are learning that adds value, and what I need to change about myself to be a better citizen. Rheingold says to contribute in a healthy way to our online experience, we need to “pay attention to opportunities you might be given to improve the public sphere.  It’s not up to anybody else” (242). He doesn’t mince words that the responsibility is universal.

I’ll admit, I am a lurker on several social media sites (Twitter and Reddit).  I am a contributor on others (Facebook, certain blogs, Instagram).  This is mostly because I’m not pithy, not clever.  I am active and I do have a lot of friends with whom I share experiences, though, and everyone likes pictures.

I should try to do better.  I should ask more questions on sites dedicated to knowledge sharing.  I should look more closely at opportunities to answer questions about which I am knowledgeable.  Rheingold gives us succinct rules for developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN): explore multiple media, search for more after you’ve explored, follow, tune your network, engage and inquire, and respond (229).  I know where people can trust me, and where I am still learning.  I can embrace admitting this when needed.  I know darn well that communities based on fandom, crowdsourcing (I’m a huge fan of Michelle McNamara and her crowd-sleuthing contributions), forums, and open source coding will die on the vine if they’re not tended to.  These are huge parts of my life – am I contributing to their success, or gluttonously lurking?

What If Humanity is the Market and Our Future is the Product?

Nightly News anchor in 1980’s

In an earlier blog post, I referenced my parents daily connection to the world through the newspaper and nightly news programs. At the time, there was one major regional newspaper, The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and three or four channels hosting news programming between 5:00 and 7:00PM each evening. Then it was on to Seinfeld and Cheers. That was the late 80’s and into the 90’s. Then we gained access to cable and the internet, and the amount of information sources increased by an amount I can’t even guess at. Instead of feeling plugged into the world after a maximum of three hours reading and viewing, the news cycle stretched to 24 hours and “printed” news could come from around the world by turning on the computer. My parents, and grandparents, and great-grandparents, etc… made informed decisions about their families, their careers, their charitable giving, their health, and their vote with a fraction of the information I navigate and can consume in a single scroll through Facebook. 

This isn’t about information overload, though. Or at least, not in the way of how it impacts our well being or mental health. It’s about how humanity is now the product shaped by the hyperconnected social media spaces available via the internet and our technology. The fight is on for the future of our country and the world, but for perhaps the first time in history, the voices participating in the discourse are not limited to those with wealth and political power. In “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson explores the “world of abundance” created by the limitless spaces of the online world. He writes, “Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody… This is a world of scarcity… we are entering a world of abundance and the differences are profound” (p. 7-8).

He’s right for more reasons than just those retail-driven examples of music, books, and movies that he highlights. He means the availability of more diverse consumable products here: “the cultural benefit of all of this [the economics of the Long Tail] is much more diversity, reversing the blanding effects of a century of distribution scarcity and ending the tyranny of the hit,” (p. 26), but he might as well be predicting the current Black Lives Matter movement, calls for living wages, affordable healthcare access for all Americans, or women’s rights to control their own bodies. In the Long Tail, everyone’s tastes can find space. On social media, everyone’s opinion can find space. 

social media icons

Whose voice sways the masses can be difficult to predict, but we can find some clues in Rachel Spilka’s 2010 book, Digital Literacy For Technical Communication: 21st Century Theory and Practice. In that text, R. Stanley Dicks writes in “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” that user-centered design and iterative design support agile development. These strategies are intended for use by companies needing to get products out to consumers at ever-increasing speeds, but they can also be used to predict which voices are more likely to influence social movements. If that voice is a person engaged in the process themselves or is carefully connected to those who are, they are more likely to craft messaging that is user-centered. The comments section and more simplistic “like,” “love,” “dislike” reactions of their audience allows for dramatic user involvement and real time feedback to use for iterations. If they have a history of activity on their social media engaging in a particular discourse or others like it, they’ve been and will continue to be iterating their message and messaging. The voices with the most staying power will be those who are able to adapt their message with as much agility as the masses respond and adapt to everything impacting them via the 24-hour news cycle and all their other social media inputs, as well as the realities of their daily lives. 

When the murders of George Floyd, Amaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many other BIPOC individuals found space in the Long Tail of information available for the public, one of the products in question became the fallacy of American equality, and individuals have had to reckon with their own participation in this economic product that is the American Dream. Once this happened, businesses were suddenly encouraged to act in alignment with this evolving national conscience. The NFL finally acknowledged the systemic racism that they allowed to reframe Colin Kaepernick’s protests into a political statement. It was now good business as indicated by the fact that Nike’s release of a Kaepernick jersey sold out in one minute. 

Kaepernick jersey sells out in less than a minute

Locke, Levine, Searls, and Weinberger break down the complex relationship between businesses and the communities they exist within to an easy-to-follow chain in their “95 Theses.” One of those theses states, “To speak with a human voice, companies must share the concerns of their communities,” and that’s followed immediately by, “But first, they must belong to a community.” The community is struggling to redefine itself in the midst of this abundant space and un”blanding” that Anderson identified as the Long Tail. Neither our country or our economy will settle until the community determines how to move forward in a new reality that has space for everyone, not just those that have been identified as the “hits.” 

No one is immune to 2020: Staying human online

For the most part, I consider myself resilient despite the political, social, and economic chaos that is 2020.  I’m not jaded.  I am optimistic.  I still believe in community. 

Well, as it turns out, I may have been kidding myself. 

I just read the first 3 chapters of Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online (2014).  The idealistic way in which Rheingold describes online interactions is arguably NOT aligned with what I see post-2016.  He talks of a ‘culture of participation,’ fostered by online communities working toward knowledge sharing and critical thinking.  He speaks of digital knowledge sharing as a wonderous, limitless add-on to what and how we learn in real life, and how much we all gain by taking part.  “Knowing how to blog, tweet, wiki, innovate, program, and/or organize online can lead to political, cultural, and economic value” (111).  Even though I am a student, scholastic, reliable content is not the majority of what I encounter when I’m online.  I see throngs of anonymous contributors shitposting, sharing unsubstantiated “articles” and starting arguments in comment sections.  Rheingold, forging ahead, gushes about our potential: “web culture has made it clear that if it is easy and inexpensive enough to contribute to cooperative enterprises, many people will choose to do so for a variety of reasons, including reputation, altruism, curiosity, learning, a sense of reciprocating value to a community that provides value, as part of a game, and contributing something for public use that you had to do for your own purposes anyway” (112).  Rheingold doesn’t even use the words ‘toxic’ and ‘trolls’ until after page 100!  I, on the other hand, see people looking to stir the pot, using language not said aloud in talking to both their social circles and complete strangers.  My response to his reading got me thinking about my role and my responsibilities as an online presence overall. 

First, I need to be more optimistic and proactive – find and support online education communities like schools, Google Scholar, reliable news outlets, and constructive social media content.  I KNOW there’s good stuff out there.  I know I don’t just have to put on blinders and block everyone with whom I disagree on social media; I can be equally discerning and protective of what I encounter, and I should not expect the impossible from where I normally surf. I can find blogs, subreddits, and pages that are looking to inform, not upset. I can turn my time online into a more productive activity.  I can get on board with Rheingold’s ideas.

One place to start might be what Chris Anderson calls “The Long Tail” in his 2004 article of the same name.  For Anderson, the long tail is what exists outside of the most popular culture; “the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream” (1).  Finding your own healthy place online can take some digging, as what we’re fed isn’t always what we need.  “We equate mass market with quality and demand, when in fact it often just represents familiarity, savvy advertising, and broad if somewhat shallow appeal” (10). Anderson writes about how markets continually change with the ubiquity of availability and potential revenue online, where products are unconstrained by the size and cost of physical space.  This helps us to find what we should be consuming on a more personal level and engaging with others that also care enough to contribute to that community.  We can choose a new jumping off point.  “Great long tail businesses can then guide consumers further afield by following the contours of their likes and dislikes, easing their exploration of the unknown” (24). Before long, it’s possible to change your entire feed.

I want to be informed and rational (and maybe even a little happy?) when I’m online.  I want to support others looking to do the same.  Creating a new experience might be as easy as clearing my cache, cookies, and search history and starting from a healthier point, even if that point is obscure.  Using an incognito window to indulge in guilty pleasures and gossip can satisfy whatever brought me there while maintaining accountability for what I see most often.

Socially (Media) Destructive

When I joined Facebook in 2008, I was excited about the opportunity to connect with old classmates, family, friends, and co-workers.  It was a way to reconnect with people I’d lost touch with other the years or whom I wouldn’t have reconnected with it weren’t for Facebook. None of really knew how to use it. What do you post?  Pictures of our gatherings, pets or kids and brief headlines about what we were doing or pictures of what we made for dinner seemed to be the idea.  However, it quickly became evident that comments could be misunderstood and taken out of context or intended meaning was lost.  Without a voice to express our tone and inflection, words became lost in translation.  Minor conflicts developed because of the inability to portray inference in typed conversation or comments.  And then we began to see the unfiltered and unrestrained opinions in posts and comments. Quickly social media evolved into platforms of competition and divisiveness.

Has the use of digital communication technologies, mainly social media platforms, caused us to be less empathic towards each other in online communication?

Lifestyles and culture continue to evolve as we further immerse ourselves into digital life.  Humans remarkably adapt and evolve as conditions necessitate.  We are built to handle change.  However, the effects of digital life have created a cultural phenomenon having no precedent. Our very own distinctive identities have been reduced to phantom digital personas stripped of any authentic self.  We wander through endless posts and feeds searching for meaning.  We post our daily ins and outs in the hopes someone is paying attention and clinging to the notion that we matter in the sea of chatter.  But just as we skim over the waves of communications, we also become lost in the massive digital world.  Our communications and relationships changed form, making way for less substantial relationships, meaning, and purpose.  The catch is that we choose to engage in the digital world.  Our survival isn’t reliant upon our participation. Why are we devaluing ourselves, each other, relationships, and our time and how to do we stop this before our culture shifts any further?

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Screenshot: Twitter – @itsWillyFerrell

Digital life thrives on the need for attention and inclusion. We post to get attention: to get “likes” and other affinity clicks, followers, friends, supportive comments, and views. But the need for attention isn’t enough. We want to feel connected. But then we are still we alone.  The constant internal drive striving for more affinity and connection acts as an addiction. Some experts believe that social media attention seeking and the fear of missing out (FOMO) is an actual addiction based in mental health.  Like addictions to drugs and alcohol, social media or digital life addiction causes that rush but then just as wicked of a crash.  The high makes us feel important, connected.  The crash causes anxiety, depression, and social isolation.

The issue of society and communication in the digital world is highly complex.  Much like the political, global, and societal issues we try to navigate in the physical world.  The answer to how we can change our course is just as complex.  You can’t change the haters, the ones who intend to harm others. However, you can change yourself or at least become aware enough to be mindful about your own reactions and behaviors. In an idealistic world, we’d all live by the golden rule.  Since that is not possible, I offer one piece of advice, stop.  Stop thinking everything deserves a response (let alone an instantaneous one), stop thinking you and/or your beliefs are more important than someone else’s, and stop letting everything you read or hear control you.  Stop and regain your sense of self.

We could close all our social media accounts and remove ourselves from the participatory parts of digital interaction but most of us won’t.  The fear of missing out (FOMO) drives our continued slavery.  All the reasons we participate in digital culture boil down to that.  Somehow the digital world created a prison that we desperately strive to remain in.

However, the draw we have to digital life despite its negatives speaks more to what is lacking within ourselves.  The positives we perceive outweigh the negatives because we could walk away, and we don’t.  Then it is safe to assume that the problems of digital life are within each of us independently of each other.  Sherry Turkle reminds us in her book Reclaiming Conversation (2018), “Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself” (p. 319). The communications that are reflecting positives and negatives within our digital communications begin within ourselves. To change the digital communications culture, we must first change our inner dialogue.  We must take back control of our emotions and reactions by addressing our repressed demons.  And then, consider taking a break from social media to regain our true sense of self.

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Screenshot:    Instagram  – @abcnews

Author note: This blog is comprised of excerpts from my research paper for the Fall term of ENGL745: Communication Strategies for Emerging Media taught by Dr. Daisy Pignetti. (University of Wisconsin – Stout)

Social Norms in the Digital Wonderland

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

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Mad Hatter Tea Party from Alice in Wonderland 

Photo source: Getty Images

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

gettyimages-631148483-170667a

Photo source: Getty Images

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

gettyimages-925615678-170667a

Photo source: Getty Images

Am I an Important Cultural Worker?

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

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Cultural Communication Differences, courtesy of meetus@US

 

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

homogeneous

Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous, courtesy of Thesaurus.plus

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

SitandGet

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

 

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Control freaks unit!, courtesy of Psychology Today

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

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

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

Teaching Take-aways Concerning Digital Literacy

 

CollaborativeWriting

Collaborative writing, courtesy of KQED

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

Blackboard

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

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

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

Signposts

Signposts, courtesy of Hillcrest Primary School

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

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

What’s in a Blog?

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

Paper on vintage typewriter with words blog typed on paper

Photo source: Getty Images

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

 

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

 

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

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

Photo Source: Getty Images

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

IMG_0042

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

 

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

 

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

gettyimages-912895022-170667a

Photo Source: Getty Images

The story of the broccoli recipe

While reading the Salvo and Rosinski “Information Design” chapter a note that was written by a previous borrower of the book stuck out to me, the note said “F***ING CREEPY” and was written next to a paragraph that describes the following scenario.

“Imagine that a father with children sent the request for “broccoli” into a search engine, and imagine how his results might be improved if the search engine recognized that he was, first of all, at a home computer; such recognition might adjust the parameters of the search. Add that he is searching from a computer located in the kitchen at 5pm, which the terminal knows  because all telephony connections are blocked between 6:30pm and 8:00pm by the user’s request. So the database search interface now restricts the search term “broccoli” to recipes that take an hour or less to prepare. The same search from the same place made on another day at 6:00pm would eliminate all the recipes that take longer than 30 minutes to prepare.” p. 123

broccoli.jpg

Image from https://www.thespruceeats.com/sauteed-broccoli-482862

I don’t think we are too far off from this scenario being real. Marketers know more and more about where we are, what we’re searching, buying, researching than ever before. As technology improves, there are more checks and balances being worked into systems to allow users to choose to block access to personal data. But this example illustrates the potential that search engines can, and often are, using information that is readily available (read: collected by the engine itself based on our habits) to provide more relevant search results for users.

Think of sponsored ads for a moment. When was the last time you were reading a news article or browsing the web and had an ad show up that was for a product you’ve been considering purchasing? Earlier I was browsing American Eagle for new fall sweaters. I ended up not purchasing anything, and left the web page. About an hour later I clicked on an article on CNN that was about young voter turnout. And sure enough, the advertisement on my screen was featuring the American Eagle items I had just previously looked at.

American Eagle

Image from CNN.

Because of my browsing history, the advertisers knew that I was looking at American Eagle, was interested in purchasing something, and ultimately didn’t. So I’m the perfect person to show their ad to. To test it, I had my friend pull up the same article to see if she got the same advertisement, she didn’t. Her advertisement was a DSW ad highlighting winter boots.

So is scenario of the broccoli recipe the future? If so, what role will technical communicators have in creating that online space? And how will this changing landscape redefine what a technical communicator is? As Salvo and Rosinski say, “Effective technical communication has never been simply about writing clearly, but rather, about effectively organizing written communication for future reference and application” (p. 123). As the technological world continues to grow how will all this information be managed and what check and balances will be put in place for users to restrict their machines from knowing all the information presented in the broccoli story?

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

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

fullsizeoutput_155

Photo source Wikipedia

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

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

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

Aging Gracefully in Tech Comm

MiddleAge

Happy middle-aged people, courtesy of Daily Express

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

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

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

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

Google

Early Google landing screen, courtesy of Telegraph

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

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

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

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

Dylan Thomas

Seductive Dylan Thomas, courtesy of Literary Hub

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Web 2.0 and Online Identity Formation

Our readings this week got me thinking about identity-formation, of all things. In “DIY videos on YouTube: Identity and possibility in the age of algorithms” Wolf describes how watching DIY videos can play a role in identity-formation – they can help us asses if we are capable or confident enough to do a task on our own. However, DIY videos aren’t the only activity that can influence our identity; there are many online activities like video games and social media that can also influence our identity.

“You Play World of Warcraft? You’re Hired!”

World of Warcraft – A raid group taking down Vaelastrasz the Corrupt in Blackwing Lair Source: MMO Examiner

In chapter four, Rheingold discusses how World of Warcraft (WoW) can influence our identity and can be seen as a good job training simulator. He says this because players must complete tasks collaboratively with other players if they truly want to engage with the game’s content. I’ve had similar thoughts about WoW because I played this game a lot growing up.

When I played the game, I use to raid hardcore (as they would say). My alliance guild (25+ people) would raid four nights a week and complete high-level dungeons to obtain the best gear and loot. In some cases, we were the first on our server to kill a new raid boss, which comes with its own bragging rights and rewards. These accomplishments don’t carry much merit in the real-world, but completing these collaborative tasks gave me a lot of skills that can be carried over to a work environment.

If I’ve ever felt like I couldn’t do something, I’ve caught myself thinking – “If I’m capable of organizing a raid to kill Yogg-Saron on heroic mode with no guardians, then why can’t I do this job interview or [fill-in-the-name] task?” This might sound silly, but playing World of Warcraft has given me confidence that I can accomplish great tasks and goals in my own life.

I’ve seen how WoW has affected my friends’ lives too. For instance – my guildmate created a bot in the game that would collect valuable materials for him (without him having to be at his computer). Creating this bot required that he learned coding, programming, and many other skills because it required modifying the game. He was eventually banned because creating bots is cheating, but the video game allowed him to refine his engineering skills. He is now a software engineer at a software company in Silicon Valley, which is a very fitting role for him.

I’ve also seen how WoW can destroy lives. There is a stigma that playing online video games means you have no life and are worthless. I’ve seen many of my guildmates get caught up in this lie and often view themselves as worthless and feel they can’t accomplish anything in the real world. To me, it’s incredibly interesting how one game can influence our identity and personality so much.

Lurkers are destroying online collaboration participation. Really?

The value of lurkers, commenters, and creators Source: Lurkers Anonymous

Rheingold discusses how the web has been primarily formed through collaborative efforts of many users. Kusher repeats this sentiment in “Read only: The persistence of lurking in Web 2.0,” where he explores how lurkers pose a threat to this collaboration and participation. At the end of the article, he states: “[lurkers] are the remainder of human activity that fails to conform – deliberately or otherwise – to the capitalist logics that drive Web 2.0.”

I agree and understand his argument, but I don’t agree with the tone that pervades the article and seems to negatively blame lurkers for destroying online participation. I rarely participate in social media activities and discussions, but I would not call my lack of participation as deliberate; I often just don’t feel any desire to comment or be part of the discussion.

However, I feel there are often good reasons to not participate online. I feel companies and social media platforms have ruined participation because they use information you provide (through a simple like or watching a video) as a means to target and influence your behavior through ads. Any information you put online also stays online, permanently – why would I want anyone to be able to pull my information up so easily?

At the same time, I often worry this passive majority isn’t participating where it truly counts. They may not share articles that expose corruption in the real world. They are not vocal when they need to be (like during elections and other highly political times). And social media platforms are doing a good job of making false participation – such as liking a video –  seem more significant than it actually is. We cannot confuse easy participation as real participation.

Where we have been, and where we are going with Web 2.0

Our senators seem to be the only users who don’t understand how Web 2.0 works.

I feel the majority of these articles summarize the main benefits and problems of Web 2.0 accurately. The main difference between when Web 2.0 was coined, and now, is a majority of users know what Web 2.0 is (except our senators, apparently). Your average user understands the danger of the web – we don’t click on random ads, we understand that there are bots trying to talk to us, and we know how our behavior on the Internet is used by others. However – as Reingold points out in chapter 6 – your average user does not know how to use the web mindfully (such as knowing how to use privacy settings and more). Going forward, privacy is going to be more of an issue than before.

I feel web regulation will also be a huge factor going forward. We can see this happening currently, with big tech companies having to testify in front of congress and more. Just the other day, I saw an article explaining that there will be a new California law that states chatbots must disclose that they are bots before continuing a conversation. I feel this is important because even though we are aware that there are bots on the Internet. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know when a bot is speaking to us, especially when it comes to sharing news articles.

I personally don’t know how far these regulations will go. I believe some regulation is necessary, but I also worry about those who will take advantage of the current fear in the political climate and make unnecessary regulations to control the Internet for certain parties.

The Role of the Blogger

Rheingold discusses the role of the blogger and the power of participation in chapter three of “Net Smart: How to thrive online.” This chapter, along with our other readings, caused me to reflect on the role of a blogger and their ability to influence action through participation.

The Power of Connective Blogging and Being Human in Markets

Rheingold discusses how connective blogging creates communities where people can comment, think critically, and influence action by sharing like-minded information. In the Cluetrain Manifesto, Levine, Locke, Searls & Weinberger argue that “markets” (bloggers, etc.) are able to do this because they speak in a human voice. They also argue companies often fail at this because they try to convince others they are human with lip service.

Most companies blog about their product or service and expect consumers to engage with it. They fail because they do lip service – they contribute to a conversation in order for you to buy such product or service. While this works to a certain degree – it is not the most effective way to create and influence action because most readers know what these companies are doing. Companies can create discussion, cause others to think critically, and influence action by being human.

Being Human Means Being Educational

Source: The Modest Man’s Website

The Modest Man is a good example of a blogger being human. Brock, The Modest Man, focuses on helping short men “dress better and ultimately feel more confident.” People actively watch his online videos, leave comments on his blog, and seek him out for fashion advice. Brock is not only able to get users to actively engage with his blogs and videos, but he was able to influence a men’s clothing company to change their sizing options after posting a positive, but critical review of their service.

Brock was able to have this effect because he has a human voice – he doesn’t post YouTube videos and blogs because he is trying to influence his audience to buy a certain product or service. He is blogging because he genuinely wants to provide helpful, educational information for those who are interested. When your focus is being educational, versus trying to influence a user to buy a certain product, you are more likely to gain a user’s trust (which Brock has done). The information he provides is authentic, truthful, and human because he is honestly trying to help men dress better, regardless of the product or service.

Being Human Requires Being Authentic

Source: The Chicken Whisperer’s Website

The Modest Man is similar in many ways to the Chicken Whisperer. Joe Pulizzi, author of Content Marketing Inc., loves to use the Chicken Whisperer as an example of a blogger who has gathered a large audience by posting educational content about raising chickens. However, it’s not that he just posts educational content – he demonstrates authenticity through his content.

For instance – his website and branding is slightly boring looking, but it helps provide authenticity. There isn’t shout outs to other brands, he doesn’t look like a executive who is trying to take your money, and most of his call-to-actions link to content and not products. This looks like a blogging information source that someone could trust and share with other users. His blog is shared because users respect and trust the information he provides them.

Being Human Means Being Trustful

Source: Realtime API Website

As a content marketer who works for companies, I often have a disadvantage because my content will automatically be seen as biased if I post anything about that subject matter on our corporate blog. One way I’ve remedied this is by creating third party microsites to publish and share information about a subject matter unbiasedly. For instance – my coworker and I created a microsite called realtimeapi.io that helps users build realtime APIs. All information we publish on this website is helpful for anyone who wants to build a realtime API and doesn’t focus on a single company or product. Whenever I create websites like this, I disclose that I work for a certain companies so users can trust and be cautious of the content. But websites like this also allow me to discuss a certain topic (like Realtime APIs) more generically and be more educational, and not force users to only look at my company’s product or services.

I believe connective blogging requires having a human voice. A human voice requires being educational, authentic, and being trustful. Companies typically fail at these three things because they only want to focus on their product and come off as biased. I believe companies must learn from connective blogger’s transparency and educational content to be truly successful in content marketing.

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

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

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

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

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

texting and driving

Image from quickmeme.com

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

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

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

Fine Tuning my CRAP Detector

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

dr google

Image from me.me

Working to “Hit It Big”

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

 

 

 

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

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

GorillaBasketball

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

We’re Being Augmented, not Damaged

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

A Digitally Literate Democracy

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

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Socrates & Plato

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

Pay Attention: A How-To

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

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

Crap Detection, AKA Information Literacy

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

Participation Points

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

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

FCO 394 - Nepal Travel Advice Ed3 [WEB]

Where is azerbaijan? Courtesy of Google Maps

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

The shape of networks

“Networks have structures, and structures influence the way individuals and networks behave.” – Rheingold, NetSmart pg192

Rheingold in NetSmart Chapter 5, Social Has a Shape, discusses what social networks look like. He says, “Imagine a circle with seven billion dots on it. Now draw just a few random connections between dots and other dots in other parts of the network, crossing to other parts of the circle instead of restricting the connections to immediate neighbors.” (p. 193). This idea of connections and what a social network looks like got me thinking about the six degrees of separation.

six degrees

Photo from Medium: https://medium.com/@hackerearth/the-theory-of-six-degrees-of-separation-8a92bc5e3221

View at Medium.com

beyonce

The six degrees of separation idea is essential that everyone in the world is only 6 degrees or steps away from knowing someone else. You can find a “friend of a friend” six times over and be connected to anyone else in the world, any one of the 7 billion people on our world today.  (Yes, that means I am only six “friends of a friend” away from knowing Beyonce). 

The connectedness is shrinking the world. No longer are the only people that we know physically located as our neighbors. We can stay in touch with people who move across the country, those people can introduce us to other people, and the world continues to shrink.

So what?

What does this connectedness mean for us? Think about it in terms of looking for a job. There are many people who get hired in their positions because of their specific skill set, but there are also many people who believe that it’s “who you know.” As these networks are growing, and the world is shrinking, and you’re only 6 degrees of separation away from any other person, it becomes very likely that you can leverage your connections to get a job interview.

Wisconsin

When I was applying for jobs a few years ago I was applying to different positions around the UW-Madison campus. I had worked at UW for 2 years and was ready for a new challenge so started looking specifically only on campus. I was in my coworkers office one day, and he received a text saying “Do you know Brittney,” he replied with a photo of me sitting in his office. Turns out, the person who was hiring my position had worked with him at a previous job. My coworker had positive things to say about me, and had enough social capital with this other person he used to work with to get me an interview. Would I have gotten the interview without his recommendation? I don’t know. But it definitely didn’t hurt to have him connected to a network I was about to join.

When you get down to it, it seems overwhelming to try to visualize what a social network looks like. We all have a lot of Facebook friends and Instagram followers so identifying where all of those connections are can be difficult. But in this chapter, Rheingold does a great job of explaining the nuances of this shrinking world.  

 

When technology is a tool versus our friend

Tool or friend?

I personally enjoyed Jonathan Zittrain’s discussion on how tech companies can shift algorithms from being a “tool” to being a “friend.” From my understanding, algorithms act as a tool when they give us results regardless of the potential outcome, and act as a friend when they work for us, the user. For instance – Zittrain showed that if you typed the word “Jew” into Google some of the first search results were anti-semitic websites. This is an example of an algorithm acting as a tool rather than a friend for the user. However, years later, these anti-semitic websites are no longer the first result, showing that Google has changed its algorithm. This is one of those situations where Google may be trying to change the algorithms from “tool” to “friend.” Google may have accepted social responsibility to remove harmful search results.

However, I feel that Jonathan Zittrain’s predictions that tech companies could make algorithms that are not friendly to users are becoming true. In August, the Intercept first reported that Google was in the process of making a censored search engine for internet users in China. This censored search engine can link search results to a user’s phone number, blacklist terms like “student protest,” and could replace air pollution results with doctored data sources from China. This is clear scenario where Google is making a tool that is a friend to the shareholders and certain government bodies, but not a friend to the actual user. Many have criticized this move as Google losing their moral compass. 

There are many other examples like this where companies create algorithms that are clearly not meant for the user, but for the company. In my tech marketing role, I’ve truly learned how algorithms can work for and against users. There are tools like “Full Story” that allow you to watch recorded sessions of individual users exploring your website. While this is a friendly tool for marketers, it doesn’t offer much privacy for users who are involved. As someone who works in the tech industry, I often ponder my own role of creating and using tools that are not friendly to users. I avoid marketing tactics that overly-rely on user data, and try to create content based of ethical principles and data.

The human-machine relationship

We can also see this “tool” versus “friend” discussion in our readings this week. Dr. Chayko focuses on what she calls the human-machine relationship in chapters 8 – 10 of Superconnected. She explores this concept by discussing how children are using and becoming dependent on technology at ever-younger ages: “Children often receive their first phones from caregivers seeking to keep them safe in the event of emergencies . . . many caregivers also do not want their children to be on the wrong side of a perceived digital divide. Owning a cell phone can be an indicator or status, wealth, or power.”

I remember getting my first cellphone in elementary school, but it was only supposed to be used for emergency situations. Receiving a cellphone was significant to me because hardly any other kids had one and it felt like I have been given a special privilege. And back then, this was just a simple flip phone – there wasn’t much to do on it except call my parents. However, by the time I was in high school, smartphones had become a thing and almost everyone had one. I wanted one too, not because I needed one for an emergency, but because of everything it could do.

In just a ten year timespan, our use of cell phones have flipped from being something to use in a state of a emergency to something you can use for almost anything, convenience. In a way, our cell phones have transformed from “tool” to “friend” in many ways – we can easily request a ride, find a place to eat, and text our friend along the way. But this much convenience has also lead to an over-dependence on our phones. I wouldn’t say it’s the reason we are “addicted” to our cell phones though. We are not addicted to convenience, we are addicted because of how the algorithms have been designed.

Social media news feeds are addicting because they track what we are interested in and continuously show us topics that are related to our interests. While keeping our new feeds relevant and interesting is a nice “friend-like” feature, it is not designed for us, but designed to keep us using the application. Today’s UX designers and engineers carry huge social responsibility to design mobile interfaces that are not addictive. An article on the Adobe Blog suggests that UX designers are “responsible for keeping users rights protected and their experiences enjoyable, but ethical as well.” When engineers and UX designers feel like shifting algorithms for users, they must first ask themselves if there are any ethical consequences of making these changes. 

One of the best things that we can do is educate the next generation on these harmful algorithm practices. Not so long ago, I read an article that Gen Z is quitting social media in droves. I’m not sure how true this is, but it does give me hope that the next generation is thinking about the ways algorithms and technology affect them.

The Spiral of Silence in Social Media

The desire for human connection drives much of our communication.  But at what point does hyperconnectivity become anxiety inducing or silencing?

 

Hyperconnectivity is the extreme increased interconnectedness of people who resulted from technological advances.  Social media platforms massively contribute to hyperconnectivity. Numerous studies and articles are written to address and discuss the impacts on society, communication, and mental health as a result of the rapid changes in to our interconnectedness and changes to communication methods.

 

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Ben Abbot, for Virgin (How the human need to connect works with hyperconnectivity), addresses the fact that as a result of comparing ourselves to others, we struggle with insecurity.  This is a result of us viewing all the happy, idealistic posts our social media “friends” post and comparing them to what’s really going on in our lives, as opposed to the idealistic posts we make on social media.  I’ve felt inadequate by other’s projection of perfection on Facebook, even by those who I know well. I do understand that no one is perfect.  However, I quickly forget that when all I see is everyone’s projections of how they want their digital reputation to come across.  It seems there is a goal of digital perfection.  I’m actually taking a break from Facebook for a while because my hyperconnectivity caused rising anxiety and I started to use silence for self-preservation.

 

Hyperconnectivity has caused me to become silent in order to preserve my dignity and sanity.  This  is the result of a theory known as the Spiral of Silence.  The Spiral of Silence is a term created in 1974 by Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, a German political scientist. According to the website, Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann: The spiral of silence, dedicated to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s work, her assumptions of social behavior are controversial but the spiral of silence theory is widely cited and replicated in social sciences.  The spiral of science is based upon numerous hypotheses.  The core basis to this behavior is that people are afraid of social isolation and therefore will be silent if they feel their opinion or belief will be rejected by the mass of their public sphere (in our digital world, those would be our Facebook page “friends” or Twitter followers.). The spiral of silence is typically elicited by controversial issues (politics, abortion, religion, etc.) and causes someone to be silent out to fear of pressure or social isolation.  The decision to be silent usually is done subconsciously (according to Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann’s research.  However, I’ve consciously made the decision to remain silent in many cases.  In 1974, when Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann defined the spiral of silence, mass media had a recognizable effect on public opinion by amplifying one side’s opinion and thus silencing the other.  This sounds to me that it is much more likely that silence is done so more consciously rather than subconsciously.  It is not that individuals changed their mind to avoid isolation, they kept their opinion to themselves.  An article by James Vincent (The “Spiral of Science”: How social media encourages self-censorship online,) discusses research done by Pew Researching Group that proves people will stifle their opinions on social media if they believe that their friends won’t agree with them.  Further more, the research and James Vincent’s article agree that concern for social isolation may not be the only reason for silence.  It appears our hyperconnectivity is evolving the spiral of silence into including factors such as “likes” and the permanency of  posting online opinions into our silence.

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

Social media influences the spiral of silence on a much larger scale than mass media in 1974 because of hyperconnectivity. Further more, the way we become silent is different and the reasons we stay silent are different.  There are many reasons to stay silent: we value what others think of us, we want to avoid conflict, we don’t get enough “likes” on our posts, or we are simply overwhelmed by hyperconnectivity and all the information that we simply need a break.  I expect this is a short list of reasons and will grow as more research is done on the effects of hyperconnectivity and human behavior.  Has our desire to feel connected caused us more harm than good?

 

 

Overwhelmed or Emboldened? I Choose Emboldened

Frankenstein

Courtesy of Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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Kim Jong Un and President Trump, Source: Time Magazine

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

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

Dating apps, devices and microcoordination

Mary Chayco’s book SuperConntected: The Internet, Digital Media, & Techno-Social Life dives into the 24/7 connectedness we have to others. We, as technology users, are connected to our social groups 24/7 regardless of physical location. As I was reading through Chapter 8, I kept bringing the content back to users on dating apps.

Dating App Pic

Screenshot of available dating apps for iPhone.

This connectedness and constant availability can hinder relationships as much as it can strengthen them. For a moment, consider the available dating apps: Tinder, Hinge, Bumble, League, etc. In these apps, users can open the app, connect with other users, and message the person virtually immediately as long as it’s a mutual connection. But when and how does the other person respond? If the person responds immediately they may come off desperate, however – as users who are essentially constantly available and connected, how long is appropriate to wait before responding? There’s are tons of articles on the internet offering advice to users on this subject, like this one from EliteDaily “How Long Should You Wait to Respond to a Message on A Dating App?” which says the key is to wait five minutes. Chayco says, “because the internet and digital media permit individuals to contact one another at a moment’s notice, people often expect to be able to reach one another and to make plans at any time. These rational expectations can be heightened when people want or need extra attention” (p.183). In the dating app scene, I believe it is true that these types of rational expectations are heightened. Users are expecting a timely reaction because of how connected we all are to our phones, but balancing those technological expectations with dating expectations can add some confusion in the mix.

modern dating

Once users on these apps connect with a person, they can message the person through the app and make plans to meet up in real life. Chayco continues in this chapter to discuss the ease of making plans with technology, she calls it microcoordination (p. 184). Sure, technology like cell phones give users an easy way to make & change & adjust plans but, as Chayco says “it can also help contribute to a climate in which plans and schedules are generally seen as vague, indefinite, and perpetually incomplete” (p. 184). I listen to this podcast, “U Up?which is a podcast about modern dating (p.s. It’s hilarious and I highly recommend it). In the podcast,  Jared Freid and Jordana Abraham, the co-hosts, are regularly getting emails from listeners and discussing how to move dates from casual conversation on the apps to a real-life date. And they are always discussing how so many people are getting ghosted (see #2), getting dates canceled last minute, and generally having texting conversations about going on a date but never actually making the plans.

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Image: U Up? Podcast Cover Photo

Weighing the readings this week against modern dating and dating apps, it seems that technology is making it easier than ever to meet people online, but harder than ever to actually make plans and follow through. Gone are the days of formal dates and grand gestures to win someone over. In today’s dating scene, dating apps seems to be the norm, where users are consistently connected to each other, but somehow this connectedness perhaps also hindering relationships.  

Cross-Cultural Communication

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

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

world-map-large

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

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

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

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

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

 

11/16/2017 Edit:

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

 

Siestas by the sea and the importance of empathy

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

ARC Padilla

ARC Padilla FM-51

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So my goals this week are:

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

Robotic Care

Pathos

paro

PARO’s responses to human contact have a positive emotional effect on its users.Source

This week’s readings included many interesting topics; however, like many in elder-care facilities, Paro played with my pathos and had me reject reflecting on logos. That statement may not be entirely true for caring for our elderly is logical as well as emotional. I had never heard of Paro , My Real Baby, Nursebot or Wandakun; however, I have little experience in nursing homes or elder-care.

Logos

It seems logical that ” there are not enough people to take care of aging Americans, so robot companions should be enlisted to help” (Turkle, 2011, pg 106). Although Turkle initially had resistance to how the word “care” was used, she eventually accepted that these caring machines/robots have a place in today’s world.  Of course that decision came after interviewing nursing home patients who were “cared” for by these robotic companions. Plus, like Michael Sandel’s graduate students, Turkle considered how “robotic companionship could lead to moral complacency” (pg. 124).

Ethos

I began reading this chapter a couple of weeks ago, but soon put it down, for it made me think of my grandmother who died after an 8 year battle with Alzheimer’s. Last week I decided to delve further in the chapter and began to see the benefits of these robots.  As Turkle reports, “one nursing home director says, ‘Loneliness makes people sick. This could at least partially offset a vital factor that makes people sick'” ( p. 109).  She then shares information about various nursing home residents and their relationship with their  robotic companions. The elderly felt comfort, caring, purpose and much more when interacting with their Paro or My Real Baby.

When my grandmother was in the nursing home, she had her room filled with dolls and stuffed animals. She talked to them and told them stories. On my last visit, I just watched  her take care of her babies, for she no longer knew who I was (she pointed to a picture she had taped on her wall of a little girl and said, “this is Lani–not you.”). Ironically, she was telling her dolls and babies about her grandkids. She talked with so much love and affection about us– I had never seen her like that before, for she was an old German woman who felt one shouldn’t show emotions or be sentimental. However, at this mental state, those walls were down and she was just telling a story about her grandkids, as if she was a kid right along with them.  I am quite sure she subconsciously knew who I was, for before I left, she said, “I don’t know who you are, but I know I love you.” That is the only time she has ever said that to me.

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Our last visit together

Those dolls and stuffed animals did for her what the robotic companions did for the people Turkle spoke with– it allowed them to feel and possibly express themselves in a way they couldn’t do before. The companions stimulate their minds and emotions– keeping their brains active and allowing them to feel closeness with others even when they are not with their loved ones. Those companions are worth any price tag!

Digital Literacy in My Life

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

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

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

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

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

Adapting our Lives in a Web 2.0 World

All three readings this week seemed to focus on the ways that the world has adapted to social media and services.  In the workplace, our education system, and our personal lives, we have changed how we interact and communicate with each other. There are also new opportunities that social media and services can give us that we have no fully explored yet.  This leads to the question; how can we fully take advantage of these new opportunities when we do not fully understand how much or little limitations we have?  I will explore aspects of success and failure with both education and work-related adaptations to online services and social media.

Education

The classroom is no longer limited to school hours or physical boundaries.  Online classes and academic services used by schools are helping education reach and accommodate more students.  Ferro et al. argues that education has expanded to be more inclusive and participatory.  Students do not have to wait until class starts, as online resources can help them keep in close communication.  Online forums for classes have always been helpful for commonly asked questions by students to help everyone involved in the class more efficiently share knowledge and misunderstandings in coursework.

I cannot argue that using online services for school isn’t helpful, but I do feel like it has a long way to go.  With the budget limitations every education system has, it is difficult to quickly improve and create a more efficient online educational environment.  I am currently enrolled in two Universities and taking online courses with both.  The other University I am getting my Master’s degree in computer science.  Compared to my bachelors which was all in person, this experience has been much more of an independent journey.  Half of the fun of college was meeting people and talking to them about literally anything but school.   I do think that online courses can be improved in relation to this.  For example, what if we were provided with, encouraged, or expected to use an active communication service, like a chat service, to get to know each other and collaborate with better.  Forums and email give us passive communication, and this can lead to students and teachers only discussing what they need to get work completed.  It feels much less likely we will actually get to know small details about each other when we have our real lives offline.  Longo states that community can be as much “an act of exclusion as it is an inclusion” (p. 5).  It seems as though the online classroom has created a community that is more academic than social.

Work

When reading Pigg’s article about distributed work I was quite surprised in the direction that was taken. I thought it would focus on a company like mine with offshore workers, but instead it was much simpler.  The study on Dave and his fatherhood blog was completely inspiring.  I was very impressed by his ability to establish a niche community in a boundary-less environment of the internet.  I love that the internet gives a voice to people like this.  In the book industry, you may have the best idea, but getting published is still chalked up to luck.  Now we have this uncharted opportunity to be both a writer and an entrepreneur.  Being successful may still have to do with luck, but getting your work into a public domain is trivial.

Pigg also brings up room for improvement in the work environment especially when considering employees restrictions involving “cyberslacking” and internet monitoring.   Although it may be obvious that certain websites may be inappropriate for work, the nature of my job relies heavily on access to multiple services and social media sites.  One example is that we have Skype and most chat options blocked on our internal network.  Half of my team members live in Maryland whom I have to call daily, so we end up creatively huddling around phones and sharing web communication tool accounts just to do our jobs.  Additionally, integration with certain social media sites can be required depending on the projects we are working on.  To do this we have to ask special permission from IT to do jobs assigned to us.  Ferro et al. explores the expanding usage of social media and online services that people use to complete their jobs today.  It looks as though we will need to reevaluate our approach and the tradeoffs of restrictions vs. employee efficiency.

Both work and education have gone through a lot of trial and error in order to adapt and take advantage of online technologies.  Although there seem to be a lot of potential innovations, these aspects of our lives have budgetary limitations that cannot afford error.  At the rate technology is changing these parts of our lives may never fully embrace the newest capabilities available, but they are definitely opening up new opportunities.

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!

Web 2.0 vs Health 2.0

I’m relieved to put an end to this semester; taking 6 credit hours and a full-time workload has taken a toll on my health and social life.

Web 2.0

Whether you grew up without internet access and mobile technology or you can’t imagine life without it, Web 2.0 has enabled all of us to contribute, share, participate, respond, and connect to much more information than the last 2000 years put together (I read this somewhere). Emerging media continues to connect more people across the world and disconnect them from the person sitting next to you or across the table. Of all the texts we read in this course, I was most influenced by Sherry Turkle. Yes, it took 15 years to write Alone Together, but it was worth the wait. Because if she had published the book after a year or two, she wouldn’t have made such a dramatic impact. This was a turning point for me; I took a break from Web 2.0 for a couple weeks (except for contributing to this class) to examine how my attention was keeping me away from what was really important – relationships with people.

 

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SlideShare.net by Sean Mirk

Health 2.0

As Web 2.0 continues to change and evolve faster than ever before, health 2.0 is slowly gaining web presence and connecting with consumers and patients. Health 2.0, as defined by Jane Sarasohn-Kahn (2008), is “the use of social software and its ability to promote collaboration between patients, their caregivers, medical professionals, and other stakeholders in health” (p. 2). I researched the quality of health information found through social media and evaluated whether health information influenced health behaviors. The following is an excerpt from my final research paper. This will also contribute to my final thesis for this program.

Introduction

Where can millions of people access free health information? The answer  – online social media, health communities and health websites. Healthcare has the potential of reaching millions of people to disseminate information about disease prevention, public health awareness campaigns, nutrition and exercise promotion, dietary supplements, new prescription drugs and other health-related information. According to the Pew Research Center (Greenwood, Perrin, and Duggan, 2016), nearly 80% of all adult Americans online use Facebook for news while adults over the age of 65 and women comprise the majority of all social network users. Web technology has enabled more consumers to have direct communication with businesses, medical/health websites, and online health communities to find health information they need for themselves or family members; however, health 2.0 technology has been slow to reach Web 2.0’s capabilities. A study conducted by Jha, Lin and Savoia (2016) analyzed 34 U. S. state health departments’ social media postings on Facebook and found there was very little interaction between the Facebook page and the audience; social networks were only being utilized as a one-way communication tool and oftentimes the information was not relevant to the audience (p. 177).

Problem

As healthcare and health insurance costs increase and research about new procedures and medicine become readily available, more people are becoming their own health advocates and searching for health and medical answers online. People are searching for information about ailments, illnesses such as cold or flu, natural and herbal remedies, dietary supplements, and side effects of prescription drugs. However, with the abundance of health information online it is often difficult to determine its credibility, relevance, and accuracy. The accuracy of information is neither consistent nor reliable across health websites, so how do people know what to believe to make informed decisions about their health or when to seek advice from a physician? Social networks also promote unethical and inaccurate news sites through advertising and social sharing, which reduces the authority and reliability of health information online.

Furthermore, medical professionals, health officials and government entities are not effectively using social networks to disseminate health information for targeted audiences. Thus, online users are not receiving accurate or timely health information to make informed decisions that could be detrimental to themselves or family members.

… the research continues with this topic, I found more articles of interest as I was writing this post, internet sources elude me; however, I hope you have learned to navigate the ever-changing technology during this course.

Happy Holidays and  Congratulations if you are graduating! Fair winds and following seas, as we say in the Navy.

 

 

What is talent anyway?

In the Web 2.0 text debate between Andrew Keen (author of The Internet is NOT the Answer) and David Weinberger (author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web, Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, and others), the authors discuss whether the Web is a Kafkaesque miasma of chaos and disorganization or a Cinderella story of a happy ending waiting to rise from an underrated medium (fortunately, they did specify Disney’s Cinderella — it would be a totally different debate if it was the Grimms’ version!). Keen was on Kafka’s side, while Weinberger was on Cinderella’s.

I willingly acknowledge my bias and optimism toward the Web and all it has to offer — ideas, communication, knowledge. With that said, Keen came off as a Luddite who is terrified of losing his precious status quo because of the newest technology on the scene. It seemed like every sentence of his gave me the desire to retort — yet Weinberger provided all the retort much more eloquently than I could have here. He his ultimate criticism of Keen’s views came early in the article, but sums up my thoughts perfectly: “Andrew, you join a long list of those who predict the decline of civilization and pin the blame on the latest popular medium, except this time it’s not comic books, TV, or shock jock radio. It’s the Web.”

Keen’s arguments shifted as Weinberger rebutted his arguments. Starting with the Web populated with nothing but monkeys (I assume drawn from the infinite monkeys theory) who just make and endless chaotic cacophony, to the threat to the livelihoods of those in traditional media (sad, but not like technology has never threatened whole industries before), to the fact that without traditional media, talented individuals will neither be discovered nor properly groomed. He even goes so far as saying that artists are useless without the industries that support them:

The issue of talent is the heart of the matter…. Web 2.0 misunderstands and romanticizes talent. It’s not about the individual — it’s about the media ecosystem. Writers are only as good as their agents and editors. Movie directors are only as good as their studios and producers.

These professional intermediaries are the arbiters of good taste and critical judgment. It we flatten media and allow it be determined exclusively by the market, then your friends Joe and Marie have even less chance of being rewarded for their talent. Not only will they be expected to produce high quality music, but — in the Web 2.0 long tail economy — they’ll be responsible for the distribution of their content…. Either they can produce music which has commercial value or they can’t. If they can’t, they should keep their day jobs.

While Weinberger addresses this handily:

It aims at moving units. It therefore does exactly what you complain the Web does: It panders to the market…. The question, therefore, is not whether the traditional media’s taste is better or worse than the Web’s. The Web doesn’t have taste, good or bad. The Web is not an institution, a business, or even a market, any more than the real world is. It’s us. We have lots of different tastes. On the Web we can better fulfill those tastes (because of the Long Tail you ridicule in your book), rather than simply relying on others to decide for us what is worth attending to.

However, I had more questions about Keen’s arguments about talent and commercial value. For instance, what is talent? Does talent equate to commercial value? Has the definition of talent changed with the advent of the Web and democratization of the arts?

From Keen’s remarks, is definition of talent would include being “discovered” by some media outlet (publisher for authors, recording label for musicians, agent for actors, etc.), groomed for success, and then made famous by that media outlet. As we have learned about the long tail, it is much more likely for somebody to make it big when their only competition is the limited to the amount of physical shelf space in a bookstore or music store. Thus talent does, indeed, equate to commercial value and marketability in his view.

But bookstores and music stores are dropping like flies (RIP Borders, Blockbuster, Sam Goody and countless others), and only those who adapt to the new media on the Web will succeed.

So the question still remains of what constitutes talent in a system where you might be successful if you are a skilled self-marketer… or you might not. Or when all it takes is one lucky viral video to make it big.

What even constitutes popularity and success? In traditional media, it was the number of books or CDs you sold. It was the number of awards your acting netted you. It was the ratings you got on your TV network during prime time. Yet some things inexplicably become extremely successful. Are the winners of reality TV shows successful or talented? By what measure? They gained popularity and wealth–they had tons of commercial value (so I guess they could quit their day jobs, according to Keen)–but is that truly success?

The Web is even more complicated. Are you judged by the number of Facebook friends your Famous Internet Cat has (Grumpy Cat has more than 8 million). The number of subscribers you have on YouTube, or the number of views your videos have. Pewdiepie has the most viewers and views, and few would call him an artist of any sort of merit — even a 17-year-old responded with disgust when I asked if Pewdiepie was relevant among teenagers: “Not to me anymore. I’m older than 12.”

Or maybe it’s your commercial value–both Grumpy Cat and Pewdiepie have made millions off of their respective branding. However, Grumpy Cat’s phenomenon was started by a viral photograph, while Pewdiepie’s fame was arguably due brilliant self-marketing. But much like the mega-stars of traditional media, Internet mega stars are uncommon. Yet, I would argue, not as uncommon as those in traditional media because there are no gatekeepers beyond luck and the fickleness of Internet democracy (and Facebook’s algorithms, but that’s another story).

It’s in the long tail where we see the main differentiators between the traditional and Web media. The long tail does not just fulfill our tastes, as Weinberger argues, but it also gives a chance of success to those who would otherwise not have it. In traditional media, you’re either a star or you’re not (for the most part). But on the Web, there is a wide spectrum of success. I follow a blog whose author makes $400,000 per year just on ad revenue. But I also have a friend who self-published a book and has sold fewer than 20 copies due to poor self-promotion. I have several artist friends somewhere between those two extremes–some survive exclusively on their art, while others struggle to break even. In a world of traditional media, it is unlikely that any of these people would be successful–there would be no spectrum.

I think the biggest talent when it comes to producing creative content for the Web (be it paintings, music, videos, video games–anything a person creates) is self-promotion. It is a vital literacy to “make it” on the Web. In fact, I’d say it is the content creator’s analogue to the content consumer’s “crap detection.”

Oh, and Grumpy Cat’s first book debuted on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction hardbacks. So, Keen, put that in your “I applaud the engineering of books about critically important subjects in politics, history and theology.” pipe and smoke it.

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for analytic algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for manipulating content

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

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

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

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

Filters in the Age of Amateurs

Has the democratization of the Internet turned us all into Kafka-esque cockroaches? Andrew Keen argues yes in his debate with David Weinberger. From Keen’s perspective, the Internet has stripped away traditional filters and given a voice to the masses — and the resulting clamor shows the worst of humanity. Instead of having gatekeepers in the form of publishers and traditional media sources to groom experts and present us with the best, the unaware Internet user is bombarded by amateurs and their trash.

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Image from Books by Audra. http://www.booksbyaudra.com/2016/04/18/considering-kafka/

Weinberger takes the opposing viewpoint that the traditional media filters were flawed, and the Internet offers opportunity for everyday experts and untapped talent. He’s not alone in his assessment. Philip Tetlock created the Good Judgment Project on the premise of nonprofessionals making more accurate predictions than established experts. Tournament style, the project identifies the top two percent of “superforecasters” who don’t have any particular credentials but are amateurs with a knack for making predictions. Through Web 2.0, these individuals are now able to connect and share ideas in a way that was inconceivable just twenty years ago.

Interestingly, most of the articles that I saw about everyone being an expert through the leveling of the Internet were from about five to ten years ago. After that, it stopped being news. Now, it seems that the voice given to the masses is assumed and taken for granted. The last decade has softened it from a potential catastrophe to now just an accepted part of culture.

The twist is that the Internet is both still reliant on traditional gatekeepers and developing new types of filters. As we’ve discussed earlier in this course, the more content is created, the more significant it becomes to navigate and find the right content. Jonathan Zittrain discusses how Google and other search engines have become a de facto filter as people attempt to find material online. Zittrain talks about the tension between “neutral” search algorithms and Google’s moral responsibility to present quality, or at least accurate, sources. His talk acknowledges that most people have a knee-jerk reaction against search engines serving as a “Big Brother” and controlling what you see, but also don’t like the specific examples of overtly wrong or biased sites being at the top of search results. Even though anyone can contribute online, search engines and other tools for navigating the web still provide some basic form of filtering. The questions is how much power should we give them?

Even in light of the massive amount of user-generated content and the new ways of determining what has value, there is still a role for traditional gatekeepers to help audiences from being bombarded. This is good news for Keen who sees “professional intermediaries [as] arbiters of good taste and judgement.” For me, the example that comes to mind is Wikileaks. On one hand, it embodies the ultimate democratization of all information being released to the public online. On the other hand, nobody reads the thousands and thousands of released leaks, and the general public hears about only the top few items of interest as reported by major media outlets. The gatekeepers are still serving to prioritize the information and tell people what they care about.

wikileaks

Wikileaks releases unprecedented amounts of information online, but still relies on traditional filters to make sense of it. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-cables-data

The New York Times just ran the article “WikiLeaks Isn’t Whistleblowing” that offers a scathing condemnation of the Wikileaks approach to “journalism” and argues that massive data dumps are inappropriate and counterproductive by not offering context for the information or discerning what is necessary to share. Tufecki writes, “Mass data releases, like the Podesta emails, conflate things that the public has a right to know with things we have no business knowing, with a lot of material in the middle about things we may be curious about and may be of some historical interest, but should not be released in this manner.”

Putting aside the other moral and privacy questions raised by Wikileaks, it serves as an extreme example of how the Internet enables a massive amount of content from all types of sources, while we’re still figuring out the role for filtering and gatekeeping. Keen warns that if we don’t find an answer, we’ll soon see the worst of ourselves reflected back in the Internet and discover our true cockroach nature.

References:

Tufecki, Z. (4 Nov. 2016).  Wikileaks isn’t whistleblowing. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/05/opinion/what-were-missing-while-we-obsess-over-john-podestas-email.html

Good Judgment. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016 https://www.gjopen.com/

An Ornery Answer

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

Closeness in Online Communities

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

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

community-words

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

Managing Your Network

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

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

The Power of “The Long Tail”

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

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

choice-paraylsis

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

How to Avoid Drowning in Information Overload

In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold recognizes the same trend as Sherry Turkle of the historically unprecedented amount of available information through the Internet. However, Rheingold confronts the challenge of the volume and velocity of digital media with much more optimism. He sees it as a huge opportunity, if people understand the right strategies for managing it.

In his Tedx Talk “Attention: The New Currency,” Sree Sreenivasan argues that getting and keeping attention is critical for success in this world of overwhelming volume. Sreenivasan says, “It isn’t just that our attention spans are getting smaller and shorter but that there’s so much more stuff coming at us and so much more stuff competing for our attention.”

Rheingold makes the case that one way to handle the volume is increased mindfulness about what is getting our attention. He argues that the issue isn’t that multitasking is rewiring our brains, but rather that we do it without even being aware of it. The Washington Post article “Is the Internet Giving Us All ADHD?” suggests that although rates of ADHD are steadily increasing and the Internet facilitates behavior often recognized as ADHD, there is no evidence for a causal link.  As the volume of information on the Internet continues to explode, we don’t need to fear possible brain damage, but rather be mindful about where we are putting our attention. Sreenivasan quotes Les Hinston, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, as saying, “The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention.”

However, simply knowing where our attention is going is only the first step in managing information overload. In Chapter 2, Rheingold suggests a dashboard approach to “infotention.” Savvy users organize and manage content in a dashboard style so that they can easily access the most relevant and useful information. When you’ve decided how you want to prioritize your attention, the dashboard approach helps you organize the information that you’ve decided is worth your time.

A third strategy is relying on others as curators. Rheingold tells several cautionary tales about bogus websites and warns about the need for “crap detection.” However, being a “detective” and investigating the source for every website that you visit just makes the volume even more overwhelming. In my experience, leisure users rarely go through the trouble to research a site’s author and dig for source material. Instead, most users have the online news site that they always read, and they trust it — no further investigation necessary. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive study, but I’m curious about the percentage of time that people spend online on just a handful of favorite sites. I’m guessing that for most people, the majority of their time online is on just a couple of sites that they have deemed as passing the crap detection test.

Beyond curating your own list of favorite sites, people turn to social curation. Just as Google uses the PageRank algorithm (Rheingold, pg. 83) to boost search results based on links from other sources, so we turn to the wisdom of the crowd to help us determine which information in the sea of possibilities should get our attention. I saw this article “Social Curation in Audience Communities” about how a Finnish newspaper deemed the participation of their readers in”liking” and sharing articles as one of the most critical factors to their success and how they used strategies to begin leveraging this social curation. The article includes the statistic that up to 75% of the online news consumed by American audiences is forwarded through email or social networking sites. You could argue that this is because of peer pressure, the desire to read what our friends are reading, or other social motivators, but I think it’s also a coping mechanism to handle the volume of information available. When there are too many options, one way to decide is to take the recommendation of others. I think it’s the same as asking your dinner date what you’re at a new restaurant and trying to pick from a huge menu.

Finally, Rheingold pushes us to go one step further: “Google itself is not the curator; we are. Every time a person references a link, they help to curate the Web.” (pg. 127). After we’ve waded through the huge amount of information and deemed what is reliable and attention-worthy, we can participate by becoming the curators. Theses 72 in the Cluetrain Mainfesto gets at this: “We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.” As a community of curators, we’re no longer just consumers of corporate rhetoric, but we are empowered to determine value for ourselves.

blog-info-overload-boat

Three sails to staying afloat in information overload. Drawing from Coloring Son

Actually, Rheingold’s principles for being a “filter blogger” bear a surprising resemblance to what we do as technical writers. We take on a huge amount of information and distill it for what is important. Although technical writing then moves to the next step of content creation, it begins with managing and curating available information. We daily practice the skills of culling information and can appreciate the wealth of opportunities offered by the Internet without being swept away.

References

Dewey, C. (2015, March 25). Is the Internet giving us all ADHD?. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/03/25/is-the-internet-giving-us-all-adhd/

Sreevnivasan, S. (2015, April 20). Attention: The new currency.” Tedx Broadway. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I4WkhG_GRM

Villi, M. (2012). Social curation in audience communities: UDC (user-distributed content) in the networked media ecosystem. Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. 9.2. Retrieved from http://www.participations.org/Volume%209/Issue%202/33%20Villi.pdf

Audiences all the way down…

As technical communicators practicing or in training, I’m sure most of us understand the importance of audience in our work. We are taught to anticipate the audience and any secondary (tertiary, quaternary, quinary, senary…) audiences. Who are they? Why are they using our documentation? What do they need? How will they use it?

Chapters 7 and 8 of Rachel Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication both consider audiences. In Chapter 7, “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher develops a framework and lexicon for communicating with audiences from other cultures. In Chapter 8, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age,” Ann M. Blakeslee considers traditional audience analysis and discusses what may need to change as technical communicators’ products become increasingly digital.

Communicating Across Cultures

In Chapter 7, Thatcher recounts the challenges he has had working with teams in South and Central America. While ordinarily one would assume challenges across borders would be due to language barriers, Thatcher’s problems went more deeply than that. Although communications and instruction were in the correct language, they were not written with the target cultures in mind.

As a result of this experience, he has created a framework of cultural traits and communication recommendations (oral, writing, e-mail, or hypertext) that can be used to effectively communicate with other cultures. These traits are:

  • individual (p. 176)
  • collectivist (p. 176)
  • universal (p. 176)
  • particular (p. 177)
  • diffuse (p. 177)
  • specific (p. 178)

I have worked on international teams before, with members in Europe, South America, or India. Language and time zone were issues, but there were other problems (especially with the South American and Indian teams) that I just could not figure out what was going on. Thatcher’s observations rang true with my experiences working with these other cultures, and his recommendations for communicating make sense in retrospect.

Most recently, I worked on a project with team members in India, as well as locally based team members from India.  The problems mostly came from e-mail miscommunication and their struggle in understanding our expectations for their product. Thatcher asserts that Asian and Middle Eastern/Arab cultures tend toward collectivism, with particular and diffuse characteristics – so I am assuming these traits for India.

E-mail: Thatcher observes that e-mail can be too ambiguous for a collective target audience and too nonverbal for a diffuse audience (p. 185). Often I would send an e-mail that seemed, to me, perfectly clear – only to receive responses (in the case of offshore teams) that didn’t seem to match my email, or simply confusion from the recipient. The local teams would almost never respond to my e-mail; they preferred, instead, to come to my desk and talk to me in person, where we would hash out any confusion.

Work product: One of the biggest frustrations I had working with this team was that no matter how much guidance we gave (style guide, examples, templates, etc.) for how we wanted their finished product to look, feel, and sound, they struggled to meet our expectations. I chalked it up to the fact that English was a second language for the offshore team and most of the local team. However, in retrospect, I realize it may have been more cultural than linguistic. Thatcher’s observations illuminate two critical cultural differences that may have cause these issues.

First, particular cultures are much less likely to use signposting, templates, linearity, uniformity, and consistency – which are traits that technical communicators value in our writing (p. 188). While cultural important to an American audience, it was less so to the offshore team who produced the documents – they didn’t realize their importance and didn’t emphasize those traits.

Second, writing style was a huge issue. We wanted “plain language,” but we ended up with meandering sentences with too much jargon and context. Of course, this is partially due to nonfluency in English, but I think a large part of it was cultural. According  to Thatcher,  Americans (individual, universal, and specific) emphasize writing that is “reader friendly” (p. 176) and targets the “lowest common reading style” (p. 109). Meanwhile collective cultures prefer “writer-friendly writing patterns” (p. 176); particular cultures prefer writing that is more based on social relationships as context and uniqueness (p. 177); and diffuse cultures prefer more indirect and holistic writing (p. 189).

In short, the cultural expectations driving their output were completely different from the cultural expectations driving our requirements. It wasn’t simply a communication barrier; it was cultural as well. I still work with teams from India and the Middle East, as well as teams from Asia (particularly China). Moving forward, I’m sure I will refer to Thatchers wisdom again when attempting to communicate with other cultures.

Understanding Your Audience

Before airing a new T.V. show, networks and studios test the pilot on an audience focus group. The audience members turn a knob based on their reaction to different parts of the episode, and their response can determine whether the show makes it to the screen or dies right there (“Test Audiences Can Make or Break New T.V. Series”).

In the technical communications world, understanding our audience and receiving audience feedback is also vital to creating high-quality documentation, but it’s much harder to achieve. Blakeslee writes about “the importance for technical communicators of continuing to give careful thought both to identifying their audiences and to accommodating their audiences’ needs and interests” (p. 200), yet she says that our industry has failed to investigate audience needs in the digital age. It seems to me that we misunderstand our audience in several ways, including their relation to technology, and the lack of audience awareness can severely limit our documentation.

focusgroup

One pitfall of not appropriately understanding our audience is falling into the activity theory framework, where we narrowly define our audience based on a single task instead of a comprehensive cultural understanding. As Longo states,

“If, as technical communicators, we make decisions based only on our understanding of activities and not of the cultural contexts in which these activities are embedded, we run the risk of proposing documents and systems that do not fit well with the organization where we work and our goals for the future” (p. 160).

At the company where I work, we constantly walk the line between specific task-oriented instructions balanced with a larger understanding of strategic and operational needs. Here are the steps to set up XYZ printer. Why? Because a certain type of medication label only prints on XYZ printer. Understanding that context, can we also guide readers about how many printers they’ll need and where to place them?

Not only do we need to learn about our audiences’ situation and goals, but we also need to learn about how the audience approaches the documentation itself based on their cultural context. In “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher gives several warnings about how the culture of our audience changes their approach to documentation. Although his main example is about internal communication, the same principles apply to customer-facing documents, as reflected in the school websites that he analyzes. By knowing more about the culture of our audience, we can tailor tone and content to appropriately address an individualist vs. collectivist mindset, or universalist vs. particular understanding. I shudder sometimes to think about all the things that I ignorantly say just because my perspective is so limited. The American Marketing Association actually published “The Olympics are Coming: Lessons for Cross-Cultural Advertising” to head off some foot-in-mouth moments.

Finally, as Blakeslee alludes to, we need to understand how our audience approaches documentation differently when it’s digital. This goes directly to Katz and Rhodes discussion of six different ethical frames through which audiences might approach technology. I might seek ways to optimize electronic document delivery, seeing it as both a means and an ends. My reader who gets the document likely sees the delivery process as only a tool and having value only as a delivery mechanism. Similarly, if we approach our documents assuming a sanctity frame, we could alienate task-focused readers who have a “us and them” mindset to technology.

Technical communications doesn’t get nearly as much help in understanding our audience as T.V. shows. Instead of focus groups, we get occasional blog comments. However, I think the more we know about our audience, the more we can create content that addresses their specific context, culture, and relation to technology.

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/

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

Living My Final Paper

I have enjoyed this class, although so many of the conversations have blurred the line between work and school.  I was blessed and stressed by the overlap.  Sometimes, I’d turn to the week’s reading and feel like it was another part of my work day as I read about topics that were related.  I read many responses from my classmates and it seems some of you may relate to that feeling.

In typical fashion, my final paper is rooted in the daily activities of my job.  I am looking at the power of the customer who uses social media to be vocal about their consumer experience.  My primary focus is the negative consumer.  Holidays bring out the worst in people, so I am overwhelmed with angry customers calling in asking for supervisor intervention and responding to a rapidly growing list of social media posts.

I don’t think that my company handles social media with the same finesse that many companies do.  I am looking at some of our operational policies in my paper.  It almost feels like I’m pulling back a curtain that I’d rather leave closed.  I may know the Wizard of Oz is a fraud, but I will always feel disappointed when that curtain is really pulled back.  I live these policies so I’m always aware of them.  Analyzing it and recognizing it in writing though, makes it harder to ignore.

As I write this, I have 183 social media posts that require an email response.  We try to remove the conversation from social media and respond via email.  Professor Pignetti had questioned why my company chooses to have an email sent in response to social media posts.  Although I work for an online retailer, we have felt the negative power of those consumers.  My company is afraid of their power and their stance is to get that conversation moved to a private venue as soon as possible.  Unfortunately, while they view silencing the vocal customer as a priority, they don’t allocate the resources required to do this.  During non-peak times, I usually leave work on Friday with my responses caught up. Even then, it takes a lot of effort to stay on top of and sometimes additional hours.  We are in the middle of a busy holiday and those social media posts are aging by the day and I have no hours in my schedule “ear-marked” for this activity.  Those posters can be aggressive when they are ignored and often continue to be vocal in social media.  Today, I was able to respond to three posts during my spare moments.  While our company culture tells us to fear the posters, our policies and mode of operation does not allow for the issues to be remedied in the time-frame that social media savvy companies do.

My paper is providing me with an interesting opportunity to look at  other companies and how they deal with social media.  While I will not be able to invoke much change where I currently work, I think the contrast between where I work and how other companies are dealing with social media, has been an interesting project.  I think it also gives me some excellent perspective if I find myself working on social media in my future career endeavors.

I have enjoyed this class and the new perspectives it has given me.  I wish everyone luck with their papers.  (And remember, please be extra nice if you find yourself calling a customer care line over the holiday.  Most of us deal with so much negativity over the holidays, but we really have a genuine desire to make the customer happy.)  Happy holidays!

 

Social Media’s Use in Higher Education Recruiting

The End

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

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

Abstract

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

Reflections on Paper

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

Goodbye

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

Dana