Category Archives: Society
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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).
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Has the democratization of the Internet turned us all into Kafka-esque cockroaches? Andrew Keen argues yes in his debate with David Weinberger. From Keen’s perspective, the Internet has stripped away traditional filters and given a voice to the masses — and the resulting clamor shows the worst of humanity. Instead of having gatekeepers in the form of publishers and traditional media sources to groom experts and present us with the best, the unaware Internet user is bombarded by amateurs and their trash.
Image from Books by Audra. http://www.booksbyaudra.com/2016/04/18/considering-kafka/
Weinberger takes the opposing viewpoint that the traditional media filters were flawed, and the Internet offers opportunity for everyday experts and untapped talent. He’s not alone in his assessment. Philip Tetlock created the Good Judgment Project on the premise of nonprofessionals making more accurate predictions than established experts. Tournament style, the project identifies the top two percent of “superforecasters” who don’t have any particular credentials but are amateurs with a knack for making predictions. Through Web 2.0, these individuals are now able to connect and share ideas in a way that was inconceivable just twenty years ago.
Interestingly, most of the articles that I saw about everyone being an expert through the leveling of the Internet were from about five to ten years ago. After that, it stopped being news. Now, it seems that the voice given to the masses is assumed and taken for granted. The last decade has softened it from a potential catastrophe to now just an accepted part of culture.
The twist is that the Internet is both still reliant on traditional gatekeepers and developing new types of filters. As we’ve discussed earlier in this course, the more content is created, the more significant it becomes to navigate and find the right content. Jonathan Zittrain discusses how Google and other search engines have become a de facto filter as people attempt to find material online. Zittrain talks about the tension between “neutral” search algorithms and Google’s moral responsibility to present quality, or at least accurate, sources. His talk acknowledges that most people have a knee-jerk reaction against search engines serving as a “Big Brother” and controlling what you see, but also don’t like the specific examples of overtly wrong or biased sites being at the top of search results. Even though anyone can contribute online, search engines and other tools for navigating the web still provide some basic form of filtering. The questions is how much power should we give them?
Even in light of the massive amount of user-generated content and the new ways of determining what has value, there is still a role for traditional gatekeepers to help audiences from being bombarded. This is good news for Keen who sees “professional intermediaries [as] arbiters of good taste and judgement.” For me, the example that comes to mind is Wikileaks. On one hand, it embodies the ultimate democratization of all information being released to the public online. On the other hand, nobody reads the thousands and thousands of released leaks, and the general public hears about only the top few items of interest as reported by major media outlets. The gatekeepers are still serving to prioritize the information and tell people what they care about.
Wikileaks releases unprecedented amounts of information online, but still relies on traditional filters to make sense of it. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2010/nov/29/wikileaks-cables-data
The New York Times just ran the article “WikiLeaks Isn’t Whistleblowing” that offers a scathing condemnation of the Wikileaks approach to “journalism” and argues that massive data dumps are inappropriate and counterproductive by not offering context for the information or discerning what is necessary to share. Tufecki writes, “Mass data releases, like the Podesta emails, conflate things that the public has a right to know with things we have no business knowing, with a lot of material in the middle about things we may be curious about and may be of some historical interest, but should not be released in this manner.”
Putting aside the other moral and privacy questions raised by Wikileaks, it serves as an extreme example of how the Internet enables a massive amount of content from all types of sources, while we’re still figuring out the role for filtering and gatekeeping. Keen warns that if we don’t find an answer, we’ll soon see the worst of ourselves reflected back in the Internet and discover our true cockroach nature.
Tufecki, Z. (4 Nov. 2016). Wikileaks isn’t whistleblowing. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/05/opinion/what-were-missing-while-we-obsess-over-john-podestas-email.html
Good Judgment. Accessed 5 Nov. 2016 https://www.gjopen.com/
In Net Smart, Howard Rheingold recognizes the same trend as Sherry Turkle of the historically unprecedented amount of available information through the Internet. However, Rheingold confronts the challenge of the volume and velocity of digital media with much more optimism. He sees it as a huge opportunity, if people understand the right strategies for managing it.
In his Tedx Talk “Attention: The New Currency,” Sree Sreenivasan argues that getting and keeping attention is critical for success in this world of overwhelming volume. Sreenivasan says, “It isn’t just that our attention spans are getting smaller and shorter but that there’s so much more stuff coming at us and so much more stuff competing for our attention.”
Rheingold makes the case that one way to handle the volume is increased mindfulness about what is getting our attention. He argues that the issue isn’t that multitasking is rewiring our brains, but rather that we do it without even being aware of it. The Washington Post article “Is the Internet Giving Us All ADHD?” suggests that although rates of ADHD are steadily increasing and the Internet facilitates behavior often recognized as ADHD, there is no evidence for a causal link. As the volume of information on the Internet continues to explode, we don’t need to fear possible brain damage, but rather be mindful about where we are putting our attention. Sreenivasan quotes Les Hinston, former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, as saying, “The scarcest resource of the 21st century is human attention.”
However, simply knowing where our attention is going is only the first step in managing information overload. In Chapter 2, Rheingold suggests a dashboard approach to “infotention.” Savvy users organize and manage content in a dashboard style so that they can easily access the most relevant and useful information. When you’ve decided how you want to prioritize your attention, the dashboard approach helps you organize the information that you’ve decided is worth your time.
A third strategy is relying on others as curators. Rheingold tells several cautionary tales about bogus websites and warns about the need for “crap detection.” However, being a “detective” and investigating the source for every website that you visit just makes the volume even more overwhelming. In my experience, leisure users rarely go through the trouble to research a site’s author and dig for source material. Instead, most users have the online news site that they always read, and they trust it — no further investigation necessary. I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive study, but I’m curious about the percentage of time that people spend online on just a handful of favorite sites. I’m guessing that for most people, the majority of their time online is on just a couple of sites that they have deemed as passing the crap detection test.
Beyond curating your own list of favorite sites, people turn to social curation. Just as Google uses the PageRank algorithm (Rheingold, pg. 83) to boost search results based on links from other sources, so we turn to the wisdom of the crowd to help us determine which information in the sea of possibilities should get our attention. I saw this article “Social Curation in Audience Communities” about how a Finnish newspaper deemed the participation of their readers in”liking” and sharing articles as one of the most critical factors to their success and how they used strategies to begin leveraging this social curation. The article includes the statistic that up to 75% of the online news consumed by American audiences is forwarded through email or social networking sites. You could argue that this is because of peer pressure, the desire to read what our friends are reading, or other social motivators, but I think it’s also a coping mechanism to handle the volume of information available. When there are too many options, one way to decide is to take the recommendation of others. I think it’s the same as asking your dinner date what you’re at a new restaurant and trying to pick from a huge menu.
Finally, Rheingold pushes us to go one step further: “Google itself is not the curator; we are. Every time a person references a link, they help to curate the Web.” (pg. 127). After we’ve waded through the huge amount of information and deemed what is reliable and attention-worthy, we can participate by becoming the curators. Theses 72 in the Cluetrain Mainfesto gets at this: “We like this new marketplace much better. In fact, we are creating it.” As a community of curators, we’re no longer just consumers of corporate rhetoric, but we are empowered to determine value for ourselves.
Three sails to staying afloat in information overload. Drawing from Coloring Son
Actually, Rheingold’s principles for being a “filter blogger” bear a surprising resemblance to what we do as technical writers. We take on a huge amount of information and distill it for what is important. Although technical writing then moves to the next step of content creation, it begins with managing and curating available information. We daily practice the skills of culling information and can appreciate the wealth of opportunities offered by the Internet without being swept away.
Dewey, C. (2015, March 25). Is the Internet giving us all ADHD?. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/03/25/is-the-internet-giving-us-all-adhd/
Sreevnivasan, S. (2015, April 20). Attention: The new currency.” Tedx Broadway. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8I4WkhG_GRM
Villi, M. (2012). Social curation in audience communities: UDC (user-distributed content) in the networked media ecosystem. Journal of Audience and Reception Studies. 9.2. Retrieved from http://www.participations.org/Volume%209/Issue%202/33%20Villi.pdf
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.
Before airing a new T.V. show, networks and studios test the pilot on an audience focus group. The audience members turn a knob based on their reaction to different parts of the episode, and their response can determine whether the show makes it to the screen or dies right there (“Test Audiences Can Make or Break New T.V. Series”).
In the technical communications world, understanding our audience and receiving audience feedback is also vital to creating high-quality documentation, but it’s much harder to achieve. Blakeslee writes about “the importance for technical communicators of continuing to give careful thought both to identifying their audiences and to accommodating their audiences’ needs and interests” (p. 200), yet she says that our industry has failed to investigate audience needs in the digital age. It seems to me that we misunderstand our audience in several ways, including their relation to technology, and the lack of audience awareness can severely limit our documentation.
One pitfall of not appropriately understanding our audience is falling into the activity theory framework, where we narrowly define our audience based on a single task instead of a comprehensive cultural understanding. As Longo states,
“If, as technical communicators, we make decisions based only on our understanding of activities and not of the cultural contexts in which these activities are embedded, we run the risk of proposing documents and systems that do not fit well with the organization where we work and our goals for the future” (p. 160).
At the company where I work, we constantly walk the line between specific task-oriented instructions balanced with a larger understanding of strategic and operational needs. Here are the steps to set up XYZ printer. Why? Because a certain type of medication label only prints on XYZ printer. Understanding that context, can we also guide readers about how many printers they’ll need and where to place them?
Not only do we need to learn about our audiences’ situation and goals, but we also need to learn about how the audience approaches the documentation itself based on their cultural context. In “Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures,” Barry Thatcher gives several warnings about how the culture of our audience changes their approach to documentation. Although his main example is about internal communication, the same principles apply to customer-facing documents, as reflected in the school websites that he analyzes. By knowing more about the culture of our audience, we can tailor tone and content to appropriately address an individualist vs. collectivist mindset, or universalist vs. particular understanding. I shudder sometimes to think about all the things that I ignorantly say just because my perspective is so limited. The American Marketing Association actually published “The Olympics are Coming: Lessons for Cross-Cultural Advertising” to head off some foot-in-mouth moments.
Finally, as Blakeslee alludes to, we need to understand how our audience approaches documentation differently when it’s digital. This goes directly to Katz and Rhodes discussion of six different ethical frames through which audiences might approach technology. I might seek ways to optimize electronic document delivery, seeing it as both a means and an ends. My reader who gets the document likely sees the delivery process as only a tool and having value only as a delivery mechanism. Similarly, if we approach our documents assuming a sanctity frame, we could alienate task-focused readers who have a “us and them” mindset to technology.
Technical communications doesn’t get nearly as much help in understanding our audience as T.V. shows. Instead of focus groups, we get occasional blog comments. However, I think the more we know about our audience, the more we can create content that addresses their specific context, culture, and relation to technology.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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/
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