Category Archives: Technology

Ajax: Real Time Collective Action

A big buzzword in my field is “Real-Time”.  Every company wants real time applications with automatically updating interfaces for increased usability.  Real-time allows users to think less and do more.  People don’t have to request for the latest statuses when they are already using a web application, the application will tell them there is an update.

Jack Jameison discusses Ajax’s role in the Web 2.0 world in his article Many (to platform) to many: Web 2.0 application infrastructures.  Ajax is simply a combination of technologies that allows user interfaces to be updated automatically when the server tells it to.  An application that uses this technology allows interfaces to automatically send or receive messages from a server without provocation from the user.  This has drastically changed how use the internet, and what we expect from it.

Jameison voices his skepticism about web technologies such as Ajax because this revokes control from users, giving less visibility into how they are really interacting with the web application.  One example might be that you receive a message you don’t want to respond to from someone online.  Now they have a status to tell the other user that you read that message just from you being online and it popping up on your screen.  Now the situation may be awkward, and can definitely be an unintended behaviour.

While real-time applications do come with unintended behaviours, they have also opened up new doors for how we communicate with each other online.  Rheingold discusses and divides “collective action” in the online world as three different categories: cooperation, coordination, and collaboration (p. 153).  Collective action has been empowered by real time capabilities of the web. Automatically updating interfaces helps provide a more active feeling to participation when you know that someone has read or replied to your comments online.  Collective action has become much easier, especially with the development of smart phones.  Most people in my city use Facebook to communicate and arrange meetings.  Too many times I’ll be notified that the location of the meetup has changed or people have had to change the time.  This helps encourage a level of trust between people who are trying to coordinate meetups.  I do not miss the days when I was stood up because nobody could tell me that the plans had changed.

Real-time applications give the ability to broadcast messages to users of a system, whether it’s an amber alert or your current location.  Sharla Stone discusses in her article Real-Time Disaster Relief how applications were developed just for tracking people who needed help in disastrous situations.  The applications provided the ability to track rescue requests in real time, find resources for people who needed help, and help in information sharing where it was previously difficult to do without the help of technology.

Applications and movements like this always inspire me and make me want to join.  Hopefully I will be able to participate in something as meaningful as this in the future.

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Cultural Honesty in a Digital Reality

Hi ENGL 745 compatriots!

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

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

icc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

web_iicpaintedface

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

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

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

What about internal social media?

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

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

jive-n_prod_feat_str2bus

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

Here are some of the features available:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My (dream) office: Starbucks!

Apologies on this being late. It’s been a trying week with elections, social media feeling the crush, and mental digital exhaustion.

My thought of Starbucks: meh, but they have two things going great for them:

  1. Coffee and food to keep you going throughout the day
  2. Fast internet and a high-paced environment you can drown in to get your work done

 

I remember for two years, my job was mostly telework. Instead of sitting around inside of my house, I explored the country a little bit because all I needed was an internet connection and a power outlet. Starbucks was a consistent place to work in. One of those years, I spent about three months away from home. I’d hop on a plane, spend about a week somewhere, do work at a coffee shop and move to my next stop.

I became one of those people, a knowledge worker that was “disconnected from desk and office spaces” (Pigg, p. 69) using a technology “outside traditional spaces” (p. 74) such as a coffeehouse. Unfortunately, this teleworking position prohibited the use of social media and as such, I kept a quiet lid on my opinionated social media posts for fear that someone might use it against me. Also my work thought that social networking sites were ‘‘productivity killers’’ (Skeels and Grudin, 2009 in Ferro and Zachry, p. 18) and they blocked those sites on the network.

Fast forward two years later at my current job, I’m encouraged to use social media because I happen to manage the brand of the community college I work at. I think it has been extra special that I have that responsibility as well as being a technical communicator. I agree with Bernadette Longo that as a technical communicator, my “practices for making and sharing information [has] effectively redefined [my] work” (p. 23).  I write in ways that I never imagined I would write and I’ve transformed myself into a technical marketing communicator (that’s a mouthful to say).

For example, when we rolled out our fall enrollment campaign, we had to change the way we marketed online because it was different than what we did in the past and we learned new skills. Rich Maggiani says it best: “in a social media setting, the skill set of the technical communicator grows” (Maggiani in Longo, p. 23). I couldn’t agree with him any more! I had to learn the ways of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram advertisement, understand the reporting tools to get data from our advertisement campaigns, and coordinate with multiple divisions in our department to prepare the ad slots. A lot of work and planning went into the campaign and my part was just a small subset of a larger marketing effort.

In retrospect, will it be too much for me to handle and take care of developing all of these new skill sets? My tool belt is quickly filling up with too many skill sets that I’m afraid I may have to drop a few and focus on specific ones. Perhaps I can find a couple of them that are of interest to me and I’ll put my best effort into skilling myself in that domain. I am quite lucky our work provides us with that type of opportunity frequently.

Moving on to learning using new tools. I was intrigued that to know my sentiments are the same as “knowledge workers who do not have access to enterprise-sponsored, proprietary systems (e.g., freelancers), but they are also used by many who—for various reasons—choose to use services not sponsored by their employers” (Ferro and Zachry, p. 6).

Perhaps I can share some insight on the reasons why we choose to use alternative services:

  • Tools are often faster and feel modern
  • Services are available on many devices instead of one
  • Systems are more reliable
  • Rules on how to use services are less strict
  • Free to use

I’m sure I’ve made every single IT worker in the world cringe at my reasons. But it’s true, I’ve dealt with email that doesn’t work, clunky tools that waste my time, and the need to have a mobile version for my on-the-go lifestyle. Lastly, if services are free to use–you can’t beat free (unless a software company paid you). I know my latest experience with Office 365 has made me consider using it more often than Google Docs at work. There’s much more IT can improve to change my reasons and get me back to using tools sponsored by my employer.

In conclusion, we have so much power in front of our computers that it’s unbelievable. I wish one day we can reflect on this and see that we have it very good right now. I’m not sure what the future will bring us. I predict it will be a melding of technologies that look like one huge amalgamated blob of technology that we hook up to.

Maybe I’ll grab a Pumpkin Spiced Latte and work from the virtual office for a change of pace and ponder more about the scary future of our technical communication tools.

Spooky. #Halloween #coffee.

A post shared by Roger Renteria (@roger.renteria) on

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

TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION, SOCIAL MEDIA, AND TRANSNATIONAL REALITIES

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

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

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

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

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

Large Man Looking At Co-Worker With A Magnifying Glass

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

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

COLLECTIVE KNOWLEDGE AND TECHNICAL COMMUNICATION

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

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

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

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

stc

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

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

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

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

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

 

Social Media Collaboration and Symbolic Work

This week’s articles evaluated and iterated social media’s convergence of collaborative, collective knowledge and symbolic analytic work for business and personal purposes.

social-media-analytics-to-be-used-in-conjunction-with-the-iot1

Mobile Social Media Apps. Image courtesy of OnCloudOne.com

Symbolic and Distribution

Stacey Pigg’s (2014) “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work” analyzed how one freelance blogger used several social media sites to draft a blog and maintain relationships and conversations with other networks. The symbolic analyst, according to Reich (as cited in Pigg, 2014) “involves creative and critical thinking and managing information” from different sites/places. Writing these weekly blogs are an example of symbolic work according to Reich’s definition and if I shared this blog on other social media sites, it would be “distributed” to other audiences. However, distribution is also important to maintain conversations with other social media sites. For example, monitoring sites where one has posted or commented previously to check if others have continued the conversation. Often found on blog sites and LinkedIn, these conversations not only further conversation, but they also provide collective knowledge and can lead to collaboration. Pigg (2014) states, “Social media are common  places not only for creating ideas and texts but identify and professional trajectory are continually invented…” (p. 84). Specifically, where personal and professional interactions meet online but also contribute to symbolic work.

Collective Knowledge and Collaboration

Bernadette Longo (2014), Toni Ferro and Mark Zachary (2014) examined collective knowledge through the use of social media by following the theory of “one to many” shared ideas and experiences contribute to greater knowledge as a whole. Longo (2014) begins with “New technologies for making and sharing information in a variety of media have made it easy for users to tell their own stories and share their knowledge across media” (p. 22). This holds true for both crap detection and authentic collaboration. We’ve seen the string of comments after a blog post or hastily shared news article that piques our interest. However, collaborative spaces like LinkedIn and Facebook groups also contribute to specific knowledge-making goals for its members. This knowledge is then shared outside the group and invites further conversation and knowledge-making. Ferro and Zachary (2014) affirm,

“Understanding the ways in which knowledge workers are employing social software can help technical communicator scholars understand the changes taking place in knowledge work in general as well as in workplace communication” (p. 9).

Ferro and Zachary (2014) also propose, “What are we teaching students and what do they need to learn for post grad job positions?” and How can we help them (students) engage in critical thinking when using social media – as contributors, collaborators, and users? (p. 19). Longo (2014) attempts to answer these questions, but it’s not without similar regards for recognizing the shared learning experiences from both instructor and student. Longo (2014) says as educators, we create a culture for learning in listening to our students experience and knowledge of social media and our own experiences that contributes to knowledge as a whole (p. 31).

Doing What at Work?

Bringing it all together, this week’s readings get right at the heart of where technical communications and social media meets. It seems to me that they connect on three levels: personal, professional, and in principle.

Personal Use of Social Media

We began the course discussing our personal experiences and affinity or hesitations with using social media. In Alone Together, Turkle largely focused on the personal space and how we develop online identities and communities as we navigate social media in our discretionary time. I think it’s telling that our exposure and familiarity with social media tools comes increasingly from our personal use before crossing over to the professional realm. This will certainly be true for the upcoming generation of “digital natives,” who learn Facebook and blogging long before they need to use it for work.

I’ll also note that in my experience, there is a brick wall between using social media for personal reasons and for professional reasons. I have a “home” laptop and a “work” laptop, and the two worlds don’t mix, not even in social media. However, as the research from Ferro and Zachry shows, many people don’t experience this separation and the line is a lot more blurred.

Professional Use of Social Media

At this point of intersection, social media is directly used toward professional work — whether advancing your own career or the goals of your employer. Ferro and Zachry put a number on it with participants using social media for 20-27% of their workweek. In Pigg’s example of “Dave” the fatherhood blogger, using social media literally is his work. This is a fascinating trend and a major change from a decade ago. Rocky Mountain Media presents several interesting statistics about this, including the graph below, but the major theme is that everyone predicts professional uses of social media growing.

professional-use-of-social-media

Rocky Mountain Media Group: http://rm2g.com/blog/2012/09/21/social-media-at-work-infographic/

Social media strategy is now a job position and a conversation in many boardrooms. In the resumes that I review, social media literacy and experience with particular websites are nearly always listed as skills and reasons to hire.

Again, in my personal experience, this is a tough concept because we’re a very insulated company with concerns about intellectual property and proprietary information that causes us to ignore social media channels for outreach. Instead, we wait until customers are signed with us, and then bring them into our own social media community that we’ve formed, rather than using social media to connect with a wider audience.

social-media-and-workplace

Graphic courtesy of Bradon Gaille Marketing (note that the study is from 2013) http://brandongaille.com/21-great-social-media-at-work-statistics-and-trends/

Applying Lessons Learned from Social Media to a Professional Workspace

This is the aspect I find the most exciting. How can we take what we’ve learned from the social media phenomenon and use it to improve traditional technical communications? I see it in two major categories:

Managing Content

We’ve discussed this at length in earlier weeks and I don’t want to continue to harp on it, but this comes back to being symbolic analytic workers who are redefining technical communications in a new world. Technical communications is no longer just typesetting and publishing or even producing content, but rather thinking critically about what information an audience needs and the best way to deliver it. We’ve talked about the importance of filtering and navigating to help the audience find the content they need. Pigg discusses this as moving past “textual coordination” to “social coordination,” where we’re not only arranging information but also leveraging the contexts of social media tools and personal careers. Web 2.0 has shown us both the wonders and the pitfalls of mass amounts of content and what types of tools we can provide to help people navigate it.

Managing Communities

We can also take the lessons learned online about relationships and interaction and apply them to technical communication. Longo’s discussion of his “Practicing Science, Technology, and Rhetoric” colloquium hits on two major lessons — the power of collaboration and the ability to cross geographic lines. Lofstedt and Holmberg further expand on this and emphasize how there is opportunity to expand user participation in technical communication today. They write, “SM [social media] make it possible to move TC [technical communication] from the current one way broadcast and producer controlled model into an interactive co-generating model. In this way the problem with passive users and narrow feedback may be overcome.” They also suggest forming user communities and leveraging existing social media platforms for technical communication. Social media has demonstrated the huge potential for forming communities and encouraging user-generated content, and the field of technical communications can begin tapping into this.

References

Abel, J. Social media at work. Rocky Mountain Media Group. Accessed 12 Nov 2016 http://rm2g.com/blog/2012/09/21/social-media-at-work-infographic/

Löfstedt, U. & Holmberg, S.C. Social media as a mean for improved technical communication. Syst Pract Action Res (2016) 29: 297. doi:10.1007/s11213-016-9373-8

We are in the Curated Web Experience

Forget Web 2.0 for a moment. That was more than a decade ago. We’ve moved on from the world according to Andrew Keen and David Weinberger that we commonly know of that has “YouTube, the blogosphere, Wikipedia, MySpace or Facebook” (Wall Street Journal, 2007). For one, we still have a lot of Web 2.0 services surviving on the Internet these days, but their days are numbered. We live in the Curated Web Experience where content will be served up based on your interests, needs, and behavior. There is nothing you can do to escape the reach of what is being recorded every day on the Internet.

In the article by Keen and Weinberger, “what ‘matters’ in the world of Web 2.0 [is]:

  1. Engadget
  2. Boing Boing: A Directory of Wonderful Things
  3. TechCrunch
  4. Gizmodo
  5. The Huffington Post
  6. Lifehacker, the Productivity and Software Guide”

Instead, this list should be updated to include the tools that matter the most in the world of the Curated Web Experience:

  1. Customer Relation Management Systems (such as SalesForce, Zoho, and Zendesk)
  2. Cloud-based Media Networks (such as Netflix and Spotify)
  3. Cloud-based Data Visualization Services (such as Tableau, Google Data Studio)
  4. Cloud-based Internet of Things (devices such as Google Nest and Amazon Echo)
  5. Apps that take care of you based on habits and events (automation systems like IFTTT, Microsoft Flow)

These tools and much more are what matter the most to get the best curated web experience out there and Web 2.0 is going to have to compete or work alongside these new systems. Right now, we have live with what we have and will slowly transition to the new sanity (or insanity) of the web.

Existing as a Zombie Social Media Networks

Right now, we are so overwhelmed with the fragmentation of social media networks that I wonder why so many still exist. I still have a MySpace account but I hardly check it. I still have a LiveJournal account and it only exists. Why hasn’t Flickr simply collapsed? Yahoo crippled the service for diehard fans like myself who actually had a paid account for years just to avoid advertisement and had worse service than the folks who didn’t pay for Flickr.

I hate to say it, but there are better services out there that have a different flavor of networking engagement than ever before. More and more, there are social networks that exist only in a mobile app environment, meaning you cannot engage in networking with people except within a smartphone or tablet. Examples of social networks on mobile apps that I have used are Tinder, YikYak, and Snapchat. I predict that the next phase of social media networks will fall into a category where you are going to have to have a portable devices to gain access to these services. Also, these social media networks will use various types of curation tactics to serve information to users. I’m curious if these apps will survive or experience fates similar to the countless networks that have closed down. The data shows we have passed the point where mobile usage is greater than desktop usage.

Web Curation Experience, Inc.

Getting back on topic, modern social media networks are curating content based on our interests. We tend to be our own curation system and not even know it. However, algorithms are out there to guide us where we want to go. Jonathan Zittrain says that “we have arrived in a world that is much more sophisticated and personalized algorithms and processes decide what we see.”

page-rank

Screenshot of Google’s Page Rank from Jonathan Zittrain’s presentation at 30m37s.

“For example in our Facebook news feed that at this moment decides that Argentina and the Falklands is more of what I want to see than a video of a cat” (Zittrain, 2015).

Even Facebook can figure out when you are going to be in a relationship. Funny how much of our lives are constantly recorded.

Privacy Concerns or Convenience over Privacy?

Most of what I see as the curated web experience will come from ourselves providing a firehose of data points. We are exchanging our information to gain access to using the Internet whether we like it or not. Somewhere hidden in all of the Terms of Service agreements we click or tap, we are signing contracts without thinking we are. According to Quartz, Apple fans have click-signed more than 100,000 words of legal contracts. In addition Christopher Groskoph says, “a heavy internet user could easily have agreed to a million or more words of contracts.” Yikes. On the other hand, this is great news for getting you the content you want!

For me, I prefer convenience over privacy. Who knows? I might be pregnant and not even know it! It’s how the world is going to run and I’m confident that people will overcome their fears of letting companies enter their sphere of privacy. I understand that you can change how you share your information and supposedly trick algorithms and it’s not as bad as it seems. The other end, by not sharing some information, you may not get the access you want.

read-story-wsj

Screenshot of an example where I have to provide some information to gain access to this Wall Street Journal article.

Right now at work, we are trying to figure out how to sort through tons of data that we have collected over the years and how to put that data to work. I honestly don’t know how we will interpret the data, but it will be useful to gain an edge in how people behave and we might be able to link events through various data points based on event timestamps. The end goal is to help us serve information and other services easier and identify trends as they happen.

Already, some companies use this type of data to serve tailored content or suggest people you might get along with. This is completely different than what Web 2.0 offered over a decade ago. We’re finally at a point where the framework of Web 2.0 is slowly reengineered to look and feel more comfortable and easier to use with amazing cloud-based tools and services.

Welcome to the Curated Web Experience. 

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/

Collective Intelligence in the New Age

Working together can create more meaning and bring more understanding of the world around us. The ideas in Chapter 4 of Net Smart by Rhiengold (2012) especially regarding collective intelligence and the function of the Internet to create communities, groups, and audiences that create a deeper meaning of what is happening around them is very powerful and applicable to our work with analyzing and reviewing social media principles as well as our work as technical communicators.

I have heard complaints from the generation before mine, professors, staff members, and students that came before, that the way we learn and take in information currently does not take the same amount of effort and time that it used to, thus we are as a whole not as smart as we could be, as they had to be in the world before the World Wide Web.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Are things different? Definitely. For the most part, we do not have to deal with card catalogs and worrying about not obtaining the library book we need because someone already has it out. But what we do have is mountains of information at our fingertips that needs to be read through, researched, analyzed, and ultimately accepted or discarded as useful to the project that need to be completed.

Thinking about it as the natural reaction our society has had to the advent of technology and connectedness, collective intelligence seems like a great place for us to be in.

“Now that we have gained access to digital tools that enable us to share what we know and aggregate small contributions into large knowledge repositories, a new level of collective intelligence is possible” (p. 160).

Just as a reality, it is fascinating how much I find myself depending on the opinions and knowledge of others in my personal and professional life.

I read Yelp reviews and will search through a few pages for tips and tricks about shopping: how to do it effectively, where to go for the best prices, and when to go to avoid the most foot traffic.

I use my coworkers as sounding boards when working on projects, running edits, changes, style issues, and new copy by one or more people to see how they react, even when we’re working on completely different projects.

This trend is so important to the way we think about knowledge and learning. It may seem like an obvious idea. We learn currently from teachers and professors, those who go to school and study techniques specifically to learn how to instruct and impart knowledge on others, but to my mind there is still so much stigma associated with the spirit of collective intelligence in schoolwork.

Beginning your career as a student, you do not learn that it is your right, I would say responsibility, to question the font of knowledge: a teacher. In order to retain control over groups of wild children, teachers must be seen as the ultimate authority in their spaces. As you grow older and become more comfortable with yourself and the idea that you have to have your own opinions and thoughts about the world around you, you are inundated with cultural norms and taboos. They are subjects you can’t bring up in public without receiving a negative reaction: sex, politics, and religion. There are other subjects that only apply to you and place you into a subgroup: race, gender, sex, socio-economic status, ethnicity.

By high school you have hopefully learned all the rules, overtly taught to you and covertly gathered by osmosis and have gone through puberty so hopefully you have become a version of yourself that can function in society. You have created PowerPoints and book reports and scientific models. But beyond being forced into groups by your teachers, it is still up to the teacher as the superior figure to create meaning and focus your attention on the facts and figures that you need to know.

That long analogy is meant to draw attention to the fact that with the Internet and social media, it is up to us to create meaning and monitor the information and knowledge being influenced and cultivated around us. I cannot say with complete certainty that children are reacting differently in classes. There are thousands of studies and reports about classroom teaching and management that are authored about the changes going on in classrooms because of technology and the Internet.

What works for me is the idea that we are demanding more of our teaching professionals and of ourselves than we have before. Yes, the Internet gives everyone a platform to shout their opinions from the rooftop (leading to a degradation of fields like traditional print media). It also gives us the ability to share what we know with each other, outside of the limits of a roundtables and desks with tiny chairs. Even outside the bounds of an online course taught by a PhD.

Rheingold, Howard. (2014).  Net Smart: How to thrive online. MIT Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This is When Everything Changes: Cluetrain and the Technological Experience

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

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

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

Image result for puzzled face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for spreadsheet death

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Avoid Drowning in Information Overload

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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

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

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

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

Image result for technical toolkit

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

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

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

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

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

Image result for mentorship

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citation

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

Understanding the Rhetoric of Technology

Dave Clark’s (2010) “Shaped and Shaping Tools: The Rhetorical Nature of Technical Communication Technologies” article is reminiscent of my Rhetorical Theory class as he examines the newest micro-blogging site, Twitter and rhetoric of technology. This is most interesting because I was working with an online media/SEO company when Twitter exploded online. Are there similar studies on the rhetoric of technology with other social media sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or Pinterest? And how have these social media sites influenced digital rhetoric, genre and activity theories for technical communication? What is the importance of learning about new technology, Clark (2010) asks.

Learning and assessing new technology

How do we learn about new technology? This was one of the first questions asked in English 745 and we were asked to identify ourselves as early adopters, medium adopters or late adopters. Where did you put yourself in this range? Clark (2010) asks the reader “what it might mean to be a literate user of Twitter (or any other type technology)” (p. 86). What do professionals expect technical communicators to know about technology? How can we transfer and apply this knowledge in the appropriate environment?

To understand technology, Clark (2010) says we must also understand the rhetoric and analyze the research. Clark (2010) categorizes his approach to explain the “rhetoric of technology into four groups: rhetorical analysis, technology transfer, genre theory, and activity theory” (p. 92). I’ll examine the first two groups below.

rhetoric reflections

Rhetoric tag cloud. Retrieved from http://kmnunez93.wix.com (another blog of interest).

Rhetorical analysis of technology is relatively new and should not be compared to rhetoric of science since it has its own foundations. However, it’s a good place to start. Clark (2010) cites Robert Johnson’s premise that

“as a field we must argue for a rhetorical approach to technological design and implementation that places users, rather than systems, at the center of our focus, and that we have ethical and cultural responsibility to learn and argue for collaborative approaches to technology design” (p.93).

There’s more than using technology like Twitter (or Facebook, etc.), we must also analyze the design and ethical responsibilities of its use. (Johnson’s book, User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts (1998) can be a difficult read, but insightful how technology is not always user-centered.) This is difficult to digest at first – understanding technology design for rhetoric and ethical practices for the user. However, if we understand that technology is constantly changing and improving then we can become more cognizant of new technology design and its effects on the user.

The second category Clark (2010) discusses is “technology transfer,” the movement of an engineer’s idea from desk to putting it into public use. Notably of importance to technical communicators, Clark (2010), states they are “constantly expected to design, evaluate, document, and implement new technologies” (p. 94).

stop sign

STOP!

This is the answer to Clark’s (2010) primary question. Before we can design and implement new technology, we must be able to understand previous technology, document the success and pitfalls and evaluate to improve it. However, technology transfer must also be “negotiated, constructed, and reconstructed in the minds of the participants” according to Doheny-Farina in Clark’s (2010) research (p. 95). I’m still digesting this concept. I remember when Twitter was new and users were experimenting with all the features and everyone was tweeting anything that came to mind, hence, no filters were on. Then in 2010, Twitter announces that it will supply an archive of tweets to the Library of Congress (About.Twitter.com). Yikes!! Filters applied. What can technical communicators infer and learn from this rhetoric of technology?

Final Thoughts

The discussion on genre and activity theories is very interesting and I would like to write about both of them in a separate post. Overall, the rhetoric of technology needs further examination and discussion to understand its implications, our responsibilities, and other theories.

From Stories to Cartography

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

map

Findability

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

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

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

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

Ambience

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

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

findability

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

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

References:

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

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

Digital Literacy in the 21st Century

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

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

  digitalliteracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming a Symbolic-Analytic Worker

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

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

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

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

changing-skill-demand

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

 

 

Past, Present and Future of Tech Communicators

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

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

Courtesy of Hippoquotes.com

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

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

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

 

 

 

Reach for it!

In their 2014 Technical Communication Quarterly article, “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media,” Elise Hurley and Amy C. Kimme Hea discuss the challenges they encountered when trying to meld social media and technical communication. For the most part their students were, “hesitant to engage social media in technical communication contexts where assumptions about professionalism and credibility seem too high a price to pay for use” (56). Despite acknowledging the advantages of using social media, the students had heard too many horror stories of social media gone wrong. According to the authors, “it was clear that social media are tools to be used informally… not in professional contexts” (60).

This is unfortunate, the authors argue, because, “students need to be able to engage actively in [social media’s] cultural construction” (Hurley and Hea, 58). To do this, the authors turned to two concepts:

  1. reach: “the ability to form relationships, address user interests, and determine long-term effects of networking” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 57)
  2. crowdsourcing: “the practice of tapping into the collective public intelligence to complete a task or gain insights that would traditionally have been assigned to a member or consultant for an organization” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 57).

I have been familiar with the latter term for years, as I used to work for a company that crowdsourced its content. Ever since then, I have been interested in its use in technical communication, and I am excited to see it referenced within the field’s literature. I agree with Hurley and Hea’s conclusion that, “technical writers must maintain their relevance by reaching readers and anticipating their needs as they create content…” (61).

However, I believe that crowdsourced technical communication is more prevalent than the authors seem to realize. And more often than not, the content was not written by a technical writer. One example is the Stack Overflow website. People can come to this site asking questions about programming, and other users of the site will answer, with other users chiming in to contribute their experience, until a satisfactory solution is found. The community is self-moderated by a reputation system that allows garbage questions and answers to be removed. I have stumbled over this website (or its parent, Stack Exchange) again and again searching for solutions to my software problems.

I am less interested in this sort of crowdsourced knowledge. What I am interested is when companies take advantage of crowdsourcing that is already going on. In this scenario, a company will set up some sort of forum or bulletin board-style site where users of their product can ask questions. However, rather than hiring staff to answer those questions, the company instead depends on altruistic users who post their answers and experiences without pay.

Microsoft is one company leveraging the power of the “crowd” to help users solve technical problems. The Microsoft Community is their community-fueled help platform. Much like Stack Overflow, users can post questions to be answered by other users. The difference, however, is that Microsoft employees moderate the forum–although they rarely post responses themselves.

I can only imagine how much money Microsoft has saved by enabling its community of users to troubleshoot other users’ problems. I would be interested in finding out what other companies do this, and if it extends to more traditional documentation, rather than just questions and answers.

The article says, “To succeed in the age of social media… businesses need to adapt to the affordances of the Web in terms of users’ social and browsing habits” (Pearson in Hurley and Hea, 60). It is clear that companies like Microsoft are doing just that, and as technical communicators, we need to do so as well.

 

Emerging from Emerging Media

thats_all_folks__by_gbetim-d5aydtbThis Course

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

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

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

My Final Paper

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

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

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

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

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

Good Luck to You!

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

End of the Semester

future

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

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

The skills I then listed are to:

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

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!

 

Wrap-up and best wishes

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

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

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

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

Abstract

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

Wrap-up

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

So long, and thanks for all the fish

So long, and thanks for all the fish.

– Douglas Adams, the title of the fourth book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy

 

My thoughts before and after this course

Social media and how to use it for a business advantage always seemed so simple before starting this course. Now, after this course, I know how to use it more wisely and how to use it more for my advantage.

But the learning did not stop there. For the final paper, I decided upon a topic that the Professor had suggested after reading a blog posting that I passionate about – how companies were exploiting people online without them realizing it.

Abstract of my paper

This paper aims to explore the result of what most people do with technology nearly every day – working for free while thinking that it is play. This working for free while playing is what some people have started calling “playbour” or “immaterial labor.” To avoid confusion in this paper, I will use the word, “playbour” to reference both. Thus, the focus of this paper is the internet and how it blends work and play together and how people are benefiting and/or are being exploited by it. Additionally, because technical communicators are told to create a portfolio of projects that they have done voluntary, these concepts are especially important. Furthermore, this paper also attempts to examine copyright infringement issues regarding work done as playbour, and the advantages and disadvantages of creative commons.

Reflections on researching my paper

 As I have not written a paper in nearly ten years, I was nervous, especially when I tried googling the topic of “playbor,” and Playboy kept popping up instead. (Yes, try to explain this to a boss at work). After those failed attempts, I tried the Stout online library with some success. Luckily, one can ask a librarian anything and they never disappoint. They found several documents for me to begin the paper proposal. But the biggest help came from the Professor herself. Thus, the lesson here is, never be afraid to ask your superiors for help. 🙂

Final thoughts

The only thing that I did not like about this paper was all the research. Most documents were quite long, and two were books. Sadly, I do not have the time for that much reading. In fact, after this semester, I am giving up my college days. My life is too busy at this moment, but I may be back in ten years. =D

I wish everyone much success and happiness in whatever you do. I am sure that whatever it is, it is exciting and a wonderful achievement that will not be taken for granted.

 

 

Expertise versus Skill: The Dichotomy of a Technical Communicator

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

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

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

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

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

evs2

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

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

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

The Monster We’ve Created

Cell Phone Monster

All I could think of while reading Kenichi Ishii’s article, Implications of Mobility: The Uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life was, “This sounds a lot like present day American youth.” This research study was conducted between 2001-2003 in Japan, but I doubt their introverted culture had as much of an impact on their results as they’re letting on.

The article mentioned “32% of Japanese adolescents agreed with ‘I can easily start talking straight away to someone I do not know’, whereas 65% of their U.S. counterparts agreed (pg. 349)”. I understand American adolescents may be more socially skilled, but I believe this has little effect on their dependency on “mobile mail”, better known as texting.

It was also mentioned that, “Japanese youth increasingly seek to avoid conflict and friendships with deep involvement”, and that they practice “long term withdrawal from society” (pg. 349). My first reaction to this information was perhaps SMS messaging initially became more popular among Japanese adolescents than it did in the U.S. As a consequence, maybe they began seeing the negative effects of such convenient, impersonal communication sooner than we did, and had more time for it to penetrate their culture.

However, if this was the case American adolescents and youth still would have never become dependent on SMS. Especially considering their noted “superior” social abilities. I doubt dependency on SMS messaging would vary much across many cultures because it’s not a matter of cultural inclination, it’s a matter of convenience.

The contextual dimension of mobility (pg. 347) allowing non-business users freedom and privacy is in my opinion key to this situation. Convenience, privacy, and freedom from parent’s rules are what created and maintained adolescents’ interest in SMS. This reminds me of Sherry Tuttle’s warning about our desire to connect with each other on mobile devices replacing our desire to connect face to face.

This article speaks volumes about the monster mobile communication has created, and it’s even more interesting that it’s so old. Approximately 12 years later we have less control over mobile devices/communication, they take up increasingly more of our time through social media and it seems to be getting worse.

Adolescents, and students are no longer the primary users of SMS messaging; the addiction is as widely spread among adults. Many of the adolescents who grew up using social media are now young adults and its impact on their social development is an area of my personal interest. It’s also interesting the negative social effects of mobile technology were so obvious from the beginning.

It’s difficult to realize the bad habits you’re falling into while you’re in the situation, and I’m beginning to see the value of that quiet time Sherry Tuttle mentioned more than ever.

It’s Time to Talk- Mobile Etiquette

mobile use in public

In Kenichi Ishii’s article “Implications of Mobility: The Uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life,” he broaches the topic mobile communications and relationships in everyday life. Specifically, one area he explores is the use of mobile communications in public areas. In general, Ishii found that mobile phone users are criticized for violating the implicit rules of public space. When thinking about these implicit rules in everyday life, it makes sense. We all have encountered times when we have witnessed loud or annoying phone conversations in public. Despite public cell phone use being something that everyone finds annoying, many people continue to do. Perhaps they do it to feel important, or less alone, but no matter the reason, for better or worse, these private conversations have an audience.

Everyday Occurrences

I have a coworker who frequently makes private cell phone calls at work. Even though she steps aside to a “private” area to makes these calls, there is little privacy. I’ve found out more about her mother’s health conditions, her sister’s financial problems and issues dealing with internet providers than I care to know. The first time I heard it happen I thought it was a little odd, but because it was about her mother’s health issues I figured it was situational. As it continued to happen, it was made clear that she doesn’t realize that these private conversations are very public. These are things that she normally would not share with me (or probably the majority of my coworkers), yet she seems oblivious to it. Its not that I’m trying to eavesdrop on her calls, but the one sided conversation is so apparent to anyone within ear shot.

The Facts

Luckily, Psychology Today has an explanation for why we find these conversations to annoying.  In part, its because cell phone conversations are generally louder than a face to face conversation. Forma and Kaplowitz found that cell phone conversations are 1.6 times louder than in person conversations– a slight difference, but noticeable nonetheless. Because its hard not to overhear, and the lack of respect this implies for the others around you is grating.

In addition to loudness, these conversations are irritating because they are intruding into our consciousnessLauren Emberson, a psychologist from Cornell University found that when you hear a live conversation, you know what everyone is saying because it’s all there for you to hear. In contrast, when you hear a cell phone conversation, you don’t know what the other person is saying, so your brain tries to piece it all together. Because this takes more mental energy than simply hearing both sides of the conversation, it leaves less energy to allocate to whatever else you might be doing.

When is it Okay or Not Okay to Use Cell Phones

A study from the Pew Research Center found about three-quarters of all adults, including those who do not use cellphones, say that it is “generally OK” to use cellphones in unavoidably public areas, such as when walking down the street, while on public transportation or while waiting in line. In contrast, they found that younger generations are more accepting of cell phone use in public. While the definition of “cell phone use” in this study was not clearly defined, it generally is presumed that it means holding a conversation rather than texting.

For instance, only half of young adults found it okay to use cell phones in restaurants, this activity was frowned upon by older generations. Places where cell phone use is considered unacceptable in both groups include family dinner, movie theaters or worship services.
2015-08-26_alone-together_3_0122015-08-26_alone-together_3_04

Enough is Enough: Cell Phone Crashing

Greg Benson had enough of annoying people talking loudly in public and decided to take things into his own hands. To fill a void in a layover in an airport he came up with the idea of “cell phone crashing”.  In “crashing” the prankster sits next to someone talking on their phone, and then proceed to fill in the gaps left in the one-sided conversation. When one person said “What should we have for dinner?” into the phone, he responded, “I don’t know. Steak and potatoes sound good.” pretending to talk on his own phone. The whole process is filmed with a camera hidden from afar as the hilarity ensues. While the video may give you a few laughs, it may also help you reconsider how public your cell phone conversations in public really are.

So, what do you think? Should mobile devices be banned in certain areas? Or is this an infringement on our rights? 

AnnoyingCellPhoneGuy

Eight Tips for Writing in Distributed Work Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Job secrets buried in texts

While I enjoy a more direct and simple approach in writing, it seems that most writing is about repetition and telling stories. Both can be good for teaching, but when you wanting to find the main point immediately, it is annoying. So for the three readings for this week, I will suggest the things that I found most helpful in creating a technical communication career.

Get your own advertisers

In “Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work” by Stacy Pigg, we are told that because of new technology and culture shifts, technical communicators will have a hard time finding jobs, unless they can create their own career themselves. The best way to do that is to find something that you love, find an angle that no one else is really doing, and then blog about it. (I know the article showed the writer getting “inspiration” from blogs that already had content similar to his, but in my opinion, why beat a dead horse?) While the writer whom Pigg described waited for advertisers to make offers to be on his blog, do not wait. Instead, join Amazon’s affiliate program and always include a product in your post. (If you do not like Amazon, there are many other affiliate programs to choose from).

Furthermore, if you are comfortable creating your own videos (your smart phone can handle it), upload them to YouTube and set up your account to monetize them. Next, blog about your video. If you market it right with a catchy title, good tags, and a good brief description, your video could go viral. Good luck!

Learn a culture for profit

 In Kenichi Ishii’s article, “Implications of Mobility: The Uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life,” you get to learn how technology is received in Japanese culture. What interested me most was that the culture of the young was avoiding “direct communication” (p 349). As a technical communicator, in what ways, if any, can we use that to our advantage? While I can no longer find the link, there was a story a few years ago where a woman in Japan made a lot of money by selling videos of her staring into the video camera. I believe that she did it to help people overcome their shyness and other social anxiety issues. She probably created and published her own press releases and joined communities on social media to create a following for her work. I would suggest you doing the same (creating press releases, and joining and participating in communities). There are free press release websites available for use, and you can google how to write a press release, if you need experience with that type of writing.

It would be a good idea to learn about other cultures and try to figure out if there is a way to provide help. Your knowledge could help someone live a better life, or, at least, have a better day.

To learn more, just ask

In “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World,” by Stuart Blythe, he talked about creating surveys in order to gather information for his research. He provided some great tips that you can use when creating your own surveys:

  • let your users be anonymous – this way they can feel free to answer honesty
  • keep your surveys short – no more than 20 minutes. Make sure that your survey has a progress bar so people can see an ending
  • if you need a long survey, break it up in sections and send it out
  • use a web based survey – I suggest SurveyMonkey (it is free), to keep everything easy and in once place
  • post a link to your surveys on social media, email, and on your website, if applicable
  • provide plenty of choices – this way the user can click through instead of typing
  • give a deadline – make sure you give plenty of time to complete it though, such as 2-3 weeks. Follow up with a single reminder halfway through the deadline

Conclusion

While I provided just a few helpful pieces of information from the three texts to get you started in creating your own technical communication career, there are many more listed in the readings. If you have read these readings, which information did you find most helpful or intriguing?

isolation

A little tech humor at post-midterm:

Examining My Informational Backbone

spine

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

Screen Shot 2015-11-08 at 8.18.27 PM

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

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

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

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

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

Social Media Relationships

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

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

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

Social Media HoneyComb2

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

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

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

Facebook needs an updated picture of my cat.

Buddy

How to run a business as a technical communicator

Reading through various articles in the Technical Communication Quarterly, I am finding good nuggets of information on how to run my business on social media, as a technical communicator. Of course, the information that I found can be applied to one’s personal life, but since technical communicators are hoping to make a career with their writing, I will reiterate these points below, focusing solely on the business aspects.

Keep busy with social media

According to Ferro and Zachry’s article, “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices,” when using social media platforms for your business, there needs to be a “real-time monitoring of texts” and that you should be “monitor[ing] the technological landscape and be ready to integrate emergent types of online services” (p 7). Customers today expect a business to respond immediately to their messages or posts online, and if they do not get that, some of them will use social media to say how horrible the company’s customer service is. Depending on the business, responding to customers can be a full-time job.

Now, from analyzing other businesses’ social media platforms, I saw how they tried out new social media platforms, which they sometimes abandoned when either the company decided that they were not getting enough traffic from it, or they did not fully understand how to use that new platform to extend their business persona. It is always a good idea to try new technologies, as you never know which one will suit your business best. Once you try a new platform, even if you abandoned it, never take it down. I would suggest putting that abandoned platform on your website as a link and naming it an archive. While the content may be old to most, for those who are just coming across it now, it will be new to them.

Stay positive and audience-centered

Always keep your postings and messages positive. This way your company seems like a happy place and people will feel good reading the posts. There is already so much negative things on social media and elsewhere that reading something positive can boost someone’s day. Additionally, when a company posts a positive post, people are more likely to respond to it, as people want to continue this positive feeling. Ferro and Zachry wrote that “contributors…are motivated by the positive feelings associated with participating in a larger community” (p 9). I have certainly noticed in my business postings that if I write something positive, I receive more likes and more comments. (And if I post a positive video clip, I receive more sales).

By staying positive in posts, you are more likely to have “good sense, good moral character, and goodwill,” which Bowdon explained in her article, “Tweeting an Ethos: Emergency Messaging, Social Media, and Teaching Technical Communication,” is what you need to do to write good posts on social media (p 35). By focusing on these ideas, it makes sense that your posts will then be audience-centered, because you want to help your audience with whatever information that you think that they actually need, instead of just your company’s self-promotion.

If you can always put your customer first, thinking about what information that they are seeking, your company will come across positively by being helpful and customer-driven. I know that this is something I will have to work on too, as several of my own business postings are of self-promotion instead of being customer-centered.

Conclusion

Technical communicators can find jobs within a company or use their skills for their own businesses to ensure that their customers are happy because of the positive message that they read, their questions and concerns are addressed promptly, and that they always find audience-centered postings with the information that they are seeking instead of just a company’s self-promotion. On any social media platform, you can provide a link to your website, so there really is no need for self-promotion anyway. Many businesses, including my own, should always evaluate their own postings periodically to make sure that their messages are coming across positive and audience-centered. Moreover, we should continue to look new ways to interact and gain new customers through new technologies, as not everyone joins the same social media platforms, so it is good for business to try them all to see what works best for them.

Where’s All of This Going?

Puppets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evil angry robot . Render on blackbackground

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

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

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

What’s Up with That?

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

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

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

On the Other Hand

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

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

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

So Which Is it?

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

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

Resistance Is Not Futile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you add anything to the list?

My very own manual!?!?

Every once in a while, I open a product I have just bought, and feel a little nostalgic for the days of paper manuals.  I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that I can seek out instructions regardless of whether I am online.  The truth is, when a question does arise, it is second-nature to sit down and search the internet.  And, honestly, when am I offline anyways?

I do remember the days when online help wasn’t so easy to come by.  If a manual did not have an answer I needed or I didn’t understand it, I was stuck with the time-consuming tasks of doing my own research.  Other times, I would come across mistakes in the instructions or information that became outdated after a software update occurred.

So while I think I “miss” the days of paper documentation accompanying products, I don’t miss all that they represent.  I like that I can search for specific issues quickly.  I love that outdated or inaccurate information is usually wiped away.  And, it’s super convenient that customer support is often a click away, instead of requiring a call to the customer support line.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still print out a lot of the instructions that I look up in customizable searches.  I do this because, in many cases, it is easier for me to follow directions on paper.  (It is an annoying personality quirk of mine that costs me untold amounts of money buying ink and paper.)  I also find that I often look up the same issue repeatedly.  I have certain applications that I use on a regular basis.  There is usually a function or two that I only use occasionally, so I find that when that rare occasion comes up, I need a refresher on how to do it.

Along with my printing habit, I like to cut and paste chunks of helpful or interesting information from help sections, and put them into a Microsoft document for future reference.  I bookmark a lot of pages too.  There is a problem though.  This inconsistent data collection makes it very difficult to access the information.  I have to search my saved documents which leaves me trying to remember if I saved it on my laptop or desktop?  Hard drive or memory drive?  If I bookmarked it then I have to search through all the bookmark and Chrome and Internet Explorer.  This is assuming that I actually recall saving it in the first place.  Often I go look up the same information again, only to notice I already had it, when I go to save it.  Sigh.

The idea of being able to customize my own instructional text on a site is an incredibly exciting concept (Spilka, 2010, p.206)!  I imagine all those topics that I go back to time and time again at my fingertips.  No more haphazard organization of all the information I want to retain.  No more wasted time looking for information, only to realize I already have it documented somewhere.  Just one site to go back to, the source.  Not only would all the information that I need be structured in the way that best meets my needs, but I could also add more information or remove what I no longer need.  That would be the ultimate user experience!

Until that becomes widely available, I will continue to appreciate the ways that digital media is enabling writers to provide better and more targeted content.  The use of digital media has not lead to a homogenized audience, but has instead given many new opportunities for writers to tap into the specific needs of the reader.  They no longer have to make assumptions about the reader’s needs and can instead utilize a variety of user information absorbed from observing the user directly.   In many ways, the move to greater use of online documentation, defies the image of the internet widening the distance between people.  In this instance, online media allows for a greater personal connection with the audience.

My Relationship With LinkedIn

I love LinkedIn. I visit her regularly, usually sneaking away from my work monitor to check her app on my phone. I’m addicted. But LinkedIn’s like a flirty little hooker – teasing me with options and promises, but only if I pay up front. She is, what Jonathan Zittrain in Smart Technology – Future Employer or Job Destroyer calls, an “owned platform” that supposedly promises “abundance.” But Andrew Keen, referring to Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, says abundance hasn’t happened – it’s just an illusion on a platform that everyone uses. So what? It’s how we find jobs and stay connected and updated to industry happenings. Yet Keen asks, “to what extent do you need a platform” (33:56)? What extent? It’s where I go; it’s expanded my options. Or has it?

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Well, it turns out these owned platforms actually make our world smaller, and the platform itself harder to escape. We become reliant on LinkedIn to help us find connections, information and jobs – to the exclusion of other resources. That’s a problem with solely using technology, the Internet, and these “pay for more” networking sites. Plus, it’s expensive. As Zittrain states, “If everybody uses it, it’s going to take a larger cut” (39.56). Which is what really annoys me about LinkedIn. She lets me look around, and browse some resources, but she doesn’t let me look as good as I am to prospective employers, colleagues, and a plethora of professionals who could mentor me or connect me to others. Do I even look good enough; am I creative, relevant, and clear on the benefits I offer…everyone? In Using LinkedIn to Get Work, Rich Maggiana and Ed Marshall (2010) describe a LinkedIn profile as “a living document of your professional life” (p.32). Yikes. And while I think I’m projecting well and tons of people are admiring my skill set, one look at my weekly up/down searched statistics shows that clearly I’m not being “seen.” But I want to be seen!

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So she tempts me. Every day. She knows I like the look of her and that I wonder about her “premium services.” Don’t I want an open profile, expanded search options, and to know who’s checking me out and ranking me? I can have it she whispers, if I’d just fork out that teeny-weeny, recently increased price of $30 or $50 a month. But there’s more, and it’s not even a whole $1000 dollars annually. Makes my pulse race, which is why I can’t stay away. In Net Smart, Harold Rheingold (2014) states, “Our hormones reward us for information seeking and social contact…” (p. 246). And he advises that we “regard search as a process of investigation…instead of searching to find, search to discover” (Rheingold, 2014, 248). LinkedIn shows me a “selective audience,” one made of up people similar to myself, but without premium services, I can’t access the broad audience of network contacts that makes LinkedIn valuable. Which means I’m not succeeding at the purpose of LinkedIn. It’s become a second Facebook and I’m a passive spectator.

In Who Owns Your LinkedIn Connections, Dorothy Dalton states, “What is clear is that network contacts are a currency with significant value to anyone as a job seeker.” And I need more. So I guess it’s time for me to follow Maggiana and Marshall’s steps to be successful on LinkedIn: write updates weekly, list awards and conferences, and make sure my profile is set to full view. None of which makes me more searchable…

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So she wins. I guess I have to pay up

Valuing and Protecting Our Internet Community

He “ruffled” me from the start.

I have been obsessively returning to this post, trying to edit the length and the “insane person on a mission against cyber crime” tone.  There have been so many revisions that I am starting to think maybe I AM a crazy person who takes the topic too personally.

Chapter 6 of Net Smart disturbed me, or rather the first page and a half did.  While I realize Rheingold’s objective was a broad discussion about internet privacy and security, and not specifically cyber crimes, the comments he did make about it were unsettling to me.  He made security invasion seem like “par for the course,” that to some extent, we should shrug off and accept it (239).

“Internet Invasion” IS a home invasion.

Internet security and data-surveillance (or “dataveillance” as Rheingold refers to) is often approached from the direction of how network users should protect themselves.  While their social media usage may provide a possible entryway for their privacy to be violated, it shouldn’t be mistaken for an open door.

There is a duality to our life.  We reside in two very real communities:  the “real world” and the virtual world.  Our cyber “dwellings” should have an assumption of safety like our physical dwellings. I would be horrified if someone entered my home uninvited and proceeded to rifle through my file cabinet, taking any document of interest.  I can’t imagine anyone suggesting that it was “to be expected.”

Guaranteed security and protection is hard to come by.

Rheingold–and many others–have no hesitation suggesting privacy violations on the internet “are to be expected.” He passively responds by telling us, “While not advocating collective surrender on the legal and judicial front, I do suggest that your best individual defense at the moment is know-how…. You will still be surveilled.  But at least you can be informed.”  I imagine if Mr. Rheingold had the same low expectations of “real world” security, when the stranger enters my house and takes the documents from my cabinet, he might say something like: “You could call the police, but let’s consider getting a locked file cabinet instead and maybe hiding the more important documents under your matress. It’s probably best to accept that things like this happen.”  I get the feeling this is when he might give me a fatherly pat on the hand.

Rheingold also mentions “privacy advocates” and how we can’t depend on them to protect us because they lack the financial and political resources to act on our behalf.  Advocates?  How about having faith in law enforcement to protect?  I realize they are busy fighting “real world” crime.  And yes, I know tax dollars are always being fought for.  But, we wouldn’t suggest the police department conserve manpower by only fighting crime in half of their local communities. We also seem happy to utilize legal and judicial means to seek fair punishment for crimes that we don’t even suffer personal harm from.  We take corporations to the “judicial mat” when we discover they have lied to stockholders about their business practices.  We force politicians, in judicial hearings,  to share humiliating details of their inappropriate personal affairs.  The guy on the other end of the computer, who is scavenging for an innocent person’s personal information, will certainly inflict personal harm to his victim.

Although I am not about to high-five the politician with a mistress, I care more about my neighbor’s identity theft causing her bank account to go into overdraft.  As an extension of either of our communities, cyber or “real world,” we need to care and be cautious that our language reflects the concerns of our neighbors.

A few years ago, I received harassing legal threats, sent from a supposed lawyer, threatening legal action.  The initial communication was sent through the mail.  He demanded I respond via email.  As the “lawyer’s” address turned out to fictitious, but they personal details of mine, I wanted to report it. I contacted the The Federal Bureau of Investigation Internet Crime Center.  They sent me to my local law enforcement.  The local police department sent me to The Federal Law Enforcement and Security Arm of the U.S Postal Servicewho also said it was not their jurisdiction.

In my situation, law enforcement was so busy identifying which “community” had responsibility that I wasn’t protected like a citizen of any of them.  When the majority–those who connect via the internet and in-person–stops diminishing their voices by endlessly discussing user responsibility and the futility of trying to protect our internet “neighborhood”–than the agencies set in place to protect us, will be compelled to evolve as well.  Then they can share responsibility for protecting citizens that are part of multiple neighborhoods.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Long Tail

In “The Long Tail,” Chris Anderson argues that, online, we have more access to and more demand for mx368167477_3d965b3b31_o.png.pagespeed.ic.RxYn8bXJYmBuYRY-5lurore niche, less mainstream “micromarkets” of media such as movies, books and music than we ever did in the physical world. In other words, demand is shifting from the head of the distribution to its tail (image to the right). Businesses can actually make money selling these types of relatively unpopular media. Today, you don’t need a megablockbuster to make money, but you still need to make a big impact to capture enough of the market share.

Film streaming services like Amazon or Netflix offer viewers both mainstream content and “off-the-grid” documentaries and vintage movies in large numbers. I, for one, never watched TV until Netflix came along.

I was bored with the silly, inane offerings on the major TV networks, deciding instead to rent movies from Redbox or other similar service. But once I was turned on to Netflix and I had access to so many great, offbeat moviethCSOW8G9Ds and TV shows, I was hooked. Mini-series like “Top of the Lake” and “The Killing” became my go-tos. I could always find something interesting to watch, even if it was just endless “Law and Order Special Victims Unit” shows. Paired with Amazon, you have a seemingly endless list of options, because what one doesn’t have, the other one does. For example, the other night I was looking for the original 1974 “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (image to the right). It was nowhere to be found on Netflix, but there it was on Amazon, and minutes later, I was watching it. That film had a cult following in the 1970s, when it first came out, but I doubt it’s one of their most downloaded movies now; still, like Anderson stated, if just one person watches it every so often, it can be profitable for Amazon to keep it among its ranks. Likewise, I recently watched the film “Helvetica,” about a single font, for a class assignment; no doubt it was a niche documentary, but there it was on Amazon.

The other advantage Netflix has over the main TV networks is that you can watch whatever you want, whenever you want. Of course, you can do that to a certain extent with DVD, but services like Netflix and Amazon give you instant viewing at any time of day or night. So when I sit down at night after the kids have gone to bed, I can watch my detective shows that wouldn’t be appropriate for them.

The content on Netflix and Amazon is much easier to find than any content on TV. I have cable (the only reason I have it is so the kids can watch their kids shows), and I hate scrolling through the channels looking for something in particular. Most of what’s available is really junk viewing, and you have look and look to find what you might want. On Netflix and Amazon, a search function allows you to type in exactly what you want and, voila!, there it is. I’ve always complained about too many bad choices on cable, but perhaps its just the way the material is uncurated and disorganized.

Distribution graphic source: Ilya Grigorik

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

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

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

Is This All There Is?

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

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

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

Changing Channels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Netflix and Long Tail Economics

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Whenever I open Netflix or Amazon Prime, I notice a large amount of algorithm-fueled recommendations curated and tailored for me. Sometimes I find them helpful, but it makes me wonder: do I actually want all of those recommendations, and are they even necessary? According to the writer Chris Anderson (2004), in The Long Tail, these are part of Long Tail economics – a new age of digital entertainment that’s opened audiences to a greater variety of entertainment, and companies can now make money on more niche products rather than purely relying on hit movies, music, and books.

 

Making recommendations based on previously watched films benefits me because it exposes me to movies I might not otherwise see, and yes, the more I find, the more I like. But I wonder – how much of a movie do I have to watch for Netflix to generate the recommendation? What if I turn it off after 20 minutes? And the recommendations aren’t just on the streaming service. I get DVD’s I didn’t place in my queue. Has anyone else noticed this? Is Netflix ensuring my queue is never empty? And at what point will there be a need and option to do as Howard Rheingold (2014) asserts with Facebook – “…use…privacy settings to consciously control your boundaries to the degree…it allows” (p.233)?

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(System Architectures for Personalization and Recommendation by Xavier Amatriain and Justin Basilico on TechBlog.)

 

Personally, I find there’s an overwhelming amount of entertainment material online. Just scrolling through my Netflix account and selecting a movie can be time consuming and frustrating. So while the digital world has virtually unlimited amounts of space for storing, selling or streaming media content, I still have a limited number of hours in the day to consume it. I understand that companies must compete for our time and attention, and to be successful, they must collect and analyze vast quantities of data about their clients. But their motivations may not be transparent. As the past few years have illustrated, protecting our privacy in online media use can be difficult to achieve, and is anything really private? And our collective culture is becoming more fragmented as we’re consuming media that purely fits within our niche interests. The drawback to this is that our cultural and daily connections may suffer.

 

While Long Tail economics revolutionizes how businesses do business, the effects on social media are less clear. In general, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram dominate the market while smaller companies struggle to find an audience. And in the way we use social media there may not be an audience for every story, as ones that are positive and arousing are far more likely to be shared or retweeted. For example, news stories designed to make a reader angry or inspired are far more likely to be shared on Facebook than neutral stories that evoke fewer emotional responses. With the political debates, has anyone else noticed more “us versus them” rants?

 

The sunny ideas explained by Chris Anderson about Long Tail economics are great in that they show that media is evolving, audiences have greater choices, and we are exposed to less mainstream movies, music, and stories. However, Long Tail economics fails to take into account the complexity of our digital media, which may be reflective of our previous patterns of media consumption. When TV was first invented, there were only a few channels, and frankly, I didn’t mind having just four. As we technology advanced and more channels were added, that meant more choice. At one point I had access to over 600 channels and the time it took to just scroll through the guide was ridiculous. Then I realized the law of diminishing returns for me was 84 channels. So as Steve Jobs observed – “focus is about saying no” (Rheingold, 2014, p. 246), I cancelled the rest. Now I surf less but on more options, and I benefit by the changes in which businesses like Netflix attract and keep customers. As a matter of fact, I intend to benefit from this strategy by re-watching House of Cards, Luther (one of the coolest detectives ever, oh and there’s that serial killer chick), and Sherlock on Netflix – right after I finish scrolling through my recommendations. That could take a while.

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

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

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

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

No copyright infringement for you!

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

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

I can do it, but it will cost you…

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

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

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

Disappearing websites? Say it ain’t so!

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

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

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

Attention, Anxiety & the Internet

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

When email makes you anxious.

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

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

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

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

Attention isn’t always up to us.

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

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

Paying too much attention to the wrong things

In Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, Howard Rheingold gives us straightforward advice on how to pay attention to our attention while online and how to subvert the almost-paralyzing fears that haunt us when we are disconnected from our channels of constant communication.

I’ll start with how to pay attention. Both at home and at work, I have two monitors open at all times. It’s critical that I have two screens because I need to constantly compare and cut and paste from documents. But this also allows me to have more windows open and on view at one time. Last summer, when I was doing some freelance work for a company that required lots of early-morning conference calls, I would find my attention drifting from the screen I was supposed to be looking at to my email, shopping sites, bill-paying sites, you name it. I had thought that it was possible to pay attention while having several windows open at once, but it seriously distracted me from the conference call in front of me, and I had to stop trying to do that so I could focus 100 percent attention on the project at hand.

Likewise, when we are always checking our email, phone, etc., we can end up on a hamster wheel of simply responding to emails and putting out fires rather than thinking strategically or making long-term plans. We need time, space and quiet for this kind of thinking, as Rheingold posits in his book.

I have found that the Pomodoro Method that he describes works quite well for when I sit at my desk for long periods, especially when writing and editing long documents. I allow myself to work on something with total concentration for 30 minutes, then I reward myself with checking my email and phone and perhaps Googling something for 5 or 10 minutes. That is certainly less distracting than refreshing my email every few minutes, and it cuts down on my fear of missing some critical email that requires an immediate response and action.

In an office, distractions and disruptions are legion. I work in a cubicle, so I don’t have much of a choice if a coworker drops by with a question or request; I have to stop what I’m doing and respond to that person. I was alarmed to read in Net Smart that it takes up to 30 minutes to recover from such drop-ins, because if the visit was about a request, you start thinking about what you need to do about it while you continue what you had been working on.

I thought it was particularly striking when Rheingold talked about the woman who realized that she was holding her breath every time she opened and read her email. I wondered why we are so afraid of both getting email and not getting email. I think it’s, in both cases, that we fear we’re missing something; in the case of getting email, someone wants something of us–and we better get it to them sooner rather than later. What if we had opened that email a couple of hours later? In the case of not getting email, we wonder if that absence means that the other person didn’t get out email or just chose not to respond. Or perhaps we’re deliberately being kept out of the loop at work. I think this is due to the fact that email is not face to face, and we just don’t have access to the facial expressions and body language that would give us the context we need in order to not worry.

I find that, if I’m in a series of meetings and away from my desk (ie, away from my cell phone, my work phone, my work email and my personal email), I get distracted and antsy to return to my desk and check and make sure I didn’t miss anything. It’s the same at home; if I leave home, I am truly disconnected from email because I’ve never enabled it on my cell phone, because I don’t want to be tethered to it. The first thing I do when I get home is to check my email.

In other words, as much as I try not to be a slave to technology and constant communication, it takes up way too much space in my brain. I know I’m not alone in this “hyperchecking,” particularly after reading Net Smart. Has anyone found any techniques that have worked to counter this hypervigilance and achieve a healthier relationship with technology?

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

evernote_logo_4c-lrg

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

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

But, why?

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

We’re Listening But Not Really

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

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

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

We Know What’s Best for You

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

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

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

Drink the Kool-Aid or Else!

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

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

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

A Note from the New CEO

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

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

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

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

More Sound Advice for Spending Time Online

Breathe

In the last blog entry, I wrote that I agreed with Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, that a great way to spend more time with people was to avoid social media and texting during certain parts of the day. This is still a good idea so that people can actually face-to-face connect with others, and to have time to allow yourself to think, but in Howard Rheingold’s booked titled, Net Smart, he gives additional ways to take control over technology’s pull. I was amazed by how simple his advice is.

Just like Turlke, Rheingold says that people need to spend some time away from technology and learn how to meditate and to breathe. By focusing on your breathing, you are focusing your attention onto one thing. By learning how to focus your attention on a singular thing, you can re-teach your brain to focus on one thing and let the distractions drop away. By being able to focus on one thing while online, you will be able to focus on your intent – your exact reason for being online – so that you can solely work on that one thing that you need to get done, instead of being distracted by random emails, instant messages, Facebook, or other things lurking to steal your attention away.

Meditation

My husband would agree with Rheingold about meditation, but I never would have thought that one could apply it to thriving online. Thinking back to my husband and about him meditating, I realize that he is a lot more focused on various things than I am. He tells me that I get distracted too easily, and that I need to learn to be more disciplined, which I believe could come from meditation. After reading Rheingold’s chapter on “Attention,” I may have to tell my husband that I will join him on his next meditation journey.

Results are Power

Now, if what Rheingold says is true that meditation helps with focusing attention, which in turn helps with “crap detection” (using your focus to research things on line to see if they are actually credible or not) and “participation power” (participate online by creating content such as photos, videos, news stories; sharing content; or editing Wikipedia or other community-based informational websites), then many people who want to success may want to do this too. I believe that I have had a good start in both crap detection and participation already, as I often create photos, video clips, and share links to other photos, video clips, and news stories on my blog and Facebook page. Just as Rheingold suggests, when I find something on the internet to share, I look at the url of the website, check for the author, and etc. to see if the content is from a place that I can trust. I do this because if I provide crap to my readers, my readers may complain or stop following or unfriend me. I want to keep my authority role as a trusted content provider.

Conclusion

For the most part, I found Rheingold to be providing common sense information and very helpful tips, in regards to thriving online – how to use your intentional attention to focus on what actually matters, which is having some downtime from technology, and being able to detect the credibility of internet content. By being able to do both, I can be a great participator online by creating and sharing trustworthy content on social media websites. But the one thing that spoke out the most was meditating. My sweet husband; he has been telling me to meditate for years, but it took a book to finally do it. I will just tell him that I finally came to my senses.

Trying my best to not spoil the broth!

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

cartoon

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

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

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

inforgraphic-learnmax

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

We will always need technical communicators

In Content Management: Beyond Single Sourcing, Hart-Davidson states that technical writing duties will be more broadly deployed in content creation in the future. He then asks what technical communicators will do. I am not sure I am reading his chapter correctly, but this is certainly not the case in my workplace, and I would bemoan the fact if it ever were.

This is because technical communication is a highly skilled field with many subsets, each holding specialized knowledge. For example, I am a medical writer and editor, which is a highly specialized discipline under the umbrella of technical communication.

I completed the pre-med curriculum at my university, I’ve worked in scientific laboratories, I’ve written about science and medicine during my 25-year career. Medical writers and editors are not that common, and I’ve never run across another person with the same credentials as I have. So I have trouble envisioning anyone else at my workplace, which is very large, having the skills and knowledge to do what I do. I would think this would be the same at most organizations, that highly skilled technical writers would continue to occupy a niche.

Technical writers—or any other type of skilled, talented writers—are not commodities. And many people who are not technical writers think they are and could do a writer’s job. That is simply not the case. Highly skilled and trained writers have received training in communication theory, rhetoric and many other disciplines that makes them uniquely qualified to do the job they are trained to do. From my point of view, highly skilled writers and the IT guy down the hall who thinks he can do a technical writer’s job are not interchangeable.

There will always be a role for talented and skilled writers, because it is a discipline in itself. And we will always need technical writers, who are one step removed from the subject matter, which allows them to be more objective than the subject matter experts, who might write quite well but cannot possibly have that perspective.

When Hart-Davidson speaks of content management with distributed authorship, I think of the Web site where I work. A few of us have the permissions needed to upload new materials to or to change the Web site, but no one else but me writes content for or changes the site but me, because I have the skills to do that. Other people have the permissions, but their job is not to write, it is to perform IT maintenance tasks or build more wireframes, etc.

We don’t currently allow the rest of the staff to write or post materials for the site without going through Communications. This is for the very reason that we don’t want non-writers to change the voice, the quality or the format of the Web site. It must be consistent and align with our brand and style. In fact, I often get material from non-writers on the staff who want me to post things on the Web site, intranet, Internet or TV monitors, and it is usually full of grammatical and spelling errors that need to be fixed before they’re posted. Without a skilled gatekeeper, that level of quality would be difficult to maintain.

Technical communicators will always have a place at the table, particularly when they keep up with their skills and credentials so they can offer added value to their organization.

Culture and Society Rules You

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

According to Clark, who invokes Johnson to confirm that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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

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

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