Category Archives: Workplace

Final Paper

Hi all –

Congrats on reaching the end of the semester! For my final paper I examined a website at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as compared to a website at University of Michigan. Both were Mechanical Engineering program sites. Below is my abstract.

Deciding where to go to college is a major investment in both time and money. University marketing is increasingly becoming more highly competitive. As the digital world becomes more prevalent, traditional marketing has taken somewhat of a backseat and online forums such as websites are becoming more heavily used to gather information. This paper shows a comparative evaluation between the University of Wisconsin-Madison Mechanical Engineering website and the University of Michigan Mechanical Engineering Website. It will evaluate the two websites using usability principles and identify opportunities and provide suggestions on how to improve the UW-Madison website.

It’s been a pleasure working with you this semester. Feel free to stay in touch via LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/brittneygeenen/

Have a wonderful holiday season!

Best,

Brittney

Technical Communication and Computer Algorithms

For my final paper, I wrote about the complex computer algorithms that drive Google’s search engine and Facebook’s news feed. My paper explored the many variables that determine how Google’s search engine ranks web pages, and the user inputs that influences the content users see on Facebook. I also discussed what this means for technical communicators, and how they can use these algorithms to communicate effectively with online audiences.

Google’s Search Engine Algorithm

Google’s Search Engine. Source: Google.com

When conducting research on this topic, I found one journal article that argued that Google’s search engine forces technical communicators to write for two audiences: human and robots. The author argues that technical communicators have to write content that is interesting and helpful for people, while writing in quantifiable and structural ways for Google’s search engine. In order to rank on Google’s search results, you have to repeatedly use certain keywords that match the reader’s intent, write a concise headline that Google’s robots can easily read, and use numerous links throughout the post.

This was probably one of the more interesting insights for me while writing this paper. I had not thought of it in this way before, but it’s true. Even major newspapers (like the New York Times) had to change their writing practices in order to rank on Google’s search engine. The same journal article found that the NYT’s web articles use more literal titles than it’s newspaper headlines. They use more literal headlines because these titles can rank on Google’s search engine more easily.

Facebook’s News Feed Algorithm

Facebook’s News Feed. Source: How-to-geek.com

When it came to Facebook’s news feed algorithm, there are a lot of factors that technical communicators have to consider. Unlike Google’s search engine algorithm, Facebook’s algorithm is controlled more by user activity than writers. Facebook users also have a better idea that their every move is being tracked. This is largely due to the many scandals and news headlines that have brought attention to the issue. For instance, this article shows how Facebook is reading your text messages if you have downloaded certain applications.

This has caused many users to be rather distrustful of the content they find on Facebook. One study found that users changed their behaviors once they learned how Facebook’s news algorithm worked. This can put technical communicators in a tricky situation. They have to use Facebook’s algorithms to reach certain user groups, which means they benefit from a system that tracks a user’s every move. Facebook’s users tend to be more hostile because of this fact.

Computer Algorithms Implications

For these reasons, technical communicators need to practice transparency when using computer algorithms. This can be difficult because technical communicators often serve mixed interests: they write quality content for the user, but they also serve a larger entity like a company. This requires technical communicators to write for a company’s needs rather than a user. As such, technical communicators need to balance these two roles accordingly if they wish to communicate with users effectively.

I recommend that technical communicators become UX experts and researchers in order to balance these roles effectively. By being UX experts, writers must thoroughly understand the needs of the user so they can best write content for them. By being research experts, technical communicators must use the best tools (like Google’s search plan and google analytics) to best learn the key terms they need to know to rank on pages.

Final Thoughts

Personally, this has been an incredibly interesting course and semester. Everyone has written such thoughtful blog posts and has caused me to think more deeply about my own online habits and use of digital technologies. I look forward to seeing what you guys have written about for your final papers! Good job, everyone.

Am I an Important Cultural Worker?

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

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Cultural Communication Differences, courtesy of meetus@US

 

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

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Homogeneous vs. Heterogeneous, courtesy of Thesaurus.plus

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

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

 

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Control freaks unit!, courtesy of Psychology Today

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

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

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

Looking at Digital Literacy Through Different Lenses

Research Participant Lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technical Writer Lens

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

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

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

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

Consumer Lens

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

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

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Image from Helpsocial.com

Teaching Take-aways Concerning Digital Literacy

 

CollaborativeWriting

Collaborative writing, courtesy of KQED

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

Blackboard

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

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

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

Signposts

Signposts, courtesy of Hillcrest Primary School

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

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

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

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

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Photo source Wikipedia

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

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

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

Aging Gracefully in Tech Comm

MiddleAge

Happy middle-aged people, courtesy of Daily Express

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

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

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

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

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Early Google landing screen, courtesy of Telegraph

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

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

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

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

Dylan Thomas

Seductive Dylan Thomas, courtesy of Literary Hub

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

Change is Good!

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

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

Image Source: cartoonstock.com

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

Failure to Evolve with Changing Technology

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

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

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

A Whole New Way to Work

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

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Image Source: teambonding.com

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

 

Web 2.0 and Online Identity Formation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lurkers are destroying online collaboration participation. Really?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk to Me!

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

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

Why I Work to Increase Viewer Interaction – and How

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

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

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Image from Grad School Pearl Girl VIPs Facebook group page.

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

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

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

A Little Appreciation Goes a Long Way

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

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Image by Rebecca Snyder

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

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Image from Grad School Pearl Girl VIPs Facebook group.

DIY, with Help from the ‘Bots

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Stark wisdom, courtesy of imgflip.com

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

Small-World Network, Old-World Coffee Klatch

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

CoffeeKlatch

Coffee Klatch, courtesy of Hubpages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act, or Be Acted On

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

Out with the Old – But Wait a Minute!

In this week’s readings, we take a look at how social media has changed and, in some cases, re-defined the role of a Technical Writer.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading through the research collected by Blithe, Lauer, and Curran in their article, Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World.  They point out that the job title of “Technical Writer” seems dated in this current Web 2.0 world, and the authors quote Bernhardt (2010) in saying:  “Our graduates are getting jobs, but it is becoming ever more difficult to say just what kind of jobs are out there and what kinds of skills they demand” (265).

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

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Image from dilbert.com (August 3, 1995)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Image courtesy of 11point.com

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

Ambient Awareness: A Replacement for Social Connectedness?

Ambient Awareness is a social science term Clive Thompson used in his article, Brave New World of Digital Intimacy, to explain the new constant online environment we communicate and interact in.  This enables us to maintain weaker social connections in an incessantly overwhelming digital environment.  Facebook was the frontrunner in this form of digital interaction but it has developed to now include microblogging, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  Ambient awareness also considers the narcissistic.  tendencies for people to think that every single little thought or occurrence in every moment of their life necessitates a social media post of microblog. This awareness and behavior weakens social ties and further creates an ego-centric mainframe where the social media user is not so concerned with what is going on in other’s lives but rather the importance of their personal posts.  Are loose connections or acquaintances preferred over the deeper connection of the past?

Embed from Getty Images

Wikipedia further defines ambient awareness as an awareness propagated from relatively constant contact with one’s friends and colleagues via social media platforms. Wikipedia Ambient Awareness 

It would seem that the constant connection created a deeper disconnect or even devalued the meaning in social interaction.  It’s as if we don’t even
“see” each other as human beings but rather view these interactions as transactional.

Anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes that evolutionary structure of social networks limits us to 150 meaningful relationships at a time, despite the rise in social media.  In the following TED Talk, “Why the Internet Won’t Get You Anymore Friends”, Robin Dunbar argues why social media doesn’t give us the expanded social connectedness that it promises.  He makes you question the quality of communication done on social media platforms.  Loose connections are the substance in social media communication.

 

 

So, how ambient awareness and the brain’s inability to have larger numbers of truly meaningful relationships effecting our workplace collaboration?  Clive Thompson goes on to further discuss in his New York Times article that ambient awareness allows us to maintain weaker social connections that actually create more common ground in workplace collaboration because the ongoing updates build the social context for collaboration.  B.J. McNely, in the October 2001 publication, Informational communication, sustainability, and the public writing work or organizations from Proceedings of the IEEE International Professional Communication Conference (1-7), further explains that social media practices such as micro-blogging, as discussed in this post, are not seen as formal work, but rather the informal communication that happens alongside the work.  In this context, ambient awareness seems complimentary to the workplace by creating an informal way to collaborate that still builds trust and understanding.

 

While loose connections are viewed to be harmful to our social interaction, they do in fact have value in certain situations.

 

 

 

Technical Communication is Multifaceted

Ever since I joined the MSTPC program, I have noticed a repeated theme throughout technical and professional communication literature. Technical communication often doesn’t seem to know what it is, what it does, or why it matters. I have read many research papers that seem insecure about the profession and try to pinpoint what technical communication is and who it is for. Notable technical writers like Tom Johnson have even tackled this issue in posts like “Why is there a divide between academics and practitioners and tech comm?”. In my Theory and Research class, I wrote my final essay about why researchers seem to explore the identity of the technical writer more so than other professions. I understand all professions do research about about their own field, but technical communication is one of the first fields I’ve run into that seems unsure of itself. 

I saw some of these themes of identity in Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World.” However, these authors seemed more sure about what technical communicators do and seem to be okay with the fact that technical writers are a diverse bunch with a wide skill set. They focus less on “What is a technical writer?” and instead, “What does a technical communicator do?” I particularly enjoyed and agreed with this quote from the piece, “In other words it is not enough in a Web 2.0 world to ONLY write effectively, you must branch out and be a master of many skills and tools.” Blythe, Lauer, and Curran explore these many skillsets and tools throughout the paper and it inspired me to create my own list of common writing tasks and tools I use in my day-to-day job as a technical content writer: 

Most often used types of writing Most often Used Tools
1. White Papers 1. Google Drive (Doc, Excel, Slides)
2. Case Studies 2. Sketch
3. Blog / Syndicated Content 3. Slack / Email
4. Website / Landing Pages 4. UX Research tools like Ethnio
5. Blog / Syndicated Content 5. HubSpot
6. Press Releases 6. Asana
7. Advertising 7. WordPress
8. Strategy / Planning / Internal Sales documents 8. Survey Tools


Most Often Used Types of Writing

I decided to create two different list of my writing tasks / tools to show the multifacetedness of technical writing. For instance, many of my “most often used types of writing” involves doing more than just writing (especially the higher ranked types). To create a strong white paper or webpage requires knowing design skills, information management, and UX expertise. Sometimes, I spend more time designing white papers and case studies with design tools than I do actually writing. This often makes me feel more like a visual designer than a technical writer, but I would argue that you would need to know skills from both trades to make a compelling document that is exciting to read. 

A case study I created for work

Case Study Design

I created this document above to explain how Jacuzzi is using my company’s platform to create a connected hot tub. One of the biggest challenges with case studies is they offer a lot of information and most clients don’t have time to read them. As such, I believe it is important to create a document that would excite clients and can be read quickly. For this case study, I create a document that is easily scannable with data visualization and short paragraphs, while adding visual interests with color contrasts and visuals. I had to use design tools like Sketch to make visuals that draw the reader’s attention and use information management skills to organize the information in a way that is compelling. 

The Importance of Tools

In “Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making,” Longo discusses how technical communicators must become masters of ICT technologies. I would add to that and say that technical communicators must master more than ICT tools nowadays, but also must become a master of design, information management, task management tools, and more. The number of tools required to be a become a proficient technical communicator is only increasing too. However, while mastering all of these tools is helpful and certainly increase career opportunities, I wouldn’t say a technical communicator must be an expert at all of them.

The Bottom Line

As a marketing technical writer, it makes sense why I see visuals and design tools as such an important element of being a technical communicator. However, a technical communicator who focuses on creating internal documentation may not need to know the same number of design tools as I do. They may prioritize other skillsets and tools that I may not even know about. And that’s the benefit of being a technical writer – there is so many different routes and paths to specialize in. These wide range of skillsets and purposes make it hard to define what a technical communicator is, but it is certainly not a weakness. It’s something we should celebrate more. 

Is Slack a useful communication tool?

Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article “Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World” is seeking to understand professionals who have graduated with a degree in professional and technical communication and understand what it means to be a “Professional and Technical Communicator” in today’s digital world given how the landscape of the disciple has changed. They highlight, for example, the fact that the job title “Social Media Manager” didn’t exist 10 years ago. In their results, participants were asked to rank the most comment and (separately rank) the most valued types of writing they do.

Most Often and Valued communication types

Image from Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article.

Beyond this, they also surveyed participants on what types of technologies they used to produce the texts.

Types of Technology used to Write

Image from Blythe, Lauer, and Curran’s article.

These findings were particularly interesting to me as I’m finishing up my MSTPC program and working on completing my field project. For my field project, I’m examining the effects Slack (see image below) has on workplace communication. There is a team I am a part of that recently implemented the communication technology Slack into our workplace, and I will be examining how implementing this technology has impacted the team in terms of team dynamic, communication style, productivity and efficiency. The team I am examining consists of members from across generations, so part of my research has to do with generational communication and how technological literacy influences the adaptation of communication technologies like Slack.

Slack

Slack screenshot.

I am still early in the stages of writing and will begin surveying team members soon, but in preparing for this research I found this study really relevant. Across the profession there are many different types of writing, and clearly different technologies used to produce each writing. In the team I am surveying for my research, we are all Communication Specialists in the UW-Madison College of Engineering, which means we fit into this group that Blythe, Lauer, and Curran studied. In the types of technologies used to produce texts portion of the study, Slack or any type of instant message technology wasn’t a technology that was included. The article is from 2014, so perhaps these types of technologies weren’t as common in the workplace as they are now, but it makes me wonder what the results would say today.

So I pose this question, have any of you used Slack in your workplace? If so, how has it affected your communication styles with your colleagues?

Collaborative, Efficient, and Overwhelmed with Online Services

Five years ago, Toni Ferro and Mark Zachry wrote about the use of publicly available online services (PAOSs) among knowledge workers associated with the technology sector. In their article “Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices” in the December issue of Technical Communication Quarterly, Ferro and Zachry reported that the majority of knowledge workers surveyed used PAOSs for at least part of their workweek. Knowledge workers used them an average of 25% of their week, and a small percentage used them 80-100% of the time.

As a digital media director, I am a knowledge worker associated with the technology sector, so I decided to take a look at my own work processes in 2018. For my job, graduate school, and in my personal life, I use most of the services, tools, and social media platforms that Ferro & Zachry discuss.

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Almost all of the PAOSs I use are well known, but there are a few that are unique to the type of work I do including Zencastr for recording podcasts online. Motion Array is a site with royalty-free music and effects for video editing. Interact is a service that helps me create online quizzes. If you include all of these tools, I am among the group of knowledge workers who use PAOSs 80-100% of the time.

My list of PAOSs does not include all of the applications I use for work. I use a MacBook Pro laptop with apps such as QuickTime to record websites and Preview to edit photos. I also use browsers such as Chrome, Safari, and Firefox with plug-ins for specific uses such as downloading video and full-page screen shots. I have an iPhone with apps such as Voice Memos to record audio tracks. Plus, I use other software and applications that are mostly subscription-based and provided by my employer: Adobe Premier Pro, Adobe Audition, Adobe Acrobat, and Microsoft Office 365 which includes PowerPoint, Excel, and Word. There are also apps for services in the physical world such as Uber and Southwest that I use for work and in my personal life.

In my current position, I produce videos and often need to share large video files. To do that, I use Dropbox and Google Drive. In the past, I used Hightail, which was once called YouSendIt. Every few years, one of the services I use will be sidelined by a new one. I find that it’s best to work with the ones that are most familiar to my clients. Occasionally, I’ll need to learn the features of a PAOS that is new to me such as Vimeo because my client prefers it over the video player I normally use, which is YouTube.

My clients expect me to be up to date on all sorts of PAOSs and new technologies. Often, they rely on me to train them as well. It’s all on-the-job training. If I need to learn a new PAOS or app, I Google it. I also watch video tutorials on another PAOS, Lynda.com, which I just found out is now part of LinkedIn. I enjoy learning the latest apps and services, and many of them help me work collaboratively and efficiently. The downside is that I never feel like an expert at any of them, and at times, it can be overwhelming trying to remember all of the various passwords and platforms. I find that browsers can be helpful by storing login information, and luckily, most services are user-friendly if not user-centered with a not-so-steep learning curve.

As Ferro & Zachry noted, Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich said in the 1990s that the U.S. economy was shifting from manufacturing products to generating ideas and from the production of goods to specialized knowledge. While I feel I have a valuable skillset, my skills are always changing and evolving. I rely on my ability to problem-solve, write, organize, and plan. I also have gone back to school to update my knowledge and learn the latest tools as a graduate student in technical and professional communication.

Always Open for Business

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

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

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

Screenshot (89)

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

images

Image from Vectorstock.com

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

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

Blending 70s and modern tech

While I was looking for sources for my article that discussed the military’s use of emerging communications and technology, I found this article from the Duffel Blog, which is the military’s version of The Onion. 

The article, “Navy Issues Tablets to Prepare Sailors For Careers Working With 1970s Electronics” isn’t wrong. In fact, the system I was trained the maintain, the AN/SLQ-32, was developed in the 1970s.

Duffel Blog “quoted” the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Mike Stevens: ““This is a cost effective way to replace the two books we issue at boot camp and it will also streamline the training process so recruits can spend more time folding clothes.”

Also true. And yes, I spent a lot of time in boot camp folding and ironing clothes. These mundane tasks are given to teach recruits to pay attention to details. Most of boot camp is designed around that purpose, actually.

However, while issuing tablets to Navy recruits can generate some funny stories, it signals a huge change in the service: audience analysis. Military service is often categorized by blind obedience, but the Navy is moving away from that philosophy. Leaders are encouraged to explain the “why” behind orders. And the military is creating training methods and knowledge management systems that mimic the devices and apps digital natives are already familiar with.

When the news about Navy boot camp issuing tablets to recruits, I joined in the ribbing around the ship that new recruits were spoiled. However, reading the story again through my technical and professional communication lens, I can appreciate Stevens’ revolutionary idea and I applaud him for making it happen. Because several of his salty peers would have dismissed the idea the way I originally did.

In addition to looking at new technology, I also examined the military’s use of social network sites. Overall, the military encourages servicemembers to use social media for its positive benefits, like keeping in touch while deployed. The military has even created its own knock-off version of Facebook. YouTube, Blogger, and Wikipedia. However, the military is still working on negating the negative aspects of social media: OPSEC violations and harassment.

Speaking of OPSEC. Check out this sweet declassified report I found.

Finally, I examined how technology was changing warfare tactics. I found a source that talked about Russia spending a lot of money to create #fakenews when it annexed Crimea in 2014. #shockedsaidnoone

However, #fakenews will be an issue for incoming servicemembers because multiple researchers found today’s students aren’t very good at discerning fact from fiction online.

Overall, I assessed the military’s use of technology and emerging communication methods as on the right track but with room for improvement.

Digital Literacy Across Cultures

This week I found an interesting connection between  Chapter 7: Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures in Spilka’s (2010) Digital Literacy for Technical Communication and the workplace. Spilka discusses that accessing and understanding digital media in some communication settings is one meaning of digital literacy. The chapter specifically focuses on the US EPA (EPA) and the Mexican Counterpart Semarnat.

I work for a state agency in the natural resources division.  Specifically  public dining water regulation.  This chapter made me think about the audience we had while regulating drinking water quality and how culture plays a part in who has access to the information and what information is available.

There are a few ways the public can receive heath information about possible contaminates in their drinking water.  They could initiate the gathering of information by accessing our website.  A significant amount of information is available and many  publications are available in PDF form to save or print.  The other way they could gather information is if they work at a business with drinking water issues and see postings in the break room and by faucets or fountains.  They also could go to a number of local businesses such as a church, bar or restaurant and find the same posted information.

Our publications have been created to include multiple versions for some of the hot topic issues such as lead and lead.  Both brochures are available in English, Spanish and Hmong.


Image: dnr.wi.gov

Another way we offer multi language support is through our customer service lines.  You can talk to someone on the phone, a chat through the website, or email in your questions.  All three of these services are available in English, Spanish or Hmong.

The main idea I had while thinking about this post was what happens when someone is no longer seeking this information out but a sensitive population that is unable to access this information due to cultural issues.  It is no secret that we have undocumented workers in Wisconsin.  If one of these undocumented workers work at a location with water contamination issues such as nitrates it may be difficult for them to understand they are at risk if the information is not given to them.

When there is a specific contaminate violation often times  businesses have to post a public notice that alerts the consumers to the public health risk.  While we do provide language in the violation that if they have 5% or more non English speaking consumers they also need to post in the most common language.  What percentage of these at risk non English speaking consumers will actually receive this information?

Further digging on our website came up with a number of resources specifically to translation and public notices.  These are great resources for businesses that need to public notice but I still feel like not all at risk consumes get the same amount of information as their English speaking counterparts.

Siestas by the sea and the importance of empathy

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

ARC Padilla

ARC Padilla FM-51

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So my goals this week are:

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

Content Management in Job Searches

It can be almost funny when you find connections between real life and content in your assigned coursework. After reading Chapters 3, 4 and 5 in Digital Literacy I found myself in an ironic situation. My husband and I had to work together to create content. On Friday my husband came home from work and I asked him how his day was. He said it was fine and then I heard the real story. Corporate human resource represenatives came into the plant in our small town and said that all 40 employees would be laid off sometime between January 1 and April 1 2018. The company has a much larger plant about an hour and a 1/2 away that employees around 200 people. The employees were told they would be making 1/3 of the positions available in the larger plant but it would be open recruitment.

My husband hasn’t updated his resume since the last time he was job hunting 5+ years ago. Knowing there is such a high demand for these positions I stressed how important it would be for us to have a professional looking design with quality error free content.

My search for a new resume template started with Google search for free creative resume templates. Some pages I was afraid to click on because I was worried about the sources. Other pages had nothing but ads or still required payment. I spent a number of hours using a variety of search terms to find this content. There was very little if not zero content available that was professional, modern and clean designs.

My next search was to try to find content that was very low cost. I remembered seeing digital content such as clip art on ETSY and thought it was worth a shot.  I was able to find just what I was looking for using Etsy.com search for instant download resume templates that cost between $1 and $2

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To my surprise all it took was paying $1 instead of looking for the content for free. The template I picked had three templates with it. One for the resume, one for a cover letter and one for references. It included instructions and templates in a variety of formats. Both for the Apple software Pages and for Microsoft Word.

I think this taught me a lot about the availability and cost of content. No one wants to give up content for free. Even if it is just a dollar per download that adds a lot to the professionalism and quality of the product.

Digital Literacy Embraced

Earlier this week I was chatting with one of my superiors who was visiting the regional campus from where I taught my IDL class that day. Of course, she asked me about my class (since I am required to take classes to keep my Speech certification). I told her what we have been discussing and told her about the case study I am doing on Western’s use of social media etc. She asked me what I thought of their Twitter posts. I mentioned that I enjoyed the content, but the spelling and grammar mistakes are plentiful. Her response was that in the more technical fields, grammar and spelling are second to content. I pointed out that the president of the college just tweeted and it contained an obvious error. She scoffed and said it was no big deal. Maybe I should have kept my mouth shut, but I told her that Western’s Twitter followers may not share her view about spelling and grammar since many would see that as lacking an eye for detail or incompetence. He expression changed and she proceeded to a back office. So, I revisited that conversation when I read Dicks’ article, “The Effects of Digital Literacy” and his quote of Moore and Kreth (2005) stating “The days of being grammar cops, wordsmiths, and software applications experts are not over for technical communicators, but those skills are diminishing in value. . . ” (2010, pg 54).

Perhaps the English instructor in me has difficulty with letting those skills fall into second. I imagine many technical communicators may feel the same way. However, with the changes in responsibilities for technical communicator’s, I can see having to let something go. . . perhaps one has to put away the grammar cop badge and focus on other areas.

So many changes have occurred over the last 30 years, but many significant changes in the last decade have really eliminated many responsibilities of what I perceived many technical communicators do. In fact, I recently changed a writing assignment in one of my classes to a website review. I figured it would give them more of a technical view of writing and also get them to see what is considered when devising and evaluating a website[ Audience, purpose and content (as is for other types of communication)] verses an essay. The students (typical college students at a UW school) are much more engaged on this assignment since most are more technology-minded.

Technical communication is changing so rapidly, I am not sure I can keep up. I can’t imagine how challenging it must be for someone who has been in the field for 30 years. Dicks’ states, “Technical communicators watched some people leave the profession because they chose not to change the way they worked and because they insisted that true writing involved writing for paper (2010, pg 76). I see the same happening in my field. Some instructors at Western refuse to teach Online or IDL classes and refuse to use Blackboard. I find that a bit ironic since it is a technical college; however, it benefited me since I don’t mind teaching in either mode. I was pleased to hear that the college is finally making all instructors at least use Blackboard next year. Also, in some disciplines, faculty will have to teach Online or IDL if needed. Some may see it as an infringement of their rights (which I don’t understand), but technology is changing the workplace, not just for technical communicators, but for those of us teaching people who need some or all the skills of that field.

 

 

TC: The Madonna of career fields

If Madonna had stayed a “Material Girl” and never made “Confessions on the Dance Floor,” she likely would not have an active 40-year entertainment career. Technical communication has also continued to evolve to stay relevant. The key to success for technical communication is not getting too hung up on the name.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the profession as “Technical writers, also called technical communicators, prepare instruction manuals, how-to guides, journal articles, and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily. They also develop, gather, and disseminate technical information through an organization’s communications channels.” The Bureau of Labor also predicted the field will grow 11 percent–faster than the overall average–in the next 10 years because it will be “driven by the continuing expansion of scientific and technical products. An increase in Web-based product support should also increase demand for technical writers. Job opportunities, especially for applicants with technical skills, are expected to be good.”

In her anthology Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, Rachel Spilka (2010) said her collection “points to the critical need for evolution” (p.3). And Saul Carliner’s (2010) essay “Computers and Technical Communication in the 21st Century” illustrates how the field has been able to embrace new technologies to provide better support for customers. However, as the field continues to evolve, professionals in the field may not be called “technical writers” or “technical communicators.”

Eva Brumberger and Claire Lauer (2015) investigated the evolution of the field in their article “The Evolution of Technical Communication: An Analysis of Industry Job Posting,” which was published in November 2015’s issue of Technical Communication. The researchers analyzed 914 job postings from Monster.com over a 60-day period for a variety of jobs to include content designer, information architect, social media developer, technical editor, technical writer, UX researcher, and web writer (p.  The researchers only kept listings whose primary duties were rhetorical in nature, and divided the jobs into five fields: 1. content developer/manager; 2. grant/proposal writer; 3. medical writer; 4. social media; 5. technical writer/editor (pp. 228-229). In their analysis, Brumberger and Lauer (2015) discovered that all five fields place a strong emphasis on written communication [at least 70%] (p. 236).

According to Carliner (2010), technical writers in the 1970s were primarily producing written content to help customers understand their newly purchased mainframe computers (pp. 22-25). In current times, Carliner (2010) said, software engineers perform the roles of technical communicators (p. 25). Brumberger and Lauer (2015) reported almost 40 years later, technical communicators are expected to be strong in written communicators [75%] (p. 236).

While technical communicators first created books, most technical content today is found online, according to R. Stanley Dicks (2010) who wrote: “The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work” (p. 51). So, while a lot in the field has changed over 40 years, the core competency of written communication has not wavered. The emerging media platforms have given the field an opportunity to produce more meaningful written content because it has better communication channels with its audience. Dicks (2010) wrote that companies cannot hide common product issues because they will show up on product reviews, blogs, and message boards (p. 57).

Madonna has remained relevant for 40 years because she was able to keep a pulse on what was current. Technical communication has performed a similar feat by evolving but also by keeping audience analysis at the forefront. As long as the field continues to perform audience analysis and adapt, it will be a viable career opportunity for years to come.

 

 

Not your mom’s Web 2.0

 

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

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

(Partnerships and Network)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where Social Media Brand Communities and Technical Writing Meet

I’ve been intrigued by both this class’s use of social media and readings about social media, as well as the changing role of technical communicators. It made me start to wonder — what if technical documentation was a social media platform?

Companies are already investing heavily in social media brand communities where they create their own internal social media sites so that customers can connect with each other and provide direct feedback to the company. Earlier research has shown that strong social media brand communities have a sense of connectedness, rituals and traditions in the form of storytelling, and a moral responsibility where users want to contribute. All of these seem like a natural fit for technical documentation.

The company where I work has a vibrant social media brand community based on a discussion forum that is accessible to customers only. Customers use it to post questions and offer support for each other. We’ve begun to integrate it with our repository of published technical documentation through shared searching and allowing for commenting directly on documents.

Using my company’s site as the primary case study, my final paper focused on pushing the boundaries of where we can go next. The idea of social media brand communities creating technical documentation fits with the trend toward user-generated content (a la Wikipedia) and would certainly change the face of technical communications. However, it might be premature to begin publishing both company-created content and customer generated content alongside each other and without distinction without a way to validate what customers write. Users need a way to know which of their peers are credible and to identify trustworthy documentation.

Until we tackle those questions of developing a trust system and a way to maintain the quality of technical documentation, there are some baby steps that both my company and other organizations can take to begin leveraging the power of the user community in technical writing. These include:

  • Integrating social media features such as commenting and “likes” with technical documentation.
  • Using viewer data to organize content and help users find what others similar to them have read.
  • Creating collaborative documents where the company partners with a customer in creating a new guide.

I think the big takeaway for me from this course and from the final paper has been how rapidly technical communication is changing. It’s an exciting time to think about all the new tools that are available, and we’ll also have to be agile and aggressive as we redefine our role in a new age of documentation.

open road horizon

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.

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

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?

TPC: More than a Writing Degree

technical-writing-Dilbert-cartoon

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

Technical and Professional Communication vs. English Degree

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

Methodology and Results of Survey

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

More Technologies Used in Writing Process

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

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

References

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

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

Audiences all the way down…

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

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

Communicating Across Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

A new breed of technical communicator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another End Brings New Beginnings

I often say that everything happens for a reason and at the time it should be happening.  But what I have found with my schoolwork over this past year-and-a-half is how the uncanny unfolding of situations at work parallel and seem to be answered by my school work.  This class was no exception.  For the past year, I have worked to try and create a blog just for my own department and for various political reasons it has not been very successful.  Fortunately this class has brought a number (too many to count) ah-ha moments. For example, developing a sound social media strategy is vital in order for organizations to survive in today’s digital world.  But the miss to this strategy is how we can also create a social media strategy as it relates to internal organizational communication.  Something I am now working to formalize with my role.

Just like the following image, however, aligning social media tools can be just as challenging to solving a Rubik’s cube.  Interestingly enough, the Rubik’s cube was actually designed by a professor to help his students look at how you solve an objects structural problem and solve individual problems without the whole object falling apart (Wikipedia).  The same goes for developing an internal organizational social media strategy.  While organizations may have entire strategies to build around this topic, it is looking at each situation that needs to be solved and understanding how that situation and solution fits into the whole strategy.

Rubiks

On that note, a sweet melody that brings to you my…

Final Paper Abstract
Many marketing and communication experts have defined this time in our history as Web 2.0.  It is the time in our digital history that highlights how organizations are required by societal norms and expectations to use social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook to communicate and connect with their consumers.  Kids, adults, students, even grandparents are using social media channels to connect with each other on a daily (sometimes even hourly) basis.  But the use of social media for organizations to communicate and connect with employees is uncertain and volatile.  In fact, in a study completed by Towers Watson (2013) the results concluded that just over 50-percent of companies are using social media to connect with employees in some way.  There seems to be little evidence and research into the social media structures and strategy for internal organizational communication.  Therefore, this paper will look at the social media channels that could be used to build an internal social media communication strategy for an organization and to begin identifying the effectiveness of these social media tools and tactics. 

Whew – nearly all of that in one breath.  I will say that the research aspects of this final paper have been tedious, exhausting, and exhilarating.  It can be like finding a needle in a haystack when there is little research out there.  But what has been an interesting challenge is to take the knowledge that has been built around social media and decipher and pull from it how internal communications could benefit from these tools and tactics.

tedius

And although this semester is coming to a quick close, the work around this class and this final research paper will drive my career and school work.  With that, while I could probably write to you for hours on this subject, I’m afraid I must bid you adieu.  Thank you all for such a wonderful semester.  Your thoughtful comments and intriguing posts truly provided for some great thought provoking conversations.

Feliz Navidad.  Happy Holidays.  Merry Christmas.  Happy Hanukah.  And to new beginnings.

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!

 

Who Are You?

What is it?

In Professional and Technical Communication in a Web 2.0 World, authors Stuart Blythe, Claire Lauer, and Paul Curran (2014) pointed out graduates of this degree “…often begin their careers by gaining experience at several jobs or…struggle to find full-time or stable employment in the current economic market” (p.266). While I believe all of us start out in that scenario, Technical Communication, unlike more specialized degrees, is misunderstood by employers and often students themselves. When someone asks what degree I’m earning I know this will be a conversation rather than a statement. Say Technical and Professional Communication and even my college colleagues aren’t clear on what I’m studying. So I explain that for my purpose it’s primarily professional writing for technologies, business communication, media, and scientific fields, and incorporates rhetoric, ethics, and theory to deliver concise content.

 

St. Leo

What to do with it?

“What will I do with it?” they ask. So I explain relevancy to website revision, and moving into a faculty position to teach English. “Why not an English degree?” Well, I don’t care for literature (although I’m a voracious reader of it), and don’t want to be pigeonholed as an English instructor. “So why study technology?” My God, it’s gets tiring. But the point is that Technical Communication is not an easy degree or field to describe. Similarly, with my BA where I double-majored in Public Administration and Management, everyone understood Management – but Public Administration? So after awhile I went with “It’s Business Administration without taking quantitative methods.” Whew. Must have been widespread confusion because St. Leo University no longer offers the degree. No wonder students have a hard time defining what they do and finding relevant jobs. As Bernhardt (2010) found, “Our graduates are getting jobs, but it is becoming ever more difficult to say just what kind of jobs are out there and what kinds of skills they demand” (as cited in Blythe, Lauer, and Curran, 2014, p. 266).

 

knowledge workers chart

(Mari Pierce-Quinonez, “What You Need to Know About Management” https://www.techchange.org/2015/06/16/knowledge-management-explained/)

 

What’s new? 

Confusion continues as communicators embrace new media, roles, job opportunities, and trying to define themselves to meet employer needs. The “typical” communication is no longer. Communicator jobs are not only in flux, but non-fixed. In Coordinating constant invention: Social media’s role in distributed work, Spinuzzi (2007) stated, “Recent scholarship has explored how the ‘‘distributed’’ nature of this work affects career trajectories and work practices of professional and technical communicators (as cited by Pigg, 2014, p.60). Meanwhile, Pigg (2014) considers the decentralization of ”typical” office work, and see’s todays’ “symbolic-analyst” workers method of social media use to be whatever they need, accessed wherever they want. Additionally, Pigg (2014) found, “With knowledge workers increasingly disconnected from desk and office spaces on the one hand, and with contract and freelance work on the rise on the other, professional communicators whose work is symbolic-analytic often face a dual burden: composing an immediate time and space to conduct their work and overcoming a long-term lack of stability related to future professional opportunities” (p. 69).

 

GoogleTwitter

(Scott Abel (2013) “Technical Communication 2012: Our Biggest Challenge Is Thinking Differently About Being Different” http://thecontentwrangler.com/2011/12/13/technical-communication-2012-our-biggest-challenge-is-thinking-differently-about-being-different/)

 

Will it matter?

What will Technical Communicators face? Blythe et. al, (2014) indicated, “Job titles that seem to have arisen more directly from a Web 2.0 economy include social media marketing manager, SharePoint engineer, social media consultant, content strategist, knowledge base coordinator, and Web content editor” (p. 272). In their “tcworld blog” ), The evolution of technology, authors Monalisa Sen and Debarshi Gupta Biswas (2013) stated, “technical communication has transitioned from a conventional author-reader engagement to a realm of social collaboration.” Additionally, they redefine technical communication stating “With the use of Wiki and Web 2.0 concepts technical communication has transitioned from being instructional to interactive. A technical writer has truly become “an honest mediator between people who create technology and who use technology” (Sen et al., 2013).

 

Who Are We? 

For me, “Instructional to interactive;” nicely captures the new realm that technical communication has reached, while seamlessly tying in traditional purpose. Yet it makes me wonder – will the roles under this umbrella title continue to swell until communicator means little? Will Technical and Professional Communication become another degree that disappears? What does this mean for us? As the great Roger Daltry asks “Who Are You?”

What do think?

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?

A Roadmap to Social Media Success for Your Organization

treasure-map_zJHThaiu_L

Of the readings this week, the one that stood out to me the most was Tweeting an Ethos: Emergency Messaging, Social Media, and Teaching Technical Communication by Melody A. Bowdon. Although all the readings* influenced to the contents of this post in some way, Tweeting an Ethos made me think specifically about the roadmap that is needed for ensuring success of an organization’s social media efforts.

The guidelines I offer here are not exhaustive; they are meant to provide a thought framework that can be applied when preparing social media content and subsequently distributing it. This is especially true if, like me, you are being increasingly asked to participate—either developmentally or editorially—in your organization’s social media program.

Here are the guidelines for developing and distributing social media content:

Account for your organization’s core values. Some organizations have documented core values and some do not. If yours is in the former, they should be a core input into your social media editorial calendar (i.e. planned content). If yours is in the latter, your communication team should spend some time assessing what your organization’s core values are and document them. Even if these are not considered formal (i.e. have buy-in from executive leadership) that’s okay. Core values help you know what to write about and what not to, even before you put pen to paper.

Interpret the message. Once you’ve written your social media content, ask yourself three questions: What does this mean? What does this mean to our supporters? What does this mean to our detractors? The answers to these questions should inform the final draft of your content.

For example, you may have had one purpose and intended meaning for your content before you started writing. Is it evident in the file copy? If not, are its purpose and meaning acceptable to you?

Your supporters and detractors will interpret (or seek to interpret) your content in different ways. You should attempt to craft a message that encourages your supporters and discourages your detractors. But, recognize achieving both is not always possible, which is why I recommend the next guideline.

Assess future impact. Remember, at this point your social media content has not been published. It’s a good idea to assess the benefits and risks associated with how the message could be interpreted. This applies to supporters as well as to detractors.

You don’t want supporters to be unhappy and you want detractors to come to your side. Of course, ethics may preclude ameliorating either of those results, but it is better to be fully informed going into a public communication scenario.

Test. Before posting, test content. Big budgets may be available to you to do this with more accuracy. More likely, you will need to take advantage of lower budget, less reliable options. These include running content by objective individuals within the organization (which is why I think I’m getting asked), approaching trusted clients, and following organizations whose social media platforms reflect your own. For the latter case, note responses to content similar to what you intend to post.

Pause before publishing. We’re technical communicators, so this is probably second nature to most of use. We pause and come back to our writing. I once set a “rule” that a 24 hour moratorium on distributing content was in effect, unless an item was time sensitive. I can’t tell you how many times within that 24 hours something changed that either impacted the content, caused a delay in distribution, or cancelled the content all together.

Wrap-up

If I stop to think about it, these five guidelines are really social media inputs into an organization’s ethos. (Bowdon recognizes the idea of ethos is defined in a variety of ways including organizational identity, credibility, or Aristotle’s good sense, good moral character, and goodwill (p. 36).) It’s a circular construct. Organizational ethos drives social media content and distribution. In turn, response based on the content influences organizational ethos—or at least the perception of it.

What have I missed in the guidelines?

*The other readings were Technical Communication Unbound: Knowledge Work, Social Media, and Emergent Communicative Practices by Toni Ferro and Mark Zachry and Using Social Media for Collective Knowledge-Making: Technical Communication Between the Global North and South by Bernadette Longo.

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.

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.

Additionally ways to get hired by using LinkedIn

Rich Maggiani’s article, “Using LinkedIn to Get Work,” provided a lot of great ideas on how to use LinkedIn to get a job in the technical communication industry. After talking to a couple of my technical communicator mentors, I wanted to add a few more suggestions to Maggiani’s article.

Showcase your work

If you have started a portfolio of the technical documents that you have created, get permission to post them online. Once you have that permission, add those documents to an area of your profile that makes the most sense. For example, I have created event flyers as well as work instructions. Because I want to focus on obtaining a job as a technical communicator in the medical field, in my Summary section (the very first section that you come to on my page), I have included a sample of the work instructions that I had created.

Additionally, in each section of my Experience area, I have included whatever appropriate document that best displayed my skills. Thus, not only can employers read about my skills and my experiences, they can also see my work samples too. This way, they can imagine what I can do for them to benefit their own company.

Now, do not forget that when you upload your document, it actually goes into a thing called “SlideShare,” which then gets posted into another public area as well. Be sure to use keywords in the description field, so that when someone searches for a particular document, your document can easily be found. Because of your document, you could be messaged to create a similar document for someone’s company.

Be humble by endorsing and recommending others

If you know people personally on LinkedIn, visit their profile page and click on the “Endorse” and “Recommend” links in the drop down arrow menu next to the “Send a message” button. You can endorse one of their skills, or you can recommend why that person is a wonderful employee/co-worker. Often times when you endorse or recommend someone, they will reciprocate the favor. By endorsing and recommending others, it shows that you are humble and a team player. When people endorse or recommend you, it shows others that there is proof to your claims about who you are and what your skills are. Employers do take these in to consideration when hiring.

Volunteer

I am surprised by how many people volunteer but do not put it on their resume or LinkedIn profile. Volunteering is great experience, no matter what it is. More over, many companies are always trying to show that they are apart of a community, so many companies will look for future-employees who have the same values of giving back to the community. As someone who has put together volunteering events for work, many people do not volunteer their time willingly or at all. Imagine a company trying to put on a charity event with very few employees helping out. That looks very poorly on the company and can possibly damage their reputation as a caring community supporter. So, if you volunteer, include that experience. If you have not volunteered yet, do it. Volunteering is fun and is a good networking experience.

Research the hiring manager

Of course, you will want to research the company that offered you a job, but to help get that job, you will want to ask who will be interviewing you. Once you find out who the hiring manager is, research them on LinkedIn to learn about them. Try to find things that you have in common and use that information to break the ice, or to somehow insert it into one of your answers to a question in the interview. The hiring manager will be impressed that you went to that much trouble to not only learn about the company, but about the people as well, and you will be more likely to receive a job offer. (I can state from experience, that this worked for me).

Conclusion

I hope that you found my four suggestions on how to further use LinkedIn to get a job helpful. I realized that showcasing your work, being humble by endorsing and recommending others, volunteering, researching the hiring manager are helpful in being hired. Hopefully, these suggestions will help you obtain a job too.

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

Evil angry robot . Render on blackbackground

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

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

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

What’s Up with That?

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

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

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

On the Other Hand

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

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

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

So Which Is it?

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

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

Resistance Is Not Futile

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

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

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

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

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

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

Would you add anything to the list?

Impact of technology on jobs for the mentally disabled

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

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

mental impairment1

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

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

humantomachine

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

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

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

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

How do I collaborate?

Community-Cutouts-edit11

While reading chapter 4 of Rheingold’s “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online”, I found some difficulty relating to the mentioned online collaborative communities illustrated through online gaming and Wikipedia pages.

If I had to categorize the bulk of my online activities, I would fall mostly in Ito’s “hanging out” situation defined on page 118 in chapter 3. I’ve never been interested in WoW or online gaming in general, and I certainly don’t “geek out” with any obscure Internet subculture. I understand concept of online collaborative communities, but it’s very difficult for me to translate this into my own life.

After thinking long and hard about this concept, two arenas came to mind: Linkedin and my job.

 

Although I absolutely do not frequent Linkedin the way I do Facebook, Insta, and SnapChat, I have a profile and have used the site while doing freelance assignments. The section on page 155 labeled “What Cooperation Theory Teaches Us About Life Online Today” could be the Bible for success on Linkedin.

At my current job, many of my coworkers are remote, and most of our daily assignments don’t come from a particular manager. There’s typically a collective interest (ex. Getting new products on the website, creating size charts) that can’t be completed without the collaboration of many people. These rules also strangely apply to this situation, as all of our interactions are online.

  1. Balance Retribution and Forgiveness. When you’re inquiring about a job on Linkedin, soliciting services or requesting a connection, do not harp on uninterested/untrustworthy people. If they don’t reciprocate or cooperate, try someone else and leave them alone. This rule also applies in the workplace, when people aren’t cooperating the way they should be, leave them alone and try one of their colleagues or their manager. In both situations, the “tit for tat” method maintains a healthy environment and prevents bad blood.
  1. Contribute publicly without requiring or expecting any direct reward. Public contributions make others more likely to help you in the future, it inspires others to contribute, and it builds team morale in both situations. There are many groups in LinkedIn that resemble forums, and active participants are what makes them thrive. People in the workplace also remember those who help them out, and will always return the favor.

 

  1. Reciprocate when someone or some group does you a favor. This ties into rule 2, and is what makes this dynamic work.

 

  1. Look for ways to seek a sense of shared group identity. At work, this is done by default as people are in different departments, and we’re all familiar with one another’s responsibilities. On Linkedin, this is done by one’s “connections” and groups they’re members of.

 

  1. Introduce people and networks to each other in mutually beneficial ways. The “connections” feature on Linkedin takes care of this for users. At work, this is done by using the cc feature on emails, and including people in conference calls.

 

  1. When progress is blocked by social dilemmas, create institutions for collective action. When it comes to Linkedin, the “report this user” and “block” features handle most social dilemmas. In the workplace, personal issues can be talked out or reported to HR in serious situations; it is unacceptable for work to stop due to a “social dilemma”.

 

  1. Punish cheating, but not too drastically. As with any online community, other participants are quick to publicly and privately call out bad behavior. If the issue persists, they aren’t afraid to report or block the offending user. In the workplace, minor offenses are addressed or coached by management. However major offenses are taken to HR, and may result in suspension or termination.

 

How do your relate to online collaborative communities?

Relying on Heuristics in Digital Communication

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

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

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

Paper-Based and Digital Communication Are Different

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

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

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

Moving Away from Heuristics

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

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

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

Culture and Society Rules You

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

According to Clark, who invokes Johnson to confirm that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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

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

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

Become a Technical Communicator 2.0

Change Same Buttons Showing Changing Or Improvement

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

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

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

Five Steps to You 2.0

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

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

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

Where we are, and where we’re going

Businessman and business sketch

Technology, the world and its people are constantly changing and advancing. Technical Communication is no different. As we transitioned from the industrial age into the information age, so will the standards of technology and technical communication.

I feel as though technology, Technical Communication and education are intertwined. As technology became more widely used, distributed, more affordable, as well as more complex, so did the job of Technical Communicators. In the past, technical communication was limited based on the technology at the time, but with the evolution of personal computers, better software programs and eventually the Internet, technical communication had to evolve as well. Those who could not make this transition from commodity work to symbolic-analytical work were unable to remain in this field of work. Education would become a determining factor on whether someone could remain a Technical Communicator for a company. Companies valued professionals who could do work that could not be easily outsourced to other countries, that did not need to be micro managed or have heavy supervision, who could work in groups, who understood current technology and most importantly, could adequately explain this information to costumers without difficulty.

Costumers became an important part in how information was being distributed. In the past technical communication was distributed in its printed form with limited ways to be customized but as technology evolved, it became more flexible and easily individualized. Costumers no longer even needed to look at an owner’s manual for certain products or call a hotline. All they needed to do was go online, find a message board and look for the answer to their questions. This made life for the costumer easier and more convenient, however it does have the negative effect of dehumanizing the costumer service and costumer relationship.

Globalization was another reason for this shift in technical communication. As our world became more connected, companies did not need to only rely on in house professionals, they began to seek independent contractors to do jobs on specific projects and even outsource those jobs to other countries. I see the pros and cons of doing this. The pros would be that with the decrease of Technical Communicator employees there would be less, layoffs or retraining of newly hired employees. There would also be less benefits or pension plans companies had to give out to long-term employees. This would be beneficially for the company but potentially bad for potential employees. The con would be that with the loss of management positions, Technical Communicators have more responsibility and have less room for error. This could be detrimental for company who hired a Technical Communicator whose performance is subpar.

As the world continues forward so will technology. Each year companies like Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Nintendo and Samsung, produced more advanced and unique items for public consumption. A Technical Communicator’s skill and education will have to continue to advance and improve to keep up with demand for these products. They have become more flexible, creative, versatile and educated. A Technical Communicator has evolved and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.