Effectively addressing digital audiences is a critical function of being a technical writer. However, our authors this week demonstrate how difficult this task can be. Not only are audiences fragmented in a digital space (as Bernadette Longo points out in chapter 6), but there are many cultural practices and barriers that prevent us from communicating to everyone adequately (as Barry Thatcher shows in chapter 7).
Besides fragmentation and cultural barriers, I would argue that algorithms also create challenges for technical writers to adequately construct, address, and engage with digital audiences.
There are many algorithms that can make it challenging to form a digital audience. For example, Google’s algorithms can make it challenging for users to find your content. In order to rank on the first page, you have to follow rules and tackle specific key terms. I’ve learned that in order to get my articles to rank, they need to be over 1,000 words, mention the keyword more than once, link to multiple websites, have the article be linked on other websites, be published on a Google trusted site, be shared by others, have numerous pictures, and the list goes on.
If you follow these rules and algorithms, it can be quite easy to rank and gives users a means to find your content. However, these rules don’t make it easy to address audiences effectively. I have found myself spending so much time trying to meet the requirements (such as saying the keyword more than 50 times), that I wonder if I’m actually creating helpful content for users. The search results are also so competitive and manipulated that you have to write sensational headlines and more just to get noticed. I’m not saying it’s impossible to write SEO (search engine optimization) content and not have it be helpful, but it certainly presents a challenge to content writers to construct and address digital audiences effectively.
Tom Johnson, a well-known technical writer, states that writing good documentation can be challenging because it can feel like your writing to the “absent user”. That’s because documentation platforms provides little or no measurable means to track how users engage with your content. Of course, as Tom Johnson points out, there are numerous tools that can be used to gather knowledge and feedback of how users are engaging with your documentation — surveys, web analytics, plugins, etc.
Even though we have these tools, I believe Tom Johnson makes a good point that digital spaces (like documentation) don’t inherently give us many tools to understand how users engage with our content. I find this same challenge when writing a corporate blog. I know users are visiting my content due to web analytics and other marketing tools, but it can be difficult to know if the content is addressing their actual needs. In a digital space, the best means to get feedback from users is from surveys, but even this can be challenging because users are usually flooded with so many different forms of digital communication. And when users do take surveys, they can provide general, or extremely non-specific feedback.
No matter how you cut, the web (by design) does not give technical users many helpful ways to address their audiences. They must go out of their way to interact with end users and get feedback. I believe this is why technical writers have to train themselves to become more customer and UX-driven. Without these practices, technical communicators cannot be effective at their job.
Algorithms can also make it challenging for digital creators to create engaging content. For example, have you ever searched a simple question on YouTube and can only find 15 minute long videos that take forever to answer the question you searched? That’s because YouTube’s algorithm favors longer videos, which forces creators to prolong their videos to meet these arbitrary requirements. That means creators could be spending more time trying to extend their video length, rather than creating quality content that actually helps users with problems.
What to do?
While specific rules and algorithms can limit technical writers, they can be easily overcome. In the end, it’s the job of the technical writer to be aware of these rules and continue to find ways to communicate effectively despite them. It’s the reason why we are hired. We’re expected to not just know how to address audiences effectively, but know the algorithms that effect us from being able to communicate adequately.
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).
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.
In Kenichi Ishii’s article “Implications of Mobility: The Uses of Personal Communication Media in Everyday Life,” he broaches the topic mobile communications and relationships in everyday life. Specifically, one area he explores is the use of mobile communications in public areas. In general, Ishii found that mobile phone users are criticized for violating the implicit rules of public space. When thinking about these implicit rules in everyday life, it makes sense. We all have encountered times when we have witnessed loud or annoying phone conversations in public. Despite public cell phone use being something that everyone finds annoying, many people continue to do. Perhaps they do it to feel important, or less alone, but no matter the reason, for better or worse, these private conversations have an audience.
I have a coworker who frequently makes private cell phone calls at work. Even though she steps aside to a “private” area to makes these calls, there is little privacy. I’ve found out more about her mother’s health conditions, her sister’s financial problems and issues dealing with internet providers than I care to know. The first time I heard it happen I thought it was a little odd, but because it was about her mother’s health issues I figured it was situational. As it continued to happen, it was made clear that she doesn’t realize that these private conversations are very public. These are things that she normally would not share with me (or probably the majority of my coworkers), yet she seems oblivious to it. Its not that I’m trying to eavesdrop on her calls, but the one sided conversation is so apparent to anyone within ear shot.
Luckily, Psychology Today has an explanation for why we find these conversations to annoying. In part, its because cell phone conversations are generally louder than a face to face conversation. Forma and Kaplowitz found that cell phone conversations are 1.6 times louder than in person conversations– a slight difference, but noticeable nonetheless. Because its hard not to overhear, and the lack of respect this implies for the others around you is grating.
In addition to loudness, these conversations are irritating because they are intruding into our consciousness. Lauren Emberson, a psychologist from Cornell University found that when you hear a live conversation, you know what everyone is saying because it’s all there for you to hear. In contrast, when you hear a cell phone conversation, you don’t know what the other person is saying, so your brain tries to piece it all together. Because this takes more mental energy than simply hearing both sides of the conversation, it leaves less energy to allocate to whatever else you might be doing.
When is it Okay or Not Okay to Use Cell Phones
A study from the Pew Research Center found about three-quarters of all adults, including those who do not use cellphones, say that it is “generally OK” to use cellphones in unavoidably public areas, such as when walking down the street, while on public transportation or while waiting in line. In contrast, they found that younger generations are more accepting of cell phone use in public. While the definition of “cell phone use” in this study was not clearly defined, it generally is presumed that it means holding a conversation rather than texting.
For instance, only half of young adults found it okay to use cell phones in restaurants, this activity was frowned upon by older generations. Places where cell phone use is considered unacceptable in both groups include family dinner, movie theaters or worship services.
Enough is Enough: Cell Phone Crashing
Greg Benson had enough of annoying people talking loudly in public and decided to take things into his own hands. To fill a void in a layover in an airport he came up with the idea of “cell phone crashing”. In “crashing” the prankster sits next to someone talking on their phone, and then proceed to fill in the gaps left in the one-sided conversation. When one person said “What should we have for dinner?” into the phone, he responded, “I don’t know. Steak and potatoes sound good.” pretending to talk on his own phone. The whole process is filmed with a camera hidden from afar as the hilarity ensues. While the video may give you a few laughs, it may also help you reconsider how public your cell phone conversations in public really are.
So, what do you think? Should mobile devices be banned in certain areas? Or is this an infringement on our rights?
Every once in a while, I open a product I have just bought, and feel a little nostalgic for the days of paper manuals. I guess there’s some comfort in knowing that I can seek out instructions regardless of whether I am online. The truth is, when a question does arise, it is second-nature to sit down and search the internet. And, honestly, when am I offline anyways?
I do remember the days when online help wasn’t so easy to come by. If a manual did not have an answer I needed or I didn’t understand it, I was stuck with the time-consuming tasks of doing my own research. Other times, I would come across mistakes in the instructions or information that became outdated after a software update occurred.
So while I think I “miss” the days of paper documentation accompanying products, I don’t miss all that they represent. I like that I can search for specific issues quickly. I love that outdated or inaccurate information is usually wiped away. And, it’s super convenient that customer support is often a click away, instead of requiring a call to the customer support line.
Now don’t get me wrong, I still print out a lot of the instructions that I look up in customizable searches. I do this because, in many cases, it is easier for me to follow directions on paper. (It is an annoying personality quirk of mine that costs me untold amounts of money buying ink and paper.) I also find that I often look up the same issue repeatedly. I have certain applications that I use on a regular basis. There is usually a function or two that I only use occasionally, so I find that when that rare occasion comes up, I need a refresher on how to do it.
Along with my printing habit, I like to cut and paste chunks of helpful or interesting information from help sections, and put them into a Microsoft document for future reference. I bookmark a lot of pages too. There is a problem though. This inconsistent data collection makes it very difficult to access the information. I have to search my saved documents which leaves me trying to remember if I saved it on my laptop or desktop? Hard drive or memory drive? If I bookmarked it then I have to search through all the bookmark and Chrome and Internet Explorer. This is assuming that I actually recall saving it in the first place. Often I go look up the same information again, only to notice I already had it, when I go to save it. Sigh.
The idea of being able to customize my own instructional text on a site is an incredibly exciting concept (Spilka, 2010, p.206)! I imagine all those topics that I go back to time and time again at my fingertips. No more haphazard organization of all the information I want to retain. No more wasted time looking for information, only to realize I already have it documented somewhere. Just one site to go back to, the source. Not only would all the information that I need be structured in the way that best meets my needs, but I could also add more information or remove what I no longer need. That would be the ultimate user experience!
Until that becomes widely available, I will continue to appreciate the ways that digital media is enabling writers to provide better and more targeted content. The use of digital media has not lead to a homogenized audience, but has instead given many new opportunities for writers to tap into the specific needs of the reader. They no longer have to make assumptions about the reader’s needs and can instead utilize a variety of user information absorbed from observing the user directly. In many ways, the move to greater use of online documentation, defies the image of the internet widening the distance between people. In this instance, online media allows for a greater personal connection with the audience.
My house, could be run by librarians. I have always had a little bit of insanity when it comes to cataloging information and trying to make it easy for others to access. For instance, once upon a time, all of my household manuals were kept in one location. Trial and error made me realize that this didn’t make sense. The kitchen appliances seemed to have a greater need for me to be able to quickly access the manuals. I moved them all to a special location in my kitchen and the rest of the manuals go in my laundry room.
And, if you don’t think that is particular enough, I have a sitemap. In the event that a family member is watching my child, I don’t want them hopelessly frustrated trying to figure out the dust-vac. I have a “map” of every appliance and the room where someone would need it. It then cross-references where the accessories are for that appliance and where the instructions are. Weird. I know.
When I was younger, I actually thought I may need some sort of intervention because of how specific my brain was in categorizing the information that came into my house. I used to file every article that crossed the threshold. That got to be exhausting. I literally had giant binders for topics. It was a bit OCD. I now realize that I don’t need to retain all information I come across as the internet is able to relocate almost all of it. I have to keep myself away from magazines and let the internet (and the document designers) do what they do best, catalog the information for retrieval.
As I read chapter 4, I was all over it. I have been doing most of it for years, even if I didn’t realize it. My binders of information actually take a lot of work to cross-references. While I know that I will only need some information, like when I’m cleaning or in the kitchen, for instance, I know my parents will access it randomly when watching my child. I make sure that they can find the vacuum manual more readily than I would require it. It is the first manual in my household binder.
This is much like the approach for structuring a website. I know my audience. I know what they need and I know where they will get lost trying to find it.
As a professional in the world of technical communication, I often wonder what my role really means for the organization. When people ask me what I do, I often pause and respond with some generic phrase like, “I decipher geek speak for non-technical people”. But, at times I am in the business of marketing our department to the rest of the organization. At other times, I am compiling “How To Instructions” (when I can get away with it). But I often wonder at what point in time does one cross the line between technical communicator, to support help, or even to technical subject matter experts (SMEs). And this idealism off too many cooks in the kitchen seems to ring true from a technical communication standpoint.
I am always asking questions and trying to drive out more information from technical SMEs. In return I am cornered with negative responses and many people not understanding why I’m asking the questions I am asking. Or, my favorite, telling me that no one actually needs to know that (because technical professionals are so good at putting into human terms what they really need to say. But for me this is where Dicks (2010), identifies that technical communication is developing and changing in a number of different ways (p. 58).
I personally believe it is this change, this evolution that may be causing angst for many newer generation technical communicators. Many organizations have to spread out responsibilities and for some organizations; technical communication is a fairly new commodity (especially if they are not delivering some type of technological solution to the consumer world). In the case at my organization, internal technical communication is fairly new and while our primary product is food related, technology is still at the core of our business functions.
I particularly find the following graphic interesting as well when it comes to this concept around both the change that technical communication is unfolding within organizations today and the correlation with “too many cooks in the kitchen”.
This graphic is based on products by LearnMax (2015), a company who specializes in technology training. But for me it is the categories that truly resonate with the different areas of technical communication that I see quite often.
As technical communicators we need to have a baseline knowledge of what we are writing/communicating about. Unfortunately we cannot always trust the SMEs to know what we need and why we need. It’s this type of information that I believe drives technical communication. Dicks (2010) further states, “reshaping [our] status will involve learning technologies and methodologies such as single sourcing and information, content, and knowledge management, and then optimizing information development of multiple formats and media” (pg. 55).
- This statement not only aligns with the knowledge management aspect, but also with regard to the training aspect.
- Optimizing our information for multiple formats hones in on this idea of enterprise mobile and writing for mobile device – not just shrinking our information to fit on mobile devices
- We are also there for the customer – whether it is for an internal customer or an external customer.
Ultimately this all aligns with content development, as shown in the graphic above. It should be our goal to customize our content not only for formats and media – but for our audience. Dicks (2010) calls out the value of our role in the following four categories: “cost reduction, cost avoidance, revenue enhancement, intangible contributions” (p. 61). But I bring us back to my original example in my own situation – of too many cooks in the kitchen and refining the role of technical communication within organizations.
For example, the Information Technology Help Desk was at one point responsible for preparing our department intranet pages. The content, design, and layout was all brutal. In an effort to formalize this channel as a communication tool, I focused heavily on design and updating the pages so they seemed more accessible and inviting to staff. Unfortunately, I would say that this idea / change in ownership of job duties has been a constant struggle. At one point this group never wanted to give anything up, and yet at time if it’s not perfect it is used as an excuse to pass the buck off onto someone else.
So while we can theoretically lay out for management on how technical communication can provide value to the organization, how do we show value to our colleagues who might be more concerned that we are stepping on their toes?
Dicks, S. (2010). Digital Literacy for Technical Communication. In R. Spilka (Ed.), The Effects of Digital Literacy on the Nature of Technical Communication Work, (pp. 51-81). New York: Taylor & Francis.
I work for a company that provides outsourced employees for a variety of industries. I report to one company, but I represent another. I am comfortable with this. My loyalty can be bought for the price of my paycheck. I can assume the culture, goals and procedures of the company that I represent, although ultimately I am not their “employee.”
My long-term goal in becoming a technical communicator is to be an outsourced employee, but without a larger “umbrella” company sending me my W-2’s each year. I want to dictate the companies I work for and have some control over the projects I accept. I am comfortable putting on that “company’s uniform” for a temporary time and then moving on.
I felt such joy when I read R. Stanley Dicks discuss the prediction that “many more technical communicators will be officially unemployed but constantly working. They will be following the consulting/temp agency model that already characterizes the work of many communicators (Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, p. 59)”. I am hoping to open a fortune cookie with just that prediction for my future: “You will soon find yourself unemployed, but always working.”
The expansion of telecommuting opportunities is, in part, one of the catalysts that finally pushed me back into school. I currently follow several job sites that focus on home-based and freelance work. Flexjobs.com and ratracerebellion.com consistently have an extensive list of job opportunities for telecommuters in all aspects of the technical writing field, primarily ones with technological competencies.
In 2001, I was on the verge of enrolling in a “technical writing” program, when a job offer–in an unrelated field–removed me from that path. I went to work for a company I loved and put that plan on the “back burner.”
While I am disappointed that I allowed so much time to lapse before entering a graduate program, I am grateful for that derailment. The technical writing program I was set to enter was very solid and respected. But in 2001, it wasn’t very focused on digital media. Within a few short years, their “technical writing” program became their “Technical Communications” program. It was completely revamped several times over the next few years, as they slowly began to focus the program more on the emerging use of technology.
Had I enrolled back in 2001, I would have been “getting to the party a little too early.” Now, I don’t know that a 14 year lapse between degrees was quite necessary but…. At any rate, I cringe to think of how many competencies I would have been scrambling to learn within a year or two (maybe less) of earning that degree.
As I do work-from-home and spend a lot of time following web sites and blogs devoted to such work, I have come across many people who are constantly working as technical communicators, but as independent contractors. I see a flood of freelance job openings in the field. I have yet to find one person that lacks or job that doesn’t require technical skill.
I feel certain that the degree I was going to begin in 2001, is not the same degree that I will be getting now. This is what gave me the final push to go back. As I researched schools this time around, it was interesting to see how every strong program focused on digital media.
As R. Stanley Dicks pointed out in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication (p.52): “It is important to remember, when discussing current and coming trends in the discipline, that they largely have to do with the tools and technologies associated with the discipline, and not the core competency skills that the discipline continues to require; that is using words and images to inform, instruct, or persuade an audience Schriver’s (1997).” That program I was set to start 14 years ago would have given me “core competency skills,” but not what I needed to achieve my current goals. Of course, I realize with the constantly evolving landscape of technology, there will always be new things that I need to learn to “stay on top” of the field. I am reassured, though, that the evolution in technical communication as a whole, and the changes that have occurred in academia as a result, will enable me to start with the foundation I need.
“Today, outsourcing is not just a trend; it is an integral part of how smart companies do business”, “…a company concentrates on its core business and relies on outsourcing partnerships to get the rest done”
~ Harvard Business Review
In the past 30 years, the rapid pace at which technology is evolving has drastically shifted the modern business climate and the world of technical communications. As a result of these emerging technologies, both the tools we use and the scope of our work as technical communicators has changed. Thus, the digital revolution has resulted in a “blurring of boundaries in our field and our work” due to major changes in economics, management and methodologies. To keep up with these significant advancements, many companies have been forced to shift their product base and find ways to restructure themselves.
Through re-engineering and an adoption of radical new changes many companies have found ways to cut costs. Major layoffs have occurred as a single person now can execute jobs that once took seven people to complete. Moreover, globalization has played an undeniable role in this change.
That is to say, globalization and “improved methods of communication make it economically possible and desirable to work with people from all over the world…”. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly common for companies to send their work to countries such as India, China, Korea, or Brazil. Asa result, outsourcing, is an important factor for companies to keep their competitive edge. According to 2011 outsourcing report, “Over 94% of the Fortune 500 companies outsource at-least one of their major business functions”. With that in mind, it should be no surprise that both the company I work for, as well our clients outsource jobs.
For instance, Wunderman, has offices around the world and takes advantage of its bandwidth by outsourcing jobs. Specifically, the Minneapolis branch utilizes its Buenos Aires office for much of its production work. While 6000 miles physically separate us, we communicate with each other through weekly conference calls, Skype and software called Brandshare to keep tabs on the project. However, there is a difference between the tasks that are delegated to Buenos Aires and the work that stay in house. The projects we send to our off shore resource is oftentimes grunt work and involves little creativity. In contrast, the higher-level work generally stays in house where we can have more control over the project. Overall, despite the language barriers that sometimes occur our Buenos Aires team has proven to be a valuable resource in saving Wunderman both time and money.
Likewise, on the client side, Best Buy outsources a sizable amount of its work as well. While I know outsourcing occurs in the majority of it’s departments, I am only familiar with what goes on in the marketing sector. The bulk of Best Buy’s creative work is outsourced not only to Wunderman, but also to several other creative agencies across the country. This allows them to distribute their workload evenly and hone in on each agency’s specialty. Other aspects related to the production of marketing materials such as coding, subject line testing, and analytical reports are outsourced as well. If that wasn’t enough, Best Buy also utilizes creative resources in India for some projects. Because of the time zone difference, this allows them to work around the clock and have the finished product on their desk the next morning.
While outsourcing certainly has its benefits such as producing jobs and reducing costs, there also are several downsides. It should be no surprise that when work is outsourced at an international level there are oftentimes disparities. While many companies play by the rules, others take advantage of these workers and skirt environmental and labor laws in the process. For instance, these individuals work hard, if not harder than their US counterparts for significantly less pay. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the average hourly wage for Chinese manufacturing workers is less than a tenth that of their average U.S. counterparts. Additionally, Factory workers in China are more than three times more likely to get killed at work. With these grim statistics in mind, it is clear these workers will do anything for a job.
One of my coworkers used to work for a different Fortune 500 company that would send her to India for weeks at a time. While this third party business in India was an important asset to company, the picture she painted of her time there was bleak. Each week, the company would bus in workers from neighboring cities up to three hours away to its headquarters in New Delhi. There, the workers typically would work 10-14 hour days without complaining. At the end of the day, instead of returning home, many would sleep at the company campus’s small apartment complex- only to repeat it all the next day. Consequently, families would only see each other on the weekends because it was easier and cheaper to do so. Unfortunately, this practice is common and is a reality that all too many are unaware of.
In sum, it is clear that technology is a driving force of the economy around the world. Our demands for newer, better, faster technology and ways of communicating clearly fuel this practice. As a result, we are reliant upon both these technologies and the foreign workers who produce these products to do our jobs. So, while outsourcing certainly has its benefits, perhaps there is more to consider than the business aspect of it. Maybe, we ought to consider the humanizing side as well.
For workers, the Internet and its supporting technologies have changed the way businesses are run. With all the benefits, there are also drawbacks. The work/family borders can easily blur, as employees can be accessible throughout the entire waking hours, both during work and family times. This paper aims to analyze the expectations of digital technology, and specifically, how we define a successful work/family dynamic, best communication methods, and examples of planning for a vacation from technology. It also attempts to examine the broader implications of always being tethered to the workplace.
Zachry and Ferro’s article, Technical Communication Unbound, helped me organize my thoughts on a topic that has been circulating in my mind for some time: the value of a writer.
This particular part of their article was the source of inspiration for the topic of this post:
“..it now appears that the tasks of those working in the profession are necessarily expanding to include such concerns as real-time monitoring of texts and other communicative performances that circulate in the network of social media.”
Since the responsibilities of a writer are evolving and expanding, I would hope that this means that the respect and appreciation for tech writers is increasing with it.
In my own personal experience, this is not so. At my place of employment, more importance is placed on skills such as design or coding, which has been made completely clear to me from recent conversations with my boss. In fact, I’ve been told that my position as a content writer, “requires no real skills.”
With the emergence of social media and its emphasis on shorthand writing forms, it is easy for one to think less of writing or not even think of it as a useful skill at all.
I suppose that I worry that, with the increase of responsibilities, tech writers will be thought of more as an administrative assistant with a laundry lists of tasks to accomplish and less like a professional with useful skills.
Barry Thatcher’s article, Understanding Digital Literacy Across Cultures, brings up one of the most important, but rarely discussed aspect of digital communication: cultural differences. No matter where we are in the world, we can access the Internet from the same types of devices, but not always the same websites. Or, sometimes one website is adapted to display differently according to region and native language. We are using the same Internet, but not always viewing, absorbing and processing the same things.
I work for an ecommerce web design company that is based in the US but works with several contractors in Pakistan and India. Aside from working with people overseas on a regular basis, we get clients from all over the world. Lately, I have been noticing that a lot of our clients want bi or multilingual websites, which, from a coding and design standpoint, can be complicated and ultimately expensive. Additionally, a lot of the major ecommerce platforms we work with will allow multi-language support, but only with a lot of custom coding, which, again, can be quite expensive.
One of the most complex problems we have yet to find a solution to is the ability to create a bi or multilingual ecommerce store with the checkout process to be in the language of the shoppers’ choosing. Yes, even with custom-coding and advanced functionality, it is incredibly difficult to translate the checkout process in a language other than English with a hosted ecommerce platform.
Thatcher’s article had me thinking of this particular issue because we are able to translate every part of the online shopping experience except for the most important: the checkout. This is where actual money is exchanged and people want this to feel the most comfortable, but we are unable to do that for them. I’ve been doing some research on this for work and I have discovered that many international shoppers simply accept this as the norm, but I feel like it is unfair for this to be so.
Ultimately, cultural differences on the Internet have led me to contemplate the benefits and downfalls of ignoring cultural norms an instead create a universal, digital culture with its own set of beliefs, language and functions. Some may argue that this already exists, but as Thatcher has us realize, we have only been viewing the Internet through a North American lens. The Internet is different everywhere and we need to take that into consideration more often.
Where do we come off knowing how a user will access the web? With Google, I can find something that’s deep within a site, and avoid all the crumbs to get to the page I wanted. In Spilka’s book, Ann Blakeslee makes the good point that technical communicators need to shift from “developing documentation based on what writers think their readers need,” to how they “will actually use the information to complete a task” (p. 216). Luckily, we expect repetition in both communication and online. So we can have the same information on more than one page on a website to make sure someone sees it, even if they skipped the two pages leading up to the page they sought.
That is the science. The art is how much to say and what to omit so as to keep the added value of visiting the site (so it’s not just ten pages of the same information over and over again). But, I think that’s a secondary concern. The first concern is to have a task-based infrastructure so that the audience can find what they’re looking for, and not have to sift through paragraphs of information. About the ‘how much to add where’ question, I think it’s a constant challenge to keep tweaking. From my personal experience, I’d rather have a straightforward answer to my query, and then I can dive into the hyperlink tunnel to find more answers if I so wish. That way I do get to know what the website has to offer, just not in a linear manner.
So should we change to a task-based communication? Yes. If you think not, I’d love to hear why; I am open to changing my mind on this if I hear a compelling reason.
This week, I was really into reading about “The Digital Being” as discussed in regards to the Being Frame.
I became engrossed in the idea of how ever-growing and expanding ranges of technologies “continue to sweep over culture and into our organizations” so much that as noted, practitioners and scholars must learn to understand and address the ethical implications (241). One way, according to Digital Literacy this week, is to understand the ethical frames of technical relations. And I could not help but think here about Mr. Clinton for some reason, denying any “relations” with that woman, Monica Lewinsky. It is just where my mind unexpectedly wandered when I read the word relations. I suppose in the context of living in a world where we now must consider our technical relations in addition to our personal relations, it does seem appropriate to connect to the idea of ethics and how this inevitably will always come back to any relationship we have.
One of the most powerful ideas, for me, was this about our digital being from Katz and Rhodes: “Digital being has enabled us to forget that our values, our thinking, and our work are heavily defined by our technology, and that much of our life now exists outside our flesh, essentially in digital bodies” (239). Suddenly, just after reading this, I had a vision of my family, friends, and colleagues as these digital beings, and then I thought, how much of their real selves do I really know? What ethical implications does this have on my relationships and the way we might treat each other? Do their digital beings treat others differently than their flesh selves? I basically sat with lots of questions on my mind, and I saw the world almost in a very Matrix-like fashion where I am not sure who the real person is when I meet someone compared to the digital person.
Another idea developed under this one is that the digital being has now taken over in a way that we are not as capable as people of the past, and our “digital machines have literally replaced our ‘mental storage’ of ‘information’…” (239), especially when it comes to the workplace and writing. The specific example was how new employees struggle with writing and spelling because we are so programmed to use spell-check and grammar check systems that we no longer store the necessary information to become efficient writers. I see this with students, also. I also see it in math with the use of calculators. I have a friend who teaches math prep courses, and she tells me often of students who do not know their multiplication tables without the use of a calculator (these are adult learners.) And so now, I see that their digital being has learned these skills in a digital fashion, and when stripped of the technology tool, they are left lacking fundamental skills to survive in the work world and world in general. Are we to expect that is okay because it is the way they have learned? I find a little bit of an ethical struggle right here alone. What is the responsibility of humans today in these contexts?
The other ethical frame I want to address briefly here is the Thought Frame and quickly tie it into the Digital Being. The last questioning thoughts from the section on “Thought Frame” really had me thinking about my organization: “Does your organization conceptualize or refer to communication as a transmission of information from sender to receiver? Does it regard emotional response in the workplace as noise in the system?” (237). If we are very much defined by our digital beings in the workplace, and we communicate via email, videos, webinars, podcasts, social media, and texting more than we do f2f, isn’t it much easier to become just a receiver in the system? When our authentic selves present an emotional response to something, do we just become noise that interrupts the system? When are we allowed to present our deep, meaningful self versus our digital being? Is there a more appropriate time for one than the other? I find that I am weighing heavily how technology has changed relations and ethics together on a very basic human level: how we see how our selves and how we then communicate with each other.
A little funny story about technology before I get started on my reaction to this week’s readings. My sister attends UW-Stout and her boyfriend lives in Minneapolis. They use Skype every night to talk to one another, however, the internet was out for 4 days at her boyfriend’s apartment and I got a text at 10 PM at night asking if he could come over to use our internet so he could Skype my sister. I told him sorry and that I was going to sleep and I found out the next day that they had actually gotten in a fight because “talking on the phone is not the same as Skype-ing” and he felt that they weren’t able to connect in the same way! It’s interesting to think that technology has hindered our ability to be flexible. It’s as if we’ve come to expect certain things from our technology and when it fails, we don’t know what to do! Just something interesting to think about!
“As an ethnical frame of being in this world, it is not only natural to us, but also transparent and invisible.”
At the beginning of the chapter, Katz and Rhodes talk about whether or not it’s hypocritical to refers to their clients in a different way in internal or external communication. When I worked for Target as an assistant manager, they referred to their employees as “team members” and the customers as “guests.” Early on in the training process, I was actually corrected by an intern from corporate for using the incorrect terms. ha! My point is, Target used these terms internally and externally, which I appreciated for consistency, even if it did seem a little (okay, a LOT) like corporate fluff.
“…the virtual reality of media has become as real as, or more real to us than the tangible world” (p. 238). That’s a pretty bold statement that would be interesting to research. For me, I don’t think that’s the case at all. Granted, I don’t participate in too many forms of social networking and I’m far from being plugged in all the time (except for at work, when I stare at a computer screen for the majority of the day…blah!) and it would be interesting to know how many people do feel that way.
Katz and Rhodes talk about how the words and structure we use in email reveal our relationship with the person we’re sending the email to. For me, in the work place, this is very true. There are some co-workers I can write an email to in 10 seconds and not give it a second thought, while there are others, I have really think about how I structure sentences and word things, not to mention re-reading it over and over before I hit send, because of the nature of the subject and who it’s being sent to. Another factor that causes me to pause is the fact that emails are permanent to some degree, so what you type can be forwarded, printed and passed on, so if there’s something really sensitive, it’s sometimes best to pick up the phone or talk to someone face-to-face.