Blog Archives

Genres and Metaphors: Following the Roadmaps

I like genres. I like to know where the boundaries are, even if they are flexible. If you ask me to create a document, I will want to see an example. If you ask me to create something new, I will probably try to find an outside example. How long can it be? Who is the audience and what kind of language are they comfortable with? What kind of tone is appropriate? What is the typical size of the chunks of information? It may sound unadventurous to some, but I want to know what the rules are, even if it’s okay to break a few for good reason.

In the chapter, “Human + Machine Culture,” Bernadette Longo discusses Spinuzzi’s concept of genre tracing, which combines activity theory and genre theory to look not only at a particular genre, but to examine how people interact with it—a genre’s life cycle as it passes through creation and use. This was especially interesting to me, as I am constantly navigating these paths in a large and complex health care organization.

Longo’s example of electronic medical records was particularly familiar to me, as my organization converted to a new medical record system over the summer. This was a

major undertaking, as it involved not just learning new software, but new workflows. The software company worked with the organization to create workflows that would, hopefully, get the job (many jobs, actually) done most easily and effectively. This involved getting different parts of the organization (which had at one time been separate organizations of their own) to agree on a standard set of tools and processes. This involved much negotiation and consideration of not just the technology, but also the institutional culture. Who creates a record? Who needs it later? What needs to be included? Who has authority to see records? Who can change them?

In developing the workflows, designers needed to understand how the various staff members would interact not only with the software, but also with each other. As Longo points out, power differentials between those staff members can either aid or impede the workflow. If employee A needs a set of information from employee B, does employee B have the necessary authority to make sure employee A provides that information? When the direction of work and the power structure are misaligned, it can lead to conflict.

Meeting my own deadlines sometimes depends on receiving timely information from someone who is much higher on the company flowchart than I am. If that person does not consider my request important enough to respond in a timely manner, the workflow is stalled.

I was also interested in the way Longo described the use of metaphor as a bridging technique to learn new technologies. When we work with something new, we sometimes give it an old name that we recognize. Take files and folders in Windows, for example. The concept helped computer novices adapt to PC technology as home computers became commonplace in the 1990s. Metaphor helped old school radio broadcasters like me bridge the gulf from analog to digital audio equipment. When digital systems were designed to store and play songs and radio commercials, the commercial files were identified by “cart numbers.” This is because commercials were previously recorded onto rectangular cartridge tapes—carts for short—which each had a number printed on an adhesive label. With digital systems, there were no more carts, but “file number” was too big of a mental leap. Similarly, we still referred to “tape,” as in “tape an interview,” or “edit the tape,” nearly two decades after the last reel-to-reel tape recorder was removed, leaving only servers loaded with .wav files.

The two topics are related, in my mind: genres and metaphor as bridging language. The conventions of a genre help me understand the framework in which I am working. The bridging language of metaphor helps me navigate new technology using a familiar road map (another metaphor!).

Fun fact: did you know that “computer” originally referred to a person? Check it out here.

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Navigating the Changing Waters of Technical Communication

 

In the chapter, “Information Design,” Michael J. Salvo and Paula Rosinski draw repeatedly on the concept of “metis,” an ancient Greek term that refers to navigating change. The metaphor struck home for me. My family had a sailboat when I was in middle school, and I still take advantage of the chance to go sailing with others when it comes along. My wife and I had a great time on an evening charter sail in Bayfield, Wisconsin in October, and I took a turn steering for a while. I had to keep a number of factors in mind to navigate safely between the mainland and Madeline Island. There was the unchanging, but invisible hazard of the water depth. I had to follow our captain’s guidance and the feedback of the depth finder to avoid running aground. I had to be mindful of moving obstacles, such as other boats. And I had to be mindful of where the wind was blowing, so that I would not get trapped too close to a shoreline without enough sailing room to tack my way back out to safe water.

As I read the chapter, I thought that sailing was a good analogy for navigating the changing conditions of technical communication. There are obstacles we know about, like the depth of the water in a bay, which change slowly, and there are unexpected changes that happen more quickly, with less warning, such as the direction of the wind and movement of other boats.

The chapter includes a description of a futuristic, but not hard-to-imagine scenario. A father enters the word “broccoli” into a search engine. The search engine takes into account not only the word, but the searcher’s context: what room of the house he is in (the kitchen), what time it is, and what time the family usually eats dinner. The search engine determines that the searcher is looking for a recipe containing broccoli that can be made in an hour or less.

We currently use and allow some of these context-based tools. I will search “restaurants near me” in a new city, and let my phone tell the search engine exactly where I am. I know from the ads that pop up on my Facebook page that Facebook knows I occasionally search for clothes, kayaks, and musical instruments. But as developers are working to take marketing advantage of more and more of this data, and context-based results can be very useful, some of us are getting uncomfortable with the notion that somebody knows where we are and what we’re searching, reading, and buying. A previous borrower of my Digital Literacy for Technical Communication textbook wrote “****ing creepy!” in the margin of this section. Just like we are now able to mostly shut telemarketers out of our lives by signing up for no-call lists, many people will likely block access to personal data, and new rules are making it easier to do so.

This article from Marketingprofs.com outlines Europe’s forthcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These rules will require any companies doing online business in Europe (regardless of where the company is located) to ask consent every time a piece of personal data is used; just allowing a user to opt out now and again won’t be enough. Companies also will need to provide users with a way to access and change their preferences at any time.

Continuing with the sailing/navigating reference, developers have been sailing toward an ideal to providing a personalized experience to users. Now they will need to sail around the obstacle of much stricter privacy rules.

Technical communicators will also need to make course changes career-wise to survive

DanSailing

The author

changing conditions. In the chapter, “Content Management,” William Hart-Davidson points out many changes to how communication work is accomplished, including the automation of some writing tasks. A few years ago, as a working journalist already watching the job market shrink dramatically, I was alarmed to learn that online news outlets were employing news-writing bots to create content. This is not limited to news aggregators and gossip and click-bait sites, but includes, as noted in this article in Wired, serious news organizations such as the Washington Post and Reuters.

Who knows where the wind will blow next? Our employers and our own careers will be best served if we learn to be navigators, ready to plot a new course when needed.

 

Digital Literacy in My Life

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

 

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

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

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.

Understanding Your Audience

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

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

focusgroup

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Stories to Cartography

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

map

Findability

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

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

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

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

Ambience

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

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

findability

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

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

References:

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

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

Past, Present and Future of Tech Communicators

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

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

Courtesy of Hippoquotes.com

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

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

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

 

 

 

Using Social Media to Create Useful Information and Connections

I think of social media as “noise” especially during this political year (2016). How do I know what is reliable information to make an informed opinion? There is so much commentary on both sides of the fence from news sources, politicians, analysts, scholars and general public that I finally had to mute all of them. This social noise needs to be filtered.

Amy Hea (2014) argues that social media is “symbolic representations, metaphors, articulations, assemblages of cultural systems of knowledge and power” (“Social Media in Technical Communication,” p. 2). She further states that social media is a “connection of the medium and the users…cultural practices that shape and are shaped by political, social, and cultural conditions” (p. 2). Making connections with people is innate; however, the context and medium of which it is done has changed drastically in the past decade. Creating credibility and trust between writer and reader is the relationship that needs to exist to provide active engagement. Technical communication instructors define, examine, demystify and expose students to social media as a professional contributor. What we write is shaped by what we read, hear, and understand through other outlets and mediums.

Hurley and Hea (2014) discuss “reach as a metaphor” and “crowd-sourcing” in “The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media” as methods to provide a needed source of information that would also engage others to respond. Reach pertains to the “reaching the masses” but information that is useful or needed, while crowd-sourcing involves multiple people contributing to a project or content, but also establishes online presence (p. 66). Using social media as a medium to provide useful information also provides credibility and creates a following for future posts.

Social media is useful for engaging people to comment and respond to content as long as it’s useful and credible.

References

Hea, A. C. K. (2014). “Social media in technical communication.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:1, 1-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10572252.2014.850841

Hurley, E. V. and Hea, A. C. K. (2014). “The rhetoric of reach: Preparing students for technical communication in the age of social media.” Technical Communication Quarterly, 23:1, 55-68. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10572252.2014.850854

#ProfessionalCommunicator

I admit that my knee-jerk reaction to the relationship between social media and technical communication is similar to that of the students in the “Rhetoric of Reach” article by Hurley and Hea. Comparing technical communication to tweets and wall posts seems to cheapen the role of the technical writer, moving it from an elevated profession to the medium of the masses. It suddenly seems like something anyone can do, just tapping on their phone on the bus.

However, there are actually a surprising number of similarities, as I brainstormed in the diagram below (forgive the poor formatting). A job description for a technical writer on Truity called attention to several skills that would also apply to having a successful social media presence, such as strong and clear writing, effective use of multimedia like links and graphics, and continuing revision.

I think Hurley and Hea also identified a major area of overlap in their discussion of reach and creating reader-driven content that is tailored to be relevant to your audience. Understanding and responding to the needs of your audience is a crucial part of technical writing, and the secret to creating documentation that achieves its purpose. In his article “Re-Thinking the Context of Technical Communication,” Kirk St. Amant touches on the importance of audience analysis and how it’s one of the most significant trends in today’s technical writing. I’ve found in my own job that we spend a lot of resources to investigate our audience’s interests and needs and solicit their feedback. Similarly, a successful blogger seeks to build a relationship with his readers and create a forum that connects to their needs.

Despite these similarities, I think the differences are also significant and separates technical communication into a separate art form. I put a few differences in the diagram below, but I’d say that the biggest distinguisher is in purpose and content. Social media contributors with large followings have a strong personal voice. They are very much a part of their work, and their purpose is usually to express a viewpoint or tell their own story. The Forbes article “Are You a Social Media Narcissist?” explores how social media (especially for the millennial generation) is all about you and how you are using social media to elevate yourself and build relationships.

In contrast, the focus of technical communication is on the product or the content being communicated. The writing is objective and divorced from the personality of the writer. The goal isn’t self-glorification or personal connection but rather to provide information to an audience clearly and concisely. The difference becomes obvious in writing style and expression.

Because of the similarities between social media and technical communication and their continuing convergence in audience interaction and multimedia, I’m very intrigued by the rest of this course and look forward to further investigation in how they relate. However, I think it’s important to keep in mind the fundamental difference in purpose and function, and how that plays out in writing style and content.

beecken-venn-diagram

 

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.

And…Thats a Wrap!

 

Initial Thoughts

I came into this class reluctant about the whole idea of blogging. I didn’t think I would like it and thought I would have a hard time writing about topics that others would find interesting. When I first started, it was difficult for me to transition from writing in an academic tone to a more conversational tone. But over time, I became more comfortable with the medium, found my voice and actually found myself (gasp) enjoying it. Not only was it interesting to see what my classmates wrote, but the resulting comments and discussions were intriguing as well.

 

Paper Topic

For the final paper I chose to explore the idea of “long tail love” online. The idea was spurred from a combination of Michael Anderson’s “Long Tail” reading, Turkle’s talk of Second Life/profiles, and Rhinegold’s “crap detection”. Additionally, hearing about the encounters of my friends in their pursuits of online dating made me curious about the subject. Deciding to give it a shot, I started doing some preliminary research and the rest is history. What I can say is that researching the subject has certainly has lead me down a rabbit hole.  One lead uncovers the next as there are unlimited avenues this subject can take. Even though it won’t be for a while, the idea of “long tail love” online is even a topic I am considering for a thesis.

 

Abstract

The pervasiveness of technology and the internet impacts almost every facet of our lives. It has made our lives easier, faster and better in countless ways as it affects how we work, learn, and communicate with each other. However, can these technologies help meditate the need and physical drive to find love and develop lasting relationships?  And can the allure and convenience of the Internet really help us find “the one” and maintain these close ties? Or, does its ease provide protection, where in the digital realm where it is easy to present oneself in the light in which they want to be seen? To answer this question, this paper will explore online representations of the self, deception and misrepresentation, long tail love and the pros and cons of online dating and sustaining romance online. It was found that while the internet can certainly foster relationships, it can readily lead to misunderstandings as differences between face to face communication and computer-mediated communication occur. Thus, for better or worse, technology is redefining romance in our ever-connected world.

 

Final Thoughts

A big thank you to everyone for your intriguing posts and thought provoking comments during this semester! Have a wonderfully relaxing break and good luck with your future endeavors!

tumblr_m9i104aD1d1qmdzcgo1_500

Expertise versus Skill: The Dichotomy of a Technical Communicator

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

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

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

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

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

evs2

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

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

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

The Unpredictable Skill Set of a Technical Communicator

Technical communicators are far from being confined to the word processor as their primary tool for producing texts. For as many different job titles and responsibilities that can fall under the umbrella of technical communication (UX designer, copy editor, social media manager), so are there an abundance of tools and technologies that are used in different combinations in the daily workflow of a technical communicator. When asked in a survey to identify the types of writing most often produced in their professional lives, technical communicators named tasks that require completely different sets of skills and technology to accomplish, for example, email, web sites, texting, infographics and press releases (Blythe, Lauer, Curran, 2104). Each format of communication has its own unique set of circumstances surrounding it. Is the audience public or private? Is the standard tone of voice casual or formal? Are there additional technical skills that are required to complete the task like a knowledge of code, or an image editing software?

An example of this phenomenon is the freelance technical communicator who is featured in Stacy Pigg’s 2014 study, Coordinating Constant Invention: Social Media’s Role in Distributed Work. Dave works remotely out of a coffee shop, composing posts for his blog on the topic of fatherhood. In the time that it takes him to compose his blog post (roughly one hour) Dave switches back and forth between several social media platforms that he uses as content reference, networking tools, or to publish his work. For him, and likely for many modern technical communicators, the number of different tools to master increases exponentially when considering not only the service being used to create content, but also all of the other tools that are used to gather, organize, support and distribute the content.

This huge spread of trending tools poses a challenge to educators. How can a professor go about teaching future technical communicators the tools they need for the trade, when the careers available to graduates are so diverse and the tool kit is so rapidly expanding? As noted by Blythe, Lauer and Curran, though the alumni that they surveyed were so disparate in their current job titles, they were all chosen to take part in the survey because they shared a very specific program of study – technical communication. In some ways, the fact that the students went on from receiving their identical diplomas to hold such different job is a testament to the power of a broad education that covers the concepts more than the details of specific software or workflows.

That being said, educators also must embrace uses of media that have historically been thought of as recreational, such as texting or connecting on social network sites. These instruments of communication are more and more being used in professional settings. Just because a student has a personal twitter account doesn’t mean that she has the skill to effectively tweet to a company’s audience. An educator should embrace the new media as it comes, while simultaneously exploring alongside her students how these inventions can be used to communicate professionally. Just like Sherry Turkle describes in her book Alone Together how she bravely brought up Chatroulette on the screen in one of her lectures after she had first learned of its existence from one of her students. She was able to take a new technology that had previously fit squarely in the recreational world of her students and she formed an intelligent discussion around the meaning of the new social platform. (Of course this may be a poor example as I can’t imagine Chatroulette ever being a useful tool for professional technical communicators. Never say never?)

New ways to communicate are bubbling to the surface at an unprecedented rate, and technical communicators are tasked to incorporate them into their broader communication strategies. Despite a shared program title on their diplomas, technical communicators are finding a broad range of professions, each with its own ecology of new media tools. Educators are stuck trying to strike a balance between teaching broadly applicable theory and bringing specific trending technologies into the classroom in order to discuss professional-level communication through typically informal formats of communication. Through studies like the survey in the Blythe, Lauer and Curran essay, at least instructors of technical communication will have more data on current professional practices. Students graduating from a technical communication program will have to be prepared to wear many hats.

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.

The Relationship Between Technical Communication and Social Media

Chelsea’s Test Blog 2

The relationship between technical communication, social media, and even the use of Technology is becoming more and more apparent in our everyday lives.   As I was reading through the article The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media, it dawned on me how why this very topic is so important.

Software companies (like Microsoft) are incorporating in their new software releases, the capability to participate in social media much easier and without having to know how to write HTML5 code and still publish to the Web.  Let’s look at Microsoft Office.  As I draft this blog article, I now have the option to publish this article as a blog post right to my blog site.

Snapshot of Microsoft Word 2010 - Save and Send Features, Taken by Chelsea Dowling.

Snapshot of Microsoft Word 2010 – Save and Send Features, Taken by Chelsea Dowling.

Moreover, as Hurley and Hea demonstrated the impact of social media and technology is becoming even more prevalent within the medical field, where they provided an example of a 48-year-old individual who was punished for providing enough information about a patient that their identity was eventually revealed.   Might this explain the increasing Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations?   Just the other day, a friend’s mother who works as a dental hygienist was explaining the increased HIPAA training they are required to take each year.  In fact, EHR 2.0 published a presentation on Social Media Compliance for Healthcare Professionals.

But overall, one of the most striking points that Hurley and Hea eluded to in their article, was the importance of educating students and communication professionals around the critical theory aspects of social media.   While it is important to deploy social media in our own efforts / initiatives and to debunk the negative assumptions around the use of social media (Hurley & Hea, pg. 58), we also need to understand how / where these assumptions fit within our own situations.

Overall, I think this is one of the most important factors that we need to keep in mind.  For example, in my current social setting, I would say there is a large difference in how people of all ages use social media.  For example, being in such a rural area of Wisconsin, many Gen Xers and Baby Boomers  are limited to the amount of exposure they have to social media as well as limited to the desire to access that type of channel.   Therefore, as we begin to understand how we reach out to our stakeholders, we can use critical theory to allow us to “consider how social media fits into our professional lives” and be able to evaluate and use social media responsibly (Hurley & Hea, pg. 58).

Generational Technology Gap

Image from: How does social media as a technology affect sleeping patterns?
Posted on April 26, 2013 by insomnicacs

Hurley, E.V. and Hea, A.C.K. (2014).  The Rhetoric of Reach: Preparing Students for Technical Communication in the Age of Social Media.  Technical Communication Quarterly, 23(1), pp. 55-68.

A Rose by Any Other Name

After reading the first two chapters of Digital Literacy by Carliner and Dicks, I find myself thinking that their entire premise is flawed.  Each refers to a Technical Communicator as a job title and not a skill.  By doing this, they have contradicted themselves in their message or are at least naïve in their conclusions.

Carliner summarizes the impact of digital technology on technical communicators.  He explains how changing technology impacted technical communicators negatively and forced them to take on new job titles or alter how and what tools they used to complete their work.  He also alludes to the shrinking market for technical communicators.  I disagree.  The same technical communicator, by job title, may be someone such as a web designer.  Instead of constructing information bulletins for easier interpretation by the end user, they are constructing a website to enhance the end users experience during their visit.  He continues his negative outlook by stating “However, those who develop and produce content have been facing dwindling work opportunities.” (p44)  Just two pages earlier he contradicts this statement when he quotes Shank 2008 “e.g., the home page of newspapers changing every 15 minutes”. (p42)  Wouldn’t a website which changes content every 15 minutes create more opportunities?  I believe this would especially be true with a content provider that needs to be clear and concise with their information and would require a professional that was capable of executing this effectively.

Here is a perfect time to insert the argument that technical communicators document or convey scientific, engineering, or other technical information.  Surely you can’t document the changes in technology and how it impacts technical communicators over the last thirty years and assume that the definition of what a technical communicator is would remain static to the old industrial mindset.  Clearly a technical communicator is anyone who effectively addresses the arrangement, emphasis, clarity, conciseness, and tone (Kostelnick and Roberts) when presenting persuasive or instructional information.

Dicks goes on in the second chapter to go through changing business models and their negative effect on the job outlook for technical communicators.  Again, in the 1982 definition, he would be correct.  However, I reiterate my opinion that “technical communicator” is not just a job title, it is a skill.  The general contradiction I find in this chapter can be summarized by Dicks himself “… many communicators are seeing the nature of their work altered considerably.” (p75) I would argue that the communicators are the ones altering their work to fit their new environments.  On page 60, Dicks highlights the problem of value added for technical communicators.  Except for sales people’s production measured in dollars and a manufacturer’s production in units, how does any employee justify their value added?  Marketing, management (except for sales and manufacturing units), lab workers, IT, and engineers are all examples of employees that must adapt and evolve to show their value to a company.

If the two author’s purposes were to inform, they should have allowed the context of the technical communicator to evolve with the world in which they work.  If Dicks and Cauliner were trying to persuade, they did a poor job in my opinion and their work is more apt to gain a following in the next Yahoo article of five ways technical communicators jobs are changing.

We add value! Don’t outsource technical communication!

I was struck by R. Stanley Dicks’ article (chapter 2 in Spilka’s book), particularly how technical communicators must always be defending their role in the company. I can see how sometimes management can wonder what “technical communication” really is, especially when it touches so many other aspects of a company–why can’t technical communication fold into the other departments and eliminate the formal technical communication job title?

This has happened, with technical communication splitting into two general tracks, “design and programming of information databases and the other focused on providing content for these databases” (Carliner, ch 1 in Spilkea’s book, p 29). User Experience experts, information design, documentation divas, information technology, all have cuttings from technical communication. So why not eliminate the formal technical communication discipline when it’s grafted into all aspects of a company already?

In my opinion, no. we need technical communicators–we need us! While there are aspects of technical communication in other disciplines, technical communicators have the vision and distance from one particular area to consider the implications of audience.  We are the users’ advocate first and foremost, and our whole goal is to see how we can get and retain users. While IT and other areas greatly contribute to this end goal, it’s in the company’s interest to keep technical communicators around, and in house to successfully reach as many audiences as possible.  Back in Dicks’ article, he writes that the workers with the most value are those that “analyze, synthesize, combine, rearrange, develop, design, and deliver information to specific audiences for specific purposes” (p. 54). That’s how technical communicators add value.

So long, farewell, see you next semester!

I spent the semester reading, discussing, and connecting those readings and discussions to my current technical communication role. My goal in this program is to become a better technical communicator, and this class has been an excellent start for me. All of our readings and discussions have helped me to think about what communication strategies I am already using and what new methods I can try.

I found the Spilka text especially helpful and relevant, as it framed the evolution of and current trends in the technical communication field within the context of traditional technical communication roles and responsibilities. As I am new to the field, all of this background really helped to orient me and help me understand how my job role became what it is today. In my final paper, I traced three themes through the different authors in the Spilka text and applied them to my own role as a technical communicator.

It was extremely helpful and interesting to read all of your creative blog posts and insightful comments on my posts throughout the semester. Thank you all for creating a helpful and supportive discussion environment. Best wishes for a happy and healthy holiday season and a great new year! The abstract for my paper is below.

Abstract

The emergence of digital technology has had a profound impact on the field of technical communication and its actors. This paper explores changes in the field of technical communication and in the roles of technical communicators, evolution of the technical communication audience, and Information Design and Content Management Principles. My intent with this exploration is to establish where my current technical communication strategies are consistent with the field literature and theory and identify areas upon which I can improve and new methods that I can utilize.

 

Emerging from my “blog fog” to say farewell and thanks!

I have thoroughly enjoyed my investigation of using blogs in our Introduction to College Life classrooms, but I feel like I’m emerging from a “blog fog” and I can’t quite relate to anyone who’s not steeped in this subject at the moment.  My husband has learned to include the word “blog” in any conversation he attempts to engage me in – “Are we getting a Christmas tree blog this year?,” “Would you like scrambled or fried blogs?,” or “Have you talked to our son,Sam blog, this week?”

 But seriously, this was a great learning experience for me. I researched the use of blogs in university classrooms and designed a plan to use those findings to create a blog for our Campus Read program, which is just two years old.  Campus Read programs always list “building a sense of community” as a goal, and “community” is almost always listed as an adjective associated with blogs, so I thought it was a natural fit. One thing I learned, however, is that the community-building nature of blogs doesn’t automatically happen and that a great deal of work will have to be invested for my vision to materialize.

I gained this insight from reading about the Julie/Julia project, which was made into the movie Julie & Julia with Amy Adams and Meryl Streep in 2009.

Even though Julie Powell’s blog was very popular, visitors only reported feeling a “moderate” sense of community and the community dissipated when Julie Powell discontinued the blog. To the degree that people did report a strong sense of community, it was associated with the comments function of blogging – both writing and reading, which makes sense if you think about community as being dialogic. Anyway, if anyone is interested in reading more about the Julie/Julia project, I recommend Anita Blanchard’s article “Blogs as Virtual Communities: Identifying a sense of Community in the Julie/Julia Project.” You can retrieve the article here at the Into the Blogosphere series through the University of Minnesota, which offers a lot of great articles about blogging (http://blog.lib.umn.edu/blogosphere/blogs_as_virtual.html).

 Aside from my insights about community, I learned a lot about my own campus’s policies and preparedness for 21st century learning.  Probably the most interesting insight I came away with is the degree to which we’re still groping with how to effectively use new media.  I read an article that described all of the “invisible” issues we might have to consider in creating a campus blog and initially I put it in the “not relevant” pile as I was sorting through my research.  It kept bubbling back up to the top of the pile as I had discussions with people on campus about how to implement a blog.  (You can read the article, “The When of New Media Writing” by Danielle DeVoss, Ellen Cushman, and Jeffrey Grabill at http:// www. Jstor.org/stable/30037897). It wasn’t that anyone was being obstructionist particularly, but with any large institution, people and departments aren’t always communicating or communicating clearly. As I put the finishing touches on my paper, I still wasn’t clear about what I might and might not be allowed to do with regard to technology, sometimes for practical technological reasons, and sometimes because of local, contextual constraints.  I hope I am being sufficiently vague.

 Finally, I just have to briefly mention the role of audience and blogging. Because of my role in our Writing Center, I knew that the concepts of blogging and having a sense of audience were linked, but I didn’t expect that I would spend so much time thinking and writing about it for my paper.  We always tell students to “imagine” an audience with certain characteristics and so forth and not to think of the professor as the sole reader, but that’s always a difficult exercise because ultimately, students know that their professor usually is the sole member of the audience. Having a blogging experience, though, can fundamentally change the way students think about an audience and motivate them to write—this was probably the main learning outcome I had from my research project, and it isn’t really the one I was prepared for, since I thought my main goal was to use blogs to develop a sense of community.

 Which leaves me to you, my “audience.”  This experience was very educational for me, and I want to thank you all for your support during my graduation to the 21st century (well, at least from elementary school to middle school!). It has been my privilege to take this course with you.

 And now, in a nod to Lori’s sendoff from Michael on “The Office,” I leave you with these words from Creed  Bratton’s Blog, also from “The Office,” apropos of the fact that we are now fully immersed in Wisconsin winter:

 “Almost winter. Time to turn my tennis racket into snowshoes.”

 Good luck to all on final projects!

Users Taking Over the World

As I was reviewing our course syllabus after completing this week’s readings, the title of Unit 3 struck me: “Work and Play in a User-Generated World.” I started thinking about what a user-generated world is and realized that it’s exactly what our readings have been describing. A user-centric sphere in which users demand good customer service, quick response time, new forums to communicate with each other, and improved and more efficient searching is, most definitely, a user-generated world.

While product research and development has always been motivated by the product’s users/audience to some extent, it is clear that consumers have been empowered and their opinions and voices amplified as a result of the rise of social media and digital technology in general. Ann M. Blakeslee’s chapter, “Addressing Audiences in a Digital Age” in Spilka’s Digital Literacy for Technical Communication, addresses how the concept of the audience has changed, especially for technical communicators, since the dawn of the digital age.

According to Blakeslee, while it was once reasonably safe to assume that a print user manual would have a fairly narrow, well

defined audience limited to people who were likely familiar with industry jargon, such assumptions are no longer likely to be accurate. The internet has offered greatly increased accessibility to technical communication, and thus greatly expanded the potential audience for documentation. While Blakeslee acknowledges that it may be difficult for technical communicators to understand and define their now larger and more varied audiences for general documentation, she points out that it is easier to predict and understand the audience for particular types of documents such as instructional documents (2010, p. 201).

Just as digital technology has facilitated and expanded access to documentation, it is also (according to Qualman, Maggiani, and Marshall) revolutionizing the way we search for jobs. Social media allows for the rapid exchange of information- including information that helps both job seekers and recruiters. Qualman predicts that as with everything else on the web, middlemen will become less valuable and eventually be eliminated; job seekers will be matched with more appropriate jobs without the need for classified ads, job boards like Monster, or headhunters (2013, p. 178).

Qualman anticipates that LinkedIn will be a major player during and following the elimination of the middleman from the recruiting and job seeking processes (2013, p. 178). Therefore, he can see job searching and hiring becoming even more referral based than they were previously.

The article “Using LinkedIn to Get Work” by Rich Maggiani and Ed Marshall also voiced the idea that LinkedIn will become increasingly more important in hiring and job seeking. In addition to advising job seekers, the article also advises the currently employed on how to maintain their profiles in order to stay up to date with their networks and potential future employers. This advice includes frequently posting status updates and listing events attended.

I had no idea how much LinkedIn offered in terms of job searching prior to reading this article. I did not know how LinkedIn job postings work or that there are job tabs within groups. I was not surprised to hear that LinkedIn is an increasingly important recruiting tool, though, as my company is currently using LinkedIn for recruiting.

I was intrigued by the idea of constantly updating the LinkedIn profile with status updates and the like, but also a bit wary. I’ve always had the impression that being very active on LinkedIn in the way the article recommends implies that a person is looking for work or projects or is advertising their own services. In the case of someone who is happily employed, I could see this being a red flag for their current employer and triggering questions about whether the employee is looking to leave. Maybe though, employers will understand the benefits to them of their employees expanding their social networks, and this will not actually be a problem.

Technology or Bust?

The chapter “Information Design” in Digital Literacy for Technical Communication echoes a sentiment I’ve been having throughout this class. Salvo and Rosinski make the following point that especially resonates with me: “Use, familiarity, and comfort within these newer information spaces are therefore generational, and technical communicators must now consider how to bridge these generational boundaries that are likely to express themselves as technological preferences” (2010, p.105).

This bridge of generational boundaries is one that I don’t think has been adequately addressed in our readings until now. I think the tone of many of our previous readings has been that technical communicators must change they way they communicate or face the possibility of becoming irrelevant. I found in this frequently repeated theme an implied argument that technical communicators are resistant to new technologies, but their users are not; thus, technical communicators must adapt their communication methods to them to keep up to par with their users.

While I believe that this scenario is the case for some technical communicators, I have encountered the opposite problem in my current job. Savlo and Rosinski argue that technological preferences are generational. I see evidence of this daily; my users, consumers of the documentation I write, are more of my parents’ generation than mine and are more used to and accepting of print communication than digital. In fact, in some cases I have encountered resistance to digital communication, despite the fact that print communication is still equally as available and accessible.

Don’t get me wrong- there are some users (mostly the ones closer to my generation) who do actually want to experience digital communication and even recognize its benefits. For example, my digital communication platform, Doc-to-Help, allows me to link words I’ve used to glossary terms, group key concepts together, offer direct links to related topics, and provide the user with the ability to search for a term or topic. If my users could get comfortable with this digital communication platform, I have no doubt that it would serve them better than a 50 page printed user manual.

In addition, as our product is a SaaS (software as a service) application which is accessed via a computer, an internet connection, and a browser, it should be safe to assume that our users, since they are able to access our applications, do not have the technological obstacles (lack of access to these tools) that Salvo and Rosinski point out could potentially inhibit their accessing online documentation.

Nevertheless, Salvo and Rosinski are right that we as technical communicators do need to do our best to bridge the generational gap and appeal to everyone. I am still trying to figure out the best way to continue making print documentation available for those who really need it but at the same time encouraging my user base to shift to the digital platform as it is faster, less resource intensive, and offers unique functionality.

The aiim white paper, “Systems of Engagement and the future of Enterprise IT,” brought up a very interesting point about how accessibility of technology has changed. Whereas traditionally new technology has been available first to businesses and larger institutions and then has trickled down to smaller organizations and eventually individuals, we are now seeing the opposite trend where technological trends seem to take hold at the individual level and grow until they reach larger organizations.

The aiim paper predicts, though, that businesses will have to speed up their responses to technological innovation and undergo a transformation which will further facilitate collaboration or risk becoming “roadkill” (p. 4). This new way of doing business is described as “Systems of Engagement” rather than its predecessor “Systems of Record” (p. 5).

I can already see this transformation happening in my company. We are a small company, but one of my coworkers works across the country in a different time zone, some of our consultants work in a different time zone as well, and some of our customers are in still different time zones plus have different work hours than us. These growing communication constraints require that we find new and effective ways to engage with each other such as video conferencing and hopefully increasingly better mobile devices and cheaper and more accessible bandwidth as the paper predicts.

healthcare.gov: A “crash” course for this week’s readings

"The system is down at the moment," from healthcare.gov. is not the sort of message digitallandfill is hoping to inspire in its "5 new rules of customer engagement" post.  Read the entire post at http://www.digitallandfill.org/2013/09/5-new-rules-of-customer-engagement-gd13.html

“The system is down at the moment,” from healthcare.gov. is not the sort of message digitallandfill is hoping to inspire in its “5 new rules of customer engagement” post.
Read the entire post at http://www.digitallandfill.org/2013/09/5-new-rules-of-customer-engagement-gd13.html

I would rather avoid a discussion of health care policy and politics, and I don’t plan to address those for the most part, but this week’s reading and the healthcare.gov. “hubbub” seem too convergent to ignore.Michael Salvo and Paula Rosinski remind us that “As soon as a design is out of the author’s hand and launched into the world, we see how effective that design can be in use … We make our information spaces, and then these spaces make us and impact our communication―always returning to the human genesis of the space, yet not always under the immediate control of the users (or designers) of that information space”  (In “Information Design”).

As Moore put it in “A Sea Change in Enterprise IT, “organizations are facing an avalanche of information” as they change from systems of record to systems of engagement and “Best practices in this new world are scarce.”

Well, they seem to be scarce this month for sure.

"We have a lot of visitors on this site right now.  Please stay on this page." From slate.com http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/bitwise/2013/10/problems_with_healthcare_gov_cronyism_bad_management_and_too_many_cooks.html

“We have a lot of visitors on this site right now.
Please stay on this page.”
From slate.com
http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/bitwise/2013/10/problems_with_healthcare_gov_cronyism_bad_management_and_too_many_cooks.html

What went wrong with Healthcare.gov?

But, back in the spring and over the summer, experts involved in the development and elsewhere were talking about the potential of the Website in much the celebratory tone of Qualman in Socialnomics, without some of the cautionary tones of Moore’s white paper.  Both are very clear about the speed of change, but Moore’s quotes from a number of CIOs in 2011 (“We are grappling with this”; “Nobody has figured this out”; and “whether we want it or not, it is coming in”) suggests more trepidation and is somewhat predictive of healthcare.gov.

As I’ve confessed and lamented often, I’m not terribly tech savvy, but from what I can gather, there were some missteps in creating the “information architecture” that characterizes the site. What the developers and designers were celebrating back in the spring was that the site would have a content management system-free philosophy that would make for a “completely static website,” using Jekyll and Github, which was supposed to result in an “incredibly fast and reliable website,” according to an April 10 post at the HHS.gov blog site by David Cole, one of the designers from Development Seed, one of the websites designers.

According to Brian Sivik, Chief Technology Officer at HHS who was quoted in an article in The Atlantic Monthly, its use of social coding is built in a way that’s “open, transparent and enables updates. This is better than a big block of proprietary code locked up in a CMS [content management system].” I mean, the very title of the Atlantic Monthly article is celebrating democracy: “Healthcare.gov: Code Developed by the People and for the People, Released Back to the People.” (See the full article at http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/06/healthcaregov-code-developed-by-the-people-and-for-the-people-released-back-to-the-people/277295/)

So, as I read through any number of articles trying to figure out “what went wrong?” I tried to keep my focus on the role of technical communicators, rather than policy makers, politicians, self-interested CEO’s and CIO’s, software developers, and code writers, but then I started thinking that my thinking is antithetical almost everything I’ve been reading in my classes for the MSTPC program: “We are not merely writers anymore.  Now we are editors, information architects, project managers, client liaisons, and more” (135) as Hart-Davidson reminds us this week in “Content Management.”  So, there are probably many technical communicators caught in this morass or, alternately, learning opportunity, depending how you view it the current problems at healthcare.gov.

John Pavley at the Huffington Post does see it as an opportunity for the “bi-directional” experience Moore, Qualman, and others have described. “If they want to live up to their initial promise and completely open-source the code on GitHub.com, I’d bet thousands of developers would volunteer to fix all of their bugs for them. That’s the power of open source and open government: Other people are invested in fixing your problems for you!” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-pavley/obamacare-website-problems_b_4057618.html)

Content Management Meet Up in Milwaukee

The Content Management System Meetup in Milwaukee began with  "Let's get ready to rumble!" Image from http://anything-digital.com/blog/events/what-cms-is-best-cms-showdown-results-after-milwaukee-meetup.html

The Content Management System Meetup in Milwaukee began with
“Let’s get ready to rumble!”
Image from http://anything-digital.com/blog/events/what-cms-is-best-cms-showdown-results-after-milwaukee-meetup.html

So, all that reading about the CMS-free healthcare.gov experience got me curious about what are considered “good” content management systems, so I tried to root out some reliable information and came across this CMS “Showdown” in Milwaukee in May.  It’s not an “academic” source, but I found it enlightening in that it shows how such providers think it’s important to talk about CMS. The showdown was between 6 CMS providers: Sitecore, ModX, WordPress, Drupal, Concrete5, and Joomla.

The Fight Club meetup metaphor was funny but not really typical of the communication, according to the write up by Jessica Dunbar at anythingdigital.com (May 14).  It seemed to me to be pretty communal, in a sense, with quick pitches for each product (3-5 minutes), perhaps a little tag line or branding (ModX – “Creative freedom”; “We like to say that WordPress is both free and priceless at the same time”; “Come for the software, stay for the community” [at Drupal]).

This was the only visual aid used at the CMS Milwaukee Meetup, which I found odd for a bunch of "information architects" who should be visual thinkers.   The article from allthingsdigital.com also includes a YouTube video for the Drupal Song.  I'm thinking those guys might want to keep their day jobs.

This was the only visual aid used at the CMS Milwaukee Meetup, which I found odd for a bunch of “information architects” who should be visual thinkers.
The article from allthingsdigital.com also includes a YouTube video for the Drupal Song. I’m thinking those guys might want to keep their day jobs.

A representative for Joomla declared, “Joomla! is a extremely customizable and adaptable for Enterprise, SMBs, NPOs and beyond.”  Joomla was the only representative to bring a comparison chart, so perhaps that’s why it won. At the same time the writer of the article declared himself the only judge, so maybe that’s why it won.

The good news for me?  I’m actually starting to understand what some of this means….

A Giant Digital Filing Cabinet

Information design and content management are two terms that I knew existed, but they never would have crossed my mind.  Technical communicators write and create their documents, but must also design the way they distribute information and manage what they write.  Most people only consider the writing part of a technical communicator’s job, but these are tasks in which technical communicators have always engaged.  Before the Web grew in popularity, technical communicators kept track and managed their writing in hard copy formats.  However, with the enormous increase of documents being created and distributed online, somebody must be responsible for maintaining it: “Search and retrievability – or findability – as well as navigability become increasingly important as the information age produces more documents than ever before” (Salvo & Rosinski, p. 103).  A document is useless if the user cannot navigate it or cannot properly access it.  I imagine a digital filing cabinet and a technical communicator working diligently to keep it organized.  I have created a visual to aid with my giant digital filing cabinet analogy.

Image

I took a stab at defining the two terms:

  • Information design – creating or establishing a text using a set of principles to improve the readability of a document
  • Content management – maintaining the usability and searchability of a document so that it can be accessed by users

So, in terms of information design, technical communicators “[design] information in written documents so that those who put ideas to work can access content when needed” (Salvo & Rosinski, p. 105).  With the increase of electronic documents, it is important that technical communicators consider the format of their document.  If they want their users to be able to open up an electronic file and type their information directly into the file, they must design it in such a way.  Design in a key element in helping readers understand the document.  Also, technical communicators are “charged not merely with the activity of writing, but also with […] looking after the information assets of the organization” (p. 128).  Increasingly, technical communicators are responsible for keeping the information they write organized so users can locate it.  If a graphic designer creates a company logo, it will fall on the technical communicator to keep a digital copy of the company’s logo managed so that the marketing department, and any other departments, can locate it for their work.

Technical communicators use various systems for designing information and for maintaining documents.  InfoDesign is a blog that provides technical communicators with current information and communication strategies.  Technical communicators can use the tags to search for posts about a relevant topic.  Companies have many options in terms of managing their content.  CMS Matrix allows users to sort through a list of 1,200 content management systems and compare selected systems.  Top Ten Reviews contained numerical data comparing the most popular content management systems.

So does this giant digital filing cabinet create more work for a technical communicator?  I don’t think so, unless the technical communicator is not properly designing and managing his content.  I think properly designing information and managing it correctly can actually help a technical communicator be more productive in the long run.

Thinking Critically: All that Twitters is Not Technological Gold

After last week’s immersion in Sherry Turkle’s cautionary tale (Alone, together), it’s kind of hard to return to the full-out celebration of all that is Twitter and technological glitter in Qualman’s Socialnomics. I thought I’d bridge the gap by first considering Dave Carlon’s discussion of “Shaped and Shaping Tools” in Digital Literacy (edited by Rachel Spilka).

Time and Space “Fixity”

The subtitle of Carlson’s piece is “The Rhetorical Nature of Technical Communication Technologies,” and in it he calls for technical communicators to “be critical,” to be rhetorically savvy in their use of new technological tools (p. 87). To study the rhetoric of technology, he offers four broad categories of scholarship: rhetorical analysis; technology transfer and diffusion; genre theory; and activity theory.

In his consideration of rhetorical analysis, he discusses the fact that Twitter “opens up both temporal and spatial fixity” because Twitter is not bound by either time or space (93). Early on in the chapter, he makes the point that Twitter can be “endlessly resorted and reorganized” because we have countless interfaces and points of entry.  I wasn’t entirely sure what that last idea meant, so I did some surfing and found this “Twitter Storm” piece by Tom Phillips on Buzz Feed http://www.buzzfeed.com/tomphillips/the-29-stages-of-a-twitterstorm).

http://www.buzzfeed.com/tomphillips/the-29-stages-of-a-twitterstorm

Tom Phillips gives a nice, humorous rundown about how Twitter can be “endlessly resorted and reorganized,” as Carlson suggests.
Source: http://www.buzzfeed.com/tomphillips/the-29-stages-of-a-twitterstorm

I think it perfectly makes Carlson’s point about multiple interfaces and points of entry. You can enter the conversation at any point and, especially if you are someone  with a following, start the conversation all over again.

Even laggards, thankfully, can enter the conversation at any time!

But, just entering the conversation doesn’t make us critical thinkers with regard to technology, a point Carlson makes, Turkle makes, and even Qualman makes.

Genres as Regularizing Structures: PowerPoint and Prezi

For example, Carlson asks us as technical communicators to think more deeply about how technologies shape us and how we are shapers of technology. Consider his discussion of genre theory. He cites the work of Carolyn Miller (“Genre as social action”) that genres such as memos, reports, and manuals are not simply formats but rather they are “regularizing structures … that shape the work of members of organizations” (97). As example, Carlson cites the work of Yates and Orlikowski’s examination of PowerPoint “arguing that genres create expectations of purpose, content, participants, form, time, and place” (97) and become regularizing structures within organizations.

I’ve seen so many bad PowerPoint presentations (and I’ll bet you have, too), that I readily tried Prezi a few weeks ago simply on the barest glimpse of hope that, if it catches on, people might add a little zip to what otherwise turn out to be humongous snooze fests where we watch someone read from a screen.

Prezi, like PowerPoint is not simply a format, but rather it is a "regularizing structure." Source: http://prezi.com/your/

Prezi, like PowerPoint is not simply a format, but rather it is a “regularizing structure.”
Source: http://prezi.com/your/

Prezi does present a shift in perspective as Klint Finley from Tech Crunch points out: “For those not familiar, Prezi uses a map-like metaphor for creating presentations instead of a slideshow metaphor. This makes it possible to create non-linear presentations, or presentations that use spatial metaphors for organizing ideas, like mind maps.”  (techcrunch.com/2012/10/30/powerpoint-killer-prezi-launches-new-interface/.)

In my experience Prezi does offer a different way of organizing information, which might present a new rhetorical paradigm for presentations, but I actually think either platform could be used effectively.  If you’re not familiar with Prezi, you should visit their website (http://prezi.com/your/) and try it out.  I, a renowned technological “laggard,” taught myself in a couple of hours, so you know it must be pretty intuitive.

Cheerleading for cheerleading camp

The concept of “laggardness” brings me to Qulaman, who is always fun to read because, for one thing, he doesn’t laden himself with too much in the way of academic support.  But those are the two querulous impulses I always have when I read Socialnomics―timeliness and evidence.

In the first case, I always have an impulse to check out where the anecdotal evidence stands today. For example, Qualman spends a few pages (161-165) discussing Hulu’s success with delivering high-quality traditional television and movies and for employing an innovative advertising model. Yet, today’s news would suggest that what was true when this book was published is no longer true today.  You can read here about the company’s latest challenges: “5 ways new CEO Mike Hopkins Can Save Hulu” from Mike Wallenstein at Variety (http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/5-ways-new-ceo-mike-hopkins-can-save-hulu-1200735150/).

Hulu

A new CEO is being brought in to “save” Hulu, which suggests that it hasn’t sustained the success that Qualman wrote about in 2009.
Source: (http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/5-ways-new-ceo-mike-hopkins-can-save-hulu-1200735150/).

That doesn’t make what Qualman published in 2009 any less true, only outdated, and perhaps what makes it outdated could have bearing on the business strategies and choices Qualman extols.  Wallerstein’s advice to Hulu: 1. Get the owners rowing in the same direction 2. Pick―and stick with―a strategy. 3. Time to bid big against Netflix 4. If you’re going to do original programming, do it right. 5. Stop the bleeding.

The other problem, as others have pointed out on this forum, is that Qualman seems to rely a lot on anecdotal evidence.  His mother’s friend Betsy’s cheerleading camp (pp. 175-178) was probably pretty meaningful to Betsy, Qualman’s mother, and Qualman himself, but I didn’t find it either particularly informative or easy to follow.  What’s missing in Qualman’s analysis is that he can’t seem to direct us to broad conclusions based on quantifiable, reliable data. He can tell stories about this or that success or failure, but he’s not convincing in a broad, academically supportable sense.

Yet, I find him enormously persuasive much of the time, especially when he discusses  “finding the right balance between launching every possible idea through the door and ensuring they are not missing out on a great opportunity” (181). He actually lauds TripAdvisor for taking a “deep breath” and re-thinking their strategy with “Where I’ve Been” (p. 106). He also advises companies to “Take time to decide where you will be,” which is sort of the missing element in this 140-character, non-fixity world.

To “think critically,” as Dave Carlson encourages us, does take at least a little bit of time, the most valuable and rare commodity in this twittery, glittery world.

The Politics of Social Media: Country, Company, and Communication

If any of us still had doubts that our lives and our work are undergoing major changes as social media and other technologies continue to grow, this week’s readings might have really struck us hard. While I’ve participated in many of these technological changes as they’ve happened, I was still in awe when I read Qualman and Spilka’s impressions of what the cumulative impact of these transitions will look like.

Qualman expects a significant shift in how political campaigns are run based on Obama’s 2008 campaign in which he successfully utilized social media for getting his message out and increasing his popularity as well as for fundraising. I think this makes sense in the context of increased social media use for advertising because essentially a presidential candidate is advertising or selling himself/herself.

I do wonder whether there is any difference in the demographics that will be receptive to increased political social media advertising. My impression is that younger people, such as college students, tend to be more liberal while older people tend to be more conservative. Younger people also tend to use social media more actively than older people. Thus, I wonder whether conservative use of social media in campaigning will be as effective as liberal use because of the demographics in question and their media preferences.

Qualman generally paints a very rosy picture of social media and its ability to facilitate communication. It seems that his rule of thumb is that businesses should use negative comments to improve their products and their customer service rather than trying to delete them. I think though, especially as social media enters the political realm, that it is not always possible to take negative comments and turn them into a positive outcome.

Yesterday I was reading a Facebook post from the Obama administration which contained a factual update of the latest news about the government shutdown. An alarming number of people commented with vulgar language toward the President in posts that did not contain suggestions or anything else that could even potentially be productive. More people responded to those people by returning the vulgar language; thus the entire thread turned into something negative rather than something informative and productive. While sometimes the fact that anyone can post anything and have it be seen by many people is a benefit of social media, there are cases like this one where it can also be a negative.

Qualman also talks about the shift of product and service marketing from message and positioning focused to more customer-centric via social media. I’m not sure I agree with him here. For one thing, I think marketing has always been more customer focused than he gives it credit for. I think focus groups and market research, which have been around far longer than any of the technologies in question, are great examples about how marketers have always cared about what products, services, and features are important to their customers. Also, I think a company could have the best customer service in the world, but without a cohesive strategy and message, I don’t think they could possibly have a competitive product.

The Spilka reading offers more interesting food for thought about how our lives and jobs are changing as technology evolves. Spilka introduces the concept of a constant deskilling and reskilling where technical communicators will constantly need to get retrained as their job descriptions change. I think this analysis may be rather extreme. Because we now perform “knowledge work” or “symbolic-analytic work,” we think critically, and we work with concepts and information; I think these skills are easily transferrable to slightly different job functions and will not require us to retrain ourselves entirely.

I agree with Spilka’s point that although technical communicators will still be writers, editors, and product experts, our function will increasingly become adding value to information as our work becomes even more symbolic-analytic. It seems to me that the tone in talking about our functions evolving is negative, but I think it’s a good thing since we have a lot more to offer. In my job I already fill the roles of technical writer, product expert, editor, customer support person and usability consultant, and I think it allows me to grow, both personally and professionally, more than a traditional technical communications job would.

Technical Communicators, Prepare for the Future(!)

After several weeks of assigned readings, I think it is safe to say that technology changes and social media will continue to play an important role in pop culture, work life, and politics.  The internet and social media are here to stay and will continue to affect our lives, but, just like Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, I don’t think anyone knows exactly what impact they will have in the long run.  Although, how will technology changes and social media affect technical communicators, exactly?

  • Digital and print texts.  Due to increased digital literacy, technical communicators will continue to create texts designed especially for the internet.  Technical communicators must be able to design texts for print and hypertexts as long as the internet continues growing in use and accessibility.  In the future, technical communicators must master skills such as web design, in order to create effective documentation for users.
  • Different product, same user manual.  Technical communicators will need to be able to adapt their writings because “products being documented often differ from those that are mass produced” (Dicks, p. 58).  With the ability to custom order products to fit the customer’s lifestyle and needs, technical communicators must be willing to adapt the way in which they create user manuals or make them universal without being too vague.
  • Does this job come with benefits?  Many technical communicators will be “officially unemployed but constantly working. (p. 59).  Due to the changing needs of companies, technical communicators’ jobs will be contracted positions in the future.  To save money and office space, technical communicators will frequently work from home in the future, and employers will hire them on a temporary basis for special projects so that the company can avoid paying for an employee’s insurance and benefits.  Working from home can be a big benefit for employees.  According to a USA Today article, employees who work from home tend to be more productive and have a better work and life balance.

  • Social media.  I knew social media would be important for technical communicators after several of the assigned readings dealt with this topic, but I was still unsure of why so I needed to do some research.  Technical communicators will need to continue to embrace social media.  An article on InformationWeek explains that social media tears down the wall between the technical communicator and the user.  Furthermore, social media will encourage technical communicators to spend less time actually writing and more time curating the best wikis and videos to promote to users.  This change will somewhat devalue the role of the technical communicator, but will promote the role of community.

I hope these “tips” help you – I know that I will keep them in mind as I start looking for technical communicator positions!

Blogging: My Newest Frontier

Originally, I thought I would start this post off by confessing that I have absolutely no experience with blogs, but that turns out to not be entirely true.  While it is accurate that this is my first post—yeah!—it turns out I’ve been reading blogs and not even realizing it. In reading “Searching for Writing on the Web,” Alex Reid lists the top 25 blogs and I am very familiar with 3 of them—The Daily Beast, Think Progress, and the Huffington Post.  Now that article is dated 2011, and 2 years is like a millennium in Internet time, so I don’t know if they’re still in the top 25, but it was comforting to realize I already knew something about blogs.

But not much.  For example, a former student of mine recently got hired to write a twice-weekly blog about holistic dentistry, and I didn’t quite understand why since, as far as I knew, she knew nothing about dentistry, holistic or otherwise. From her description, she is mostly serving as a “tipster,” about how to engage in holistic care of teeth and alternatives to traditional dentistry.  She doesn’t have to be a content matter expert, but rather just do some basic research and engage the material in a lively and readable way.  So, I’m still struggling  a bit to understand this medium and it’s multifaceted purpose, but I am looking forward to the education.

In my case, my mind tends to want to skip the theoretical and go straight to the practical application, often to my detriment, so I think I’ll need to proceed slowly in thinking about what use I might make of my newfound knowledge after class ends. In Langwitches blog post “What does it Mean to Be Literate?” the author cautions teachers to engage in some basic blogging education including “pre-reading and pre-writing”  skills such as understanding how blog platforms work before attempting a blog in the classroom.  I’m definitely still at the pre-writing and reading stage.

When I do feel more comfortable with this medium, one use I’d like to make of it regards my role as the chair of our campus’s “Common Read Program.”  One of my tasks is to get the students, faculty, and staff engaged in a larger dialogue than simply in individual classrooms or book groups.  Last year, our Writing Center held an essay contest and the prompt was tied to the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot.  It was reasonably successful for a first-time effort, but I didn’t think the submissions really reflected the level of critical thinking we should be seeing from college students.

I’m wondering if a pre-writing blog might help students reflect on and clarify their thinking before they put pen to paper (keyboard to MS Word) for the essay contest?  “Learning with Weblogs: Enhancing Cognitive and Social Knowledge Construction,” suggests that “weblog technology fits with the constructivism learning theory, and argues that a weblog is a useful online tool for students to reflect and publish their thoughts and understanding.”  I can see some logistical problems already, however, such as the fact that we have about 1,650 students in our freshmen class alone, so I don’t know how exactly this would work.  I’ll be interested in learning more from my classmates and our readings as I formulate my goals and understand more about the medium.

By the way, our Campus Read book this year is Scoreboard, Baby by Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry.  It’s a very engaging read, and I highly recommend it.  I’m using this as an excuse to see if I can master the skills of downloading a graphic.

Scoreboard baby cover

As I wrap up my first-ever blog post and I read what I’ve written, I’m trying to discern if it reflects anything I’ve read in “16 Top Tips from Blogging Experts for Beginners,” and I’m not entirely sure.  It seems clear that I’m writing for myself first, which is tip #2, so I suppose I’ve at least accomplished that. Another tip I read was “Get Ideas from Your Audience,” so I read my other classmates posts first and one thing I noticed is that, as a reader, I like bullet points such as those I read in “Testing, testing… What I’ve Learned from Blogging,” by sr hebert, so let me close with these points:

  • I’m very much looking forward to learning from my classmates
  • I feel a little more confident already
  • This course has already forced me to expand beyond my comfort zone because now I have both Skyped and blogged!

Best to you all!

The Dos & Don’ts of Social Media

Least interesting title, huh? I’ll try to do better next time, I promise.

Digital Literacy – Chapter 2

I was surprised to learn the the majority of technical communicators are women (Spilka, 51) – I guess you know what they say about assumptions! Spilka stated that the entire landscape of technical communication is changing so much so that technical communicators  now know possess a set of skills that weren’t even in existence 5 years ago. It’s safe to say that social media has a lot to do with that. Technical communicators have so many more options to communicate with their audience in the social media world, which can be more effective in a way because the conversation can be on-going and continual when using social media networking sites, like Facebook. At the same time, the author warns that it’s important not to assume (going back to what I just said about assumptions…) that the latest communication trend is the most effective way to communicate with any and all audiences. I think this is something good to keep in mind – as technical communicators, it’s important to do our homework on the front end in order assess and evaluate our audience and figure out the best method to relay the message so it is received the most effectively.

Socialnomics – Chapter 4

When I first saw the title of the chapter – Obama’s Success Driven by Social Media – it mad me think of an article I read recently. It was a critical review of a book where an author dissected typestyles and commented on the typestyle that was used on Obama’s campaign materials, stating that it was a font that can be described as “self-assured” and “take charge.”  Anyway, just a interesting little tidbit…

I thought the number of social media supporters for Obama and McCain was really interesting. It would be interesting to research the issue either further to see if Obama had more Facebook friends fans and Twitter followers due to the type of demographic Facebook/Twitter attracted during the election or if it was just truly because he used social media more effectively.

Socialnomics – Chapter 6

The mention of Sims in this chapter was interesting. I never understood why anyone would want an avatar. For me, personally, it’s hard enough keeping up with my professional and personal personas that I don’t see any fun or value in adding another one to the mix.  Of course, I realize people do it for different reasons, which I totally respect, just not my thing in the least. And I chuckled at this sentence: “or perhaps these simulation games will experience a quick death because people may find it difficult to brag about playing a simulated game that replicates life instead of just leading their own lives.” I couldn’t have said it better myself!

I’m not sure what I think about the NFL creating fake Facbook pages in order to gain access to potential new players. I see their point, of course, but I’m not sure if I like the “I gotcha!” mentality.  But in the end, Qualman is right – don’t put anything on your Facebook page that could damage your reputation. Keep it PG!