Taking Advantage of Social Media Part I: The Media Are the Message

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan published Understanding Media, in which the famous phrase “the medium is the message” appeared (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Understanding_Media:_The_Extensions_of_Man). McLuhan’s insight was that the medium and the message you convey via that medium are inseparable, but that the medium you choose sometimes has a sufficiently strong impact that it outweighs the message. Although MacBeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” may come to mind for media such as television, the quote has endured for nearly 50 years because of its fundamental truth.

Consider, for example, the message we send with traditional printed documentation or online help: “I know what you need to learn and how you need me to present it, and I don’t care what you think you need to learn or how you want me to present it.” Clearly, that’s an exaggeration, but something has been happening during the past decade that makes traditional documentation seem to be nearly this arrogant. You may have heard this described as Web 2.0, and in case you somehow missed all the hype, Michael Wesch’s video “The machine is us/ing us” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NLlGopyXT_g) will tell you all you need to know in about 5 entertaining minutes. But an emerging and more appropriate name is “social media”, since social is the part of this buzzword that really merits the buzz: it emphasizes the importance of people connecting with each other to solve problems.

If you’re a technical communicator desperately trying to find some peace and quiet amidst a rowdy cubicle farm, it may seem hard to understand why anyone would want to become more social. In this article, I’ll describe some of the currently popular technologies that support social networking. In the next installment (in about 2 months), I’ll show how you can take advantage of these technologies to communicate more effectively with an audience by embracing <ahem> socialism.

Blogs and wikis

The word blog is short for “web log” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blog), and is probably the most immediately familiar form of social medium because it’s based primarily on writing, and most readers of this column are primarily writers. Its key difference from standard Web sites is that the underlying technology makes it easy to comment on and discuss the blogger’s posts. (Posts and the verb to post come from the same roots as postage and postal service: the essence is sending a message via some service.) As in the archives of a discussion forum, you can review previous posts, and see the discussion threads spawned by a given blog entry, but unlike most discussion forums, the blogger is the focus: they create most of the content, accept (or block) comments on that content, and manage the blog by excluding anyone who might disrupt it.

“Wikis” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiki) resemble blogs, but the focus shifts from a single blogger to a community that creates, revises, and maintains the wiki’s content. The most familiar example is the Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org), where a huge body of information has been created by the efforts of volunteers who collectively refine the articles until their quality approaches and sometimes exceeds that of a more familiar encyclopedia.

On the surface, blogs and wikis function similarly to any other Web site: if you choose not to participate, your interaction with the site and its owners is no different from your interaction with any static Web page (i.e., you read what’s there and move on). But you’re no longer limited to that interaction, since you can add content and help to revise it. The situation changes from monologue to dialogue, becoming richer thereby. Blogs and wikis can range from personal diaries, through advice columns such as those linked to via the EServer TC Library (http://tc.eserver.org/dir/Careers/Advice), to truly collaborative information development projects. Some examples will provide an idea of this range:

  • My own new blog (http://blatherskite.dreamwidth.org/) focuses primarily on me as an information provider, but provides opportunities to post comments and initiate a dialogue.
  • The Word MVPs site (http://word.mvps.org/) is closer to the Wikipedia model, since it’s created by a community of experts to provide a resource for users of Microsoft Word.
  • Sharon Burton’s blog for Madcap Software (http://madcapsoftware.wordpress.com/) and the Palimpsest blog by Sarah O’Keefe and other Scriptorium employees (http://www.scriptorium.com/palimpsest/index.html) both offer a range of content, from “I’m having a nice day” updates to advertising (overt or subtle) of their company’s products, including seminars.
  • The “Make Office Better” site (http://makeofficebetter.com/) is being run unofficially by two Microsoft staffers who are gathering evidence to support the need for changes in Microsoft Office.
  • STC’s Technical Editing SIG, in an effort spearheaded by their Webmaster (Rick Sapir) have tried to convert as many of the SIG’s Web pages as possible into wiki pages so that members can update outdated information, add new information, and collaborate on various issues. See, for example, their editable and expanding page on the value of editing (http://www.stc-techedit.org/Understanding+the+Value+of+a+Technical+Editor).

Podcasts and vlogs

Blogs emphasize words, and work well for communication that is intended to be read. But they’ve evolved younger and hipper siblings that add punch by turning static text into a multimedia presentation. Podcasts, a contraction of “iPod broadcasts” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podcast), are a transitional step, since they were originally prepared as spoken-word narrations intended to be heard on an MP3 player, but they’re increasingly available via Web pages. Now that many MP3 players and all computers have strong video capabilities, podcasts often include a visual component, making them a subset of vlogs, a contraction of “video blogs” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vlog). These more complex presentations include both textual and audiovisual components, and along with related forms have become a sufficiently important means of communication that Apple devoted an entire section of its iTunes site, “iTunes U” (http://www.apple.com/education/mobile-learning/), to their use in education.

The younger generation uses such tools far more than greying communicators like me, who still rely mostly on developer-provided documentation. At WritersUA a few years ago, Cheryl Lockett Zubak recounted how she and her son both set out to solve an iPod problem; each found the solution in roughly equal amounts of time, but she found it in Apple’s online documentation, whereas her son found it on YouTube (www.youtube.com).

Chat and instant messaging

We humans have a deep and abiding need to communicate. When we can’t hold a conversation in real-time, we find ways to converse asynchronously—that is, with gaps between messages. Think of sending a handwritten letter via sailing ship from England to friends or kin in Australia and you’ll understand how desperate we are to keep in touch. Telegrams improved on this process by decreasing the delay between sending a message and receiving a reply. Indeed, telegrams became so popular they created what Tom Standage described as “the Victorian Internet” in his book of the same name (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_Internet). In a very real sense, e-mail is nothing more than an inexpensive and fast telegram. And although it’s faster, the delay while a message routes its way through the Internet to reach your correspondent makes the situation not much better than conversing with friends on the Moon; the relatively slow speed of radio waves and the huge distance between Earth and the Moon combine to delay replies by about 2.6 seconds.

Many people prefer to conduct ongoing conversations in what is essentially real-time via “chat” technologies (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_chat) because, unless the Internet is badly congested, the delay is imposed almost exclusively by our typing speed and the need to think before we type. Some companies use chat to provide real-time technical support and eliminate the cost of a phone line. I’ve used this approach to solve problems with my onscreen editing book on Lulu.com—although their “live help” service has seemingly been discontinued. The conversation is also sometimes conducted using Internet telephony, referred to as VOIP because of the underlying “voice over IP” technology (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_telephony), often combined with webcams and microphones to permit low-end videoconferencing. The technology is imperfect, but is improving fast. More sophisticated versions of the technology already allow Webinars (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webinar), a contraction of “Web-based seminar.

Tweets and RSS

The insanely popular Twitter service (http://twitter.com/) has a retro feel that harkens back to telegrams: you create a short message called a tweet that is transmitted to everyone who is “following” you (i.e., your “followers”). Followers can check your profile to see what news you’ve posted, can receive your tweets on their cell phone, or can consolidate your tweets on their own site. Messages are constrained to 140 characters so that they’ll work with most cell phones. If you think it’s hard to communicate effectively this way, pause a moment to recall the catchy Burma-Shave ads (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_shave) that appeared on a series of roadside billboards, sending you the message one phrase at a time. For example, here’s my modern take on the concept:

Twitter isn’t just for twits
It’s pretty good for pushing bits
Unlike Web sites, far more hits
Tweet me!

Tweets let you provide short updates, such as announcements of new Web site content, the availability of the next issue of a newsletter, and so on. STC’s Technical Editing SIG uses Twitter (http://www.stc-techedit.org/twitter), combined with a little automation, to automatically generate tweets for short items of interest such as job listings, updates of the Web site, and news about the SIG. It’s a great way to keep people informed with a steady but not onerously large flow of information.

Another way to keep people up to date when things change is the RSS technology, which stands for “really simple syndication” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rss). Here, “syndication” stems from the same terminology used to describe TV shows, comic strips, and other items that originate in one place and are “syndicated” (republished) elsewhere. RSS automates this process and lets people subscribe to your Web site or other service such that every time you update it, they will be notified (through a “feed”) whenever they launch their RSS reader software to see which of their sites of interest has changed, or whenever they visit an aggregator site that collects feeds together in one place. For example, STC’s Technical Editing SIG has created several RSS feeds that let members stay up to date on various different aspects of the SIG’s activities (http://www.stc-techedit.org/rss+feeds).

LinkedIn and Facebook

LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/) offer tools for defining who you are and what you do, then using this starting point to link with people or communities based on shared interests or connections with mutual friends and colleagues. LinkedIn began by focusing more on the needs of professional and business contacts, whereas Facebook initially focused more on friends and family, but this distinction quickly began to fade as people found ways to use both services for their own purposes, some unforeseen by the creators. With both services, you start by establishing a “profile” that tells people who you are and what you do, and both provide tools to find kindred spirits and add them to your network. Once they’re part of your network, you can alert everyone in the network simultaneously by updating your status using a mechanism much like a Twitter tweet; both services then allow people to comment on your status update. It’s like a blog, but with really tight length constraints on individual posts that are compensated for by powerful networking tools.

One feature of these services resembles viral marketing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viral_marketing). Once you link to someone or invite them into your network, anyone connected to them can learn of your relationship and vice versa. For example, my LinkedIn profile (http://www.linkedin.com/pub/geoff-hart/4/569/68) lists me as an editor, but I’m connected directly with more writers than editors. If someone linked directly to someone in my network needs an editor, they can find my profile through our mutual contact and decide, based on that person’s willingness to link with me, that I’m trustworthy. They can then contact me to inquire about working together or even ask to become part of my network. Just how social this becomes can be seen from my own network: when I wrote this, I was linked to more than 400 colleagues via LinkedIn, many of whom had dozens or even hundreds of their own links. After only two degrees of separation, I was potentially linked to thousands of people.

STC’s Technical Editing SIG uses LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/groups?home=&gid=1983374) that provides an alternative to their Web site and uses the built-in networking features to keep SIG members up to date on everyone in their network, including leaders of the SIG. They’ve also chosen to keep the page open so that anyone can join; this is a way to support their goal of introducing potential members to their Web site.

Communities

For readers of this article, the techwr-l discussion group and Web site (http://techwr-l.com/) is probably one of the most familiar communities, but now that YahooGroups (http://groups.yahoo.com/) and Google groups (http://groups.google.com/) let anyone create a free discussion forum, it’s not much of an exaggeration to speculate that there’s a group out there for any conceivable interest—and if there isn’t one for your specific need, you can start one.

Many companies have created their own communities based on e-mail or blog or wiki tools so they can monitor the discussion of their products and take advantages of huge networks of customers to solve problems via these forums. For example, you can obtain advice from communities of fellow software users at MadCap Software (http://forums.madcapsoftware.com/index.php), Adobe (http://forums.adobe.com/index.jspa), Microsoft (http://www.microsoft.com/communities/forums/default.mspx), and Apple (http://discussions.apple.com/index.jspa). Like many of STC’s other SIGs, the Technical Editing SIG has an e-mail discussion list (http://www.stc-techedit.org/discussion+list); unlike many others, they mirror the list to their forum (http://www.stc-techedit.org/tiki-forums.php) rather than relying solely on the group’s management software to create an archive.

Stitching it all together

Even this simple description of the tools should give you some ideas about the possibilities offered by social media. In Part II of this article, I’ll show how you can begin taking advantage of these technologies to add social media to your suite of communications tools.

Geoff Hart

During a sometimes checkered career, Geoff has worked for IBM, the Canadian Forest Service, and the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada. In 2004, he threw away all that job security stuff for the carefree—not!—life of the freelancer. Geoff works primarily as a scientific editor, but also does technical writing and French translation, and occasionally falls into the trap of leading or managing groups.

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