I know it when I see it

Who makes the rules of the internet? Who judges what’s offensive and what’s OK? What are the implications for those of us who create content?

In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court had to decide whether the State of Ohio could ban a film it deemed to be obscene. Famously, Associate Justice Potter Stewart wrote that while he was hard pressed to define what qualifies something as obscene, “I know it when I see it.”

Where are the boundaries?

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Image source: The Verve (Eric Peterson)

The boundaries of offensiveness have always been fuzzy and subject to change. Movie scenes that horrify one audience might not elicit even a blush from another. Books that would’ve gotten me in trouble had they been found in my high-school locker are part of the curriculum today.

Despite the lack of rules, the boundaries are very, very real. Most of us would say with all sincerity that, like Justice Stewart, we know when something transgresses a boundary. There are standards, even if they exist only in our minds and are sustained by our (illusory?) sense of belonging to a community.

The secret rules of the internet

This week I came upon The Secret Rules of the Internet, a long piece that describes the ways in which content is moderated on the major social-media platforms.

To the extent that I’d thought about how moderation works, which admittedly wasn’t much, I never would’ve supposed that:

  • Moderators often work with guidelines that are slapdash and incomplete.
  • Moderators are poorly trained, if they’re trained at all.
  • Moderators are prone to depression and other psychological disorders, largely because their jobs force them to see things they can’t bring themselves to describe to anyone.
  • There are no standards or best practices for moderation; rather, most media companies treat their moderation practices as trade secrets.
  • Moderation is often shoved into a “silo,” segregated from the rest of the company, even — especially — from areas that set the company’s course in terms of legal and ethical principles.
  • Some platforms are better at moderation than others. (The article contrasts Facebook, with its relatively well defined Safety Advisory Board, and Reddit, which has weak guidelines, a small team of moderators, and a reputation for harboring lots of offensive content.)

According to the article’s authors — Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly — all of these things are true.

A winding path

While I found the article eye-opening in some respects, it simply reinforces what we’ve always known: issues of decency and obscenity aren’t decided by decree, by legislation, or by popular vote. Instead, they reflect the tacit consensus of the community.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there are no absolutes, that everything is relative. I think that some core values, like respect and compassion, are universal. What’s not universal is our understanding of how those values should play out in everyday life.

We can try to legislate that understanding — and people have tried, from the Code of Hammurabi to the Law of Moses right up to modern times. But written laws can’t anticipate every situation, and they can’t perfectly uphold the core values. Something more is needed: the consensus of the community.

That consensus comes about through a process that that winds, twists, and often doubles back on itself.

It’s the same process by which languages evolve. A process that might seem messy and haphazard, but which is quintessentially human.

I want to think that there are, and I think there should be, standards for judging online content. But no matter how much is codified, there’ll always be unforeseen cases that require new insights. When that happens, we have to rely on people — not people who are marginalized, not people on the low end of the pay scale, but people who have the experience and the good judgment to make the right call.

What do you think of the criteria for defining what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable online? Does the process need to be improved? Can it be improved?

Finally, how can we, as creators of content, play a part in making things better?

Our creative future

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Image source: Oracle

Happy new year. Or, to phrase it differently, welcome to the future.

I’ve just read a couple of fascinating takes on the technologies and the jobs that await us in the not-too-distant future.

Innovations in artificial intelligence

In Big Tech’s AI Predictions for 2017, experts from leading technology companies provide a peek into technology that will arrive in the next couple of years. We’re treated to new advances in voice-recognition technology, new uses for AI, and more. A couple of examples:

“In 2017 there will be a chatbot that passes the Turing test, exhibiting responses so human-like that an average person wouldn’t be able to tell if it’s human or machine.” – Jim McHugh, Vice President and General Manager, NVIDIA

“2017 will see product developers rapidly adopting the latest AI-powered voice recognition technology, [using] speech APIs and tools that are now free to use.” – Adam Coates, Director, Baidu Silicon Valley AI Lab

Reading the article reminds me of my childhood trips to the World’s Fair, where futurists paraded their visions and inspired me to dream of seeing in my lifetime a wonderful, exciting world enabled by technology and human ingenuity.

Tomorrow’s design jobs

The Most Important Design Jobs of the Future lists new jobs that, according to a panel of design experts, will need to be filled within 3 to 5 years.

Some job titles are self-explanatory (though still fantastical), like Augmented Reality Designer and Human Organ Designer.

Others, like Cybernetic Director (responsible for the creative vision and execution of highly personalized media services) and Fusionist (envisioning and creating cross-disciplinary links between art, engineering, research, and science), reflect new directions for technology and for the way people will use it.

Technical communication blogger Danielle Villegas (TechCommGeekMom) laments that she feels unprepared for the jobs of the future. “How does one train or learn [for] these kinds of positions,” she asks, when it’s hard enough keeping up with the technologies and opportunities that exist today?

That’s a great question, Danielle.

How do we prepare?

Who will work with these incredible new technologies? Who will hold these cool new design jobs? Someone will, and while I don’t know their names I guarantee that they’ll be people who, right now, possess no experience with those technologies or in those roles. Because no one, anywhere, possesses that experience yet.

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Image source: Qualcomm

It’s not like there’s a secret academy where people are taking courses in Cybernetic Direction. Where nascent Human Organ Designers are learning the best practices for making livers and hearts.

But there are user experience (UX) designers who are understand the principles of human-computer interaction. There are technical communicators who know how to create customized content for a target audience. Most important, there are people in all walks of life who are adept at critical thinking.

These are the people who’ll work with the new technologies, who’ll hold the new jobs. And I hope you’re thinking Why not me? If you’ve mastered the basic skills, and if you’re willing to expand your horizons and apply those skills to new technological challenges, you’re just as likely as anyone to play a major role in our creative future.

What say you? What skills (“soft” and “hard”) will come to bear in the technological world of tomorrow? How are you preparing yourself to be a part of that world?

In praise of the ebullient worker

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Ozzie Smith doing his thing at the 1985 World Series (source: Sports Illustrated)

Have you ever worked with someone like Ozzie Smith?

Before really big games, the Hall of Fame shortstop delighted his fans and teammates by doing backflips on the field. In every game he played, his gestures and body language made it clear that he was enjoying himself. His joy spread to everyone who watched him — except, maybe, fans of the opposing team.

Have you ever worked with someone who delights in their work and spreads joy through the workplace? If so, you’re lucky. There are far too few people like that. I call them the ebullient workers.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about:

  • The clowns, who love jokes and pranks but never take anything seriously and can’t be counted on to pull their weight. A clown’s act might be appealing at first, but before long it becomes stale — no matter how good the jokes are.
  • The showoffs, who take delight in their work but at the expense of rival workers or even teammates. The showoff’s delight isn’t really in their work — it’s in proving that they’re better than everyone else. Instead of sowing unity, showoffs sow division.

If you’re an ebullient worker

Good for you. Keep it up. You might ask “Keep what up?” because your ebullience just comes naturally. You have a rare gift of bringing light and life to the workplace. Don’t let anybody or anything — frowning colleagues, disapproving bosses, a stifling corporate culture — extinguish it.

Sometimes, unfortunately, that means that you’ll need to find another place to work. That’s a steep price to pay, but it beats losing the passion you bring to your job every day.

If you want to become an ebullient worker

Find work that you love to do, something you find meaningful and exciting. Don’t be afraid to give it everything you’ve got. Remember that work and fun can go hand in hand. Train the spotlight on your customers and your colleagues, never on yourself.

You won’t need to hang a shingle that says I’m an Ebullient Worker. People will know. And your work will become that much more fun.

If you’re a manager

If you’re lucky enough to have an ebullient worker on your team, encourage them and do whatever you can to remove obstacles from their path. (Of course that applies to everyone else on the team as well.) When you need to sell the team on a new tool or process — on any kind of change — an ebullient worker can be your most valuable ally. But don’t take their support for granted, and don’t rely on them to provide the leadership that ought to be coming from you.

If the ebullient worker has a few years of experience, look for ways they can mentor the younger team members. If the ebullient worker is younger, they might need some coaching to ensure that their positive energy stays positive — a wrong turn or two can turn an ebullient worker into a clown or a showoff.

Finally, do whatever you can to recruit and nurture ebullient workers. It can be hard to find them when you’re filling an opening. But by creating the right atmosphere you might be able to develop them. Tell your team (and show them by example) that while we take our work seriously, there’s always room for positive emotion, for fun, and even for silliness.

The type of workplace doesn’t matter

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Roy Campanella

Why are sports so popular? There are lots of reasons, but surely one of them is that you get to watch ebullient workers. Besides Ozzie Smith, baseball fans will recognize names like Willie Stargell, Kirby Puckett, and Ken Griffey Jr. But ebullient workers can be anywhere, not just in stadiums or arenas.

Another ebullient worker, Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, said “You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too.”

I don’t think he’d mind if I extended that to include all of us: You need to be a professional to earn a living, but you need to have a lot of little kid in you too. Maybe you don’t need to, but it sure helps.

What about you? Tell me about your experiences with ebullient workers. If you’re an ebullient worker — or aspire to be one — what other insights can you add?

Living and learning: 2016

Merriam-Webster picked surreal as its 2016 word of the year, and…yeah. At times this year I’ve felt like Alice in Wonderland, and I’ll bet you have too.

One thing remains as true as ever, though: if you’re not learning, you’re not living.

Here are some things I learned this year:

The future is technical communication

screen-shot-2016-02-25-at-6-07-54-pmTechnology is moving forward at breakneck speed. People want technology. People have different learning styles.

Who can deliver the information people need to make use of, and enjoy, the technology that’s all around them? Technical communicators, that’s who.

That’s the gist of Sarah Maddox’s keynote speech at tcworld India 2016.

I think Sarah is saying that we need continuously to hone the technical part of our job title, while not neglecting the communicator part. And I think she’s absolutely right.

We care a lot about our professional society

STC logoSome of my most popular posts this year dealt with the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and its role in a changing world. How can STC remain relevant when the traditional roles of professional societies are changing? How can it serve a community that’s growing ever more diverse, in terms of the kinds of work we do?

As 2017 begins, STC is looking for a new CEO. Whoever gets the job, and whatever things they choose to prioritize, I hope they’ll appreciate the passion and dedication of STC’s members.

DITA isn’t cheap (but it’s still worth the cost)

DITA logoEven as more organizations embrace DITA for developing their content, we hear that DITA is complex and hard to learn. Overcoming DITA’s acceptance hurdles was one of my most commented-on blog posts this year, as was my plea for greater sensitivity to the writers’ learning curve.

Yes, DITA is powerful. But it didn’t get that way by being simple. I’ve come to appreciate that writers need time to absorb the underlying principles, which happen to align closely with the principles of good technical writing, and they need time to learn the how-to aspects as well. It’s time well spent, I think.

A leader is a storyteller

monsterWe saw it in this year’s political news: for better or worse, people are drawn to the leaders who tell the best stories.

As technical communicators, we’re by nature good storytellers.

Does it follow, then, that technical writers have an edge when it comes to being good leaders? I think it does.

Don’t take things too seriously

The year truly has been surreal. Many of our deeply held beliefs — about leaders, about governments, about the course of history — have been challenged if not overturned.

Yet my most-read post in 2016, by far, was a collection of jokes. That taught me not to take things too seriously, and especially not to take myself too seriously.

It reminded me that we’re all human beings. We all need to connect with each other and, sometimes, share a laugh.

I hope I’ve connected with you, at least a few times, in 2016. I hope we’ll continue to connect in 2017. And even share a laugh or two.

Related: Living and learning: 2015

A visit from St. Techwriter

santaApologies to Clement Moore

‘Twas the night before deadline and all through the lab
Not a snack was uneaten — not even a Nab.

The team all were frantic, like bees in a hive —
In just a few hours the site would go live.

The software was bug-free — well, maybe not quite.
But mostly, we figured, it ought to work right.

The UI was kludgy, with widgets and stuff.
But our tech guys said ship it so that was enough.

The specs had been written, then roundly ignored.
To take time to read them no one could afford.

Ready or not, out the product would roll:
Just barely good enough, that was our goal.

When down by the break room arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bench to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew, scared to death:
Gazed into the darkness and drew in my breath.

lambWhen what did my wondering eyeballs espy:
But a white Lamborghini, and that car could fly.

It circled the lot like a bat out of Hades
And landed right next to my boss’s Mercedes.

Its chrome wheels were shiny; its leather seats, red.
TECHDOCS the out-of-state license plate said.

And then when the driver hopped out from inside ‘er,
I knew I was seeing a technical writer.

His eyes they were sunglassed; his goatee was trimmed.
His cheeks they were shallow; his build it was slim.

His droll little mouth was drawn up in a smirk,
And he carried a laptop — he’d come to do work.

A cup of espresso he held to his lips
And as he strode toward me he took little sips.

When his eyes locked on mine I knew in my heart
That our shiny new product was doomed from the start.

His countenance told me — I couldn’t refuse it —
The product won’t sell if nobody can use it.

hollyThen he sat himself down by the Pepsi machine,
And took out his laptop, his bearing serene.

And wrote, like a sprinter come out of the blocks:
User guide. Help pages. API docs.

More rapid than eagles his writing tools came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, DITA! Now, oXygen, InDesign, Flare!
Now FrameMaker, RoboHelp, even freeware!”

Then, laying his finger aside of his head,
And giving a nod, to the parking lot fled.

And I heard him exclaim ere he drove out of sight,
RTFM to all, and to all a good night.

A tale told in 5 emails

Act I

coffee-cup-images-016From: Larry Kunz
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 10:31 AM
To: Robin Bateman, Administrative Assistant
Subject: Coffee machine broken

Hi, Robin.

The coffee maker on the first floor is not working – it reports “error 360.” Can you have someone look at it, please?

This is the machine that brews the pouches.

Thanks,
Larry Kunz
Lead Technical Writer

Act II

From: Robin Bateman
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 11:35 AM
To: Susie Austen, Acme Coffee Co.
cc: Jack Wheeler, Senior Manager, Facilities
Subject: FW: Coffee machine broken

See Below…

Robin Bateman

[quoted text]
From: Larry Kunz
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 10:31 AM
To: Robin Bateman
Subject: Coffee machine broken

Hi, Robin.

The coffee maker on the first floor is not working – it reports “error 360.” Can you have someone look at it, please?

[end quoted text]

Act III

From: Jack Wheeler
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 12:13 PM
To: Robin Bateman; Larry Kunz; Susie Austen
Subject: RE: Coffee machine broken

Did you check to see if its just a jam? Code 360 is a Jam! Check when emptying the Container and see if any packets are stuck in the top or hanging in the machine!? Cmon!

Jack Wheeler

Act IV

From: Larry Kunz
Sent: Tuesday, December 13, 2016 12:25 PM
To: Jack Wheeler; Robin Bateman
Subject: RE: Coffee machine broken

It looks like someone down here figured it out – the machine is working OK now.

WIBNI if the display had said “clear the jam” rather than “call operator – error 360.”

Anyway, all’s well that ends well. And now I know what error 360 means.

Larry Kunz
Lead Technical Writer

Act V

From: Jack Wheeler
Sent: Wednesday, December 14, 2016 8:57 AM
To: Robin Bateman
Cc: Larry Kunz
Subject: RE: Coffee machine broken

Robin;
Please make a laminated sign for each of the Acme Barista Coffee Makers (3 total) indicating the following:

“Code 360 = Jammed pouch in the collection tub”!
Remove tub, empty,
Return tub and system will reset.

Thank you.

Jack Wheeler

Epilog

So another poorly-designed user experience was vanquished — papered over with documentation. And the people rejoiced, because they had their coffee again.

Yet darkness remained over the land.

Exeunt omnes

Breaking protocol

The U.S. president-elect has been drawing fire for having conversations with foreign leaders in which he broke protocol. His critics have charged, for example, that he didn’t talk to the right person, or that he didn’t have the right people in the room.

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Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner in The King and I — a story about (among other things) breaking protocol

In fact, the criticism has focused much more on the president-elect’s alleged disregard for protocol than on the substance of his conversations.

I’m not here today to judge Mr. Trump’s actions or his words. I want to talk about protocol-breaking and how it touches all of us as professionals.

All of us — employees, contractors, consultants — work with organizations that have their own unique ways of doing things.

For example, in various places where I’ve worked I’ve found that:

  • A manager can never be transparent: they must defend every edict from higher up as if it were their own.
  • Email is used for almost all day-to-day communication. It’s considered impolite to pick up the phone and call someone to ask a question.

When you arrive in an organization like that, is it OK to break protocol? Under what circumstances? If you choose to break protocol should you do it quietly or openly?

Here are the guidelines I follow. Continue reading

Showing the way in a surprisingly different world

leadwolfThe recent surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has occasioned a lot of writing that I can sum up like this: Suddenly the world is very different than I thought it was. How do I (or we) deal with that?

One particularly poignant article came from technical communication blogger Danielle Villegas — TechCommGeekMom. Danielle pondered what the election results, and the conditions leading up to them, mean for technical communicators. Are we seeing the end of the trend toward globalization? How easy will it be to find work if you live in a rural area, away from a city?

Toward the end of her article, Danielle issued a call to action:

The proclivity of technical communicators, from my observations, is that they have big hearts. They have strong ideas, they are organized, and they know how to take action. They are generally open-minded, they think “outside the box” for solutions, and they understand the importance of reaching out and embracing the world because the proliferation of the internet has warranted it. We can make a difference in how we approach our work, both domestically and internationally, to set an example of best practices of being decent human beings trying to help each other progress and survive in this world.

How can technical communicators show the way, or “set an example,” in the way Danielle describes? How can we use our “big hearts” to bring progress, and perhaps bring reconciliation, to the fractured world in which we live?

Here’s my stab at an answer. I hope all of you will chime in with your comments. Continue reading

The gaslighting of America

gaslight (v.): To manipulate someone into doubting their memories and their perceptions of what is true.

Amid all of the jaw-dropping news that’s been happening lately, here’s a doozy. During the presidential election campaign, teenagers in Macedonia made money by churning out fake news stories designed to be read by millions of people as they circulated on social media.

What’s going on? Well, the truth — as so often is the case — is complicated.

Outright lies and twisted reality

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In case you’re wondering where the term “gaslight” comes from….

Did the fake news stories (including, for example, a report that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president) tip the election to Trump? I seriously doubt it. Even the most gullible American voters probably had already made up their minds to vote for one candidate or the other.

On the other hand, is Mark Zuckerberg kidding when he says that Facebook — which pushed the stories into users’ newsfeeds — has virtually “no influence” on the people who use it to get news? Maybe he’s kidding himself. But everyone else knows better.

You should care about this, no matter who you voted for. The fake stories slanted toward both the left and right wings (although the right-wing ones reportedly gained a lot more traction).

Presenting phony news side by side with legitimate news. The beginning of the gaslighting of America.

Now we’re seeing reports from the mainstream media — not from kids in Macedonia — that treat the preparations for Trump’s presidency as if they were a normal transition of power.

As if it were normal to install Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, an outspoken white supremacist who’s called for “tearing down” the political establishment, as the chief White House strategist.

paulryan

The look of someone who’s compromised every last one of his principles (source: Washington Post)

As if it were normal for the Speaker of the House, who over the summer denounced Trump’s words and actions as the “textbook definition of a racist comment” and a “joke gone bad,” to say that he’s enthusiastic about carrying out the “mandate” that Trump has received from the American people.

(Joshua Foust of the Foreign Policy Research Institute has compiled a much longer list of abnormal goings-on.)

These stories are being reported as business as usual, with barely a raised eyebrow.

Reporting the abnormal as if it were normal. The next stage in the gaslighting of America.

What are we to do?

Just in case you’re wavering: the crap you saw on Facebook was false. And the facade of respectability being applied to the Trump transition is false too.

So what can we do to stop the gaslighting, to overcome the lies and the distortion?

Continue reading