December 17, 2011

Private People, Public Parts – A Book Commentary in Brief

Posted in Book Review, Commentary, Internet, Social Media tagged , , , , , , at 9:35 pm by degyes

Public Parts, How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, by new media advocate and pundit Jeff Jarvis (@JeffJarvis), presents—in tones that are sometimes urgent—the case for protecting and preserving the internet as a completely open medium, unfettered by government regulation or corporate interference. As Public Parts has been reviewed widely and extensively from Amazon.com to the Wall Street Journal and beyond, I’ll forgo throwing yet another the full-length analysis into the ring, and instead offer a brief word on what I’m taking home as the key message, and my main gut response.

During it’s almost 20 year run as an open resource brought to masses of users via graphically driven web browsers, Jarvis acknowledges that the internet has transformed—not always necessarily for better—facets of life ranging from the economic, political, and corporate to the most intimate and personal. Yet Jarvis sets forth in often strident terms how the parameters of this transformation must be determined through a free flowing conversation amongst the very audience that the internet serves, that is, its public participants, i.e. the people.

While not always finding myself in agreement with Jarvis’ assertions (my inner jury is still out regarding the extent to which privacy is, or should be, truly dead), I believe his overall message (even if at times a bit crass) needs to be heard, and I congratulate him on articulating it rather eloquently and in a well-researched piece of work.

To whatever degree you live your life online, I would encourage reading Public Parts, as it is likely to widen and deepen your grasp of where this newfound openness is taking us as a global community, not only in the broad, virtual sense, but in ways that are most personal and real.

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May 16, 2011

What Would YOUgle Do?

Posted in Book Review, Disruptive Communication, Social Media, technology tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 3:33 pm by degyes

Our recent reading of Jeff Jarvis’(@JeffJarvis) 2009 critically acclaimed – and sometimes ridiculed – What Would Google Do (#WWGD) stimulated much thought with regard to the tectonic shifts taking place in business during the past fifteen years or so. There are many reviews out there of this book, laudatory as well as mocking. Go ahead and Google them. So why the need for yet another? We decided to present a review targeted toward technical communicators (TCs), a professional group impacted heavily by the Internet economy, and also well positioned—possibly better than any other profession—to exploit these shifts.

A Media Experiment

One of Jarvis’ stories that stood out powerfully for me was his retelling of a media experiment by Brian Lehrer in 2007. On Lehrer’s WNYC radio program, he prompted listeners to go to their local grocery stores and report on the price of milk and several other items. Hundreds responded, providing the station with data no single reporter could have gathered alone. WNYC plotted the data on Google Maps, demonstrating which neighborhoods were being gouged, and even being subjected to illegally high prices.

Why should this be surprising and what’s special about it? Haven’t consumers banded together for ages already, supporting the businesses, products, and services they like, while spurning those they don’t? Yes, but not with such rapidity, ease, and perhaps boldness. Could this experiment have succeeded without Google Maps? Maybe. But the point is that the Internet and a (free) Google product make the collaboration effort much easier and much faster. Furthermore, if it could happen in a few shops in several New York City neighborhoods, could this experience be scaled to a whole state, country, or industry?

Riding the Cluetrain

Jarvis is clearly a proponent of the Cluetrain Manifesto, as he refers to it with some frequency. Furthermore, his main message is very much in alignment with Cluetrain’s principles, as well as its tone. Written in 1999, Cluetrain lists 95 statements (“theses”?) on how the Internet has changed, and is continuing to change, the way the world does business. Namely, it describes how the consumer is empowered through a vast network of people sharing their stories about products and services. Marketing departments and many of the techniques they’ve employed, Jarvis says, are becoming irrelevant and are outmoded. Companies had better tune into the conversations taking place “out there” among consumers and other interested parties that could lead to potential business.

Though written in a somewhat smug tone, Cluetrain contains truths that we ought to internalize. Specifically, what are the key lessons of Cluetrain, as exemplified by Google’s success story? What can we learn here? The take-home message is that product vendors, service providers, and professional people in general—anyone wishing to remain relevant in the public sphere—must place listening to customers and responding respectfully to their input at the foundation of their organizational culture.

You’re Tweeting? So? Are You Listening?

Taking it a step further, Jarvis’ urges avoiding the delusion that having a Web site or being on Facebook or Twitter makes you customer-oriented if your basic behavioral pattern hasn’t changed. Talking down to your public is not only passé, but destructive to your business. Listening goes beyond claiming to have a customer service culture or exuding warmth in your PR campaign. What it does mean is that the products you sell and the services you provide reflect the needs, expectations, and input of your public.

On rare occasion, a product, service, or platform will come along presenting a quantitative shift in the way we do things. It could be argued, justifiably so, that revolutionary changes—mass produced automobiles, telephones, Internet, Web 2.0 applications—were so innovative that they couldn’t possibly have been invented only in response to consumer surveys. On the contrary, these innovations were truly ground-shifting, imaginative, and bold. They’re also quite rare. As consumers, we’ll know one when we see one. In the meantime, just listen.

So What’s the Message for Technical Communicators?

Why do we as TCs need to pay attention to Jarvis’ message? Why can we not afford to ignore the communication frameworks—and the documentation models—emerging as a result of the Internet economy?

The top-down approach to documentation is rapidly becoming outmoded; many would say it’s already gone. Instead, we need to be thinking in collaborative, grassroots, “distributed,” ways. According to Jarvis’ Google Rules for media companies, “thinking distributed” means regarding your readership—i.e. your customers—not as mere consumers of your output, but as content sources themselves. This is already happening across countless support forums—Nokia, Microsoft, Adobe, travel tip sites, are just a few that come to mind. If it hasn’t reached you by now, bet that it will soon. Open up and listen.

What does this mean for us? What do we need to do? Get involved in what’s happening on the ground level. Participate in these conversations. Read what’s being written. Be open. Be responsive (not reactive). Lead discussions. Harvest the knowledge that grows from these interactions. Tag it. Curate it. Repackage and productize it. This is your documentation. This is your product, and your portfolio.

Me? Blog?

Why do people blog? Perhaps the better question is why do professionals blog? Why is it important for us to place ourselves out there before the public? Because, if done well, it conveys that message that we care and that we’re eager to engage our audience and customers face to face.

We believe this message applies to all types of social media, including—but not limited to—blogs. As such, a well-thought social media image addresses the following questions:

  • What is our contribution to the “gift economy”?
  • What is our value proposition?
  • How do we differentiate—i.e. brand—ourselves?

Oh, and if you have to explain your value, it’s probably not as great as you think.

Old Media, New Media

According to Jarvis, Yahoo is the last “old media” company. That is, Yahoo is a portal, a Grand Central Station of online resources. Thus, Yahoo is a manifestation of what Jarvis calls the content economy, which is outmoded. Google, on the other hand, is—claims Jarvis—the first post-media company. Meaning, Google is a platform (not a portal), a network, and is decentralized and distributed. Google trusts and respects people, or at least (says Jarvis) manages to project that attitude. Google exploits the wisdom of the crowd. And what’s more, Google opens up endless choices and possibilities via search, SEO, and AdSense. Whereas Yahoo is a remaining manifestation of the content economy, Google leads the link economy.

The link economy demands that we—companies, groups, and individuals—produce unique content with clear value. Beyond that, we need to remain open so that Google can find us. That is, we’re to let Google exploit—through advertising and promotion—the links and audience that we acquire. Furthermore, we have to use those links to create new efficiencies (“do what you do best and link to the rest”), and find opportunities to create value atop our link layer. This means curate the best content, enable your links to be found, and help content creators monetize—or otherwise promote—links, and in turn, attract traffic.

Are You Drinking Google Juice?

Google juice is what we want. It gives us better ranks, more ads. It will, according to Jarvis, net us more money. To get Google Juice, you’ve got to be Googlified. Googlification of a trade or profession requires its practitioners be open and transparent. Are you Googlified? If you want to remain relevant, Jarvis says you’d better be. However, we would ask the question whether this maxim necessarily applies to all types of business.

No More Depth Thinking? Could Have Fooled Us!

Naturally, as TCs, we value our ability to communicate in an articulate way. If this means writing in long form, we appreciate having a format permitting that. Consequently, those still uninitiated into social media might resent being “forced” to fold a message into the limited space afforded by many Web applications (like micro-blogs) which might seem extreme.

Jarvis says that although it may appear that writing in short blog bursts, as opposed to lengthier articles, leads to rushed, haphazard, shallow communication, in fact, the opposite could be argued. Namely, an idea could be thought out and articulated over the span of multiple posts [even Tweets?], and take shape over the course of time. What’s more, these ideas percolate with input, challenge, and argument from many blog readers and consumers. Furthermore, ideas that don’t work, i.e. those not meriting response from the readership, get dropped. Thus, Jarvis argues that blogs provide a new and efficient means of both collaboration and peer review, which he claims “is the key product and skill of the Google age.”

The Internet might not make us more creative. But it does provide a platform enabling what we create to be “seen, heard, and used,” i.e. shared. In particular, the Internet enables every creator to “find a public, the [one] s/he merits.” What’s more, it levels the playing field of creativity. As Jarvis puts it, in the Google age, to “stand out, one must rise on worth—as defined by the public, rather than the priests, [where] the reward is attention.”

Us Worry?

What will coalesce in place of the institutions losing influence as a result of the Internet and Google? Or, as we’d put it, those failing to adapt and respond strategically to these forces. According to Jarvis, this applies not only to media organizations, businesses and individuals, but to governments and even religions (though there’s still some speculation as to how that would work).

Disaggregation

Will we have anarchy or a new form of organization? The Internet, says Jarvis, is disaggregating the elements that have historically defined us humans. These definitions—liberal, conservative, libertarian—are breaking apart to form new expressions that are more nuanced. As a result, new loyalties are forming from the grassroots, replacing traditional allegiances.

Generation G

Advertising execs, public relations folk, and social media pundits like invoking Generation X (ambitious and family centered) and Generation Y (independent, expecting instant gratification) as supposedly well-understood demographic groups. In WWGD, Jarvis introduces us to Generation G, that is, the Google generation. Gen G has not only grown up in the computer age, but came of age by the time Google was already synonymous with Internet search. Beyond being characterized as independent, Gen G is possessed of a strong individualism, which could end up manifesting as empowerment [good], or as entitlement [bad].

Watch Gen G. Listen to Gen G. Understand how Gen G thinks, works, shops, [and we would add, reads]. Only thus can we have any hope of surviving, let alone thriving, over the coming decades.

Where Do We Take it Now?

Some critical reviews of WWGD urge that we disregard Jarvis’ prescription for Google-age success based on the assertion that Jarvis rambles on in an arrogant tone, doing little more than smugly dropping names and making scary generalizations. While we could agree that Jarvis presents himself as erudite and professorial, this hardly presents justification for rejecting what he prescribes, especially if his basic position is valid (and we believe it is).

What’s the upshot for TCs? We’re told that we need to not only innovate, but make innovation part of the culture where we work. What does that mean practically speaking? For one thing, we need to unlearn many of the practices that have taken us thus far in life and in our careers.

We need to Googlifiy ourselves. Googlification of our profession requires us to be open and transparent. While most of us are “out there” on a social network somewhere, many of us either aren’t ready to exploit the full potential of those networks, or worse, refuse (usually on “privacy” grounds) to participate. Concerning privacy, Vint Cerf, acclaimed as one of the fathers of the Internet, has written “There isn’t any privacy. Get over it.” Jarvis adds clarity to this statement by asserting that privacy is no longer the issue, control is. We do in fact have the right to control our personal information, whether it’s made public, and to whom. So decide upon a security policy that meets your needs, and get yourself out there.

There’s also the issue of intimacy. Participating in a social or business network does not mean laying it all bare for the world to see. Actually, showing us parts of your life to which we’d rather not be exposed would not win you the attention you should be seeking. But we do need to acclimate ourselves to what Leisa Reichelt calls “ambient intimacy.” This refers to the sense of closeness you have with folks as a result of social media; folks with whom you’d otherwise not have nearly as close a relationship, maybe even not know at all.

We should learn, Jarvis says, to think like kids, because once you’re thinking [too much] like an adult, you’re probably not innovating.

Special thank you to Jonny Gold for his input and thoughts.

March 24, 2011

Conversation and Community – by Anne Gentle

Posted in Content Strategy, Knowledge Management, Social Media tagged , , , , , , at 2:32 pm by degyes

A book review by David Egyes.

This book, Conversation and Community, represents a snapshot in time. The author, Anne Gentle, does her job well, which is to inform today’s technical communicator (TC) what to do in order to better ensure continued relevance in an already disrupted work culture, especially with regard to the role of the communicator.

Yesterday’s top-down approach to documentation needs to be abandoned, or at least seriously reconsidered. In his forward to the book, Andy Oram of O’Reilly Media calls this the “oracular view” of information, and says it’s already becoming passé. This means that if you’re still thinking exclusively in terms of preparing manuals or Helps for consumers (inside or outside your firm) then your days are numbered. Documentation today is the result of a conversation taking place among users, consumers, and adopters of technology. Often, that conversation involves those developing, selling, and supporting the tool. Other times, it does not. The big question is how do we as TCs not only tap into that conversation in ways that benefit our organizations, but actually facilitate those discussions so as to best harness, cultivate, and reuse the knowledge stemming from that interaction?

How can experts and non-experts alike learn to collaborate so as to produce not only the documentation that the system providers think the masses need, but what they actually want? To take it a step further, can those who develop, integrate, document, and market products learn from this dialog in ways that will make those products—and their documentation—better?

Make no mistake. As Andy Oram intimates, our future as TC professionals lies in our becoming part of this conversation, as key participants and as facilitators. In that spirit, recently, Jonny Gold (@JonnyGold) and I co-presented at MEGAComm, a conference of Israel-based TWs, marcoms writers, documentation managers, and allied professionals (e.g. folks specializing in localization, usability, human factors, etc). Our topic, Making Teams Smarter, focused on implementing Wiki as a Knowledge Sharing (KS) methodology. We offered a strategy whereby organizations can harvest the knowledge that’s too-often concealed amongst the individuals constituting its professional teams, and put that information to practical and profitable use. At the same time, through the very act of serving as catalyst in facilitating this conversation, the TC plays a central and vital role in putting knowledge to work in ways that make the organization function better. This is reflected in the improved communication that leads to processes becoming repeatable and predictable, implementation becoming less haphazard, resources (tools, code, documents, etc) being more available and relevant, time scales shorter, and interruptions fewer.

Getting back to Anne’s book, note that it’s aptly sub-titled The Social Web for Documentation. That’s because its focus and emphasis are on how you can embrace collaborative forums to prompt and to guide technical conversations in ways that lead to enhanced communication and better documentation. As I see it, there is a variety of roles the TC can play, requiring development and application of several key competencies, interpersonal, technical, and otherwise. These include, for instance, the ability to innovatively devise new tools and forums, adapt to the various work practices of different groups while encouraging and guiding its KS contributors, proactively undertaking KS initiatives, persuasively “evangelizing” KS strategies, and so on. Essentially, performing the activities that maximize your success as what Scott Abel so appropriately calls a “content wrangler.”

My view is that you do not have to master—or even use—most of the tools mentioned in Anne’s book, which covers a rather wide range of social media apps, including several that just didn’t take off (like Google Wave, for instance). I believe what’s important is that you internalize the overall mindset conveyed by the book, that is, to position yourself—in the context of your organization’s culture and norms—to serve as a KS catalyst. If those norms don’t exist, then work to cultivate them through collegial persuasion and a demonstrated willingness to tackle projects on a “volunteer” basis, showing the decision-makers and resource allocators the benefits of KS and how supporting those efforts is a profitable proposition.