Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Culturomics, Google, and William Dean Howells

There's been a lot of buzz about culturomics and the Google Ngram Viewer these past few days since the tool described in an article titled “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books” published online in the journal Science was launched as a feature on Google. On Point Radio tweeted that tomorrow at 11:00AM EST they'll discuss culturomics, culture and word frequency, with Erez Lieberman Aiden and Geoff Nunberg. I'll probably tune in and see if I can write and listen to a discussion of culture and word frequency at the same time.

Meanwhile, after seeing this cool graphic of the frequency of selected Boston-related words on Boston.com a couple of days ago and noticing that the Boston.com people had left out "New York" from their list, I had to tackle one of the well known cultural questions of American literature: When did the hub of American literature change from Boston to New York? The conventional answer to that is usually 1886, the year that William Dean Howells moved to New York. (See this 1907 article about Howells for more info.)

I fired up the Google Ngram Viewer and compared the relative frequency of Boston vs. New York from 1800 to 1900. New York edged past Boston in 1830 and really took off in about 1851, all before the fabled Howells move. The group of great writers that supposedly made Boston "the one brilliant literary centre the country has ever seen" was still going strong when the change in frequency of the word Boston in books began to rise less rapidly than New York. However, it was not declining.

I changed the dates to 1800 and 2008 and saw that Boston didn't really start to decline until around 1950 and the decline has been pretty slow up to 2000. I'm judging by eyeball because the tool doesn't calculate the slope and you're all already bored with the details anyway. It looks like there is ample fodder for somebody's AmCiv dissertation here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Generations Online in 2010

The latest Pew Internet study is out: Generations Online in 2010 Pew Internet and American Life Project. So, how are the different generations using the Internet in their American lives?

Apparently none of them are making phone calls but they are using their phones to access the interwebz. Actually, Pew didn't ask about VoIP and maybe people who have phone service through their Internet providers don't realize they're using the interwebz to make phone calls. OK, I only thought about that because it's what I've been writing about in my work writing life. Well, that and I just had lunch with a couple of telecoms colleagues. I love it when I can have a lunch time conversation where I mention SIP and H.323 and everybody knows what I'm talking about. End of current VoIP digression.

What's really interesting about the Pew report is the way various news organizations summarize it in their headlines. The top themes seem to be blogging in decline and and (gasp, shudder) old people using the Internet. Here is a sampling of the headlines, in the order they showed up on Google News when ordered by relevance:

Pew study: Everyone uses email, but blogging is on decline USA Today (blog) - Stan Schroeder
Blogging 'Peaks,' But Reports Of Its Death Are ExaggeratedWired News (blog) - Ryan Singel
Pew: More Old People Using Facebook, Teens Blogging Less Switched - Amar Toor
Millennial Generation's Web Dominance On The Decline, Pew Study Says The Huffington Post - Amy Lee
Older web users catching up: Pew reportCBC.ca - Matt Kwong
Internet is No Longer a Domain for the Young AloneEcommercejunkie.com

Elderly people rapidly adapting to online social networks
TechRadar UK - Adam Hartley
Old catching up to young on US Internet: studyAFP

Of 26 hits for the Pew study on Google News at around 4:15 PM EST the headlines were distributed as follows:

17 old catching up with young 
2   blogging in decline
3   Twitter use (general headlines related to Twitter, no connected theme)
1   75% of Americans look for news online
1   search is the number 2 online activity
1   open channel for cancer education
1   Reddit Delicious StumbleUpon Mixx LinkedIn Google Buzz Yahoo Buzz

The "blogging in decline" meme seemed to be spreading on subsequent searches. That's also the trend that got picked up by Mashable.com in their "What's Hot in Social Media This Week" article.

The old vs. young themed articles made for interesting reading about who does what online. One thing that struck me was that the young were more likely to read blogs but less likely to blog themselves. I wonder what blogs they read?

Other online differences among the generations seemed somewhat more related to the kinds of things people do when they're young anyway. I'm not surprised that younger people are more likely to play games online and participate in virtual worlds. I'll bet if they did a survey of paintball or laser tag or even soccer playing, they'd find a decline in participation with age.

One thing I wish Pew had surveyed was how people use the Internet on the job and how personal vs. work-related use of social media breaks out. How many people use Facebook and Twitter as part of their jobs as opposed to for personal connection? How many people use wikis in their jobs? I'd also like to know what kind of jobs the Millennials are in vs. the jobs the older cohorts are in. And wouldn't you just love a job where you could spend your day using social networking sites, instant messaging, using online classifieds, listening to music, playing online games, reading blogs, and participating in virtual worlds?

The Pew study raises lots of interesting questions. There's much more to be learned about how Americans are using the Internet.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

SIP Call Manager :-)

SIP Call Manager :-)
Originally uploaded by Captain_Peleg
No, it's not really the lastest SIP Call Manager. It's a good old fashioned switchboard. I took this photo last week at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation. It got me thinking about how moving IP packets around in cyberspace isn't all that much different from moving wires from plug to plug on a switchboard.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

#MIN21 Another Great Mass Innovation Night

If it's the first Wednesday of the month, this must be another fabulous Mass Innovation Night.  An amazing number of innovators, entrepreneurs, networkers, bloggers, tweeters, and Steampunk fans braved the  December cold and the traffic on 128 (what up with 128 -- 2 hours from North Andover to Waltham???!!!???) to gather at the Charles River Museum of Industry and Innovation.

Steam Punk Writer's Workstation -- I would totally be more productive writing about Session Border Controllers on this thing!
Once I finally got to Waltham, I took a few minutes to visit Alex at Back Pages Books so I could drop off some used books for him to sell, find out if he has the new James Prosek book about eels in yet (it'll be in Friday), and recommend that he check out Mass Innovation Nights and the Friday morning breakfasts.

So the museum was already humming with innovator activity when I got there. Downstairs, people were getting name tags amidst the museum's regular exhibits and checking out the Steampunk exhibit.

Getting Name Tags at the Check-in Desk
Up on the mezzanine, the experts corner -- experts mezzanine this time, I guess --- was buzzing with conversation.

Experts Mezzanine
The demo tables in the main room all seemed to be attracting lots of attention. I made sure to visit all four companies who were presenting:  Coloci, Media Armor, TenMarks and Cambridge Semantics. I had a great conversation with Steve from Cambridge Semantics about databases and semantics. We got kind of geeky. I love a good technical conversation.
Cambridge Semantics

Media Armor
I was impressed with Media Armor's take on analytics, TenMarks' take on math homework, LockerNotes' take on reminding your Dad to buy bananas and pancakes, and Coloci's take on using our always on cyber-connectedness for connecting with friends in the real world.

Folks were packed into the alcove off the main room for the presentations. TenMarks had the best presentation with an excellent video. It's about time somebody made it easy and fun to learn math. America needs better math education.
Packed House for the Presentations

Coloci had the best slide with their cool display showing where your friends are in relation to where you are.

Coloci's Friend Radar

After the presentations, I spent some more time checking out the Steampunk exhibit.  You can see my Steampunk photos on Flickr, along with some photos of the regular museum items, here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/captain_peleg/sets/72157625564219026/.

By the time I got home last night, a former co-worker who'd seen my tweet about TenMarks (via my Facebook status) was asking for the link for her 4th grader. That's the power of Mass Innovation Night!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

action and influence

I tried out Klout for the first time yesterday and did not understand my Klout score at all. According to Klout, I'm an Explorer. I feel like I should tweet back "Thank you for the flowers and the book by Derrida." (First one to identify the name of the song and the band gets a free shoutout for your blog.)

I love Klout's definition of influence and action:

"We believe that influence is the ability to drive people to action -- "action" might be defined as a reply, a retweet, a comment, or a click."

OK, so what about actions like:
  • Grab the binoculars and go look for the Pink-footed Goose that @bbcbirds just tweeted
  • Go to Mass Innovation Night and network with entrepreneurs live and in person (OK, so that's sort of a gray area because I did tweet about it while I was there)
  • Run down to the Andover Bookstore to buy the Mark Twain autobiography
  • Try a new soup recipe (What, you don't follow @whatsthesoup?)
What about tweets that get you to vote for somebody or take to the streets in protest? Do you have to retweet, reply, or click something first? Even die hard political tweeters went out and pressed the flesh like it was the freakin' 1960s this year in Massachusetts.

And who influences me? According to Klout, I'm influenced by Evan Williams and National Geographic along with a couple of people I know in real life. Know what? Despite my finding Ev amusing and National Geographic interesting enough to share, there are a whole bunch of tweeters that have way more influence on what I think about and what I do in the world.

Let us not confuse online influence with real influence.

Monday, November 15, 2010

mass innovation night at the mill #min20

Everything old is new again in the great cycle of innovation in Massachusetts, so it was great to experience Mass Innovation Night #MIN20 at the very mill that nurtured the minicomputer revolution decades ago. The mill, now known as Clock Tower Place, is once again the home of lots of small companies -- with room for more -- building the future. It was a very cool setting for this month's innovators and a trip down memory lane for this writer. Little did I know just how much of a trip down memory lane it would be though...

Webiva Demo Table
I managed to check out all the presenting companies at their tables during demo time:

Active Interview – Web-based video interviewing. Should help hiring managers cut through the piles of resumes.
Novell Pulse — Real-time enterprise collaboration technology and cute stuffed penguins.
iCreate to Educate — Innovation in K-12 learning.
Spreadable — Tool for word-of-mouth marketing, way better than just sticking a Tweet This button on your web site.
Active Interview Demo Table

Other companies with tables that I made it to were:

Webiva — a web Content Management System with analytics built in.
Weed lance — a seriously cool and clever weeder. This would really have helped when I was trying to rid my yard of invasive Oriental bittersweet.

Big Crowd

In the Experts Corner, I chatted with Springboards  and Structured Information. Springboards provides communications coaching and English language training and Structured Information writes articles, white papers, and other types of marketing communications for technology companies.

Experts Corner
A friend and former co-worker from MASSCOMP days, Chuck Palmer, stopped by. He works at a company in Clock Tower Place and had seen flyers for the event and finally decided to come when he saw my Facebook status that I would be there.  We had a great time checking out the demos, peppering Webiva, Active Interview, and Weed Lance with questions.

Chuck and Janet (me)
As we were standing by the Novell table looking for someone to take our picture, I noticed a familiar face from very long ago. I blurted out "I know you" and it turned out he recognized me too. Jim Burrows. We worked together in this very mill a very very very long time ago. I remembered arranging standalone time on his RSTS machine so I could reproduce a FORTRAN compiler bug. It was that long ago. I am amazed that we recognized each other. Naturally, Chuck and I got Jim to take our picture.

Our reactions to Active Interview got us talking about innovation. Some of us have noticed how often companies hire people who have done exactly XYZ before and then those employees do XYZ exactly the same way they did it before. That's not a good path to innovation.  I love it when Mass Innovation Night results in some new insight in addition to cool new tools.

Mill memories, new technologies, new ideas, old friends, new insights, old connections, and new connections made for quite a night. As if that weren't enough, I also rendezvoused with my cousin so I could lend him a sander I borrowed for him from one of my friends, thus weaving virtual connections into real ones. Oh, and I was pleased to see that Irene's Stitch It Shop, who repaired so many of my clothes back in the day, and the Maynard Outdoor Store, where I bought lots of my camping equipment, are both still in business.

What the old poster on a wall on 5-5 once said of Geneva could be said of Silicon Valley or anyplace else today: "It's nice, but it ain't Maynard."

Monday, October 25, 2010

content strategy = speaking prose?

"Good Heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it."
Monsieur Jourdan in Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme by Moliere

These days, the tech comm blogosphere, the Twitterverse, and the social media conversation is all about content strategy. All the buzz got me wondering how content strategy fits in with my day to day work as a freelance contract tech writer. Thus far, most clients have hired me to document specific features or modify legacy content to fit in with their documentation conventions and tools. Where does strategizing come in? Furthermore, how do I jump aboard the content strategy bandwagon? What the heck do I know about content strategy?

In talking with a former co-worker recently, I suddenly felt exactly like Monsieur Jourdan in Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme. I've been speaking content strategy for years without knowing it!

As documentation manager for several start ups over my career, I have had to plan the creation and delivery of content for new products. I asked myself these questions for the company as a whole, the product, and the individual documents:
  • Who is the audience and what do they need to know to use this product to do their jobs?
  • How do we create the content and manage it?
  • How do we distribute the content to the audience?
  • What about feedback from the audience? How do we get it? What do we do with it?
Amazingly enough, these same questions, with a little tweaking, apply to web site content strategy.


You still have multiple audiences looking for exactly the information they need. In olden times, I used to divide the audiences for, let's say a platform (hardware, operating system, and applications), at the highest level into: people who buy the equipment, people who install and manage the equipment, people who install and manage the software, and people who use the applications to do their jobs. All those groups had different information needs. Content strategists for the web need to think about the same kinds of things. No matter what the application is, there are still people whose relationship to it requires different information. The software developer who is creating his application based on your API needs to know details of the programming interface. Other folks at his company need information on cost, digital rights, market penetration, and so on. The content strategist must make sure that all of those audiences can find what they need.

Content Creation and Management

You still have content creation and management to worry about. Who is going to create the content? The developers? A team of tech writers? The customers? A third party? You get the idea. A long time ago, in a galaxy far away I pioneered customer generated content, third party documentation, and content curation in the doc set for our platform.

Content Curation
Our product included a UNIX platform and our customers were mostly scientists who programmed in FORTRAN. So for example, rather than writing a UNIX tutorial, I selected the best available published book to ship with our UNIX platform. I did the same thing for the FORTRAN compiler. Why use my valuable resources to document FORTRAN when there were excellent books on FORTRAN?

User-Generated Content
Likewise, I engaged one of our early customers who was interfacing their own data acquisition devices to our platform to provide content about that because other customers were about to do what they had already done. My strategy had to accommodate incorporating their content into the overall doc set.

Third Party Documentation
In addition to buying off the shelf books, we also engaged a contractor to develop documents about various UNIX utilities. They were responsible for the production of finished books or booklets, which they could then sell to other clients in addition to us.

Content Management
The big difference here is that where we could use a standard source control tool like SCCS to manage revisions and versioning and the Bill of Materials to manage what went into the box with the hardware, these days the content is broken into hundreds of small pieces that need to be configured for various types of output. Then we worried about help files and printed books, now we have to worry about web site content, maybe embedded help, mobile content, collaborative content like wikis, and maybe even PDF. The tools are more complicated, but it's still content management.


In addition to the output issues I mentioned above, today's content strategists also have to worry about free vs. paid content, open vs. proprietary content, and sometimes restricting content to paying customers. Click on the support tab of just about any major hardware/software provider and you'll see that some restrict access to the user documentation and some don't. Your content strategy needs to address those considerations up front.


Audience feedback has always been key to great documentation. The wonderful thing about social media is that it makes it a whole lot easier to get that feedback. Where once you had prepaid mailer reader comment forms in the back of paper books, annual or semi-annual user group meetings, Usenet newsgroups, and customer site visits, now you can get instant feedback via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and any number of similar tools. Today's content strategist must integrate all these channels and have a plan for acting on the feedback.


I have been speaking prose for the entire play.

Monday, October 18, 2010

round 2: where the job tweets are

I repeated Thursday's experiment this evening, this time using #techcomm AND job. This got 9 hits. All tweets were dated between today and October 11. No earlier tweets were available.

Only 2 of the tweets were actual job postings. Both of those were for the same job, located in Houston, Texas.

Also of interest, although not job postings, were:

Searching on #techcomm AND #jobs yielded only the 2 postings for the Houston job mentioned above.

The next thing I tried was "technical writer" AND #jobs. That one seems to be the mother lode. 500 hits! That's a bit much to analyze manually, so I tried the search using The Archivist, which not only allows you to export to an Excel spreadsheet but does some interesting visualizations on the data. I made my search archive public so I could link to it here: Archive on "technical writer" #jobs Containing 500 Tweets: http://archivist.visitmix.com/hammerchick/1

Alas, the visualizations don't include location. The data exported to Excel includes latitude and longitude of the tweet, which isn't necessarily the latitude and longitude of the job, so I'm not sure it's worth my trying to figure out how to get Excel to translate the coordinates to a map location. Instead, I read the text of each tweet and identified the ones that specified a location, entered the location in a spreadsheet, and made the bar chart shown above. The top three locations were California with 13, Maryland with 8, and North Carolina with 6. So, for today, where the tech writer job tweets are is California.

I need to work on automating the location data. This is a work in progress.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

where the tech writer job tweets are

Read this great story at AvidCareerist about a guy who used Twitter to find his wife a job. I immediately open TweetDeck and add a column for search on "technical writer" AND job AND Boston. Unsurprisingly, it gets zero results.

So, I thought I'd see where the tech writer job tweets are. I dropped the AND Boston qualifier and got 21 hits. One of those was not a job posting but simply somebody mentioning that technical writer was her night job. Of the rest, 10 were the same job tweeted by different job boards with different hashtags and no location specified. The following locations had one job each:

  • Chicago

  • Richmond, VA

  • Qatar

  • Dorset, England

  • Yaphank, NY

  • Iowa (unspecified city) -- same job tweeted by two different job boards

  • Atlanta -- same job tweeted by two different job boards

  • Columbus, Indiana

  • San Francisco

The most recent tweet was yesterday and the oldest was Thursday, October 7, basically a week's worth of tech writer job tweets. That's clearly not enough data to conclude anything at all about where the jobs are, but it is still an interesting snapshot.

By the way, "tech writer" and "technical communicator" both yielded zero results and "content strategist" yielded 5.

Have you got a story about how you found your tech writing job using Twitter? Please share with us in the comments section.

Friday, October 1, 2010

context and the death metaphor

It's hard to understand context in a 140 character tweet. It's also hard to understand context in a tweet stream from an event if you're not physically at the event. I'm not sure that even if I had been at Lavacon, I would have understood this tweet:
"Silence = death: If you’re silent about this (social networking), then you’re not going to be in the conversation."
Silence = Death is a little extreme to apply to being left out of the social networking conversation. As someone who lost a loved one to the AIDS epidemic back in the days when the Silence=Death campaign was talking about actual death I was taken aback by this usage.

While I gathered from the Lavacon tweet stream that the speaker used the AIDS metaphor intentionally and that his T-shirt was in fact modeled on the Act Up design, there was nothing in the tweet stream that explained why. How is the rush to social networking like the AIDS epidemic?

What conversation are we talking about here? Are we talking about the conversation inside enterprises about content strategy? Probably the worst thing that will happen to technical communications managers who stay out of the corporate conversation about content strategy and social media is that they'll lose their jobs. That's unfortunate, but it's not death from a horrifying disease.

There has to be a better way to communicate the urgency of getting technical communicators in on the conversation than trivializing an epidemic that is still killing people in Africa. There just has to be.

what's a conversation?

This posting I read on Mashable the day before yesterday has gotten me thinking about what conversation means in the social media space: Most Tweets Produce Zero Replies or Retweets. If somebody tweets and nobody replies or retweets, does that really mean it "fell on deaf ears" as the article claims? Many Twitter users are not looking for replies.

Twitter seems to me more like a broadcast medium with the ability to talk back in real time -- kinda like talk radio but without the screening and filtering. If I listen to On Point and don't call in, that does not mean I didn't hear what Tom Ashbrook and his guests said. Same thing with Twitter. I may want to know what the soup of the day is at Life Alive so I can plan my lunch hour. Therefore, I follow Life Alive on Twitter. If I then go to Life Alive for lunch instead of say, Athenian Corner, because of their tweet that's neither a retweet nor a reply on Twitter but it's surely part of a conversation in the real world.

What's a conversation? Since we're discussing social media here, let's consider the definition in Wikipedia:
"A conversation is communication between multiple people. It is a social skill that is not difficult for most individuals. Conversations are the ideal form of communication in some respects, since they allow people with different views on a topic to learn from each other. ..."
Leaving aside the grammatical question of between vs. among, does communication happen if one person broadcasts to many, but none of the many respond? Is some degree of reciprocal communication necessary in order to call something a conversation? Maybe. Maybe not. I put information, opinions, and observations out into the Twitter stream and I take in the same types of things from the Twitter stream, but most of what I take in is not necessarily responsive to what I put out except for an occasional reply. There's some exchange taking place. I'm just not sure if that's a conversation.

One of the themes that pops up more and more often in technical communication circles is how we need to be in on the social media conversation. What is this "conversation" we're going to be left out of if we don't get on the social media bandwagon? The secret to great technical writing/documentation has always been and still is knowing who the audience is and how they use the content to do their jobs/tasks/whatever. Interactive media is certainly better for getting at that kind of audience knowledge than old fashioned tear-out reader comment forms at the back of a paper manual. Nobody can argue with that. Is it better than meeting face to face with your users at a user group meeting or a visit to their business? Maybe it is. We can certainly connect with a broader part of the user base using Twitter and Facebook and corporate blogs and wikis than we could face to face. We can't personally meet every user, but we can find out what they're thinking via social media.

So, back to the Mashable post that triggered these thoughts. Why do so few people reply to tweets and/or retweet them? Maybe bursts of 140 characters just aren't enough for the thoughts and reactions readers may have to tweets. Maybe it's hard to keep track of the context. Maybe the tweets just aren't interesting or discussion-provoking.

As I was checking out the Twitter stream from #lavacon today, I was struck by how little context there is for a given tweet from an event even when there's a hash tag and multiple tweets. The lack of context can create confusion. For example, one tweet read
“It doesn’t matter what I think or say. It matters what everyone else thinks and says.”
What's that about? To whom do his thoughts and words not matter? His audience? Himself? Is he saying that there are no experts anymore and all that matters is crowdsourcing? Or is he only saying that he's not an expert? Or something else entirely? Because I'm not at #lavacon and only following it via tweets, I have no idea what the context of that quotation is. Were I present at #lavacon I might have been able to have a conversation about that thought with the speaker or with other attendees, but it makes no sense to do that on Twitter.

Whatever the social media conversation is, it is just beginning and we all need to fumble around trying to get the hang of it for awhile longer.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

mass innovation night -- number 18

Charles River view

This month's Mass Innovation Night was held at Microsoft NERD on Memorial Drive in Cambridge. I've been to other events there, but the view of Boston still impresses me every time. Great choice of venue. I'm glad I got there early because it gave me plenty of time to engage with the folks doing the tabletop demos before things got really crowded.

the join.me team

The folks from LogMeIn not only had a cool tool for collaboration, join.me, but also had the best T-shirts and the best SWAG. Join.me is the simplest screen-sharing tool I've ever seen. It beats the pants off WebEx and GotoMeeting for the kind of impromptu collaboration I need to do as a freelance tech writer just needing a quick look at a developer's screen. It also looks like it could work for supporting my Mom's computer remotely. Save on the drives to Waltham on 128 :-) I also got a chance to meet up with a former colleague who now works at LogMeIn. Not only all of that, but they gave me a cool coffee cup too.

The folks from Neuron Robotics had a cool tabletop demo of their DyIO module mounted on a hex bug and controlled with the arrow keys on a net book. They really take the task of programming your robot up to a new level of abstraction and simplicity. I was having brainstorms all over the place about things I could finally make a robot do. Entertainingly enough, their presentation brought back warm memories of The Jetsons.

Arno demoing TrustedOnes

I watched the Neuron Robotics tabletop demo with Arno Grbac of TrustedOnes, another one of the four chosen presenters. I love his idea of making better decisions using online "crowd sourcing" but from people you know and trust -- better than Yelp or the Tips tab on Foursquare. I'd rather base my decisions about hotels or coffee shops in the city I'm about to visit on recommendations from my friends in RL (real life) than on recommendations of strangers whose tastes and preferences I don't know. I've downloaded the app to my iPod Touch. I foresee a future blog entry about my experiences with it.

It's hard to pick the coolest product from among the wonderful innovations presented at Mass Innovation Night, but the one I definitely came away wanting to own was Vizit from Isabella Products. They've come up with a digital picture frame that does things I've been wishing such a device would do for years. You can share photos with anyone from anywhere over the mobile network. Picture it, my far flung family members can send photos from their camera phones, their computers, or online photo sites right to Vizit. Imagine the twins in Dubai at their first day of "big girl school" instantly framed on their grandma's dining room table in Waltham! My family needs this for sure.

It was another great night with lots of new ideas and new connections. The extra added bonus of time catching up with my former colleague made it even better. Connection and innovation just rock!

changing light over the Charles

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

mass innovation night -- foodie theme

Whoa, I'm behind on posting about Mass Innovation Night number 17. I've been so busy spreading the word about online ordering and catnip greeting cards and Cooking for Geeks, that I've neglected this blog. I've also been wracking my brains for a way to connect the food theme of #MIN17 with technical writing. Except for the idea that technical writers are now essentially the same as cupcakes (stay tuned for a future entry on tech writer as cupcake) and that my favorite take away from the night was a cookbook, I'm stuck for a profound professional connection.

So, here are my favorites of the night:

First thing Thursday morning:

  • Told the owner of my local coffee shop about 1fastbite.
  • Notified my former colleagues that online ordering from BHB, their favorite takeout, is available through 1fastbite.
  • Sent emails to connect Catnip Cards with Merrimack River Feline Rescue where I used to be on the board.
  • Sat down with my new signed copy of Cooking for Geeks and read up on the science of some of the things I like to cook.
In other news somewhat related to Mass Innovation Nights, when I went up to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Friday, I noticed that an electric bike company has already implemented the idea I had after July's innovation night: electric bike rental at off-refuge parking location.

Readers, chime in on the comments section to let me know how technical writing and foodie innovation are related.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

on audience

Coming across a Dr. Dobbs article with the headline Technical Writing for the Kindle and a Scriptorium blog post Retail therapy for tech comm (and I don’t mean shopping) during my browsing adventures in search of the magical convergence between technical communication and social media led me to a revealing insight into the current technical communication scene. We seem to be expending a lot more time and energy discussing tools and output formats than we do discussing and researching the changes in audience needs.

The audience for most technical communication has changed radically in the last decade. There are far more different types of users with different needs. Fewer readers have English as their first language. The Millennials have a shorter attention span than that of other user age cohorts. Software development processes are more collaborative. All of these things affect what content we need to present to the reader and how we present it.

We as technical communications professionals need to be thinking about writing for the reader, not just writing for the output device.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

some questions about tools and techniques

Mark Fidelman's post about the survey regarding technical communicators and their tools - How well do you know Technical Communicators and their tools? - got me thinking about all kinds of things I want to know about the current state of the tech writing universe. I thought about writing a blog post about each of these questions, but then it hit me that it might be more thought provoking to just blast out the questions.


Where are the content management tools in all of this? Nobody using Expression or Drupal?

Why are there so many competing tools? Development tools aren't this incompatible.

What's so important about HTML5?


Why are people still writing verbose narrative documents? Why are specs from pharmaceutical companies so bad? Why isn't anybody doing anything about it? Why are technical communicators so blase about the crappy reputation of our profession?

Why can't we learn to write short sentences in the present tense and active voice? Why is this technique news to tech writers? It was drummed into me early and often. I've communicated it to my staff back in the days when I managed tech pubs departments. What is the big deal?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

mass innovaton night 16

Last night I attended my second Mass Innovation Night. It was even more fun than my first one (last month). Amazing entrepreneurs presented to a packed house. I do mean packed. People were sitting on the floor and standing in the hallways. July is supposedly the slow season for this kind of event. It sure wasn't slow season at the IBM Innovation Center last night!

The stars of the show were definitely Pietzo Hybrid Electric Bike and Episend.

Pietzo had bikes available for test rides and folks were zipping down the IBM corridors. I was happy to discover that the bikes were lighter than I expected. The battery and motor don't add that much weight. The amount of zip you get from the motor is amazing. I can definitely see widespread adoption in urban areas really having a green impact. In my other identity as a plover warden at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge I immediately thought that positioning a fleet of Pietzo electric bikes at strategic locations outside the refuge would do wonders to reduce the number of cars on the refuge and the long lines of idling cars on summer weekend mornings. I'm picturing cleaner air, less damage to vegetation, and less pressure on the environment. I'll bet it would reduce the amount of roadkill when the swallows are massing for migration too.

Episend's strategy for sending and sharing all kinds of media is brilliant. You can send anything to anyone: large files, videos, mp3, photos, links, whatever. I immediately signed in to Episend and checked out the UI. It's simple and elegant. I have always wanted a way to send media files to people without having to worry if they had the right application to view it or worrying whether Outlook would deem it harmful or the recipient didn't support the right MIME type. Episend eliminates all that worry. It's all so easy! The presentation was great and the M&Ms were a big hit (M&Ms seem to be emerging as a theme in these innovation nights).

In my continuing quest to integrate technical communication with new media, I had a long and productive conversation with the folks from Real Cool TV about how they develop video content for marketing communications and how similar techniques and technology could be used to develop content for things like hardware installation, software tutorials and user guides, and so on. They impressed upon me the importance of brevity-- something that I've emphasized in technical communication. Their insights into communicating via video dovetailed nicely with the philosophy I've been pushing for years regarding user manuals: People don't read manuals, they use them. Great conversation.

Acquia Drupal Gardens had gorgeous presentation slides and an exceedingly practical idea: you can develop Drupal web sites without being a superhero. No superpowers required for content management? Who hasn't been waiting for that? I need to give some more thought to how a service like Drupal Gardens can integrate with online help authoring and other technical communication challenges. This presentation definitely gave me a lot to think about.

What a terrific night! And if a Martian spacehip ever does land in my backyard, I'll be sure to send out rich media content complete with an interview with the Martians.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

my LinkedIn mistake

LinkedIn doesn't get as much coverage in the swirl of discussion around social media but it's the one social media site that is practically mandatory to belong to if you work (or want to work) in the tech sector. Many of us are adept at tracking down contacts in our network who can link us to a company we want to work at, invest in, or sell to. Everybody knows how to search for jobs posted on LinkedIn. We understand the basics. Some of the other features are a little harder to use.

The help defines "Answers" thus: "This feature is designed to allow professionals to exchange expertise." I had a question that was more of a request for help than a specific easily answerable question. I chose Answers as the place to post my request because it required specific expertise and the Answers feature allows you to specify an area of expertise, in this case databases.

I posted a request for Filemaker expertise to help a non-profit whose board I used to be on. The interface for narrowing down the query is cumbersome but I managed to specify "database" and the zip code of the organization's location. I made it clear it was a volunteer thing. I thought I narrowed it down enough. Apparently, I did it all wrong. The only response I got was from India informing me that programmer's time is not free. Oops.

In retrospect, I should not have used the Answers feature for it. A request for help is not a question and a request for volunteer help is apparently a social transgression. Maybe LinkedIn was the wrong medium in the first place.

People are on LinkedIn to leverage their connections to get jobs, investors, or customers. That's what differentiates it from Facebook or Twitter. Despite the zillions of articles on how to use Facebook and Twitter to get jobs and customers, that's not their sole purpose. My mistake was trying to transfer technical expertise from one social network to another. I'm not sure to what extent LinkedIn and Facebook-type media will converge. However, right now there's a divide to be overcome before we can leverage social capital built up over a professional career to impact the social good in the real world with the social media tools we have at hand.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

are social media social?

Following Patti Anklam's tweets from the Enterprise 2.0 Conference today, I was surprised by the following question she retweeted from Boris Pluskowski:
"Are people more social now because culture's changed or because technology allows it nowadays?"

That brought me up short. Are we more social now? More social than when? What does social mean in this context? Have we finally transitioned out of the "bowling alone" era? I'm not so sure.

I'm old enough that I can remember the days when co-workers would gladly give you a ride to work when your car was in the shop or feed your cats when you were on a business trip. That sort of social connection stopped sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s. There wasn't a clear break. It just sort of happened gradually without our really noticing it. One day I stupidly asked a co-worker who passed right by the car dealer where I went for service if he could pick me up on his way to work. You'd have thought I asked for his first born child. No, it wasn't just me. A whole industry of car rentals that bring the car to you grew up and flourished. Same thing with the pet care while you're on business trips. Nobody in their right mind would ask a co-worker or a neighbor to look after their pets. You pay a pet sitter. Period. Has this changed? I'm not seeing it.

As high-tech (as we used to call it) began to die out in Massachusetts, many of my closest friends moved to Silicon Valley, Seattle, or other points west. We used email and sometimes the telephone to keep in touch. With the rise of social media, we can and do interact more online and catch up with each other more frequently. So maybe in that sense we are more social than we were in the 1990s. Technology has certainly made it easier to exchange status updates, photos, and links. So, why does it feel like there's still something missing?

I think what the enterprise is looking for from social media is collaboration not community. Technology has certainly made collaboration in the workplace easier. In that sense the workplace is more social. However, just because applications can exchange data more easily and workers can Tweet or IM or whatever instead of the hated email doesn't mean it's become any easier to create a workplace where humans relate to each other as people.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

the future is now

If I could predict the future I would have sold my stock while it was still worth something, I would have won the lottery by now, and so on. So I know that what we mean when we discuss the future is our educated guesses about current trends. End of disclaimer.

On Saturday I attended The Future of Technical Communication, a small conference put on by Cheryl Landes of
Tabby Cat Communications. The focus was clearly on social media as the current trend. The presenters were:

  • Rich Maggiani on Social Media: Present and Future
  • Neil Perlin on What's up eDoc?
  • Ed Marshall on Effective Job Search Techniques for Social Networking
  • Patti Butcheck on A Wiki Primer
I gleaned much from each of the presentations. I have to admit that even though I was among others of my kind (tech writers) it wasn't as much fun as Mass Innovation Night was because the emphasis was not on new technology or new uses of current technology but on where our skills fit in with current trending technology in the technical communications field.

Rich Maggiani's generational take on social media reminded me of a chapter I read back in 2007 in IMS Crash Course by Steven Shephard (which came out in 2006). The Millennials are indeed different from the Boomers and from Generation X because they have grown up with social media and all the gadgets that a subset of their Boomer grandparents spent their careers designing and documenting. From the technical communicator's point of view, they are a vastly different audience for whom we must tailor the content we produce. The emerging trend for communicating with that audience is clearly user-generated content. How the role of the technical communicator will play out in the realm of user-generated content is fodder for a whole 'nother conference. Get your slides ready, Rich!

As an aside, with all due respect to Rich, we Boomers did not grow up with party-line telephones. Even my cousins' farm deep in the Maine woods without indoor plumbing had direct telephone service. Just thinking about that makes me wonder how the cell phone coverage is up there. If any of them had stayed on the farm, they'd probably still need land lines. End of humorous aside.

My take away from Neil Perlin's presentation was naturally about the tools and not the audience. FrameMaker cannot die soon enough. Nor can RoboHelp. It was good to hear Neil predicting their imminent demise. I'm left wondering when a better tool than Word will emerge for creating single sourced content for multiple output formats. The best thing I got out of it can be summarized thus:

Never call it documentation. Documentation is done by those quiet people on the third floor. Call it content. Content is cool.

Ed Marshall's presentation on using social media in the job search was rich in "how-to" with tips and tricks for using LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. However, my most valuable take away was how he positions himself as an experienced professional. Having been coached by outplacement folks to downplay years of experience, I needed to hear that.

I have to say that Patti Butchek's presentation on wikis was my favorite. She walked us through real world application of a wiki to meet a technical communication need. Also, I had no idea there were so many wiki tools available. My best take away was that you have to know when a wiki is the right medium. As Patti said: "Don't send a wiki to do a blog's job!"

So after a long day that began with an encounter with my crazy neighbor and ended with tornado watch and a microburst I was left still wondering what the role of the technical communicator will be in this brave new world.

Friday, June 4, 2010

mass innovation night

Last night I attended Mass Innovation Night for the first time. It was well worth tackling Rt. 128 at rush hour in a thunderstorm for!

I wanted two things out of the night:
  1. a chance to try out my new spiel on how my tech writing skills can help startups
  2. to see cool techie presentations on new ideas
I satisfied both of those needs.

The spotlight was on IBM SmartCamp winner Sproxil, a mobile application developer. They're developing technology to help consumers in developing companies identify counterfeit pharmaceuticals using their cellphones. According to Ashifi Gogo (I hope I got his name right), fake medications are a big problem in developing countries. This was the coolest thing I heard. I wish he'd been able to into more detail to satisfy my geeky curiosity.

The other presenters were Jumper Networks, Rate it Green, and thebuyersNET.com. I really responded to Jumper Networks and Rate It Green.

My inner geek really enjoyed Steve Perry's presentation on Jumper Networks' new kind of personalized search. I love the idea of users tagging content and creating a search community around content. I was already starting to imagine how this type of search strategy would help both with developing technical documentation and with getting the right information to the right audiences -- the goal of all good tech writers.

My inner "I want to put green roofs on everything in sight" perked up for Allison Friedman's Rate It Green, an online community for folks interested in green building. I especially liked that it was born out of Friedman's own frustration when seeking green building resources. I can't wait to get on there and see what I can find for resources on growing things on roofs.

I also got in lots of good networking, had a great conversation with Bill Scher, one of the Experts of the night, who provided useful feedback on my tech writing pitch, and learned about IBM's developerWorks online community. Not a bad night! I definitely intend to attend future Mass Innovation Night events.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Failure to communicate?

Failure to communicate - The Boston Globe

Posted using ShareThis

This article on the poor writing skills of younger people these days is subtitled " The inability of many students to write clear, cogent sentences has costly implications for the digital age." Unfortunately, it really doesn't go into what those costs are. It focuses on the shortage of English teachers and the lack of instruction in writing in our schools. I wish it had focused more on what it means that "Johnny can't write." Does the inability to write a coherent English sentence mean that Johnny can't communicate?

There's so much more to communication than grammar skills and paragraph construction. Good communication also involves listening, organizing, critical thinking, expressive abilities, and maybe even empathy. The mechanics of grammar and writing are the tools we use to put all of those skills and qualities together. Unfortunately we don't do any better with teaching thinking or listening than we do with grammar.

Two college students are sitting at a nearby table in the coffee shop where I'm writing this. One is working on one last paper he needs to hand in. The other offers to help edit. She reminds him how important it is to have correct grammar. I jump into the conversation, explaining that I'm trying to write about "why Johnny can't write" and what this means. They enthusiastically inform me about how reliance on spellcheckers and the MS grammar checker prevents them from learning to write and how they are were not taught to think critically in high school. They both tell me that the ability to communicate clearly and think critically is essential for a functioning democracy. Wow! I couldn't have expressed it better myself.

They are about to leave. The young woman offers me her copy of Lives on the Boundary by Mike Rose. It's a classic on education and the underprepared, focusing on those who have trouble reading and writing in our schools and workplaces. I'm looking forward to reading it.

The two students have left. There's only one other customer in the place. He's reading a newspaper: the printed kind. I have a lot more reading and thinking to do before I will be truly able to write thoughtfully about the state of literacy and its implications for then workplace.

Stay tuned.

Friday, May 7, 2010

English is impossible or is it translation that is impossible?

This isn't exactly a technical writing issue unless you're writing about striped bass. However, I've meant to blog about it for awhile anyway. Here in the Merrimack Valley, the word schoolie refers to young, small, striped bass. It can also mean young fish in general. In the rest of the world, or so I thought, schoolie apparently means students in their last year of school (school leavers) or students in general.

I first discovered that schoolies doesn't necessarily mean fish when I was trying to find an article about a UMass scientist who tagged schoolies in Plum Island Sound a couple of years back. Naturally I googled schoolies. All the hits on the first page referred to Australian students -- not a single reference to stripers. Once I did find the research I was looking for, I got to wondering how on earth that research could ever be translated either by google translate or even by human technical translators. I imagine there are scientists in China wondering why on earth somebody in Massachusetts is tagging Australian students and for that matter what Australian students are doing in Plum Island Sound. OK, so context counts for a lot.

My point is that much translation does not take context into account. It's not just English either. I remember reading a French language web site about snowy owls (they nest in Quebec) that said: "Les juvéniles sont uniformément bruns, avec des restes de duvet blanc éparpillés." Google translated that as "The youthful ones are uniformly brown, with scattered remainders of white sleeping bag." Though I had fun fun picturing baby owls in sleeping bags up there in the frozen north of Quebec, I was pretty sure duvet meant down not sleeping bag. Then again we're back to the impossibility of English because down can mean a direction or fluffy feathers or a rolling upland. That's even leaving out football and depression. :-)

Back to schoolies in my digressive rambling style of today. My original thought was that schoolies as fish must be unique to the Merrimack Valley. Then I saw references to them all along the east coast of the US. OK, must be an east coast term. Then I got really confused when I found this UK news article from the Thurrock Gazette, which refers to fish. Evidently the difference is not geographic. The first dictionary that comes up when I try schoolie definition in google is www.freedictionary.com. Lo, and behold, the first meaning they list is young fish.

English is an impossible language in which to communicate, let alone translate. So, when writing about striped bass, I will continue to use the word schoolies. And I will write a more coherent entry about the pitfalls of context some other time.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

competing trends?

A former co-worker tweeted this afternoon that Inc magazine did their article on teleworking without going into the office. That got me thinking. I've noticed recently that the media, both mainstream and the twitter/blog/social-sphere, have been paying way more attention to the "virtual office, distributed team, remote work, no more commute" trend than they have been to the trend toward Agile processes. Actually, I'd been thinking about it a bit since I heard a story on NPR a couple of weeks ago about telecommuting helping with work-life balance. When I looked up that article, I found tons of others. That confirmed my impression that this is a popular topic with the media.

On the other hand, I have not heard anything about Agile and Scrum (or is it SCRUM). Indeed a search for "agile scrum" on the NPR web site brought up nothing remotely related to software development. Yet Agile Scrum XP seems to be a much bigger trend in the actual software development world. Agile Scrum processes supposedly require physical co-location of all team members and daily face to face standup meetings. At one of my previous jobs it was absolutely forbidden to phone in to the daily standup (neither blizzard nor flood nor sick child was sufficient to merit using a telephone -- team members would simply notify the team they were not coming in). To reinforce this, the scrum area had no phone. The tech writer's role in an Agile team depends heavily on overhearing what the developers are talking about. You can't eavesdrop remotely. Additionally, we were working with another development team in China, who had their own scrum. Coordination was difficult.

I said "supposedly" above because I recently heard a talk by Julie LeMoine at Ignite Boston titled Virtual Work Spaces and Teams, which dealt with using avatars in Second Life to support distributed Agile teams. That might have helped with the China issue described above. I'm still not sure it would've helped with the eavesdropping issue though. I did ask about that afterwards, but did not have enough of a coherent discussion to resolve it.

So are these competing trends? It seems like Agile processes and telecommuting/work-life balance are mutually exclusive. Why aren't the trend-watchers noticing this and commenting on it?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Achieving Technical Writing Excellence

While searching for some parts to upgrade an old Mac G4 for my dendrologist friends, I came across the iFixit site. Although I didn't find the 3.5" IDE/ATA 120 Gb internal hard drive I need, I discovered a treasure trove of information for DIY troubleshooting and repair. The procedures are clear and well written gems of technical communication and the folks at iFixit are proud of it. The sidebar of the page I was looking at had a link to their latest blog post: Achieving Technical Writing Excellence.

My take-away from the blog post is that even in our brave new world of technical writing as type-driven topic-based content management, writers are achieving excellence using the oldest tech writing maxim in the book: writing for the reader. It was thrilling to read these words:
"You always have to be conscious of your audience, for they are the ones who will be gaining the most from your words. Write for them — not yourself."

Technical writing excellence is not about clever use of tools. It's about communicating the information that the user needs. It's about the user. It always will be.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Technical writers now recognized as distinct profession in Occupational Outlook Handbook

I was heartened by the news that technical writer has been added to the 2010-11 edition of the Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH). STC has worked hard for this. It is a strange, though, that this is finally happening at a time when a trend is starting to emerge in which technical writers are being switched to non-exempt status and being paid hourly rather than salary.

The emerging de-professionalization of tech writing is just a trickle right now and mostly going under the radar. Most companies are still looking for either permanent salaried technical communications workers or for temporary contract (1099 status) workers. However, a small number of job listings are now starting to be for full-time, permanent, hourly non-exempt tech writers at fairly low rates. I noticed one in particular that was offering $27 per hour for a senior tech writer with 7+ years of writing experience and developer-level technical skills.

I am starting to wonder if this is the tip of the iceberg and we are going to see software engineers becoming hourly workers as well. On the other hand, maybe this isn't a trend at all. Maybe it's just a few employers on each coast who are trying to cut costs. Time will tell.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Reading from the User's Point of View

As technical writers, we need to remember that the user is trying to get his or her job done. We need to see the task from the user's point of view.

Recently I was helping a friend troubleshoot some issues with the treatment management software used at the social service agency where she works. Staff members were having trouble with closing cases. They had been trained on the software when it was in Beta test but had no documentation beyond the training handout. Newer employees had not even seen the training handout. Fortunately, there were still a few copies of the handout around.

As soon as I sat down with the handout, I understood why the users were confused. Terminology was wildly inconsistent. It used the term button for command buttons, radio buttons, and sometimes tabs. Tab seemed to mean both the tab you clicked on and the screen it took you to. There were dependencies too. Some operations required that other operations be completed first but there was no indication of that in either the handout or the user interface.

The staff were asking "How do I close a case?" The handout presented the available options on each screen (or tab) followed by an exercise using them. Deep in one of the exercises, I found some clues. Turns out certain buttons did not appear unless you had completed another screen that was not necessarily actually required for the worker to close the case in real life. Using clues from the handout and some experimentation, we discovered that there was a simple workaround that allowed you to skip the unnecessary steps and still close the case. All that was needed was a short task-oriented procedure that told the workers how to do what they needed to do in the context of their agency's policies and practices.

Reading from the user's point of view turned out to be a valuable reminder of what it means to write for the reader.