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 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.