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Brian J. McNely Ball State University email@example.com
Abstract - Distributed work via social software increasingly functions as regularized discourse within organizations. Social software supports a kind of interstitial organizational writing practice, where knowledge workers publicly enact both personal and organizational discourses that foster and help sustain both personal and professional relationships. This paper details findings from two qualitative studies of social software as organizational, public writing work, exploring the role of microblogging in seeding knowledge assets and extending organizational relationships. I argue based on findings from these studies that informal communication via public, interstitial writing practices plays an important role in fostering the distribution and sustainability of organizational knowledge work.
Index Terms - phatic, tummeling, Twitter, microblogging, writing work, informal communication.
INTRODUCTION The networked writing technologies supporting distributed work are changing technical and professional communication . Indeed, writing practices are increasingly distributed and shared among professionals in contemporary organizations, and such organizations “are by necessity writing intensive” . Writing, therefore, constitutes one of the primary material traces of contemporary knowledge work; by closely following the public writing work of organizations, researchers in professional communication can surface extraorganizational ties that are critical to the seeding and promotion of a given organization's knowledge assets [see, for example, 3, 4]. Moreover, surfacing and tracing organizational writing work that is often seen as insignificant or ephemeral—writing work enacted via social software, for example—can help researchers better articulate and map the distribution of knowledge assets to interested parties external to an organization.
Interestingly, data gathered from qualitative studies carried out at two very different organizations indicate that professional writing via social software is often not acknowledged as writing work at all. At the same time, participants' intentional and strategic use of such networked writing technologies reveals a keen understanding of the crucial role that such communication practices play in distributing knowledge assets and fostering extraorganizational relationships. Participants in the two studies detailed in this paper used social software such as Facebook and Twitter strategically and effectively, but they did not see such practices as organizational writing work. Instead, such activity more closely resembled informal communication for participants. Despite participant's distinctions between their communication practices via social software and more traditional forms of organizational writing, findings suggest that microblogging activities are indeed organizational writing work—interstitial and ambient writing that often carries knowledge assets beyond organizations and everyday organizational contexts. Social software, therefore, comprises increasingly relevant and ubiquitous channels for regularized and public organizational discourse. This paper provides details from two qualitative studies tracing interstitial writing practices carried out via social software—in particular, via the public microblogging service Twitter. These studies yield findings about seeding organizational knowledge work through these interstitial public writing practices; such practices in turn help foster and sustain professional relationships beneficial to both individual participants and the organizations for which they write. One of the key findings across both studies concerns the role of informal networked communication—social, often phatic (written) utterances—in establishing and holding together such professional relationships. SOCIAL SOFTWARE AND KNOWLEDGE WORK As Grabill and Hart-Davidson suggest, contemporary knowledge work often looks like writing and is largely
supported by writing activities that are “epistemologically productive”—writing creates and distributes knowledge work even as it develops as an increasingly distributed practice . Spinuzzi argues that "distributed work is the coordinative work that enables sociotechnical networks to hold together and form dense interconnections among and across work activities" in contemporary knowledge work environments . He notes that this kind of work is "deeply interpenetrated, with multiple, multidirectional information flows" . Grabill et al. contend that the distribution of writing work across organizations has moved in part from professional and technical writers to “professionals who must write,” a situation wherein the contemporary knowledge worker may be increasingly involved in the public writing work of the organization . Complicating matters is the ubiquity of social software in contemporary knowledge work, which often means that more professionals are engaged in representing their organizations publicly, in venues such as Facebook and Twitter. Many organizations, in fact, encourage professionals to use social software as a hybrid personal/organizational outlet; indeed, in the two studies detailed in this paper, Twitter use is seen as a strategic organizational asset. Spinuzzi notes that organizational communication is changing and responding to a variety of factors, not the least of which is social software . Many current iterations of social software are “free and experimental … [and] designed for mobile access ... as well as computer access”; such software has the capacity to foster “ambient awareness of potential collaborators' activities” . Just as content management systems have become essential to contemporary knowledge work practices [2, 4], so too is social software increasingly important as part of the array of writing technologies deployed by professionals in organizations. Zachry argues that "scholars have become increasingly interested in studying routine or regularized discourse and its connections to the many institutions within which people act" . To study social software among knowledge workers, I argue, is to study an emerging form of regularized professional discourse. Moreover, to study such discourse is to likewise study people acting with technology, following Kaptelinin and Nardi . As Kaptelinin and Nardi contend, "the doing of the activity in a rich social matrix of people and artifacts" grounds the analysis of people acting with technology . Exploring the rich social matrix of contemporary knowledge work requires detailed, meaningful observations of complex human activity; intentionality and sociocultural influences cannot be gleaned by simply analyzing the artifacts of interaction. In other words, in order to study the interstitial writing work carried out via social software within an organization, researchers must become “embedded within these communities” .
METHODOLOGY Currently, many of the most cited studies of Twitter take a quantitative approach to understanding practices and trends in microblogging [see, for example, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14]. While these studies are valuable for revealing general patterns in large samples of Twitter activity, they are less successful in providing the kind of granular detail called for by Kaptelinin and Nardi and other activity theory approaches [15, 16, 17]. In order to develop thick descriptions of social software use within organizations, both studies detailed in this paper were conducted using well-triangulated qualitative methods, deploying an exploratory version of contextual inquiry . The two studies discussed in the remainder of this paper were, respectively, a systematic case study of social software use at a professional conference, and a broader ethnographic study of knowledge workers at a media research firm. While both studies deployed an exploratory version contextual inquiry as the primary methodological approach at the outset, the length, detail, and field procedures of the second study (discussed below) constitute an ethnography of one workplace site. Both studies included the collection of multiple types and instances of data, including: in situ field observations of writing and communication activities, the collection of a variety of participant-produced artifacts, face-to-face interviews with participants, and recorded audio, video, and still photographs. The two studies are related to one another in that the case study acted as a pilot project for exploring the organizational use of social software later detailed in the ethnographic study. In this way, exploratory methods of collection and analysis of social software activity were tested in the case study and then enacted in greater detail and scope in the ethnography. The case study explored a 2009 professional conference as an information ecology , considering in particular the public networked writing practices deployed by both the sponsoring organization and the participants themselves. Acting as a participant researcher, my data collection consisted of observations before, during, and after the conference (including observations of executive board and local site coordinator meetings), interviews with a purposeful sample of participants after the conference, and special attention to collecting publicly available digital artifacts produced in concert with the organization's social software strategy [more details from this study are discussed in 19]. Analysis from this pilot study focused on observations of participant intentionality during planning meetings and the conference itself, and the primary writing work carried out through conference-sponsored blog posts, videos, and the microblogging activity of a subset of conference participants. Public blog posts were obtained from the conference website, while public videos were collected from the conference YouTube channel. A
comprehensive sample of Twitter updates was collected by establishing and then exporting custom RSS feeds for the two primary conference hashtags in use before, during, and after the event (hashtags are essentially metadata included as part of a Twitter update to identify participation in a conference, event, community, etc.). Data collection for the ethnographic study began in July of 2010 and concluded in early April, 2011. For the 8-½ months of data collection, I had unique access to seven professionals in a prominent media research firm. For example, my participants accommodated several unannounced site visits and impromptu observations and copied me on all email correspondence related to the project I was studying; this is in addition to accommodating several planned observations, semistructured interviews, and the sharing of artifacts. The organization I studied specializes in conducting consumer research and usability studies, and counts companies like Nielsen, Time Warner, and ESPN among its clients. Data collection at this site centered around the firm's practice of “ideation sessions,” a form of consumer research similar to focus groups that uses creativity techniques to generate rich consumer perspectives about media. I was able to study the organization as they planned, developed, executed, analyzed, and disseminated results from a series of ideation sessions exploring online privacy issues. The total data set included over 150 participantproduced artifacts, more than 20 semi-structured interviews, over 60 hours of recorded audio, some 30,000 words of field notes, over 250 photographs, and almost 2,400 Twitter updates, collected by establishing and then exporting custom RSS feeds for three of the primary participants; this also included all of the updates using a particular hashtag from a professional conference attended by one of the participants in late 2010. My university’s Institutional Review Board approved both studies. The approach to data analysis includes comprehensive coding of all the data collected in the pilot study (codes were inductively derived via the generation of in vivo, descriptive, and process coding methods). For the ethnographic study, the current analysis is limited to participants’ use of social software; at the time of this writing, this analysis included genre mapping of social software use within the organization  and coding of the comprehensive sample of Twitter updates collected during the study period (using a list of starter codes generated during the pilot case study, as well as new descriptive and process codes). In both studies, coding of Twitter data was triangulated via field notes and analytic memos, and validated via interviews with participants. WHAT “COUNTS” AS WRITING WORK? For participants in both studies, the organizational use of social software was clearly strategic and intentional.
During observations of pre-conference planning meetings conducted by the executive board and local site coordinators for the pilot case study, an organizational awareness of the need to better leverage social software was strikingly apparent, so much so that the organizational promotion of live-blogging, a YouTube channel, and Twitter were key to the conference experience. Likewise, in the ethnographic study the primary participants were keenly metacognitive and sanguine about their use of social software to promote their organizational brand and seed organizational knowledge assets (for example, by incrementally teasing findings from their consumer research on Facebook and Twitter). Yet one of the most interesting details to emerge from interviews with participants in both studies was the sense that professional writing via social software is overwhelmingly unacknowledged as writing work— especially in contradistinction to more traditional forms of organizational writing work like reports, documentation, proposals, and email. Though participants were aware that one focus of my research was their use of social software, when asked (on multiple occasions for three participants in the ethnographic study) about the kinds of writing they do in their work, participants never mentioned their writing in social software unless prompted. When prompted, participants would typically respond with surprise and belated acknowledgement that composing Twitter or Facebook updates does indeed constitute writing. This finding leads to a peculiar understanding of social software within the realm of what these subjects consider the traditional norms of organizational discourse. There is a clear sense in which public, organizational writing in a medium such as Twitter is transitional and interstitial for these knowledge workers—such activities are significant in the main, in aggregate, but deemed less significant as writing work when considered at the level of composition. This is perhaps indicative of the emerging understanding of the role of social software within organizations— knowledge workers know such work is important, but don't yet consider such work as part of the writing they do professionally. In many ways, then, writing for social software environments is interstitial—it circulates in the inbetween spaces of organizational writing work and carries meaning in non-traditional ways. For example, the informal nature of many Twitter posts in both studies reveals a casual, often phatic, socially significant tenor, interactions that may carry more personal meaning for participants than some sense of organizational significance. But despite participants' reluctance to acknowledge things like Twitter updates as organizational writing work, there can be no doubt that such updates, in aggregate and alone, “count” as writing work—often significantly so.
TRACING INTERSTITIAL WRITING WORK: TWO STUDIES OF PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE I. Twitter Use at a Professional Conference In 2009, I had an opportunity to be involved as a participant researcher with the local site coordination team of a small, international conference of digital media professionals from both industry and academe. The organization has been in existence for less than ten years, but membership is active, diverse, and participatory. The organization serves members working in areas such as mobile and ubiquitous computing, augmented reality, interaction design, graphic design, informatics, interactive television, and distributed collaboration. The organization is particularly concerned with interdisciplinary research and is especially active in bringing together academics and industry professionals to discuss the future of scholarship and practice in digital media. The organization also publishes a peer-reviewed journal and sponsors distinguished fellows in digital media research. The organization's annual conference is especially important, since it allows geographically distributed members to realize interactions that are primarily digital throughout the year. I observed two separate pre-conference planning meetings at the 2009 conference site, noting that the conference is an important event for both the organization at large and the local site, where several members and officers reside. During pre-conference planning meetings, local site coordinators, members of the advisory board, and executive board officers discussed ways that the organization might strategically use digital (especially social) media to more effectively foster interaction among participants at the conference. They also saw digital (social) media platforms as providing an opportunity to more effectively engage and recruit individuals not currently involved with the organization. To that end, the local site coordinators made several intentional moves designed to increase the visibility and public relevance of the organization. The local team decided to incorporate an official blog at the conference website, where they invited five individuals to share their conference experiences and insights. Twitter was likewise championed as another form of public engagement during the conference. All the Twitter updates using either of two conference hashtags were collected by establishing custom RSS feeds. In terms of the digital artifacts collected, I coded 29 conference blog posts from five different contributors, 23 short videos from four different contributors, and 565 Twitter updates from thirty-four unique users. In addition to these artifacts and my observational field notes, I also interviewed a purposeful sample comprised of six participants, three of whom were involved in planning and coordination at both the local and national levels. Two codes of particular relevance that emerged across the
data are discussed below. Some artifacts (particularly Twitter updates) were sometimes ascribed multiple codes. 29% of conference Twitter updates were coded tummeling (whereas only 2 blog posts and no videos were coded in this way). Marks notes that the Yiddish word "tummler" is used to describe someone who is particularly adept at facilitating conversation and engagement within online communities—someone who often curates ideas and content while connecting previously unaffiliated individuals from overlapping networks . Tummeling, therefore, denotes activities sparked by a "conversational catalyst within a group, [someone] to welcome newcomers, rein in old hands and set the tone of the conversation" within a given online community . Most tummeling activities, therefore, do not feel like overt persuasion for members outside the organization. In fact, Twitter facilitates tummeling by virtue of its user conventions, where the strategic "retweeting" (that is, reposting) of another user's update can bridge structural holes in a given network , bringing people together around shared interests or ideas. Twitter's built-in addressivity (the hailing of another user enabled by the "@" sign) also facilitates tummeling moves. Digital phatic gestures were exclusive to microblogging updates (27% of all updates), and were closely correlated with tummeling activities. Phatic gestures in online communities such as Twitter are designed not to be informative, but to express social connections and understanding—even feelings of solidarity, empathy, or connectedness. For example, the last conference Twitter update collected for this study is explicitly phatic, lamenting the return to normalcy and everyday academic life that must occur after the euphoria of engaging with colleagues and friends at the conference. Such updates are not particularly informative, and they often express emotion and feelings of dis/connectedness to or from fellow conference attendees. And while phatic gestures do not demand a response, interactions around phatic posts are fairly common since they may inspire similar reactions from others in online communities. Phatic gestures, in fact, were often coterminous with tummeling activities, since tummeling involves the kinds of direct user-to-user connections also prevalent in digital phatic interaction. These phatic gestures often provided lubrication for the informal professional communication practices taking place among participants in my study. Overall, the organizational intentionality of the conference participants may be reflected most readily by the writing activities of the 34 individuals producing Twitter updates. Phatic gestures and tummeling represent the kinds of activities that can actually drive the sustainability of extraorganizational ties, since the writing work involved in these activities may serve to establish and strengthen connections among Twitter users who are also members of the organization. At least four of the
conference participants observed in this study may be seen as tummlers—active individuals who curate and share interesting ideas, who interact phatically and frequently with individuals within the organization, and most importantly, whose influence brings outside participants into ongoing conversations. These latter activities are documented in the collected Twitter data in the form of “retweets” and extra-conference addressivity (that is, updates coming into the conference from interested or curious participants clearly outside of the local conference site). One of the most salient findings from the pilot case study, therefore, is the inversion of expectations about the persistence and durability of online writing artifacts. The organization-sponsored blog posts and videos are still indexed by search engines and can be easily retrieved, while a search for the conference hashtag on Twitter provides no results (though Google still indexes some of the conference Twitter updates). Yet the argument can be made that the seemingly durable artifacts are in fact temporally ephemeral (few view them anymore), while the seemingly ephemeral artifacts (Twitter updates) are what foster the long-term sustainability of organizational and social ties. Again, the writing work carried out via social software “counts” in meaningful ways. II. Twitter Use in a Media Research Firm In my ethnographic study of professionals in a media research firm, several of the informal communication activities observed during the professional conference could be traced in much richer detail, over longer periods of interaction. Embedded within the organization over a period of 8 ½ months, I made over 50 site visits and observations, tracking my participants as they developed a program of media research focused on internet privacy issues. While the firm worked on multiple projects during the period of data collection, I was privy to nearly every planning session, email, and artifact relating to their program of privacy research—from the earliest official planning meetings to the public dissemination of their work in the trade press and at professional conferences. During this time, I archived and progressively coded most of the social software activity of three of the primary research participants (I monitored—but did not archive— Facebook activity; however, I collected a comprehensive sample of their public Twitter updates during the study period). While there were seven total participants in my study, most of my research of social software practices focused on three main individuals: Mike, the director of the firm; Jenn, the project manager who took the lead in organizing and conducting the privacy ideation sessions; and Michelle, the communications specialist. As the firm's director and the public face of the organization, Mike produced 578 public Twitter updates during the period of data collection. Mike is even more active on Facebook,
where he uses a combination of public posts and private messages to interact with clients, potential clients, and media industry influencers. Jenn, the project manager, produced 167 updates, while Michelle, the communications specialist, produced 1,202 updates from her personal account, and another 99 updates through the organization's account (for which she was the only contributor). Michelle's activities on Twitter warrant attention, mainly because Michelle is a tummler. Michelle's public writing activity is intentional, strategic, and clearly cultivated to significant effect. And like Mike, she is also adept at using Facebook for similar purposes. One of the important aspects of Michelle's role within the organization is attending and speaking at industry conferences. In fact, not only did I archive all of her tweets during the study period, I archived all of the tweets using a particular conference hashtag—336 tweets during a 6-day period in December, 2010—for one of the industry events she attended. Michelle’s attendance at this media industry conference provided an opportunity to replicate work from the pilot case study within the much richer context of an ongoing ethnography. The conference was about 6 weeks before the planned release of the organization's privacy findings, and about 6 weeks after the conclusion of the ideation sessions that generated those findings— right in the middle of their data analysis and the creation of outputs—an opportune time for Michelle to publicly seed organizational knowledge assets. Of Michelle's total Twitter updates during the study period, 356—almost 30%—were addressive (that is, specifically and publicly directed to other Twitter users); 202 more—almost 17%—were compound retweets— those that contained significant commentary from Michelle to amplify the reuse of another Twitter member's content. In other words, almost half of Michelle's 1,200 tweets explicitly invoked others; by including her Foursquare updates, which specifically invite geographic commonality with other Twitter users, this ratio trends even higher. Basically, Michelle's public writing activities on Twitter regularly engage others across several axes of commonality through informal writing work. During the December industry conference mentioned above, evidence of Michelle's tummeling is brought into relief: a full 62.5% of Michelle's updates immediately before, during, and after the conference were addressive or compound retweets. More importantly, she spent her time tummeling with an organizational purpose: almost 22% of her tweets during the conference strategically seeded themes around consumer privacy issues. It simply isn't just that she was addressing other users or linking to their content; tummeling activities connect people and bring new information to light. There's an economy of purpose in Michelle's public writing work for the
organization throughout the study period, but especially during the industry conference she attended. In interviews with Michelle, she's incredibly forthright about her writing on Twitter (once prompted to acknowledge that it is indeed writing). The vast majority of her tweets are posted from her personal account, a mix of yoga, shoes, college basketball, and media research. She indicates that she uses Twitter to foster relationships, to seed organizational ideas, and to cultivate interactions with potential clients and media industry influencers. More importantly, she connects other people whenever possible. Of the conference Twitter activity noted above, Michelle says “privacy always comes up. There's always a good part of the Twitter stream during the conference that's focused on privacy issues, so I just kept in mind who was very interested in those, who was contributing to conversation and what they had to say.” Of the tools at her disposal, she says that “Hootsuite is my favorite.” She uses this third-party Twitter client to schedule tweets, save searchers, and track backchannels, primarily. She even scheduled a privacy-related update to automatically post while she was on stage at one of the conferences she attended. “There's a certain art to crafting the tweet in a way that can be retweeted or [to] facilitat[e] retweeting,” she says. Mostly, she wants to share things that are useful, and hard to find, in a way that foregrounds her firm's research interests and the interests of her professional contacts. She strives to influence influencers, and in doing so she's become an influencer herself. CONCLUSIONS: TUMMELING, INFORMAL COMMUNICATION, AND SUSTAINABILITY Participants in both studies see the use of social software as a strategic and vital component of organizational knowledge work. However, the most effective tummeling and phatic activities observed in both studies occurred as individual knowledge workers represented their organizations through the public writing work they enacted via their personal Twitter accounts. The organizational Twitter account that Michelle used, for example, contained mostly updates that broadcasted information about the firm and its work; in other words, there was little to no personal engagement from the organizational account. There is a significant sense in which the effective organizational use of social software trades on the personal identities and informal mores of its individual constituents. In many ways, this finding is commonsensical—rarely does an organization engage in phatic gestures, tummeling activities, or informal communication; people do. But in a very real sense, the digital informal communication of tummlers via the interstitial and ambient writing work of individual knowledge workers is precisely what fosters the sustainability of organizational ties. Just as the ongoing accretion of individual Twitter
updates and Facebook messages results in an aggregated significance, so too do the individual acts of tummlers result in bringing together individuals under the auspices of larger organizational discourses and identity narratives. A key finding across these two studies, therefore is that interstitial writing work “counts” within organizations— those individual tweets, however seemingly insignificant, matter for these groups. Especially savvy participants in these two studies specifically leveraged the affordances of Twitter in order to establish and foster contact with influencers and to strategically seed organizational knowledge assets, most often through informal communication generated from personal accounts. In this way, digital informal communication among individual knowledge workers may be seen as an integral component of the sustainability of organizational ties. The interstitial writing work of social software is unique among the many forms of professional communication because the most effective examples of tummeling and phatic interaction occur as a result of blended personal/organizational digital identities. This is perhaps a key direction for future studies of this kind of writing work—surfacing, tracing, and exploring the ways in which personal and organizational identities are negotiated through the interesting, hybrid forms of writing occurring at the interstices of contemporary knowledge work. REFERENCES
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Brian McNely is an assistant professor of English— Rhetoric and Composition—at Ball State University, and a faculty fellow with the Emerging Media Initiative. McNely researches professional communication in digital environments, with particular attention to groups and group communication via networked writing technologies.