Interstitial Writing Work

Yesterday, I sent off a 4,500 word paper for IPCC 2011fingers crossed.

In that paper, I discussed findings from the pilot study I conducted in 2009 of the professional conference as information ecology (details here), and the ways in which those findings held or broke down in a longer (8 1/2 month) ethnographic study for which I've recently completed data collection. Basically, my IPCC paper extends some of the things I discussed in my recent ATTW talk.

Round about this time last year, I was also finishing up a manuscript for an edited collection on hybrid spaces—a project led by Loel Kim and Jason Swarts. In that piece, I make an argument about ambient research—about studying the kinds of organizational writing work that takes place in the interstices, in brief, often phatic bursts composed in small-footprint desktop clients and mobile phones.

In the IPCC piece, I talk a bit more about this interstitial writing work, my argument grounded in findings generated by the two studies mentioned above. If my IPCC paper is accepted, it won't be published until October; I wanted to share a small portion of the paper here, because I wonder if others are finding similar things in their own research. Also, I kind of just want to get this idea out there, to a broader public audience beyond the kind and thoughtful reviewers currently vetting my work in various forms.

So, here's a section from the IPCC piece...


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 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 findings 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 most participants) 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 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 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 in-between spaces of organizational writing work and carries meaning in non-traditional ways. For example, the phatic nature of many Twitter posts in both studies reveals an informal, 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.


As always, I welcome comments—here, on the Twitter, or by email.


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