Social Media is not a Ship, it is the Ocean

By | 2012/01/27

Ship on the OceanSocial media is not a ship, it is the ocean. This, it seems to me, is the key to understanding what is going on and what it means for professional technical communicators.

Writers complain that community content is of poor quality, unreliable, badly written, etc. etc. as if it were something that could therefore safely be ignored. This is like complaining that the sea is sometimes rough. So it is, but it is still the sea, and we can still only sail upon it and take our chance with the weather. If we try to pretend it does not exist, it will simply drown us.

In Too Big to Know, David Weinberger makes the point that if you are dealing with an operating system and it throws up an error message, all you have to do is Google the text of the error message and you will find out what it means and how to fix it. His recommendation is that you wait a few weeks after a new release before installing, not to wait for bugs to be fixed, but to wait for the net to populate itself with answers to any problems you may encounter. As someone who has recently switched from Windows to Linux as my primary operating system, I can attest that he is right on this.

My choice of words here is deliberate — wait for the net to populate itself with answers — because no one plans this, no one owns or controls or moderates this, no one pays for this or decides if it should or should not happen. Boats are planned. Voyages are planned. The sea is not planned. The sea just is, and does. Social media is not a ship, it is the ocean.

Canute Rebukes his Courtiers

Writer should understand the, like Canute, they cannot hold back the waves.

If your job was to write troubleshooting information for operating systems, you probably have another job now. It is to be hoped that tech writers will learn the wisdom of King Canute, who, when his followers plied him with flattery about his power, demonstrated to them that whatever his rank, he could not command the waves to leave the shore.

You cannot decide whether social media will be used to document your product or service. Social media is the ocean and if the web decides to document your product, it will document it. Your only choice is whether you will choose to sail the ocean or if you will decide to stay at home and paddle around your own duckpond.

How are we to react to social media and to community content then? If we start thinking of social media as a tool, as something we can choose and use for our own purposes, we will have misunderstood what is happening. Social media is not something that you can choose, or command, any more than Canute could command the waves. Social media is not a tool or a website. Social media is not Facebook or Twitter. Facebook is the Cunard Company. Twitter is the White Star Line. Social media are the ocean.

The net will decide whether it will document your product, how thoroughly it will document it, how well it will document it, and how soon it will document it. Social media, like the ocean, is inexorable, but also feckless. It will do what work it does, and leave the rest undone. It will leave something for you to do, value for you to add. You will not get to choose what that is, but the promise to Noah will be kept — water will not cover all the earth.

It is not that technical communicators ever had a monopoly on the communication of technical information. Asking a friend has always been our first means of finding out how to do things. But we used to control a vast territory, and to rule it untroubled by storm or tide. The dikes are down now, and the profession is at sea. You cannot hold back the waves. Your choices are sail, drown, or move to higher ground.

4 thoughts on “Social Media is not a Ship, it is the Ocean

  1. pamela clark


    This is a great blog. Thanks for writing it. I’m really appreciating that you are blogging – it is great fun to read each new entry. Keep it coming.

  2. Tina Klein Walsh

    Mark – this is my favourite post of yours yet. The Reader Is The Enemy held that title up until now. Profound.

  3. Tim Penner

    Mark. It’s a wonderful attribute of language and how it operates in our heads that a short string of words can so powerfully crystallize a whole range of thought and then condition thinking. Of course, the string of words is no mere random event, but a focused emission of a refined intellect in a domain of some value. McLuhan was very good at these. He called them probes. (I’ve actually met a few learned people who don’t know his most famous one, but my wife met a young drugstore clerk the other day who didn’t know what a shoelace was, so I’m braced for many kinds of ignorance.)

    If you would be so inclined as to create a short video with the same title as this blog post, explaining its moment, I think you could start quite a sizable fire. I concur with Tina that this is my favourite post of yours. I can’t get the title out of my mind. Your explanation is equal to it. This is Wesch-grade material.

  4. Mark Baker Post author

    Thank you all for your kind words. I’m glad to know this is a favorite post for some, since the analytics tell me it hasn’t got the readership of most of my posts. Actually, what the analytics tell me is that the Net does not care much for metaphors. The Net is apparently a pretty literal place. Hi Ho.

    Interesting idea about the video, Tim. Not really part of my current skill set, but maybe something worth learning to do.


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