A Guest Post by Amanda Markham
I wanted to take my blog, Desert Book Chick, from its place on WordPress.com to a self hosted WordPress.org site. I signed up with a webhost, got my shiny new domain name, got in the driver’s seat, and off I went. It took two painful weeks before I finally had my site looking vaguely like I wanted it to look. Along the way I learned a lot. Being an anthropologist, I’m always looking for hidden cultural ‘memes’ and understandings. In the course of reflecting on my experiences, I found I wasn’t alone – and this conversation was born.
The Trouble With Beginners:
In our mind’s eye, we beginners have ‘the picture’. It’s the biggest, best, most eye-popping blog or website you’ve ever seen. It’s our baby, part of us, and we want to get it happening as soon as we can. Even worse, we desperately want to do it ourselves. Yet, lurking just beneath the surface of our shiny new websites are various shady characters like code, blogging platforms and flashy custom themes. Pretty soon, we beginners are stumbling around in the dark, losing weeks as we ogle tutorials, cut and paste code like mad cows, and trawl forums for answers.
And it’s a jungle out there! There are hundreds of thousands of sites offering tutorials and help, and the forums are like labyrinths, complete with the occasional cranky, biting creature that leaps at you from out of a dark corner.
Most of the time, (a nod in the direction of Donald Rumsfeld) we beginners simply don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t know that it’s not etiquette to ask for help in the comments sections of expert’s blogs (I’m not sure why this is), nor we do know that the same question we’re asking might have been asked 1000 times before in seven different ways. To be blunt, we just want to get on with creating our blogs and adding content.
A Few Words on Experts:
Whilst I can’t speak about setting up a blog from the point of view of an expert, I can speak about the characteristics of experts. They’re experts at writing code, plugins, tweaking the intestines of SQL databases, and other even more arcane and mysterious rituals that I can’t begin to imagine. Expert at things that make my mind go blank – in the same way the phrase patrilineal exogamous moieties probably looks like incomprehensible dribble to you. But I’m an expert in my field, I hang out with other anthropologists, chat online with them, read journals and ethnographies. Not for a moment is the phrase ‘patrilineal exogamous moieties’ strange or meaningless to me or my ‘tribe’.
The Anthropologist’s Gaze:
Beginners and experts are two very different ‘tribes’, speaking very different languages. I’m not telling you anything here that you don’t already know. What I’m highlighting though is the importance of listening and learning to speak each other’s language. After all, the ultimate purpose of tutorials and other resources written by experts for beginners is plain old communication and education – in other words, a conversation aimed a imparting knowledge.
Sometimes, however, the language barrier gets in the way: beginners can’t really hear what experts are saying. Other times, the way in which beginners work gets in the way, using both blogging platforms and tutorials in very different ways to which experts do.
That’s where some anthropological fieldwork -some user-based ethnography- comes in handy. Microsoft, Xerox and IBM employ ethnographers and anthropologists to go into homes, observe and understand just how people are using their products. They then use this information to improve existing or create new products. But rather than hire an anthropologist to start such a conversation, I’m going to suggest that beginners and experts get together and start a ‘conversation’.
One way to overcome the language barrier and really get into the minds of beginners is to get a group of them together and say:go for it guys! Give them your tutorial and get them to record step-by-step what they do and what it is they have in mind to achieve at each step of the process. Get them to write down the problems they had in understanding instructions. Ask: What do they do? How do they do it? Why are they doing these things? From this, you’d really be surprised what you’ll learn.
As an aside, I’ve used this method when consulting with Aboriginal Elders about all kinds of major works projects (like phosphate mines!) -trialling posters, 3D presentations and 3D storylines set up in creek beds and dusty tracks in the Australian outback. The process of asking people whether the story I tell is one they can understand, and their gentle advice on how to improve the stories I tell, has helped me learn how to speak their language and do my ‘thing’ better. It’s been an invaluable lesson that I’ve taken into every aspect of my life.
So think about it. Conversations, storytelling and listening: hardly rocket science, but the foundation of speaking each other’s languages.
Thanks, Amanda. We all need reminders like this one. Talking inside a fishbowl is a real social web problem for all of us!
–ME “Liz” Strauss
Work with Liz on your business!!