Sunday, May 20, 2007

Big City Muffy in Minneapolis (May 16)

This entry is for Wednesday! To view the previous three days, see May 13th, May 14th, and May 15th.

Eating my complimentary Raisin Bran on Wednesday morning I realized the basic flaw in my trip plan: I'd decided to stay on in Minneapolis so I'd have more time to hang around with good people...but all the people I'd met at the STC Summit would be flying out on Wednesday night! Then I'd enter stage two of the trip (exploration and nightclubs) where I'd meet MORE wonderful people...then *I* would be flying away on Saturday! So instead of somehow finding more time to hang around with new friends I would be meeting twice as many people and leaving them just as quickly.

"That's obvious!" you shout. For some reason I'd assumed that other Summit people would be staying in Minneapolis like I was...but none of them seemed to be, and I had yet to meet a Summit person from Minneapolis who was under forty and bar-hopper fun.

8:30 - "Distributed Writing: A Psychology of Social Computer Practices." This was one of those periods when I had to scrounge to find an interesting presentation, but fortunately Johannes Strobel gave the perfect early morning talk: relevant, friendly, and fun. I didn't take many notes because -- once again -- the session wasn't even remotely related to my line of work, but Strobel's point seemed to fall in line with the general Summit theme of forums/wikis/social networking sites being the "new literacy" in which many of the old rules no longer apply.

Sadly this session also had the highest level of "noise comments" from the audience, who constantly asked tangential questions in order to -- basically -- talk about themselves, their blogs, and their general web behaviour. Since Strobel seemed happy to answer any question regardless of its relevance, I compiled a list of question introduction warning signs...when somebody starts a question with one of these sentence fragments, you know it's time to take a bathroom break and grab a bottle of overpriced water in the lobby:
  • "Kind of similarly related..."
  • "I just wanted to say..."
  • "Can I just add..."
  • "Kind of a comment on..."
  • "I was gonna say..."
  • "When I used to..."
10:30 - "Case Studies in Content Management." Another scrounged-up topic. Remind me to avoid case study presentations at summits. The only notes I made from this session were that Paul Doyle said "a whole 'nother thing" and the guy from RIM said "higglety-pigglety."

Alright, yes, the three presenters talked about their experiences moving content from one management system to another: from an HTML website to a more sophisticated web 2.0 style, from Framemaker to some sort of XML style, etc. Since our docs department is pretty happy with our tools (and we can't even upgrade our existing software, let alone move to an entirely new content management system) I didn't find this session very interesting.

1:30 - "If You're So Smart, Why Does Your Writing Suck?" Bonus points for an enticing title, Karen A. Schriver actually pulled the session together with some relevant (and entertaining) content. Once again we were reminded not to focus ONLY on design and "good English," but Schriver took a more optimistic and proactive approach than many of the other speakers who'd touched on this theme. She told us to avoid "knowledge telling" -- fact/data dumps that use "inside language" and which overestimate the audience's familiarity with a topic -- and be more sensitive to the audience. Good tips, and something we shouldn't need to be told (but we still DO need to be told).

3:30 - Closing Session. After some tastefully short presentations we were totally overwhelmed by Ze Frank, who was exceptionally funny. Much like Jean-luc Doumont he gave some lighthearted interpretations of "low context" signs ("lock your giant baby in a suitcase") before moving into an increasingly serious examination of social network sites.

I wasn't ENTIRELY sure of his final point, but he seemed to be a bit of an apologist for trolls, saying that (like the rest of us) they just wanted to be part of the communication, and that those people behave like trolls for various reasons...reasons that didn't seem to include MY theory, which is that trolls desperately want attention but -- for whatever reason -- just do it in an antisocial way (which Frank likened to doodling genitals at a social gathering). The same way that immature kids pull pigtails because they don't know how to express themselves, or because they're jerks.

He said that, yes, social-interaction technology is evolving at an enormous rate, but humans still have the same old social needs: intimacy, jealousy, egotism, etc. I'm not sure if he ever made a distinct and final point because I wasn't taking notes, and I'm definitely paraphrasing from what I remember of his talk.

Aha, dinner. It was time to budget, and since all of the restaurants in downtown Minneapolis were INCREDIBLY expensive (and since I didn't have any food appliances in my hotel room other than the coffee maker and the ice bucket) I resigned myself to the only food & booze convenience store in the area. I always find that the cashiers and fast-food employees in America are offensively rude, but I think it might be because I'm actually NICE to them; I say "please" and "thank you" and "have a nice day," and since I don't see anybody ELSE doing this, maybe it comes across as obnoxious or condescending to them. Or maybe they're jerks. Or they think I'm a jerk.

10:00 pm - The Gay '90s: Time for fun and adventure! I found myself in the large and complicated "Gay '90s" nightclub, which was apparently dead for even an average Wednesday night. A sad and lonely go-go dancer -- apparently wearing a diaper -- gyrated in a cage for an empty bar. The drag show upstairs was slightly better attended, and I found myself able to WATCH an excellent show without actually needing to PARTICIPATE.

After "Maurice" told me that I was "so pretty and naive!" I hooked up with a quiet New Yorker who politely listened to my sociological sputtering. Every drink seemed to be a bigger and more alcoholic one. Eventually, bored, I left the bar and moved down the street to:

1:30 am - The Brass Rail: Tiny bar! Tiny stage! But WONDERFUL people. Trying to regulate my alcohol intake I asked for a single vodka & diet in a tall glass, and the bartender gave me a Long Island iced tea instead. Jamie Monroe arrived to say hi and to invite me out for coffee the following day, which was the moment when my Minneapolis trip changed from "depressing" and "uncertain" to "fabulous!" But as the liquored-up drink started hitting me, things began to grow a little hazy...

A woman named Xavia came into the bar and tried to teach the bartender to make a "Matrix Martini," which involved a lot of incoherent verbal ejaculations and produced a skunky concoction that I was forced to drink part of. Xavia was impeccably dressed and extremely drunk, and she was depressed. Remember that resolution I made about "giving something back" to people during my trip? After Xavia was kicked out of the bar I decided to listen to her and try to get her home.

I have only disconnected impressions of this part of the night, because it was all so surreal. Xavia and I sat on Hennepin Ave and she told me she was a registered nurse, her daughter was a psychopath, and her husband was a deadbeat. In trying to give me her phone number she poured nail polish all over my purse. I told her I'd get her into a taxi and take her home, and she promised to "feed me."

The cab driver's English was poor, so when Xavia gave him an address and he said "are you SURE?" I thought maybe he just didn't understand. I said I'd pay to get her home, he shrugged, and off we drove. Xavia was loud and demonstrative, saying she couldn't approve of my lifestyle because of her religion and repeatedly shouting "YOU DON' KNOW!" I found all this fascinating and she was beginning to calm down a bit...until I noticed that we were on a freeway someplace in the middle of a black wilderness, and the cab fare was up to $30.

Then it hit me...Xavia was too drunk to really know ANYTHING. She'd said she lived in Minneapolis, but she'd given some far-off address to God knows after party? Her parent's house? Another state? So I told the cab driver to turn around, and Xavia started yelling that we had to keep going, and out of everybody I felt the most sorry for the poor driver, especially when she started screaming "I GOTTA PEE! OH GOD! I GOTTA PEE RIGHT NOW!"

We pulled onto an off-ramp, she rolled out of the car and pee'd on the front tire, then she lurched back in saying "Where's the TOWEL?" which I'm sure the driver wasn't happy about. We fought all the way back to Minneapolis, and Xavia's friendship turned gradually to hatred; in her mind I was abandoning her, even though I was returning her only a few blocks from where we'd started from in the first place. I paid the driver $60 -- the price of trying to help this woman out -- and she glared at me like a dog who wanted to bite something it hates. Last I saw she'd managed to get into another cab...the first driver, obviously, didn't want her around anymore.

I was just busting to bitch about this situation and Cindi -- the poor desk clerk at the hotel -- got to listen to me. Fortunately she was wonderful and exposed to me the world of UPTOWN Minneapolis, where the stores are funky and the coffee shops are friendly.

Suddenly I was comfortable in Minneapolis. I'd lost my Summit friends but I'd instantly met some new and wonderful people, and I'd also survived a harrowing experience in a cab with a drunk and crazy woman. Inebriated and happy, my trip was REALLY beginning!


Eric Little said...

Wonderful stuff--I almost want to tell you to slow down and let us absorb what you're saying, but you're trying to get this down as quickly as possible, right (no journal)?

I wanted to make a comment on the previous entry, as well as on this one, but there was no hyperlink to the comment section there, so I'll do both here; the subject is similar.

1) You say here: "She told us to avoid 'knowledge telling' -- fact/data dumps that use 'inside language' and which overestimate the audience's familiarity with a topic -- and be more sensitive to the audience. Good tips, and something we shouldn't need to be told (but we still DO need to be told)."

This is something I talk about in every writing class: how much does your aduience know? What has to be explained, and what doesn't? As you say, it's something that every writer needs to be told before any writing project: don't mystify your audience with jargon, and don't insult them by explaining what is--to them--obvious.

I tend to deliberately use a vocabulary slightly more advanced than my expected reading public's in certain situations, because I want them to grow as readers. In my reference work articles, I notice my editors sometimes change the wording ("climacteric" becomes "turning point"). Sometimes I just want to hide what I'm saying--in that review of "The Queen" I sent you, I called the young Helen Mirren "lubicious" instead of "hot," because it wouldn't sound right for a professor to salivate too overtly. And anyway, I should sound like I have a big vocabulary every once in a while (my word-hoard is MY "precious").

Point 2 below

Eric Little said...

2) In the May 15 entry you say, "But I'm not willing to throw page design and 'good English' out the window yet."

I knew there was a reason I liked you. :)

Cheers, general jubilation, and anyone who reads this blog would know that immediately.

Adam Thornton said...

You're right, I know that if I don't get it all out ASAP, I'll either forget it all or lose interest! It's a race against memory...

I'm sensitive about specialized language in everyday life because I don't want to come across as pompous. My father used to always say "purchase" instead of "buy," and people laughed at him (including us kids). But as long as a more unusual word gets closer to the mark -- and still has a chance of being understood! -- then it makes perfect sense to use it.

In terms of tech writing, it's a fine line between babying a reader and freezing them out. Our little writing team has lots of discussions about the terms we use: "framebuffer" vs. "output hardware?" "Turnkey" vs. "out of the box solution?"

Writing companies spend tons of money trying to figure out "who the audience is." I wonder if it's worth it?

It was funny at the conference how panicked people seemed to be about "distributed writing" technologies such as forums and wikis. Lots of Chicken Littles. When it ocurred to me that the C.L.s didn't have any systematic studies to back up their observations -- just somewhat bitter anecdotal evidence -- I couldn't help but think it was all 20% fact and 80% hooey.

PS: Comments, they seem to be coming and going...I think I've got it fixed now!