Dr. Ehren Pfugfelder on Technical Descriptions and Reddit

[Intro Music]

[Ryan Weber] Welcome to 10-Minute Tech Comm. I’m Ryan Weber from the University of Alabama in Huntsville and today I’m pleased to welcome Dr. Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder, who is an Assistant Professor of Writing, Literature, and Film at Oregon State University. We’re discussing his recent article in Technical Communication Quarterly, “Reddit’s Explain Like I’m Five: Technical Descriptions in the Wild.” In his article, he argues that a forum on Reddit that asks knowledgeable users to explain things in language a five­ year-old could understand, marks a resurgence of the technical description genre. Of course, when I heard about the Explain Like I’m Five forum, having little knowledge of Reddit, I immediately thought of this scene form a movie called Margin Call, released in 2011, in which a character played by Jeremy Irons is trying to get someone to explain the financial crisis to him in language that he can understand.

[Movie dialogue]

Mr. Tuld: So, why doesn’t somebody tell me what they think is going on here?

Jared Cohen: Mr. Tuld, as I mentioned earlier, if you compare the figure at the topic of page thirteen-.

Mr. Tuld: Jared, this isn’t medical lad, just speak to me in plain English.

Jared Cohen: Okay.

Mr. Tuld: But I’d like to speak to the guy who put this together, Mr. Sullivan is it? Does he speak English?

Jared Cohen: Sir?

Mr. Tuld: I’d like to speak with the analyst who seems to have stumbled across this mess Peter Sullivan: Certainly. That would be Peter Sullivan, right here. Oh, Mr. Sullivan, you’re here, good morning. Maybe you can tell me what you think is going on here and please speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever. It wasn’t brains that got me here I assure you that.

[Weber] Reddit’s Explain Like I’m Five asks people to do a similar task. Users pose questions that they want explained to them in simple, plain language, and then experts take a stab at answering that question. Dr. Pflugfelder argues that this is an example of technical descriptions alive and well where we will least expect them, where people are creating them for fun. We’ll get to  the interview in just a moment. I did want to note that I’ve made a slight change to the podcast format. I’ve been really trying to keep it under ten minutes and fifty-nine seconds because it’s called 10-Minute Tech Comm, but I’m tired of doing that. So, my goal is really keep it to around ten minutes, so you’ll notice this episode is a little bit longer despite not being labeled a Supersized episode. I hope that listeners will forgive this slight indulgence. Now on to the interview.

[Begin Interview]

[Weber] Welcome to the podcast Ehren. I really appreciate you joining us to talk about your work and I was interested in your article partly because you seem to argue that the technical description genre has seen ups and downs in its lifespan and that it’s kind of experiencing a resurgence online, what is the role of this technical description genre in technical communication?

[Ehren Pflugfelder] So the genre kind of comes from a few different places. We call it a technical description although there’s a bunch of other related genres to it. So, sometimes people will call it technical explanation or extended definition. It’s a genre that showed up in a lot of textbooks for technical communicators a long time ago and it’s been around for a long time. You know it can-you can be the spec sheet that sort of also annotated. It can be something that is simply for very specific use that is just explaining a process in the scientific field, and it’s been around for a very long time but we haven’t really thought much about it. It was a bunch of research, sort of identifying the genre and thinking of best practices but that’s you know thirty something years old. And more recently it’s shown up just in online forums, in that it’s such a common way to try to get explanations to a layperson, to somebody who really doesn’t know the nuts and bolts of how something works. But though there-it’s different from say the official technical description that you would get within a particular industry. It’s not like a two-page document that might have a whole bunch of different standardized elements to the genre or even ever have to adhere to certain documentation standards. This is just you know online people asking questions about, “What is this thing that I don’t quite understand?” A whole bunch of other people trying to answer it and I think that’s how that formulation just kind of happened. It has happened to a lot of technical communication lately too.

[Weber] So it’s migrated online to become more of a community-based format, is that right?

[Pflugfelder] I mean when you have a question that’s sort of technical in nature, you know, in your house, you’re like, “Oh, I don’t really understand how to download stuff from YouTube. I’ll go on Google and ask it.” And you’re you know the first thing you’re going to find is a message board where fifty other people have asked that same question in different forms and two thousand people have answered it in a number of ways. (chuckle) Those are really sort of ad hoc answers or ad hoc sort of descriptions and we see that on that-on a stack overflow every once in a while; try to understand a particular computing question. But this happens for like tons of everyday stuff too. The site that I was studying is really just a way in which you’re starting to see a real intensity of some of the answers, where it’s almost a genre in itself, and it’s sort of a hybrid genre, but like it has certain features that get repeated over and over again.

[Weber] So this brings us to the community that you looked at, this Reddit’s Explain Like I’m Five, and honestly, I don’t know anything about Reddit at all. It’s all a mystery to me, but what is this community and why did you choose it to look at?

[Pflugfelder] Sure. You know it’s, Reddit is one of those places that it’s-you fall down the rabbit hole you can just sort of go there. It’s, it’s basically lots and lots of message boards that you can go into and then vote on everybody’s everything. Every comment you can vote on up or down or whatever. And Explain Like I’m Fives’ an interesting sort of specific community and message board and I guess you can see it’s either thing, in which people just ask everyday questions and they would like them explained kind of in a plain language way. In a way in which they don’t have specific knowledge of a certain field and they’re going to ask a question like, there was a great one of “Since the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere has more oxygen than the past, was fire any different?” Or “What was with that old dot that sort of showed up on old TV’s?” “What was, you know, I don’t-explain that to me,” or things like that. Somebody is-doesn’t have technical knowledge, they ask a question that you know sounds like one that you or I would go, “Yeah actually I can explain that to anybody else even though I have a sense of what might the answer be.” Then a whole bunch of other people try to answer it and sometimes they’re pulling in resources and they’re trying to use non-technical language. They’re trying to use every day common terms. If they use a definition, a specific word they try to define it and it’s relatively short too. We’re not talking about hundreds and hundreds of words, we’re talking three to four hundred words for the most part. And what’s cool is when you see the giant message board of possible answers, the best answers are the ones that where people are looking at the half-answers or the other questions and then trying to pull that all together into one really good answer. And you know they’re motivated just by wanting to see an answer, which is kind of great.

[Weber] So to be clear, in these forums users will ask a question and then lots of people will answer the question about fire or the dot on the TV, or whatever it is. Users can vote on the effectiveness of the answers, is that right?

[Pflugfelder] Yeah and the best ones sort of rise to the top. So when you click on a question that you’re interested in finding the answer for, the answer that the most people have voted on, and there’s a couple of different ways you can sort the-but really it’s-the best way to do it is, “I want to see the answer that people have voted on the most,” and that’s probably the best answer. If there’s enough answers-so, once you get beyond a few hundred answers, like that top answer is a pretty good answer.

[Weber] So you’re saying those best answers often add in other answers, incorporate pieces of other answers, refine writing that people have already done in order to make kind of the best possible answer. Is that correct?

[Pflugfelder] Yeah and I think that’s actually where we see technical communication sort of at work and the reason I like Explain Like I’m Five as a site for technical communication, or at least seeing how everyday people totally outside of their job, totally outside of school, are doing similar technical communication work. It’s because that best answer, half the time, it has little tags that say, “Edit,” and that they’re sort of signifying in that answer that they’ve read a bunch of other answers or read a bunch of other questions that showed up in that discussion thread, and they’re trying to incorporate it to make their own answer even better. To satisfy the person that originally asked it.

[Weber] So, you see in these answers a lot of the things that either we’re trying to teach students how to do in class or what really great technical communicators are doing on the jobs as far as doing sophisticated editing, explaining complicated concepts in clear language. Is that what you’re seeing in these answers?

[Pflugfelder] Oh yeah. I mean I, I think you can see at least three things. You can see people you know pulling in answers or parts of answers from lots of other pieces of writing in a thread. You can see people sort of merging them together and trying to write one location from all these possible other locations. I don’t’ know, it’s this really complicated technical communication work and they’re citing themselves. You know they’re providing links to sort of bolster their credibility, and they’re editing themselves as their work as they’re going through it and they’re telling you when they’re editing it, and they’re sometimes summarizing their own work. So, if you didn’t want to read the whole explanation, they’ll provide a little tag that says, “TLDR,” which is too long, didn’t read, and then a one sentence version of that is sort of the executive summary of what they’re doing. That’s a whole lot of writing work.

[Weber] Sure, sure, and these are things that you know we would be happy if our students knew how to do them well and employers would be happy if their technical communicators knew how to do these things well.

[Pflugfelder] And the plain language aspect is big too because you know, we’re always trying to tell our students, “If you’re writing for an external audience you now you can’t use the language you’re using with subject matter experts, because the average every day person isn’t in that conversation. So, you’ve got to break it down and use specific terms. You’ve got to define it, use metaphors sometimes if they’re helpful to help people understand the process. You break it down in steps and you just try not to use jargon.” When our students write for you know a lay audience or an outside audience, we really want them to do those sorts of things and that’s kind of the heart of what plain language is about too.

[Weber] Great and you actually went in and kind of systematically coded these answers to figure out what was the same about the answers that were very effective. What kinds of things did you find made a really good Explain Like I’m Five Reddit answer?

[Pflugfelder] It was sort of a pileup study. I grabbed two hundred and thirty-three of the answers that each had three thousand five hundred upvotes or points basically. So, they were really well looked at. So I was looking at some of the best stuff that was on Explain Like I’m Five, and I was trying to compare the ones that had been answered, that the person that originally asked the question said like, “Yeah, you’ve really answered this, absolutely,” or the ones that went unanswered. In trying to differentiate like, what makes a really good answer? So, what makes a good technical explanation on Explain Like I’m Five? I found a few things, right? The answered ones seemed to be less dense text.

[Weber] Okay.

[Pflugfelder] So, they’re more in keeping with plain language. You know they use fewer words over the total amount of words. Those same pieces of writing are slightly longer in that there’s, there’s just a slightly better fully explained answer happening in there, and there’s a few other things too. Like there’s more markers of those things like, they use the word edit a lot more often because the answers for the explanations people thought were very good answers, that answered their question, they involved more editing by the person that tried to write them. They involved more instances of that too long, didn’t read. They involved more instances weirdly of the word thanks. (chuckle) Because it shows, it’s-that sounds like a silly one to include, but it shows more of interaction with that community. They were doing a lot more to get that answer to happen. So, a lot of those things showed up and you could just sort of see like that’s kind of what we would expect to some degree. Like, “How-were thegood versus a bad answer?” Well I bet it would be simpler and slightly more comprehensive and show more engagement with the people that were trying to help make the answer. It’s what I would hypothesize would’ve shown up, but It’s sort of also, which is good in a way, because it sort of validates what we think about good technical writing is like.

[Weber] So, it’s not wrong.

[Pflugfelder] And not only is it not wrong, it happens outside of the classroom, just in the same way as it happens when we’re, when we’re saying, “Oh students need to do this kind of thing because that’s good technical writing.” And now we can say like, “Yeah students need to do those things because that’s exactly what’s going to get called for at some point,” and like now we’ve proof of it. That’s why I sort of think of it as it’s happening in the wild, you know outside of our control in a way. I think it also speaks to how people’s engagement with a question that matters to them. So, I think the one that I use is the example in an article is about anti-microbial soap and how it actually works, and the person that was answering it was basically showcasing a lot of the knowledge that they had from their particular discipline. They may not have thought of themselves as a technical writer or technical communicator but they probably do tons of technical communication work in their job and it spills over into their life. It spills over into a Reddit Explain Like I’m Five thread.

[Weber] Well, great and you know it’s always validating to see that people will take on technical communication tasks really you know of their own accord and almost for fun.

[Pflugfelder] That’s the crazy thing about it, is it is literally technical communication for fun, and that’s you know I geek out on this kind of stuff. I love it but technical communication is often not seen as the most sort of joyous enterprise in the world.

[Weber] Right.

[Pflugfelder] The same thing happens in lots of other message boards in other places too where there’s people who are proud of their knowledge and they want to help other people because they like the idea of building a community. And you know maybe Explain Like I’m Five doesn’t have as much of a community aspect because it’s now over eight million subscribers, which actually I do argue is that the biggest site of technical communication in the world at the moment. There’s so many places in online venues where people are just doing that. I think of you know Wikipedia editors doing the same sort of thing.

[Weber] Right.

[Pflugfelder] Nobody’s getting paid. You care about particular topics and you’re willing to make that knowledge better and I think that’s a pretty laudable good sort of impulse to have.

[Weber] Alright Ehren. Well thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

[Pflugfelder] Yeah, hey no problem. I like talking about this stuff. Thanks for asking.

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Episode 31