Community: Asking for Permission (Part 1 of 2)

The past week has been a busy one for the technical communication community. It’s given me an opportunity to reflect on what excites me and what dissatisfies me about the way the community is organizing itself.

First, a recap: there was something of a blowout over at the Society for Technical Communication. Two members of STC saw, used, and tweeted about a new part of the STC website that was erroneously made available. The next day, the STC Board of Directors announced a delay to the release of the website and blamed the two members:

These activities have cost the Society additional expenses and delays, including lost testing time and staff and developer hours analyzing and rectifying the situation.

In the hours that followed, many STC members (past and present) raised their objections on Twitter. I made a sarcastic response suggesting STC secure their testing. Others decried the implication that the two members acted maliciously. The members in question revealed themselves and described their side of the story, some of which ran counter to the board’s claims.

Three days went by without comment from the board. Finally, STC President Hillary Hart posted a blog entry which reaffirmed the initial announcement:

Imagine a similar incident happening in your organization—two customers getting in to a development site and messing around—What would your company do? How would they address this situation? Our primary concern was to address the problem.

The post and subsequent comments from the president only seemed to fan the flames, including more than one call for the president’s resignation. It wasn’t until Hart issued an apology, four days after the initial announcement, that the situation ceased to escalate.

The episode clarified what dissatisfied me about STC and what ultimately led me to allowing my membership to expire last year. STC has developed a culture in which asking for, giving, or withholding permission has become a core function in and of itself, rather than in service of some larger objective.

A major point of tension in the episode stemmed from a difference in perspective over a rather simple thing: a hyperlink. The two STC members the board blamed saw the link to the STC staging site as a natural thing to click on and investigate, while the board regarded that activity as an “intrusion” and “messing around.”

Considered in the context of permission, the whole episode aligns closely with some of the things I found challenging about being an STC member. In the culture of STC, doing most anything—whether it’s putting on an event or trying a new technology—requires the permission or endorsement of others. A large proportion of my time in STC involved the observation or participation in various permission getting and giving processes, like assigning titles and forming committees. Some of STC’s recent major initiatives, such as the certification program, reflect the permission-centric culture that has developed there. Even when I served as president of the Future Technical Communicators at UCF, which worked closely with the Orlando chapter STC, I found myself seeking permission and consensus for things which were ostensibly under my control.

So this recent episode isn’t really surprising. In the permission-based culture of STC, it’s natural for the board to expect that no new activity might take place without some kind of invitation or request beforehand. But this creates tension with people who haven’t embraced or aren’t aware of that cultural norm. It also produces tension where STC meets the internet, where such permission seeking isn’t expected. This “incident” is merely one very public case of the ill effect caused by STC’s culture colliding with another which doesn’t share its values.

Now that I’ve got the glum part out of the way, on Monday I’ll be writing about what’s got me excited about the technical communication community, after spending a year being a bit down on it.

One thought on “Community: Asking for Permission (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Interesting insights. I find it fascinating that an organization would develop a permission-based culture when it so closely ties in with industries that thrive on innovation. Perhaps this id due to the backgrounds of people in positions of influence, which I would assume are heavily tilted towards gov’t contracting and behemoth tech companies (e.g. Lockeed-Martin, IBM, Cisco).

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