Thanks for coming, all. I ’ m Clay Spinuzzi, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. Today, I want to talk a bit about genre as we ’ ve theorized it in North American genre theory. Are automated genres still genres? I’ll save you some time. Of course they are. Although such texts have been spat out of a database, they still originate in human activity and fulfill social functions within given activities. A more interesting question, the one lying behind this one, is: how do we understand the development of such genres? That is, how do we systematically analyze how such highly structured, rapidly changing, and automatically generated texts develop as genres? And what implications do they hold for our further research? An illustration: about 9 months ago, I started noticing many people on Twitter mentioning my last name – Spinuzzi.
These mentions were quite enigmatic, as you can see, and they followed what seemed to be a fairly limited number of templates.
It became obvious that these tweets were in fact templates, pulling from a set of database tables to generate unique sentences. But why? You can probably guess.
If an account exclusively sent out links to products, perhaps it would be caught in Twitter's spam filters. But if the account also sends out a wide range of legitimate sentences - sentences that have nouns, verbs, and adjectives - it might trick the spam filter into seeing the account as genuine. I suspect that's what's happening here. Bots lying to bots. Automated writing—but not a genre.
Let’s touch on the notion that genre is a social rather than structural unit. This notion comes to us by way of Bakhtin, and has been developed along various lines in the US and Canada. It’s been synthesized with social approaches including dialogism, activity theory, actor-network theory, and British cultural studies. The common theme throughout remains that genres develop in response to recurrent, socially understood and shared rhetorical situations . In this line of thinking, genres can’t be understood in isolation, by examining their structure. Rather, they must be examined in terms of how specific people, performing specific activities, mobilize them in concert with other genres and artifacts. In this understanding, genre develops constantly – albeit slowly – along with changes in the activity it addresses.
We ’ ve tended to describe genre development across a particular dimension. Here ’ s a great quote by Schryer and Spoel that summarizes the distinction. Over time, we tend to see some regularized (unofficial) genres become “ locked in ” and formalized, becoming more regulated (official) genres. For instance, Bazerman describes how regularized but unofficial letters to the Royal Society eventually developed into the more regulated, official genre of the experimental article; Yates notes similar developments in business forms and other bureaucratic genres. I ’ ve done some publishing on this distinction as well. The more regulated a genre becomes, the more structurally stable it tends to be – for instance, a freeform letter becomes a constrained business form. But in this line of genre research, the structure is seen as a result of the genre’s socially oriented development, and the chief utility of looking at the structure is to better understand the activity that the genre addresses.
But with electronic genres, we ’ re arguably seeing much more rapid genre development across a wider range of genres. In particular, we ’ re seeing more automated texts being generated, largely or wholly via databases. Can we understand these sort of texts as social? Are automated genres still genres? This question really came home to me a couple of years ago as I conducted a study of report writing at a search engine marketing company called “ Semoptco. ” Search engine optimization is a rapidly changing, highly contingent field, and Semoptco ’ s SEO specialists had to write monthly reports for each client. In fact, each SEO specialist wrote up to 10-12 complex 20-page monthly reports in the first ten business days of each month. By the way, they didn ’ t consider themselves to be writers.
What ’ s SEO? The definition is on the screen. When people want information, they increasingly turn to Google and other search engines to get it. “ White hat ” SEO is a way to identify people ’ s queries and use legitimate techniques to make your site rank high in the search results. “ Black hat ” SEO, aka “ snake oil, ” has the same goal but uses improper techniques.
For example, say you want to plan a trip to Disneyland, so you Google “ hotels near disneyland ” . You probably won ’ t click through more than a couple of pages of results. So businesses want to promote their sites to the top of the search results. And you, the customer, want the most relevant results. Everyone wins!
But SEO is sometimes associated with “ snake oil, ” underhanded tricks such as hiding white text on a white background. These are improper, and for the most egregious tricks, search engines will de-list the site - the death penalty for a website. See the story on this slide. Semoptco doesn ’ t use “ snake oil ” techniques.
So what does it do? Basically, you have a pool of SEO specialists and a smaller number of account managers. When a new customer comes in, a 2 or 3 person team is assigned. For launch, they follow a four-week set of basic milestones. Then they go into maintenance mode: the SEO specialists work as “ lone wolves ” to improve SEO and to continue setting goals. But here ’ s the thing. In this industry, things literally change every day. Search engines tweak their ranking algorithms, other sites attract links, news items can rapidly change the ranking of search results. And SEO specialists don ’ t get a formal education. There is no college major for SEO. How do they get this work done? Not surprisingly, they use several genres to guide, execute, and communicate their work – and manage the rapid change that occurs in SEO.
(Here’s an overview, based on two joined observations.)
Let’s look at just four of the many genres they use. Competitors table . One of the SEO specialists was faced with the problem of customizing a standard report to address the particular contingencies of his client. To make his case, he took the initiative of developing a table comparing different competitors; the table had no direct precedent. His table could serve as such a precedent, since his current report will serve as a template for future reports. Social bookmarks . On the other hand, Semoptco ’ s SEO specialists all used social bookmarking services such as delicious.com to create bookmarks pointing to their clients ’ sites. Specialists could decide which bookmarking service(s) they wanted to use, how to write and tag bookmark descriptions, and they could even individually try out various tools that post bookmarks to several services at once. One day a specialist noted excitedly that Semoptco developers were developing such a tool for all SEO specialists at Semoptco. “ The interns will love this! ” he exclaimed. After all, social bookmarking is relatively low-skill work, so specialists farmed it out to interns whenever possible. Action items in monthly reports . The SEO specialists had to rapidly pull together detailed monthly reports for each client. Parts of the report, such as the Action Items section, were based on the judgment of the individual specialist handling the account (although they were also vetted by the account manager before being sent to the customer). These Action Items set the course for future SEO action, and played a large part in retaining customer business. They followed a regular format and contained specific types of information, but only a trained SEO specialist could put them together. “ Report cards. ” But the monthly reports also contained sections that weren ’ t written by human beings at all. Perhaps the most critical section was the “ report card, ” a table that provided a measurable, verifiable, reliable summary of how well SEO was performing relative to targets set during the launch process. These “ report cards ” were essentially database tables, generated by an internal system without any human intervention. How do we characterize these genres?
Using the conventional official/unofficial distinction, it ’ s easy, right? The top row represents regularized (unofficial) genres; the bottom row represents regulated (official) genres. The distinction is that of authoritative voices: unofficial genres give high authorial discretion to the specialists, while official genres give low authorial discretion; these represent the voice of Semoptco. But we might also detect a second distinction, not authorial but operational. In the first column, the analyst does the work, which can ’ t be - or at least hasn ’ t yet been - systematized and automated. In the second column, the work is automated, and in using automation, the analyst doesn ’ t exercise operational discretion. We can term these two groupings “ self-programmable labor ” and “ generic labor, ” drawing from sociologist Manuel Castells. This is a different distinction, with implications for genre development. Let me see if I can tease out the differences between these two distinctions - which I ’ ll gloss as “ voices ” and “ choices ” - so we can see how both distinctions inform how we understand genre development.
We ’ ll start with the familiar distinction of “ voices. ”
As we saw, we can think of these developing genres within the official/unofficial distinction.
Here are some examples of how this distinction has been characterized. This distinction assumes an authority to which the genre is oriented. Official genres tend to agree with and revoice an authority; they represent the organization ’ s “ voice. ” Unofficial genres tend to have differences with, and enter into dialogue with, that authority. They don ’ t necessarily disagree with it, but they are different. For instance, the comparison table was an innovation that an individual specialist developed, one that didn ’ t disagree with Semoptco ’ s organizational “ voice, ” but that had never been ratified by the organization.
And we can think of genre development along this dimension in terms of black-boxing. An unofficial genre, if successful, will tend to be used again. (For instance, once it is included in a report, that comparison table is much more likely to be used again because each report serves as a template for subsequent reports.) The genre develops over time, becoming more official (regulated). As these genres become more regulated, users sometimes need to develop further unofficial genres in order to reintroduce flexibility when dealing with new problems or new variations of old problems - something that happened frequently at Semoptco. That is, official genres black box voices/dialogue. The discussions, disagreements, logics, worldviews, and assumptions that are present in dialogue become “ flattened ” in official genres.
Yet this official-unofficial distinction is too limited to account for genre development - especially as digital texts yield a broader range and circulation of genres. It ’ s not just about authoritative voices, but also operational choices.
So let ’ s look at that second distinction. The genres in the left column involve considerable operational discretion: Specialists determine how to construct them and what they involve. They ’ re handmade! They ’ re not rigidly formalized. The ones in the right column are: they ’ re automated, involving no operational discretion after setup. Predictable inputs yield predictable outputs. Let ’ s follow sociologist Manuel Castells by calling these two types “ self-programmable ” and “ generic ” labor. As Castells defines them...
(Read quote) This is the sort of thing an SEO specialist does when developing a new comparison table or formulating unique recommendations. These operations can ’ t be - or haven ’ t yet been - automated or formalized.
In comparison, (read quote). These are tasks that can be formalized and therefore outsourced or automated. Think of the entirely automated report cards - or for that matter, the unskilled interns who were typically tasked with social bookmarking.
Castells lists several contrasts between the two types of labor. (Read.) Throughout, we see an operational distinction. Who has discretion over their operations? Is the executor following detailed instructions or solving the problem via tasks that she determines herself?
And of course, there ’ s a dynamic associated with this distinction too. Because self-programmable labor gets black-boxed, formalized, turned into generic labor. At Semoptco, this process was often driven by the specialists themselves, who sought to formalize and automate labor so that they could devote more time to other problem solving. This cycle turned rapidly at Semoptco, making for rather rapid genre development.
That brings us to genre development. What can we take from adding this second distinction? Let ’ s put the two distinctions, the two dimensions of voice and choice, together:
We get something like this: a two-dimensional view of transits across the quadrants. In Semoptco ’ s contingent, rapidly changing environment, idiosyncratic solutions become part of an archive of reports used as templates. This table suggests lines of development for these genres, lines of development that tend to lead to automated texts that function as genres, addressing recurring situations with a high degree of rapid customization. A longitudinal study might produce a series of such tables, showing where genres emerge and how they are stabilized across the quadrants. Clearly these aren ’ t the only two possible dimensions of genre development that we might study. But they seem particularly relevant as we examine professional writing in increasingly automated environments.
We can also apply these categories to other studies. For instance, here I applied them to a few genres in two previous studies – in my 2003 and 2008 books – to quickly characterize those genres. In those studies, I had already applied the “voices” dimension (regularized/regulated), but we can also see potential in adding the “choices” dimension (self-programmable/generic). What kind of potential? Partially, the potential to better understand automated genres in social terms. Partially, the potential to help better understand how people write in knowledge work.
What are the implications of this distinction for writing in knowledge work organizations? As Eva-Maria Jakobs and I are arguing elsewhere, organizations like Semoptco – and the others I’ve studied - are dealing with three kinds of integration. Two of these can be clearly seen in this study; the third is still underdeveloped.
First, Semoptco’s SEO specialists are integrated writers: they don’t regard themselves as writers, even though they write up to 10-12 complex 20-page monthly reports in the first ten business days of each month – that’s 200-240 pages in 10 days. They don’t love writing, but it’s a vital part of their work. They own their own processes – their SEO campaigns – and combine an ever-changing stock of knowledge, methods, and information with their work on those processes.
As they write their reports, they engage in integrated writing. That is, they generate reports using a generic process, partly templated, partly automated, then customize it for specific customers, creating unique value for each customer. Like the technical writers that Jason Swarts recently described, Semoptco’s SEO specialists assemble, recombine, and customize preexisting elements along with streams of information. Each report is unique and made for just one customer – but each report is made of easily recombinable elements that the specialists integrate.
Finally, Semoptco’s SEO specialists touch on, but did not fully realize, the integration of distributed work. They tied together distributed, disparate people and systems so that information could flow through and bring value to different contexts. For instance, to effectively improve SEO, they had to understand different audiences: the clients, the customers those clients had to reach, as well as the way the search engines assessed and ranked content. In understanding these different audiences, the specialists could bring value to the different contexts. As we turn from SEO to more complex services, we increasingly require more bundled, coordinated services from provider consortia. Think in terms of medical services, which tie together hospitals, EMTs, telecommunications and information systems to provide individualized services. Travel services, specialty telecommunications, and ambient assisted living are other examples in which distributed work must be integrated. For these services to hang together, to be coordinated as a single service, they must be integrated – and that requires shared genres, many of which represent integrated writing and are produced by integrated writers.
Genre 2012 are automated genres still genres
Are Automated Genres Still Genres? Clay Spinuzzi University of Texas at Austin firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @spinuzzi
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Genre as Social• North American Genre Theory• Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS; Artemeva, Freedman, Schryer, Smart)• Writing, Activity and Genre Research (WAGR; Russell)
“Regulated resources refer toknowledge, skills, and languagebehaviors that are recognizedand required by a field orprofession. Regularizedresources ... refer to strategiesthat emerge from practicesituations and are more tacit.” Schryer and Spoel (2005, p.250)
Spinuzzi, C. (2010). Secret sauce and snake oil: Writing monthlyreports in a highly contingent environment. Written Communication,27(4), 363-409.The Case: Search EngineOptimization
Search Engine Optimization “Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process ofimproving the volume or quality of traffic to a web site or a web page (such as a blog) from search engines via ‘natural’ or un-paid (‘organic’ or ‘algorithmic’) search results ...” Wikipedia, “search engine optimization”
Projects at SemoptcoLaunch: Kick off campaign, examine needs, formulate keywordsand goals, plan goals. • Account manager and 1-2 specialists • Small set of standard milestones • About 4 weeksMaintenance: Analysis, reporting, meeting, link building. • Primarily a specialist; “lone wolf” • Weekly, monthly, sometimes yearly cycles • Periodic coordination with account manager • No milestones - but long-term performance goals and constantproblem-solving
Competitors table Social bookmarks Action Items in Semoptcos monthly “Report cards” reports Genres: types of texts, responses to recurrentsituations, recognizable by their readers and writers.
Voices and Choices • Operational Choices o Operational Discretion o Generic/Self-Programmable• Authoritative Voiceso Authorial Discretion Competitors table Social bookmarkso Official/Unofficial, Regulated/Regularized Action Items in Semoptcos monthly “Report cards” reports
“Self-programmable labor has theautonomous capacity to focus on thegoal assigned to it in the process ofproduction, find the relevantinformation, recombine it intoknowledge, using the availableknowledge stock, and apply it in theform of tasks oriented toward thegoals of the process. ...” Castells 2009, p.30.
“... tasks that are little valued, yetnecessary, are assigned to genericlabor, eventually replaced bymachines, or shifted to lower-costproduction sites, depending on adynamic, cost-benefit analysis.” Castells 2009, p.30.
Generic Self-Programmable Source Low-skilled Multiskilled Castells 1998, p.361Automated or low cost Specialists Castells 2003, p.94 Focus on goal; generateFocus on tasks; receive own tasks to achieve; Castells 2006, p.10 and execute signals autonomous Problem-solving, creatingRoutine, repetitive tasks Castells 1996, p.242 knowledge Predictably transform Castells 1998, p.361; Coevolve (highinputs to outputs (low 2003, pp.90-91; 2009, discretion) discretion) p.30 Formalizable (explicit) Unformalizable (tacit) Castells 1996, p.242 Low value High value Castells 1996, p.243 Castells 1998, p.361; Terminal learning Lifelong learning 2003, pp.90-91
Self-programmable Generic Social bookmarks (2010) Competitors table (2010) Yahoo maps of partners’ Unofficial Barbara’s sticky note (2003) infrastructures (2008)(regularized) Handwritten notes in the NOC Universal Service Fund (2008) calculation spreadsheet (2008) Action Items in Semoptcos “Report cards” (2010) Official monthly reports (2010) PC-ALAS reports (2003)(regulated) City engineers’ reports (2003) Phone bills (2008) F1 notes (2008)
Integrated writersIntegrated writingThe integration of distributed work(With Eva-Maria Jakobs, University of Aachen)Implications for Writing inKnowledge Work Organizations
Integrated writers• “professionals-who-write” rather than professional writers• writing is seen as less important and unloved, yet it is vital• knowledge workers who own processes• combine knowledge, methods, and information with their work on those processes
Integrated writing• products are customized for specific customers through textual information to create specific value for that customer• parts of writing are automated• streams of information are integrated to quickly generate and manage textual knowledge• Elements are assembled, recombined, and customized
Integration of distributed work• tying together distributed, disparate people and systems so that information can flow through and bring value to different contexts• involves mapping genre systems across contexts• populations require more bundled, coordinated services from provider consortia
Integrating work…… involves rapidly developing genres, especiallyautomated genres, to perform that integration.