It Is Way Past the Time to Update the Communications Act of 1996

social media
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If you have been using the Internet for the past 25 years, you know how radically it has changed. And yet, no comprehensive regulations have been updated since then.

The news is full of complaints about tech companies getting too big and too powerful. Social media is often the focus of complaints. We often hear that these companies are resistant to changes and regulations, but that is not entirely true. 

On Facebook's site concerning regulations, they say "To keep moving forward, tech companies need standards that hold us all accountable. We support updated regulations on key issues."

Facebook may be at the center of fears and complaints, but they keep growing. Two billion users and growing.

There are four issues that address that they feel need new regulations.

Combating foreign election interference
We support regulations that will set standards around ads transparency and broader rules to help deter foreign actors, including existing US proposals like the Honest Ads Act and Deter Act.

Protecting people’s privacy and data
We support updated privacy regulations that will set more consistent data protection standards that work for everyone.

Enabling safe and easy data portability between platforms
We support regulation that guarantees the principle of data portability. If you share data with one service, you should be able to move it to another. This gives people choice and enables developers to innovate.

Supporting thoughtful changes to Section 230
We support thoughtful updates to internet laws, including Section 230, to make content moderation systems more transparent and to ensure that tech companies are held accountable for combatting child exploitation, opioid abuse, and other types of illegal activity.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years. Its main goal was stated as allowing "anyone [to] enter any communications business -- to let any communications business compete in any market against any other." The FCC said that they believed the Act had "the potential to change the way we work, live and learn." They were certainly correct in that. But they continued that they expected that it would affect "telephone service -- local and long distance, cable programming and other video services, broadcast services and services provided to schools."

And it did affect those things. But communications went much further and much faster than the government and now they need to play some serious catchup. It is much harder to catch up than it is to keep up. 


Technical Writing

Technical Writers are often the link between engineers, marketing associates, developers and external users of a product or service.

When I have taught undergraduate classes in technical writing, something I have to address with students right away is their definition of technical writing. In many people's minds, writing that is "technical" is complicated, full of jargon and difficult to read. But in fact, the goal of the technical writer is exactly the opposite. It is usually to make technical subject matter less complicated and easier to understand and use.

In my undergraduate technical writing classes (which are considered advanced writing courses) we combines current theory with actual practice to prepare students as technical writers. They analyze complex communication situations and then design appropriate responses through tasks that involve problem solving, rhetorical theory, document design, oral presentations, writing teams, audience awareness, ethical considerations and ethical issues.

When I teach at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), my students are engineers, computer scientists, architects and scientists who often dislike writing and are used to only academic writing. Unfortunately, much academic writing is students demonstrating their learning to a professor who already knows the subject. In most real technical communication, the writer is the expert and the readers are the learners. In professional life, you may be writing for supervisors, colleagues or customers. You might be explaining a problem, a product, an experiment, or a project, and the format may be a proposal, abstract, report, email or manual.

When I teach technical writing at a more comprehensive university, such as Montclair State University, the students are more comfortable with writing, but less comfortable with the technical part.  That is because they don't think of technical writing as being a part of every field. For education, biology, art, music, and other science and liberal arts students, they need to rethink the technical aspects of their studies. For example, I have had art history majors who wrote technical documentation on art restoration.

My graduate students in professional technical communication are often dealing with social media, documentation, video presentations and a variety of real world tasks. NJIT offers a Technical Communications Certificate that attracts primarily professionals who intend to learn/expand their careers as technical writers, editors, trainers, website designers, and documentation specialists.

I don't know that being a technical writer at Google is typical of that job, but this video gives you a little taste of technical writing and life at Google.

Social Media Research Tools

Social media can be viewed as a distraction. Some people rely on it as a news source. Companies use it for marketing purposes. And some of us study it in a more academic way.

In higher education, we at least touch on all four approaches. Some teachers find it all a useless annoyance. In communications and journalism courses, it is studied as another medium. In business school, it has moved into marketing and advertising courses and conversations. Beyond the theories of social media use, there is learning about the design and analysis of social media.

Studying online communities and social networks are leading to developing new tools and methods for analyzing and visualizing social media data. One of the better compilations of social media research tools has been curated by researchers at the Social Media Lab at Ted Rogers School of Management, Ryerson University.  Their site has more than fifty tools that they have reviewed academically. Many are free tools to use and are fairly simple to implement and use to collect data for analysis, while others require some programming experience.

Big-Data Scientists Face Ethical Challenges After Facebook Study

"Big-Data Scientists Face Ethical Challenges After Facebook Study" By Paul Voosen from

"Jeffrey Hancock, a Cornell U. professor who teamed up with Facebook on a controversial study of emotion online, says the experience has led him to think about how to continue such collaborations “in ways that users feel protected, that academics feel protected, and industry feels protected.”
Last summer the technologists discovered how unaware everyone else was of this new world.

After Facebook, in collaboration with two academics, published a study showing how positive or negative language spreads among its users, a viral storm erupted. Facebook "controls emotions," headlines yelled. Jeffrey T. Hancock, a Cornell University professor of communications and information science who collaborated with Facebook, drew harsh scrutiny. The study was the most shared scientific article of the year on social media. Some critics called for a government investigation.

Much of the heat was fed by hype, mistakes, and underreporting. But the experiment also revealed problems for computational social science that remain unresolved. Several months after the study’s publication, Mr. Hancock broke a media silence and told The New York Times that he would like to help the scientific world address those problems"


Teaching Technical Writing

I am giving a presentation at the New Jersey Writing Alliance Spring (NJWA) Conference this week on my experiences teaching technical writing this year at New Jersey Institute of Technology and at Montclair State University. NJIT is NJ's science and technology university and MSU is the state's second-largest comprehensive university.

Although the two schools are seen as quite different, the approach I take to technical writing is very similar. My presentation is on "Technical Writing Across Disciplines" and will examine how a technical writing course can emphasize a research approach and problem solving that is not like most of the academic writing done in other writing classes.
One thing I enjoy about the NJWA conference is that it has presenters and attendees from both K-12 and higher education. That doesn't occur often enough.

Keeping with the conference theme of "Achieving College-Ready Writing: The Common Core and Beyond," I'll also examine how secondary school teachers can teach writing about science and technical subjects. That is a strand of the English Language Arts Standards that are part of the controversial Common Core State Standards Initiative as adopted in NJ and other states.

Thinking Bloggers

Everyone likes to get an award, right? Being called a "Thinking Blogger" is good, yes?

Earlier this month, another blog that I write about poetry was tagged for a "Thinking Blogger Award" by a Canadian blogger at Line Upon Line.

This is a meme (rhymes with "gene"). It's a term created by biologist Richard Dawkins for a "unit of cultural information" which can propagate from one mind to another in a manner analogous to genes" (i.e., the units of genetic information).

Violet lists the "rules" as being: 1) If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think. 2) Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme. 3) Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote.

She said something nice about my blog: "Poets Online - the blog, which is a companion to Poets Online. The thought-provoking poetry-writing prompts at Poets Online are explained and expanded in this excellent poetry blog."

And what did I do? I rejected my award. Instead of being gracious, I posted a comment saying:

Thanks for thinking of us as thinking. Rather than risk the wrath of Technorati, I will decline to participate. I do agree with them that chain posts too often lead to splogs and clog up the blogosphere, and to quote Groucho Marx, "I wouldn't want to belong to any club that would accept someone like me as a member."

Geez, what an ingrate. But I had read about splogs (spam blogs used only to promote other blogs or websites) and chain posts (like chain mail; post a link to me and then link to 5 friends and in days you will get lots of hits) and I know that Technorati frowns on this and supposedly takes action to prevent it from affecting their ratings.

So, I played it safe.

But last week, someone who I would put in my own thinking blogger list, Karine Joly of, was listed by someone and she accepted & reciprocated with a link, and gave her own list of five, and I made her list.

Now, what do I do?

I've written about the incestuous nature of bloggers here before. I don't want to encourage splogs and chain posts. But I don't want to be ungrateful. Again.

I have done recommendations for podcasts I like here, and I'm almost always linking to another blog or site. So, it's not like I'm opposed to linking.

Even Technorati's own blog lists favorite blogs. In fact, that's the point of their whole service - to measure the buzz on blogs - how many people link to you gives your blog "authority" (Karine's authority is 83; mine is only 17, so she really must know what she's talking about when she picks me!).

Now, I'm thinking about this (I mean, I am a twice-tapped thinking blogger, so I must be) and it doesn't seem quite so strange to do this post.

Don't punish me Technorati!

No point in linking to blogs that get all the attention on Technorati already. I couldn't come up with 5 thinking poetry blogs (know one? send me a link), but here are some blogs that get me thinking about things...

  1. Throughlines - is a very thoughtful blog written by Bruce Schauble, head of the English Department at Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii (tough location!). His interests include teaching, writing, reading, photography, and music. He says, "I'm perhaps most interested in learning more about how the open arena of technology can enhance my students' learning experience. I know it's been enhancing mine." A sample of his thinking/blogging is this post on habits of mind.
  2. Inquiry and Se Hace Camino Al Andar are both written by Nancy Brodsky, a teacher in New York City who writes about her lessons and her personal growth as an English teacher. The first blog is on the site and the second is more personal, so it's on Typepad.
  3. indexed - a blog by Jessica Hagy made up entirely of diagrams/graphs/charts drawn on index cards. This blog also gives me hope that someday some media mogul will decide to pay me to blog: the indexed blog as a book will be in stores in early 2008. She describes it as "a little project that lets me make fun of some things and sense of others. I use it to think a little more relationally without resorting to doing the actual math."
  4. I just recently started reading Christopher Sessums' blog which is on It's a blog I came upon back when that was known as Elgg and I had added him as one of my "friends" there. He listed distance learning as an interest there. He directs the Office of Distance Education in the University of Florida’s College of Education, and is going for his doctorate "where I am investigating the impact of social software on teaching and learning."
  5. I had my students this spring create Blogger accounts for a course on visual design that I taught. All were new to blogging and most were not even blog readers. It was both a way to create a more authentic writing environment & audience, and offered the opportunity to talk about the visual aspects of blogs (CSS, video embeds, images, logos etc.) for those who had little or no web design experience. They needed to think about their blogging (if only because it was parts of their grades) and I needed to think about their blogging. Here are two samples that I thought were very good for blog newbies. I'm hoping that some of the students will continue blogging now that the course is over - wouldn't that be something that would make a teacher happy. Catherine's Corner: Observations of a Tech Writer is at and Sandra's blog On Technical Writing and Visual Design is