By David Mueller
Purpose: Emergent cultural and technological developments are actively involving users not just in how technology is understood and utilized but also in how it is produced and what its capabilities might be. From the perspective of technical communication, this direct involvement is enacted across networks of participatory media artifacts: webpages, user forums, tutorial videos, images, and open source software. In this article, I discuss how these transmedia networks support user-driven innovation and what roles technical communicators might play in creating, curating, and maintaining them. As a case study of a transmedia network, I examine the Werkstatt Workshop, the online user portal supporting Moog’s Werkstatt synthesizer.
Method: My case study employs discourse analytic techniques to show how the language of the Werkstatt Workshop is both descriptive and constitutive of an emergent social practice. To theorize roles for technical communicators, I draw on previous studies of user forums, open source software, and tactical technical communication.
Results: Discourses circulating within the Werkstatt Workshop go beyond simply documenting system processes to construct a world in which network participants enact identities, form relationships, and reconfigure information across media boundaries. The open, participatory orientation of the network incentivizes information sharing and innovation, as users organize knowledge resources around a common set of technological problems.
Conclusion: Emerging cultures of making and modifying present opportunities to technical communicators as content creators, network administrators, and critics, helping to construct, optimize, and seriously understand new, productive knowledge networks supporting user-centered production and innovation.
Keywords: transmedia, documentation, user-driven innovation, fabrication, participatory networks
- In order to understand what users require from technology, we must work to understand how the technology fits into their sense of self and community.
- Although technical communicators might have a limited role as content creators in a transmedia network, there is ongoing, emergent work to be done in order to maintain the channels in which user relationships take place, as well as in coordinating knowledge resources to help solve problems that are too complex or obscure to be worked out through user interactions.
- As administrators, technical communicators can help ensure that users can find the information they need, develop relationships they value, and enact identities that represent their ideals.
Although technical communicators have long recognized the need to involve users in the process of product documentation and support, new technologies are now bringing users directly into design and production processes as well. Emergent developments in technology (Anderson, 2012) and culture (Gershenfeld, 2007) actively involve users not just in how technology is understood and utilized but also in how it is produced and what its capabilities might be. From the perspective of technical communication, this direct involvement is enacted across a spectrum of participatory media formats: webpages, user forums, tutorial videos, images and open source software. Taken together, these diverse resources constitute what Kinder (2016) identified as a transmedia network: “a deliberate move across media boundaries…. an on-going active process that always remains open and is always subject to change.” It is precisely this “moving across” that distinguishes a transmedia network from a static collection of multimodal knowledge resources. Within these networks, participants pursue complex, sometimes personal goals, drawing on different media resources as they see fit. Such cross-boundary movement supports a kind of learning different from that of simple task-based instruction. Participants do not engage with a transmedia network to learn how to change a light bulb but rather to discuss and design new and different sources of light.
In this article, I examine how transmedia networks support user-driven innovation and what roles technical communicators might play in these networks. I begin by discussing the concept of transmedia storytelling (Kinder, 1991; Jenkins, 2012) in the context of technical documentation. I argue that the same basic conditions which drive participant engagement with fictional narratives can also apply to information resources. As a case study of a transmedia documentation network, I examine the Werkstatt Workshop, the online user portal supporting the Moog Werkstatt synthesizer. The Werkstatt is a kit-based, build-it-yourself synthesizer, which users construct and modify by drawing on knowledge resources in the Workshop portal. This Web environment collects diverse multimodal resources; including text, images, video, and software; to support a variety of projects and levels of engagement with the Werkstatt kit. It also provides discussion forums where users can inhabit different roles (such as musician, engineer, and modder) and share their knowledge and experiences with one another. Together, these resources serve as a transmedia workbench, a space where users build not only technological projects and knowledge but relationships with technology and with one another that encourage continued innovation.
My case study of the Werkstatt Workshop employs discourse analytic techniques based on Fairclough’s (1992) social theory of discourse and Gee’s (2014) building tasks of language to show how knowledge resources collected in the Werkstatt Workshop are both descriptive and constitutive of an emergent social practice. To theorize roles for technical communicators, I draw examples from user forums (Swarts, 2015), open source software (Yeats, 2008), and tactical technical communication (Kimball, 2006, 2017).
Transmedia: From Storytelling to Documentation
The term transmedia was first used by Kinder (1991) to describe a system of narrative intertextuality between children’s television, toys, video games, films, comics, and other media that offer children a multiplicity of subject positions to explore and internalize. In particular, a transmedia narrative enables children to understand storylines both from the position of the spectator (as in films and comic books) and the participant (as in video games or television shows where characters on the screen address the viewer directly). As Kinder (1991) wrote, “[n]arrative maps the world and its inhabitants, including one’s own position in the grid” (p. 7). The transmedia narrative builds a world for children to inhabit, a world with its own history and conventions, which children assimilate as both spectators (through television and film) and participants (through play with video games and toys).
Jenkins (2012) further developed the concept of transmedia storytelling by looking at how entertainment franchises use distributed media resources to build immersive narrative environments that are supported by participatory fan networks. Examining an emerging trend of fictional narratives that are supported by a coordinated network of television, film, websites, and magazines, Jenkins (2008) wrote,
Transmedia storytelling is the art of world making. To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels, comparing notes with each other via online discussion groups, and collaborating to ensure that everyone who invests time and effort will come away with a richer entertainment experience. (p. 21)
As an example of transmedia storytelling, Jenkins (2008) studied the Matrix franchise, where different elements of an interconnected narrative play out across films, comics, animated shorts, and video games. For example, the animated short The Second Renaissance serves as a prequel to the main narrative arc in the Matrix film trilogy, providing historical context for the relationship between humans and machines. Although it is not necessary for viewers to see this short in order to understand the films, it adds depth to the narrative for those who wish to explore the world of the story. It also serves as a reference point in other parts of the story that are told in other media, such as video games and comics. While any one of these stories is, in a sense, self-contained, each one offers unique details and perspectives that augment the overall narrative. How much of this wider narrative a viewer experiences is a matter of individual choice (Jenkins, 2008, pp. 116–117).
A similarly deliberate move across media formats is evident in online networks that support user-driven innovation by collecting images, schematics, blueprints, user testimonials, and correspondences. Such knowledge networks often emerge among users tackling similar technological problems on small or individual scales, designing solutions either as a personal expression or to fill a gap left by mass produced technologies (Gershenfeld, 2007, pp. 12–13). Just as fictional transmedia narratives foster rich participatory engagement among media consumers, a transmedia documentation network can enable users to assume active roles in the design and production of technical objects. Transmedia narratives employ different media to tell a different kind of story, from varying subject positions and degrees of audience participation. Transmedia documentation networks use multimodal resources to share different kinds of information for varying use-cases and levels of expertise. Thus, a single network might offer tutorial videos, schematic diagrams, software downloads, and user testimonials evaluating specific instances of technology use. Each of these resources serves a different type of need, but, when connected in the same interactive network, they form an adaptive system, a world of technology-in-use, in which the user can assume (and move among) different identities, relationships, and degrees of involvement.
By organizing diverse multimodal resources around a central technology or product, transmedia networks enable participants to choose their own entry points into knowledge resources, according to their individual needs and expectations. As such, transmedia documentation networks are sites for what Kimball (2006) described as tactical technical communication: extra-institutional knowledge resources developed and shared by users, informed by their active use of technology, rather than the manufacturer’s prescribed instructions for use. Kimball (2006) discussed tactical technical communication in the context of Johnson’s (1998) concept of the user-producer, a user who has moved beyond simple tool use to become “users-as-producers of knowledge derived from their experience” (Kimball, 2006, p. 70). The transmedia network is not only a place to collect and share this user-produced knowledge but is a fertile space for its germination. As users experiment with different knowledge resources, share their experiences, and learn from one another, a new dialectic of “use” comes into focus, in which discovering new possibilities becomes a central part of goal-directed action.
Kimball (2006) envisioned these tactical exchanges as extra-institutional, occurring at the periphery of industrial production. However, emergent cultures of making (Anderson, 2012) and technologies of personal fabrication suggest a new mode of production in which design, development, production, and use are all served by the same participatory knowledge network (Gershenfeld, 2007, p. 7). And while Johnson (1998), writing before the turn of the century, theorized the user-producer as an ideal to be cultivated (p. 57), maker culture and personal fabrication technologies presuppose this role as a given reality.
Personal Fabrication, Makers, and Innovation Communities
Digital fabrication technologies; such as 3D printers, laser cutters, and CNC routers; have enabled manufacturing on a much more localized, personal scale than was possible under traditional industrial-scale production models. With these technologies, individuals and communities can pursue innovations that do not meet the logistical and financial demands of mass production. Anderson (2012) discussed how new fabrication tools, combined with the information-sharing capabilities of the Internet, have empowered a diffuse community of inventors, entrepreneurs, artisans, and hobbyists whom he identified as “makers.” And although the personal fabrication revolution may not yet be upon us, the opening skirmishes are well underway. Gershenfeld (2007, p. 8) and others (e.g., Sheridan, 2010, p. 250) have argued that desktop fabrication will follow a similar arc to that traversed by personal computing and desktop publishing over the past several decades. Those technologies, once reserved for specialists and reliant upon expensive machinery, are now integrated into our daily lives at an individual level. Although personal fabrication has yet to undergo such a cultural shift, emerging maker communities provide a glimpse of what is to come. In makerspaces, fab labs, and online forums, users are renegotiating the relationships between production and use, between knowledge and practice.
Moreover, personal fabrication technologies are freeing the process of innovation from the burdens of industrial scale production; makers often create products as a means of personal expression or in response to a localized need that has gone unmet by mass production (Gershenfeld, 2007, pp. 12–16). Despite the individual or local focus of these projects, makers generate, draw upon, and share bodies of situated knowledge that their peers can then repurpose to their own ends. Gershenfeld (2007) described how students in his fabrication class at MIT displayed a “near evangelical interest” in sharing the new skills they learned in the course of a project, leaving behind “extensive tutorial material that they assembled as they worked” (p. 7). Since this knowledge arises from individual practice rather than organizational prescription, its contents are heterogeneous and diverse: blueprints, cell phone photos (Lim, 2017, pp. 2, 7), video demonstrations, blog posts, and schematics. Whether the technology in question is embroidery (Gershenfeld, 2007, p. 13), sprinkler systems (Anderson, 2012, pp. 26–27), or analog synthesizers (Werkstatt Workshop, n.d.), makers, as producers of knowledge, rely on multimodal networks to share information, enact identities, and build community.
These networks can also drive innovation, as users organize around common technological problems and blind spots, sharing knowledge and solutions derived from their experience. In his study of user-driven innovation, Von Hippel (2005) discussed the role of “innovation communities” (p. 94). These communities consist of users who share information and resources, so that innovation occurs in a distributed fashion, with different users contributing from different areas of expertise. Von Hippel (2005) cited innovations in mountain-biking technology, as an example (pp. 34–37). A biker with a background in orthopedic surgery will focus on a different kind of innovation than a biker with a background in aeronautical engineering, but both innovations will be shared with the wider community and contribute to future designs. As such, innovation communities are “stocked with useful tools and infrastructure that increase the speed and effectiveness with which users can develop and test and diffuse their innovations” (Von Hippel, 2005, p. 93).
Traditional models of instruction and documentation, in which an organization provides a static document with instructions for prescribed technology use, are insufficient to support innovation communities and maker-driven technologies. These new, open networks of design, production, use, and discussion accommodate a much wider range of identities and use cases than can be accounted for by information resources oriented toward simple tool use. In fact, maker and innovation communities often develop in the blind spots left by institutional, strategic information systems. Kimball (2006) described tactical technical communication as an act of resistance against strategically determined systems (p. 82). However, these user communities are gradually being integrated into the mainstream economy. In 2012, the U.S. Federal government launched a program to bring makerspaces, equipped with laser cutters and 3D printers, to 1,000 U.S. schools (Anderson, 2012, p.19). This initiative reflects a growing global trend toward including participatory fabrication studies in educational settings, with the expectation that they can inform a new generation of innovators and designers (Lim, 2017).
Transmedia networks have the potential to become a crucial support system for this emerging sociocultural phenomenon, particularly because they are both participatory and adaptive. Since these networks collect a variety of media formats that are suited to different needs and perspectives of technological design and use, they provide an ecosystem in which a given community can interact and develop knowledge resources. Furthermore, their participatory nature serves as a built-in incentive for users to contribute to and collaborate with the innovation community. As Lim (2017) noted of makers in an educational setting, “Learners engaging in participatory performances in which they derive authenticity thrive on—and look forward to—having their respective creative processes critiqued by social others” (p. 9).
Conditions for Transmedia Documentation
Kinder (2016) distinguished transmedia networks from more general multimedia resources in the coordinated, deliberate manner in which information moves across media boundaries. The abundance of a transmedia documentation network lies not in a multiplicity of media formats but in the diversity of orientations and perspectives it provides. Beginners and experts, educators and learners, designers, coders and makers can all interact freely and make use of the resources best suited to their needs, all while producing a record of their experience that informs other users.
Within these participatory networks, users build status, define identities, and share their experiences with a given technology. Through the acts of questioning, sharing, and collaborating, they determine the kinds of media and information that make up a transmedia network. Their interactions supply the vitality that allows it to grow beyond a static collection of resources. For many technologies, these communities have developed from the bottom up, as users sought to fill in the gaps left by institutional strategies. In the case of analog synthesizers, the relative simplicity of the circuits, and the general availability of parts and tools with which to modify them, provided material support for a culture of modification and innovation. With the emergence of personal fabrication technologies, such material support will be available for countless technologies, many of which will have no pre-existing culture of user-innovation. These newly accessible technologies will have the potential to meet localized needs and empower personal expression. In order to fulfil this potential, they will require knowledge resources that can collect the memory of past practices and suggest the possibility of future developments. The transmedia network is just such a resource
The same cultural and technological developments that have given rise to both transmedia networks and maker culture have also contributed to the uncertain landscape of professional technical communication. On the one hand, an increase in automation has reduced both the volume and scope of information that technical communicators are required to process (Johnson-Eilola, 2004, p. 266). On the other hand, technical communication increasingly occurs under extra-institutional, ad-hoc conditions, in user forums and open-source documentation networks (Kimball, 2006; Swarts, 2014). The participatory, transmedia networks that support maker and innovation communities are often sites of just this sort of tactical technical communication (von Hippel, 2005, p. 2; Anderson, 2012, p. 26). However, my case study of the Werkstatt Workshop suggests that this need not be the case, especially when the network supports a product or technology that is, by design, intended to be modified or innovated upon by users. The Werkstatt synthesizer is a kit-based, modification-focused product, supported by a transmedia network in which users are not so much instructed as to how the device should be used, as encouraged to explore a range of possibilities and share their experiences with one another. Rather than a set of instructions for operation, the Workshop is where users “learn” the possibilities the Werkstatt has to offer. This may seem like an isolated example, but, if desktop fabrication becomes as accessible as desktop publishing, the need for versatile, participatory knowledge networks will necessarily undergo a similarly exponential growth. Thus, emerging cultures of making and modifying present opportunities to technical communicators as content creators, network administrators, and moderators who all help to construct, optimize, and seriously understand new, productive knowledge networks supporting user-centered production and innovation.
Transmedia in Action: The Werkstatt Workshop
Moog Synthesizers originally released the Werkstatt-01 synthesizer in 2014 in conjunction with its “Engineering VIP Workshop,” hosted at Moogfest, an annual music festival the company sponsors. Festival attendees had the option to pay a premium for a special VIP ticket that included a workshop session in which they built and modified their own synthesizers. By holding a VIP “engineering” workshop at a music festival, Moog both granted attendees specialized status and positioned the Werkstatt at a nexus of user roles.
Moog brought the Werkstatt into general production as a modular kit the following year and established the Werkstatt Workshop as an online user portal to support both the sense of community and the diversity of roles and possibilities associated with the product. This Web environment functions as a transmedia documentation network, hosting technical instructions, modification projects, science lessons, user forums, images, and text that communicate the company ethos as a facilitator of learning, creativity, and innovation.
The multimodal discourses that emerge from this process move beyond traditional support and instruction to enact a site of participatory co-creation between users and producers. Swarts (2015) discussed the distinction between stabilization knowledge, which “freezes or standardizes and creates an abstraction of an otherwise messy reality,” and possibility knowledge, which “deals with the uncertainty of the task situation, the network-like confluence and influence of other factors” (p. 20). While traditional documentation employs stabilization knowledge to clarify specific task-based processes, a transmedia network can support possibility knowledge: emergent discourses that “rely on the agent or the practitioner to display, represent, and assemble in a way that responds to the particularities of the situation” (Swarts, 2015, p. 21). The process of innovation, particularly user-driven innovation, is inherently messy and rife with contingencies that are necessarily excluded from task-driven, stabilizing discourses. Although individual lessons and projects within the Workshop do provide linear, step-by-step instructions, as a whole, the network functions as a locus of contingency, an arena where possibilities can be tested, progress can be documented, and innovations can be expanded upon.
There is also a vibrant Do-It-Yourself (D.I.Y.) culture associated with Moog products and analog synthesizers in general. Countless user forums discuss modification projects for both classic analog synthesizers and project kits like the Werkstatt. The early days of the Moog company are part of the history of this culture. The company’s founder, Bob Moog, was an early pioneer of the synthesizer, designing his first prototypes at home in his garage (Pinch & Trocco, 2009, p. 6). This anecdote is featured in multiple instances within the Workshop to emphasize the importance of the hobbyist, or user-innovator, to the Moog story. The company actively works to cultivate and maintain this community of user-innovators, both in online discourses and at annual festivals, where attendees can be both spectators and participants in synthesizer production, modification, and performance.
The methods I employed for this case study were intended to analyze data drawn from the Werkstatt Workshop as an example of how transmedia networks can support user-driven innovation and what possible roles technical communicators might play in the process. Since these data represent a discourse-based organization of activities and relationships pertaining to the Werkstatt module, I employed discourse analytic techniques, segmenting and coding data drawn from the Workshop portal, to examine the multimodal resources present and the contexts in which they appear. To orient the Workshop discourses within the context of both transmedia communication and the wider social field of user-driven production and innovation, I drew upon Fairclough’s three-dimensional model of discourse, which positions the text as reflexively situated within a discursive practice and which, in turn, occurs in the wider context of social practice (Fairclough, 1990, p. 72).
According to this schema, the Workshop “text” (written discourse, images, audio, etc.) occurs within the multimodal, participatory discourse practice (after Fairclough, 1990, p. 5) of transmedia communication. This discourse practice arises within the social practice of user-driven production and innovation, in which individuals rely on open knowledge networks to fashion technological solutions to personal or localized needs that are underserved by mass production. In order to make connections between the Workshop discourses and the wider dimensions in which they take place, I developed a textual coding scheme based on Gee’s (2014) seven building tasks of language: significance, activities, identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge (p. 10). These building tasks provide a basic framework for examining how language use both constructs and reflects the reality of the context in which it occurs (Gee, 2014, p. 97). My coding scheme and data segmentation are explained in the Data Analysis section below.
As a musician and synthesizer enthusiast, I have had a long-running personal interest in Moog’s products and history. I have always found Moog’s product documentation to be particularly concise and well-designed. However, with the Werkstatt, it was clear the documentation was encouraging a different sort of activity than just musical performance. The unit came with a two-page set of assembly instructions, but, to fully explore the capabilities and possibilities of the Werkstatt, users must visit the online Workshop.
I selected the Werkstatt Workshop as a case study of a transmedia network not only for the diversity of multimodal resources it contains but also the intersectionality of user roles it supports. Different forums, projects and lessons within the network are variously addressed to the musician, engineer, educator, learner, maker, and programmer. Although each of these roles is accommodated individually within dedicated sections of the network, considerable overlap between topics and applications suggests a fluidity, allowing the user to move between them and incorporate or exclude different roles and processes, based on her expectations and interests.
This fluidity of roles is part of what makes a transmedia network an effective support system for user-driven innovation. User innovators may, at different stages, become inventors, designers, manufacturers, and distributors, all the while drawing on knowledge resources supplied by other user innovators working through similar transitions. By coordinating multimodal knowledge resources within an open, participatory schema of user roles, the Werkstatt Workshop provides an example of how discourse can be both constitutive of and constituted by the social reality of user innovation.
Since both textual and visual discourse are important to how language constructs reality within the Workshop, my analysis included both text and images. Although I examined these two different forms of discourse within the same social context, I employed different frameworks to approach them. In my initial stage of data collection, I transcribed the text from each page of the Werkstatt workshop into a spreadsheet, including project instructions, lesson content, user forum discussions, as well as introductory, expository and promotional passages provided by Moog to situate and explain the Werkstatt kit and the Workshop portal. I segmented these texts into T-units (a T-unit, or minimally terminable unit, consists of an independent clause and the dependent clauses attached to it) in order to divide the discourse into distinct expressions that I could code according to the role they played in building and reflecting the contextual reality of the workshop. I annotated the T-units with descriptive codes drawn from Gee’s (2014) seven building tasks of language: significance, activities, identities, relationships, politics, connections, and sign systems and knowledge (pp. 11–18). These codes were intended to identify discursive elements in the workshop as reflexive (constructing/reflecting) evidence of the wider social practice in which they occur.
For each code applied to a unit of text, I made notes on how the textual data correlated with different building tasks. For example, consider the following segment, taken from a section of the Werkstatt Workshop dedicated to 3D printing projects, and its corresponding codes. This section of the Workshop offers a collection of 3D printing files that can be used to print enclosure cases for different Werkstatt components. The segment below is taken from an introductory paragraph.
As 3D printers become more ubiquitous in maker spaces, fab labs, and even in the home, Moog encourages everyone to explore these new technologies.
- Significance: situating Moog as patron of maker culture, joining corporate and cultural narratives
- Activities: exploring, encouraging
- Relationships: locations of practice, opening the field of experimentation to all levels of expertise by creating common ground between the lab and the home
- Identities: Moog as the facilitator of exploration, user as experimenter
Although I observed each of these seven building tasks throughout the Workshop, in a variety of media formats and discursive contexts, some tasks yielded more consistent practical insights than others. After an initial round of exploratory coding, I felt that to try and discuss all seven tasks within a single case study would be unwieldy and repetitive. Instead, based on patterns that emerged from this exploratory coding, I refined my analysis to focus on the three building tasks that were the most consistent and pervasive in constructing and reflecting the three-dimensional context of the Workshop.
- Identities: How does language build identities within the network? What identities does the network construct for users to inhabit and what identities do users ascribe to themselves, one another, and the network as a whole?
- Relationships: How is language used to form social relationships? What do the discourses in the Workshop say about the relationships among users as well as among Moog, users, and the Werkstatt itself? What role do different media play in these relationships?
- Sign Systems and Knowledge: How do different sign systems represent different types of knowledge and ways of knowing? How does the transmedia network coordinate different systems of communication to build and apply knowledge?
Each of these building tasks represents ways in which the network engages the user, as well as how users participate by interacting with one another and the network itself. Through data segmentation and descriptive coding, I traced each of these tasks across the Workshop to identify patterns that characterize transmedia knowledge management and its relationship to user-driven innovation.
I applied these same descriptive codes in my examination of images, illustrations, and video clips found in the Workshop. As a framework for visual language, I drew on Kress and Van Leeuwen’s (1996) grammar of visual design, particularly their discussion of representation, interaction, and the position of the viewer (pp. 114–143). According this concept of visual grammar, visual language involves two kinds of participants and three kinds of relations. Participants are either represented (people, places, and things depicted in an image) or interactive (people communicating through an image, i.e., producer and viewer). Relationships of images may be between represented participants, between represented and interactive participants, or between interactive participants (Kress & Van Leeuwen, 1996, p. 114). The details of a given image, such as the vertical and horizontal angles between interactive and represented participants or the direction of the gaze, can be interpreted as grammatical evidence of social relations between image and viewer, or viewer and producer. My interpretation of images and video content in the workshop draws on this framework to understand these elements as visual language, taking part in the building tasks that construct and reflect the contextual reality. For example, an analysis of a tutorial video might consider whether the instructor makes eye contact with the viewer as grammatical evidence of relationship building.
Each of Gee’s (2014) seven building tasks can be associated with an area of reality that language constructs. In the case of the Werkstatt Workshop, attention to Identities, Relationships, and Sign Systems and Knowledge reveals not only how the network constructs a particular reality for its users but also some of the affordances and potentialities that distinguish it from traditional models of support and documentation.
In examining Identities, as Gee (2014) explained, we are looking at how rhetors use language “to get recognized as taking on a certain identity or role…to build an identity in the here and now” (p. 11). Throughout the Workshop, the discourses supplied by Moog both create a space for users to inhabit certain identities as well as construct an identity for the company itself. In turn, users not only inhabit these identities but enact their own within the context of the user forums, identifying themselves to the network with respect to their skills, interests, and experiences.
The discourse supplied by Moog offers the user an abundance of identities to inhabit: musician, engineer, maker, educator, and learner. Moog repeatedly suggests these identities for the user and invites him or her to self-identify as one or another. The submission form for user-generated modification projects begins by asking the user to select from a list:
I consider myself a: (Musician) (Educator) (Maker) (Student) (Artist) (Engineer) (Moog, n.d.)
The identity the user selects is then featured alongside his or her modification project on the site. By inviting users to assume these roles, the network engages in what Machin and Mayr (2012) called “functionalization,” depicting subjects “in terms of what they do” (p. 81). In this case, functionalization can have the effect of granting legitimacy to the identity a user assumes. Whatever a person does in his or her day-to-day occupation and activity, however tenuous or provisional his or her engagement with the underlying disciplines associated with these roles, within the confines of the network, he or she is free to enact this identity and be recognized as such.
The synthesizer itself is also associated with these identities. An introductory statement on the Workshop home page explains:
Analog synthesizers have long had their own maker culture born of curious engineers, physicists and hobbyists who have created and crafted their sounds through electronic experimentation.(Moog, n.d., https://www.werkstattworkshop.com/what-werkstatt-workshop)
The user, through possession of the Werkstatt kit, is thus legitimated within a culture and a tradition of similarly functionalized predecessors.
These processes of identity construction and enactment are not limited to text discourse. Throughout the network, multimodal resources support the activities associated with different user identities. Topographic diagrams and video tutorials guide engineers through modification projects. Topological schematics and illustrations also help learners understand principles of synthesis and electrical engineering. 3D printing files enable makers to fabricate their own hardware enclosures. Musicians can listen to audio files of popular songs that feature Moog synthesizers and learn how to replicate the sounds. By exploring the Werkstatt through the Workshop resources, the user is free to move among these roles, validating each identity by utilizing the media resources associated with it.
Users not only participate in the identities that the Moog discourses suggest but also self-identify in relation to topics discussed in the forums. Inexperienced users often preface forum questions by saying “I’m a newbie” and “just got my first synth,” while self-identified “experts” appear in numerous forms to answer questions and clarify instructions. In the Arduino software section of the forum, a user with the alias codewizard58 offered the following:
I am an experienced programmer and have been doing Arduino projects since mid 2012. If you need help… then I can help you. (Moog, n.d.)
In this way, users enact identity to create self-organizing hierarchies, where expert users build status and inexperienced users are encouraged to participate through example. The result is an engaged user community creating knowledge content that is both more expansive and more specific than the documentation provided by Moog alone.
This identity work also reflects the complexity of the relationship between content and learning that arises within the workshop. While the lessons and projects provided by Moog create an initial knowledge base, the remainder of the content, that which arises through user contribution and discussion, is largely driven by identity enactment, which, in this case, includes both status claims as well as the “near evangelical” desire to share skills learned through doing, which Gershenfeld (2007) and Lim (2017) both discuss. This suggests a role for technical communicators not just as content creators but as knowledge workers who can understand and moderate the participatory resources enabling discursive identity enactment.
By using discourse to enact these various identities—musician, engineer, newbie, expert, etc.— users also form relationships with one another and with the network itself. Throughout the network, Moog assumes the role of the benevolent facilitator, providing opportunity and encouragement:
Moog Music encourages all that are interested to share their Werkstatt mods with the community.
Moog encourages everyone to explore these new technologies.(Moog, n.d.)
Within the modification projects, the relationship between the network and the user is reflected by a shift into the first-person plural:
For this mod we will be pulling from the power supply taps…
Once our connections match those of Figure 2…
For our arpeggiator we will be using…” (Moog, n.d.)
This shift to first person frames the activities within the Workshop as a community action, a collaboration between the user and the network. It also reflects what Fairclough (1992) identified as transitivity (p. 170). Transitivity refers to how subjects are represented as acting (or not acting). Traditional documentation, supporting standard operations under stable circumstances (Swarts, 2015, p. 20), is often framed in imperative or passive constructions. The user is directed to act in accordance with the desired task; no further relationship is necessary. By framing instructional processes in the first-person plural, active voice, the Workshop suggests a shared agency between user and network, a common goal. This goal requires more than simple task completion; it builds relationships, a network in which experimentation and innovation can be expected to occur. As such, providing technical support for this goal extends beyond task-based instruction to include concerns of ethos and identity that are central to a particular type of relationship building.
This facilitator-user relationship is also reflected in the visual rhetoric of images depicting Moog technicians and representatives on the site. In both profile pictures and tutorial videos, these representatives make direct eye contact with the viewer. Kress and Van Leeuwen (1996) characterized this perspectival relationship as a “demand,” wherein “the participant’s gaze demands that the viewer enter into some kind of imaginary relation with him or her” (p. 118). This demand creates an imaginary social relationship between the viewer and the representative, positioning them as members of the same discourse community. Furthermore, the camera angle suggests they are on equal footing within this community. In both videos and static profile images, the representatives are shot at eye level, a point of view that Kress and Van Leeuwen (1996) identified as “one of equality…[because] there is no power difference involved” (p. 140).
However, within the relationships that the network constructs, there are subtle clues to power dynamics, especially with regard to ownership. Moog identifies the user as the owner of the hardware: “everything else involved with learning and modifying your Werkstatt.” However, the information network, the Workshop itself, is “Moog Music’s interactive creative learning portal.” As such, the user is positioned as the consumer, who owns a material device that finds its actualization within the knowledge network, which is the domain of the facilitator. Thus, the user is dependent on the facilitator to grasp the full potential of the technical object. This sense of Moog’s ownership of the knowledge network is visually reinforced throughout the Workshop by the repeated appearance of the Moog logo in page layouts, illustrations, and photographs.
There are also visual cues to potential power differentials within network relationships, evidenced by contradictions between text discourse and image content. Moog takes great pains to stress inclusivity and accessibility in its language, continually reiterating that “everyone” is encouraged to participate and that “any user” can build and modify the Werkstatt with “minimal tools and expertise” (Moog, n.d.). However, this message of inclusivity is contradicted by image discourses running across the network. In tutorial videos, photos from live workshops, and profiles of company representatives, every individual pictured is male and white. Moog may stress inclusion for all, but its own visual statements tell a different story.
Nevertheless, relationships among network users play out across self-organizing hierarchies, with less experienced users appealing to expert users for help in navigating problems and questions within the network discourses. Across the forum, several expert users respond to questions again and again, adding value to the forum interactions beyond the content that Moog originally provided. Even when users correct errors within the official instruction texts, they are careful to reaffirm the value of the network.
Hi, there is a small error in the Fritzing scheme: output is from digital pin 1, in the schedule it is noted as pin RX0. Great projects! Really well thought out, introduced and documented! (Moog, n.d.)
These expressions of support help to build a sense of community and camaraderie that Swarts (2015) associated with “quality interactions” within a help forum (p. 23). A sense of common interest, engendered through discourse, motivates participants to contribute their time and expertise to solving problems within the network. This model differs significantly from a transactional model of documentation in that it is ongoing. Rather than a single (or even iterative) set of prescribed instructions, users leverage their relationships to solve contingent problems that arise in personalized contexts of learning and experimentation within the network. While technical communicators might have a limited role as content creators in this network, there is ongoing work to be done in order to maintain the channels in which these relationships take place, as well as in coordinating knowledge resources to help solve problems that are too complex or obscure to be worked out through user interactions.
Sign Systems and Knowledge
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Workshop is how it integrates many different sign systems and ways of knowing within a single network. By switching and combining different sign systems, the workshop builds conceptual connections both within the network and beyond, with cultural traditions with which the network hopes to identify. For instance, the Werkstatt is named after the German word for “workshop.” The decision to use a German word likely results from the original conditions under which the unit was released: as part of a special in-person workshop held at the 2014 Moogfest music festival, which was headlined by the German electronic music pioneers (and early Moog adapters) Kraftwerk. The group has long espoused a stylized “retro futurist” aesthetic (Buckley, 2015, p. 118), grounded in minimalism and modernism. By choosing to name their synthesizer kit the Werkstatt, Moog creates an intertextual connection between the project (and, by extension, its participants) and the outsized reputation Kraftwerk possesses within the culture of electronic music. Thus, the Werkstatt is positioned as a material link between the user and the Kraftwerk aesthetic.
The Workshop also builds connections through sign systems. In what amounts to the Workshop’s mission statement, the network is named “WerskstattWorkshop.com (beta),” creating a hybrid of English and hypertext markup language:
WerkstattWorkshop.com (beta) is Moog Music’s interactive creative learning portal… (Moog, n.d.)
By referring to the site’s html address, its identity as a product of the Web (and its related discourses of participation and interactivity) is highlighted. However, in the workshop’s actual html address, no capital letters are displayed. They are included here to both increase legibility and foreground the brand name of this knowledge product. Furthermore, by including the designation “beta,” this nominalization draws on discourses of open source software, where beta is identified with platforms still engaged in testing and development. It is significant to note that after almost five years in existence, the portal still retains the “beta” designation. This may be an attempt to communicate a state of never-ending, open development. On the other hand, it may be evidence of inattention, or unrealized ambitions, on the part of the facilitator.
Users also participate in building conceptual connections through sign systems. In the forum thread for Arduino software projects, users post examples of their programing code and ask for help in finding errors. Elsewhere, users post videos and schematics detailing their own modification projects. In each case, the choice of media aligns with the user’s rhetorical goals. One user shares patch sheets, which are schematic illustrations that other participants can use as an engineering resource:
Here’s my template for a Werkstatt patch sheet and some simple patches I made in my first day with it. Please feel free to use it and post your own patches.
Yet another participant takes this idea a step further, demonstrating the true transformative potential of a transmedia network:
The patch sheet idea inspired me. I took the idea and ran with it producing a web page that allows you to adjust the settings with the mouse. Then using Web Audio I added a crude approximation of the sound. (Moog, n.d.)
This post links to a software emulation of the Werkstatt unit, translating a material technical object into a virtual software application. Through this transformation, users who do not even own the Werkstatt can participate vicariously in the community by accessing a software emulation of the unit.
This mixing and reconfiguring of sign systems creates not only new possibilities but new contingencies. The original designers of the Werkstatt could not have accounted for (or documented) the complex, networked reality of the Workshop. Within the forums, users take up the task of managing this “possibility knowledge” with varying degrees of success. Questions raised in many threads go answered and certain questions appear in multiple locations, sometimes only finding an answer in a single location. As Swarts (2015) noted in his discussion of user forums, such contingencies present an opportunity for technical communicators to act as facilitators who “help diffuse into these user communities not technical communication artifacts but rather a sensibility or a process of doing technical communication work” (p. 27).
Transmedia and the Technical Communicator
The preceding analysis demonstrates how different discourses circulating within the Werkstatt Workshop go beyond simply documenting system processes to construct a world in which network participants enact identities, form relationships, and reconfigure information across media boundaries. This network is a site for both learning and innovation, a place where the potentialities of the Werkstatt hardware can be explored, communicated, and expanded. Since the Workshop was created directly by the hardware manufacturer, there are traditional knowledge management roles available to technical communicators: instructions must be designed, content must be organized, certain user goals and needs must be anticipated. But this is only part of the work that must be done.
A more important role may be situated among the connections and transformations that take place within the network. In looking at user forums, Swarts (2015) suggested that technical communicators can act as facilitators, maintaining the community, articulating tasks, structuring answers, and managing interpersonal communications (pp. 20–21). In order for a discourse community to function, the participants must be able to reasonably expect a return on their investment of time and resources. For some users, this return involves new knowledge; for others, elevated status within the community; and still others, simply the pleasure of sharing knowledge and experience. Whatever the goal, the network must provide evidence that fulfillment is possible, that others are participating and finding some measure of success. While such evidence may arise directly from user interactions for some time, facilitating and maintaining these interactions will require serious attention, both from an administrative and critical perspective. As administrators, technical communicators can help ensure that users can find the information they need, develop relationships they value, and enact identities that align with their goals.
Although the forum is a crucial component of the transmedia network, the network as a whole serves a different rhetorical function than a traditional user help forum. Participants in a transmedia network do more than just solve task-related problems. As the Workshop demonstrates, they create identities, form relationships, and become personally invested in the technological processes in which they participate. The goals they pursue are not always easily defined, nor are they limited to any particular technological task. To learn and innovate, participants must be able to move across the boundaries between different media resources, different areas of knowledge, different roles and identities. The means to cross these boundaries, the network itself, is constructed by information technology but made vital by cooperation and knowledge sharing. Through such actions, participants are able to renegotiate technological affordances within personal and localized contexts that are excluded from industrial scale production. This is what makes transmedia networks such a productive framework to support user-driven innovation. More than any discrete tool or static document, the transmedia network is a space of possibility, a workbench from which users can access and move freely between technological and informational resources that enable discovery and invention.
By connecting participatory cultures of use (such as gardeners and musicians) to equally participatory cultures of design and innovation (such as engineers, software programmers, and entrepreneurs) within a single continuous information network that allows them to directly share resources and ideas, the transmedia network has the potential to disrupt aspects of the industrial production cycles that have traditionally alienated these stakeholders from one another. These cycles have often had the effect of concentrating social power in large networks that claim proprietary domain over the intersections of design, production, and manufacture on a global scale. However, emerging technologies of digital communication and personal fabrication are creating alternatives to industrial production, allowing users to design, fabricate, and share innovations that can start small and build toward a larger scale (Anderson, 2012, pp. 19–21).
We all have a stake in the intersection of networked communication and innovation technologies. While technical communicators may have seen their traditional domain shrink as users increasingly generate their own documentation, new opportunities are unfolding. Arthur (2009) suggested that technology as a whole is shifting away from large scale industrial production, “from single purpose fixed machines into raw functionalities that can be programmed to different purposes, in different combinations” (p. 209). If this is indeed the case, our systems of documentation will undergo a similar shift: from static documents explicating prescribed procedures to open networks that support and enable development, iteration, and transformation.
Anderson, C. (2012). Makers: The new industrial revolution (1st ed.). New York, NY: Crown Business. Retrieved from https://catalog.lib.ncsu.edu/record/NCSU2708032
Arthur, W. B. (2009). The nature of technology: What it is and how it evolves (1st Free Press hardcover ed.). New York, NY: Free Press. Retrieved from https://catalog.lib.ncsu.edu/record/NCSU2245500
Buckley, D. (2015). Kraftwerk: Publikation (1st edition). London, UK: Overlook-Omnibus.
Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and social change. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press. Retrieved from https://catalog.lib.ncsu.edu/record/NCSU793795
Gee, J. P. (2014). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (4th ed.). Abingdon, England: Routledge. Retrieved from https://catalog.lib.ncsu.edu/record/NCSU3048377
Gershenfeld, N. (2007). Fab: The coming revolution on your desktop—From personal computers to personal fabrication (New edition). New York, NY: Basic Books.
Jenkins, H. (2008). Convergence culture : where old and new media collide (Updated ed.). New York, N.Y. : New York University Press, 2008.
Johnson, R. R. (1998). User-centered technology. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Johnson-Eilola, J. (1996). Relocating the value of work: Technical communication in a post industrial age. Technical Communication Quarterly, 5(3), 245–270. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15427625tcq0503_1
Kimball, M. A. (2006). Cars, culture, and tactical technical communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 15(1), 67–86. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15427625tcq1501_6
Kimball, M. A. (2017). The golden age of technical communication. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 47(3), 330–358. https://doi.org/10.1177/0047281616641927
Kinder, M. (1991). Playing with power in movies, television, and video games: From Muppet Babies to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Berkeley: University of California Press. Retrieved from https://catalog.lib.ncsu.edu/record/NCSU780829
Kinder, M. (2016). Transmedia networks. Retrieved from http://www.marshakinder.com/concepts/o11.html
Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading images: The grammar of visual design (2nd ed.). London, UK: Routledge.
Lim, K. Y. T. (2017). Landscapes of participatory making, modding and hacking: Maker culture and makerspaces. Newcastle Upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Retrieved from https://catalog.lib.ncsu.edu/record/NCSU3893854
Machin, D., & Mayr, A. (2012). How to do critical discourse analysis: A multimodal introduction (1st ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE.
Pinch, T., & Trocco, F. (2009). Analog days: The invention and impact of the Moog Synthesizer. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ncsu/detail.action?docID=3300076
Sheridan, D. M. (2010). Fabricating consent: Three-dimensional objects as rhetorical compositions. Computers and Composition, 27(4), 249–265. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compcom.2010.09.005
Swarts, J. (2015). What do user forums teach us about documentation and the value added by technical communicators? Technical Communication, 62(1), 19–28.
von Hippel, E. (2005). Democratizing innovation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from https://catalog.lib.ncsu.edu/record/NCSU1881407
Werkstatt Workshop. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.werkstattworkshop.com/
Yeats, D. (2008). The role for technical communicators in open-source software development. Technical Communication. 55(1), 38–48.
About the Author
David Mueller is a graduate of North Carolina State University’s masters degree in technical communication. He currently works as a technical writer at IBM, where he writes about open source software development, microservices architecture, and voice-assisted technology, among other subjects. He is also a musician and producer who has performed across the US and Europe, and whose compositions have appeared in television and film. He is available at David.Mueller1@ibm.com.
Manuscript received 28 August 2018, revised 23 April 2019; accepted 13 May 2019.