Michael J. vs. Mahmoud A.: A Study in Conflict

It’s sure been a busy few weeks in the newsrooms. The sudden death of pop legend Michael Jackson was not only a media mega-event, it was an astute career move on his part, dramatically increasing his music sales; perhaps he should have died more often. (For those of you who thinking I’m being cold, sober up, and read this.)

What’s astounding is how coverage of Jackson’s death completely obliterated the other much more important event: the ongoing protests in Iran. Iran’s population is 70 million – over twice that of Canada’s. More people would be affected by a change in the Iranian government than by Jackson’s death.

Twitter Twatter
I could talk about how these two stories are connected because they’re both excellent examples of how new technologies such as Twitter and cell phone cameras allowed the news to spread so quickly. But plenty of techno talking heads have already observed this. What’s more interesting to me is how these two stories are connected because they show the ultimate result of conflict: trying to mix two diametrically opposed ideas and obtain a successful result.

Mahmoud the Madman
Iran’s conflict is obvious. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a delusional psychopath of a president, is trying to run the country as a “theocratic democracy”, which makes as much sense as a 600 page “quick start guide”. A state can be a theocracy or a democracy – it cannot be both. The protests arose as a direct result of this conflict. They would not have occurred if elections weren’t allowed in the first place or if Iran was a real democracy. It is the conflict between these two ideas that caused all the ruckus.

Madman in the Mirror
Jackson’s conflict is subtler, as it’s the conflict within one person instead of an entire nation. Jackson was a brilliant and gifted musician, dancer and performer. The problem was that he thought this also made him a brilliant and gifted person, so much so that he raised himself to the status of a demi-god. His massive statutes and endless tributes to himself are ample proof of this.

Jacko thought he could do no wrong, and this included doing whatever he wanted to innocent children. You could say his downfall began November 16th, 2006, for on that date he was booed at the World Music Awards in England, and left the stage visibly shocked. The real world’s view of Jackson had come crashing into Jackson’s view of himself. Death through addiction was the ultimate conflict resolution.

Communication Conflicts
Conflicts like these, where two opposing entities try to occupy the same place, exist in our profession. They include non-technical communicators, primarily developers and marketers, pretending to be technical communicators.

A marketing technical communicator or a programmer technical communicator is as much of an oxymoron as Iran’s theocratic democracy. The result can be a guide from the marketing department that constantly tells users how wonderful the product is and thanking them for purchasing it, without really telling them how to use it. Alternatively, if written by a programmer, the guide is hyper-technical, generally incomprehensible, and filled with such lovely phrases as: “Make sure the two modules play nicely with each other.”

Internal Documentation
Of course, it’s easy to make fun of marketers and developers, because that’s what they’re there for. Other conflicts involve us and the actual work we do. On the one hand, our profession demands that we are honest and open with our readers, and tell them what they need to know to use the thing we are documenting. On the other hand, there is pressure not to tell users every single problem that could occur in the product, lest we scare them off. An experienced technical communicator, working with the product manager, will steer the right path between these two opposing goals. It’s a dirty job, but it sure beats working in a slaughterhouse.

A more serious conflict, akin to Jackon’s internal conflict, is the one within some technical communicators who really should not be technical communicators. Maybe they’ve changed. Maybe they never really had a passion for words, clarity and the thrill of creating a complex table or a clear and succinct instruction. (I still love the smell of Visio in the morning.) Whatever the reason, communicators who are no longer interested in communicating had better find something else to do, because eventually, as with Michael and Mahmoud, the world will finally catch up with them.