Lost in Translation: barriers to collaboration between hacks and hackers

Being able to communicate a message to your audience in a such a way that your audience will comprehend precisely what you intend to have them comprehend is easier said than done – but this skill is essential for the success of any project.

One of the hurdles in the whole future of journalism discourse is the varied stakeholders involved. Referencing the MozNewsLab specifically, there are two main factions: Hacks – journalism types – and Hackers – computer types. There are also individuals who belong to both groups, to neither groups, and plenty of other smaller factions – like academics and artists for instance. However, I’m focusing here on the Hacks and Hackers for the sake of simplicity.

The first barrier to effective communication between these two groups is an inherent lack of a common lexicon. Initially, hackers cannot simply have a discussion with a hack in the same way that they would normally discuss ideas with other hackers. The same goes for hacks communicating their ideas to hackers. In the beginning of your hack/hacker relationship, explain and elaborate as much as possible. Hackers: don’t assume a hack knows what an API is or does. Hacks: say something like “media captured in the field, as opposed to in studio” when referring to EFP. You don’t have to avoid jargon – but you absolutely should carefully describe industry terms and jargon so that in the future both parties can confidently converse using the language of both industries.

Here is a great example of this in practise from Wednesday’s chat logs:

[15:32] <knowtheory> i should add that DocumentCloud is open source 🙂
[15:32] <knowtheory> the main platform hasn’t been open sourced yet, but i hear that it will be soon
[15:32] <knowtheory> which means that it could actually be used as a platform for some of this stuff you guys are interested in
[15:33] <corbin> thanks for the “which means…” 🙂
[15:33] <knowtheory> er… is that facetious? 😀
[15:33] <corbin> not in the least.

Reading this in the moment of the chat, there was a palpable beat before knowtheory (Ted Han) got to explaining the ramifications of “the main platform being open sourced.” Before the “which means…” moment I was thinking something along the lines of “cool. things being open sourced is beneficial to the greater good of the internet – but I have no idea what the implications of DocumentCloud being open sourced are. I mean, I get that open source is good. I understand that open source means that different people can access the tools (code) used to build something and add, alter and remix it as they see fit. But that’s all I really know. I couldn’t have told you why the DocumentCloud platform being open sourced had anything to do with me or my project.

I think that I have had to ask “…and what does that mean?” to Ted so frequently that he has started to preemptively explain and elaborate on any ‘computer-y’ bits of information that he shares with me – which is great.

The second element to this improving communication dynamic is being bold enough to quickly let people know when you are not familiar with what is being discussed. Now, it might not always be the most opportune time to interrupt someone to have them explain to you what you don’t understand, but the risk of feeling somewhat uncomfortable is absolutely worth the reward of garnering a better understanding of the topic at hand. Furthermore, if you are struggling with some aspect of the discussion, there is almost definitely at least one more person experiencing that same struggle. Asking for clarification and elaboration of concepts nearly always increases the collective comprehension of a group’s topic of discussion.

What I am getting at here is that in order to collaborate cross-industry we each need to be more than just a skilled communicators. We must also be good teachers and translators. Knowing how to speak the language of our audiences is immensely helpful – as is the ability to teach your audience the intricacies of your language. Until hacks and hackers can speak each others language(s), true collaboration in unachievable. Until then, journalism types will continue to think “oh! this web xyz thing is super cool. some tech person should build it for us!” while hacker types will think “collaboration” means “getting journalism types to write out API documentation.”

Not being able to speak each others language is the barrier preventing simple skill supplementation from becoming meaningful collaboration.


One thought on “Lost in Translation: barriers to collaboration between hacks and hackers

  1. Good points. I think both sides need to try harder because I no longer think technology is something that a journalist can merely use and demand support for.
    In a tweet the other day I likened it to having a car. You don’t need to be a mechanic but knowing how to drive and maybe even change a fuse now and then is a big advantage over having to take the bus.

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