No Such Thing as a Bad Question? Professor Matthew J. Baker Receives Dissertation Award

Matt BakerEvery year, the Association for Business Communication honors a researcher for his or her exceptional doctoral dissertation. This year, that award went to BYU professor Matthew J. Baker for his dissertation on a niche form of online communication.  

MIAMI, Florida (November 1–2, 2018)—Matthew J. Baker, assistant professor of editing and publishing within the Department of Linguistics, was recently awarded the “Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award on Business Communication” by the Association for Business Communication (ABC). Baker’s dissertation focused on the efficacy of “social how-to questions” that are posted to community-based “Social Question and Answer” (SQA) websites.

An international, interdisciplinary organization “committed to advancing business communication research, education, and practice,” the Association for Business Communication awards one researcher every year for having contributed significantly to “scholarship, research, and/or pedagogy of business communication.” According to the organization, this contribution should also demonstrate “originality of thought and careful investigation.”

Baker—who received the award at the association’s 2018 conference in late October—was nominated by his dissertation advisor, Jo Mackiewicz of Iowa State University. Open to all researchers in the field who have recently completed their dissertations, the award is international in scope and extremely competitive. In addition to a one-year membership in ABC, each year’s winning researcher receives a plaque and a monetary award at the association’s annual conference.

“I was grateful that the dissertation was recognized,” Baker said. “As a result, I’ve been able to make some great connections with scholars across the country, and I hope the recognition helps disseminate my findings so people can write questions more effectively to get the answers they need.”

Titled “Contextual Information, Answerability, and the Logical Construction of Social How-to Questions,” Baker’s dissertation was partially inspired by his own experiences browsing the web as a research assistant in search of answers to his coding and programming questions. While looking for answers to his questions, Baker frequently stumbled across SQA websites such as Stack Exchange and Super User. These two websites (like all SQA websites) are essentially quasi-forums for users to both ask questions and to receive answers to their own questions from other users, all on a volunteer basis. Given his interest in communication, Baker was “fascinated by the discourse on these sites… Sometimes people were extremely helpful, sometimes they were surprisingly rude. I was fascinated by the communication I saw out there.”

As Baker was preparing to work on his dissertation, he was also writing a chapter for a textbook on social media communication. In thinking about online communication, Baker was reminded of his experiences on SQA websites. He then zeroed in on what would become the driving question of his dissertation: “How can people write good questions on SQA websites?” Or more specifically, “How can people write questions so that they can receive answers?” Baker narrowed his research to focus on the SQA site Super User, which focuses mostly on computer software related questions.

Baker’s doctoral research was multi-faceted, but he concluded that generally, unanswered questions are much more complex than answered questions, and that answered questions usually provide less situational information. These findings underscore the importance of clarity and conciseness in writing, and specifically in the context of an SQA site. Additionally, Baker found that unanswered questions included more expressions of gratitude and politeness. “When someone is too polite,” he said, “clarity is compromised.”

If clarity is king, Baker’s other findings make perfect sense. In writing a question on an SQA site, Baker found that it is important to explain your current situation (i.e., “Here is where I am now”) as well as why you’re asking the question (i.e., “Here’s where I want to be”). This logical structure, Baker said, has essentially become a “genre of a social how-to question.” If you need to somehow explain what is happening on your computer screen, Baker recommends including screenshots or images instead of long, written explanations detailing your particular conundrum. In general, you should seek information for tasks that are simple and should save your complex questions for more traditional online forums that encourage back-and-forth discussion.

Baker’s dissertation examines a very niche form of communication. That said, the technicalities and precision of his research led to conclusions that have important implications for all of the ways we pursue information and communicate with others in the digital age.

“Completing my dissertation was a lot of work,” Baker said. “But it was also a lot of fun, and I hope my findings will help people more effectively communicate their how-to questions online.”

Elizabeth Barton (English and French Studies ’18)