Web 2.0 and Truth

Sarah O'Keefe / Conferences

My presentation at X-Pubs was about the impact of Web 2.0 or user-generated content on technical communication. (You can view the presentation at the bottom of this post.)

A phrase I heard repeatedly in reference to professional content was “a single version of the truth,” which alludes to the idea that you should only have one instance of any given piece of content.

And that got me thinking. There are many areas of tech comm where this idea makes sense.

User-generated content, though, is in direct conflict with a single, unchanging, objective truth. Wikis, by definition, have content that is constantly evolving.

Furthermore, there’s truth and then there’s, well, truth. Compare and contrast these two snippets:

“The ABC feature is unusable. Use the XYZ as a work-around.”

“You can use ABC to do blah blah. Here’s how:
(many annoying steps)”

Which one is truth? Both? More importantly, which one is more useful to the reader?

It takes a brave or maybe foolish corporate technical writer to criticize their own product explicitly. (This, in turn, is probably why third-party computer trade books sell so well. Somehow, I don’t see a title like Word Annoyances getting the Microsoft seal of approval.)

But even though technical writers try to act as user advocates, there’s a built-in conflict of interest — technical writers are paid by corporations, not by users.

User-generated content meets a need that corporate technical publications do not (or perhaps cannot). It provides unfiltered, opinionated, and user-biased coverage of technical topics.

Why is there a gap between professionally created technical publications and the end users?

1. Updates can take a long time to get into the official documentation because of lengthy review, approval, and publishing processes.

2. Annotation capabilities are rarely provided to users. If they are, they’re usually fairly limited.

3. The documentation is not sufficiently candid.

What are the implications for technical writers?

1. Document publishing needs to accelerate.
2. Online documents should allow for comments and discussion.
3. The documentation needs to be explicit about product limitations and workarounds.

In effect, technical writers need to have more of an editorial voice.

Here is my Web 2.0 presentation:

Notes: Use the arrow keys to navigate through the slides. The first slide may take a few seconds to come up; the presentation file is quite large.

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.