Scriptorium Publishing

content strategy for technical communication

Web 2.0 and Truth

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.

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.

5 Comments

  1. Sarah,
    I want to view your presentation, but all I can get is the opening slide. There aren’t any navigational buttons and the presentation doesn’t play automatically.

  2. That’s because I’m Flash-impaired… :-p
    I need to add a navigation skin, but in the meanwhile, try clicking on the presentation and then using the right arrow key to navigate through it.

  3. Haha…well, not to worry – the right arrow key lets me navigate just fine. Thanks!

  4. Does that mean the future of technical documentation is brutal honesty?
    The more I hear about the intersection of consumer-driven and producer-driven content, the more I think we’re looking at the evolution of a new role. With all that information from individuals and their questionable authority or agendas, moderating it will become a bigger and more important task.
    Someone will have to take all that input and decide what is objective and helpful.

  5. Congrats on your keynote!
    My thoughts after reading the entry and paging through the slide deck:
    * Agile development processes are greatly affecting software documentation, pushing towards faster publishing processes… which is why I starting researching wikis (the ‘quick’ web in the first place – to get faster turnaround time for doc.
    * Textbook publishers with open content have chosen not to use a wiki model where there is only one “truth.” Instead, you can filter the content with a “lens.” See http://cnx.org/lenses. For example, you can filter the content to see only content endorsed by a certain group, or affiliated with a certain group (set of authors). I’d love to see user assistance that enables “lens” filtering.
    * Sometimes the truth is really difficult to determine based on what’s presented. Janet Swisher pointed to a long two-part series on uncovering a mystery behind a photograph taken during the Crimean War, were the canonballs placed on the road before or after the photo was taken (i.e. which photo is a staged representation of the road): http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/25/which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg-part-one/. Janet points out in her blog entry http://www.janetswisher.com/?itemid=127, “Technical writers don’t usually get the luxury of telling how we came to understand the facts we present, even when it involves lots of “detective” work. We are deprived of one of most powerful and engaging tools of a writer.” Perhaps more story-based, conversation-based professionally created publications will give us this luxury.