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September 5, 2007

The Age of … Expertise?

Over on O’Reilly’s Radar blog, Andy Oram has a fascinating article about the demise (!) of the Information Age and what will be next:

[T]he Information Age was surprisingly short. In an age of Wikipedia, powerful search engines, and forums loaded with insights from volunteers, information is truly becoming free (economically), and thus worth even less than agriculture or manufacturing. So what has replaced information as the source of value?The answer is expertise. Because most activities offering a good return on investment require some rule-breaking–some challenge to assumptions, some paradigm shift–everyone looks for experts who can manipulate current practice nimbly and see beyond current practice. We are all seeking guides and mentors.

What comes after the information age? (be sure to read the comments, too)

It’s an interesting idea, but I don’t think we’re getting away from the Information Age into the Expertise Age. After all, expertise is just a specialized (useful!) form of information.

In the comments, Tim O’Reilly points out that the real change is in how information is gathered and distributed with “the rise of new forms of computer mediated aggregators and new forms of collective curation and communication.”

I believe that we are still firmly in the Information Age because information has not yet become a commodity product. There is, however, clearly a shift happening in how information is created and delivered. I think it’s helpful to look at communication dimensions:

  • Traditional technical writing is one-to-many. One person/team writes, many people consume it.
  • Wikis are many-to-many. Many people write; many people use the information.
  • Mailing lists are many-to-one. Many people respond to one persons’ question.
  • Technical support is one-to-one. One person calls; one person responds.

Technical support is the most expensive option; it’s also often the most relevant. Technical writing is more efficient (because the answer to the question is provided just once), but also less personal and therefore less relevant.

Many technical writers are concerned about losing control over their content. For an example of the alarmist perspective, read Joanne Hackos’s recent article on wikis. Then, be sure to read Anne Gentle’s eponymous rebuttal on The Content Wrangler.

Keep in mind, though, that you can’t stop people from creating wikis, mailing lists, third-party books, forums, or anything else. You cannot control what people say about your products, and it’s possible that the “unauthorized” information will reach a bigger audience than the Official Documentation(tm). You can attempt to channel these energies into productive information, but our new information age is the Age of Uncontrolled Information.

Furthermore, the fact that people are turning to Google to find information says something deeply unflattering about product documentation, online help, and other user assistance. Why is a Google search more compelling than looking in the help?