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March 1, 2012

Avoiding an extinction event

The elimination of the distribution monopoly for content is upending the publishing industry and technical communication specifically.
The dominant players don’t quite know how to respond to the sudden destruction of their competitive advantage. Until now, they have been able to throw their weight around, and use their sheer size to get what they want. Sort of like this guy…

Tirannosaurus Rex

Unfortunately for them, their underlying assumptions–their evolutionary niche, if you like–are no longer valid. For tech comm, these assumptions include the following:

  • Technical writers are responsible for creating the vast majority of content.
  • When subject matter experts contribute content, the technical writers get to review, edit, and approve the content before publication.
  • Technical writers control what product information is available.
  • Technical writers will produce more and more multimedia content, such as videos.
  • Readers want huge PDF files or at least have no other alternatives.

Instead, we have the post-apocalyptic scenario where:

  • Search (and specifically Google search) rules the day. If it’s not searchable, it’s irrelevant.
  • The pace of publishing has accelerated, and any friction in the process produces unacceptable delays.
  • Nobody controls what product information is available.
  • Readers are increasingly using mobile devices and tablets and want small chunks of content.

Readers do not want huge PDFs. There is no longer the ability to manage information distribution. Readers are also engaging with content—leaving comments, writing a blog post that rejects the premise of the “official” content, and creating original content of wildly varying quality.

But the established publishing tool vendors are still stuck in the paradigm of the technical writer who has complete control over corporate documentation.

We do have dinosaur descendants on earth today, but they don’t bear much resemblance to Mr. T. Rex above. Will our publishing tools undergo a drastic evolution as well?