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Whither STC?

As you may have heard, STC is in a financial crisis. According to the board of directors meeting minutes from May 5, 2009 (PDF, page 2), STC must retain membership “for the next year or STC will be out of business in two years.” There’s a lively discussion on Twitter under the #stcorg hashtag.

For example, Bill Swallow (@techcommdood) wrote: “From STC I want innovation, education, and communication. Right now I get advertising, magazines, and frustration. #stcorg”

STC itself has requested feedback via private email, on Twitter with the #stcorg tag, and on a “private online forum.” I appreciate the idea, but I prefer to share my thoughts here, where anyone can read and comment on them.

According to the June 18 email message from Cindy Currie (STC president), the “unprecedented financial shortfall” is being caused by “the recession’s negative impact on our traditional sources of revenue.” Although it’s certainly true that the recession has caused a decline in membership along with a decline in conference attendance (the biggest two sources of income for STC), the recession is not the root cause of the problem.

The root cause is that STC is not perceived as sufficiently important by its membership. After all, a member could pay $200 for a membership by dropping cable television for a couple of months. Getting rid of cable for a year would come close to paying for conference attendance. It is true, of course, that a few members are in serious financial trouble due to layoffs or reduced income. In most cases, however, I think the member (or the sponsoring employer) has simply decided that STC (or the conference) does not offer enough value to justify the cost.

I have been an STC member for many years, and am an associate fellow. I participate in the annual conference both as a speaker and as an exhibitor. My company is a member of the Corporate Value Program. I have served on a couple of society-level committees and initiatives. This doesn’t make me a typical member, but I think it does give me a fairly broad perspective on the organization as a whole.

I believe that STC needs to make some significant changes in the following areas.

Industry developments are fast and furious, and STC has not kept pace. For the STC conference, generally held in May, proposals are due the preceding summer. I turned in an article for Intercom on June 16, which will appear in the September issue. Chris Hester (@chris_oh) said it best on twitter: “Why pay for a pub when it uses content that was on blogs months earlier?”

STC needs to increase what the military calls operational tempo. Intercom, as many others have said, probably needs to evolve into an online publication to cut down the publication time. This has some significant advantages:

  • Faster publishing
  • Cheaper publishing by eliminating print production, paper, and distribution costs
  • Ability to publish more often

There is concern that putting Intercom online (and, by the way, I do not mean in PDF format) would put a dent in advertising revenue. It will. However, my company does not currently advertise in Intercom because we think the rates are too high and the value is not there. I would greatly prefer advertising in an online Intercom. I would also expect those rates to be significantly lower than the equivalent print ad. Providing Intercom online would open up advertising to many smaller companies. Would it be more profitable? I don’t know, but it would be a better, more relevant, publication, so that’s a start.

Similarly, the proposal process for the annual conference needs to be compressed significantly. With nine months of lead time, it’s impossible to provide relevant content. And please don’t tell me “it can’t be done.” Joe Welinske of WritersUA usually evaluates proposals in September/October for a March conference. Germany’s tekom, which is significantly larger than the STC conference, generally requires proposals in May for a November event. Six months is still a long time, but it’s one-third shorter than STC’s process.

STC’s main value is in providing a sense of community for technical writers/communicators. In the past, the organization delivered community through printed magazines mailed to the membership, through local chapter meetings, and through regional and national conferences. As email lists became popular, STC has provided discussion lists for various SIGs, local chapters, and other groups (for example, there is a chapter presidents’ list. Or so I hear).

Today, however, communities of interest are meeting through various social media, and STC has not kept pace. STC should be providing a platform that encourages discussion and collaboration. The obvious template for this is what Scott Abel has done with the Content Wrangler network. STC serves writers; give the writers a place to write blogs, collaborate on a wiki, and the like.

Incidentally, STC Body of Knowledge effort is an excellent example of open collaboration. However, it’s quite difficult to find it from the main STC web site. These and other initiatives should all be under the umbrella. It’s not particularly difficult to set up subdomains so that, for example points to the Body of Knowledge and points to the forums. And so on.

Finally, STC needs to embrace a culture of openness. That means:

  • Provide open access to Intercom and other publications online. Increase the readership, make the publications more relevant, and therefore increase their appeal to advertisers.
  • Provide open access to forums and other collaboration areas. Do not limit them to members only. The STC Single Sourcing SIG recently launched a Ning network (here), but access is restricted not just to STC members but actually to SIG members only. This balkanization reduces the value of the community. Instead, open up participation and build a valuable, must-have resource.
  • Improve member communications and especially focus on giving people a way of letting their voices be heard. The virtual town halls now in progress are a good idea, but the process of getting access is too difficult. I finally resorted to begging for help on twitter and got the information I needed in less than five minutes. Unless there is a compelling reason to lock up information, it should be publicly available.

Change is hard. Transformational change is painful.
I have worked with many of the people in the STC office and in STC leadership, and it’s important to recognize that they are hard-working, smart people. I like them. (One of them is particularly entertaining in a hotel bar at 1 a.m. You Know Who You Are.)

They see the icebergs ahead and are trying hard to navigate through them. The problem is that turning a cruise ship takes time and effort. And, if you’ll pardon the tortured analogy, the larger problem is navigating through the ice field is impossible with a huge cruise ship. The correct answer is to step outside today’s constraints and rethink the problem. Perhaps we should morph into a submarine and go under the icebergs. At this point, we are still discussing whether to make a 5-degree or a 10-degree turn.

The financial problem that STC faces is a symptom, not the disease. Let’s treat the symptom and get through this crisis, but please do not forget about the underlying disease. STC needs more velocity, more community, and more openness.

Update (6/23/2009): Since I published this post, several other bloggers have added their perspectives. Here they are, in no particular order. If I missed your post, please add it in the comments so that readers of this article can find you.

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Flare 5 DITA feature review, part 2

[Alan Pringle wrote most of this review.]

This post is Part 2 of our Flare 5 DITA feature review. Part 1 provides an overview and discusses localization and map files.

Cross-references and other links
I imported DITA content that contained three xref elements (I shortened the IDs below for readability):

  • Reference to another step in the same topic:
    Result of step. And here’s a reference to the <xref href=”task1.xml#task_8F2F9″ type=”li” format=”dita” scope=”local”>third step</xref>.
  • Reference to another topic:
    Result text. And here’s a link to the other task topic:
    <xref href=”task2.xml#task_8F2F94 type=”task” format=”dita” scope=”local”></xref>.
  • Link to web site:
    Here’s another step. Here’s a link with external scope:
    <xref href=”” scope=”external” format=”html”></xref>

All three came across in the WebHelp I generated from Flare:

On the link to the topic, Flare applied a default cross-reference format that included the word “See” and the quotation marks around the topic’s name. You can modify the stylesheet for the Flare project to change that text and styling.

Relationship tables
DITA relationship tables let you avoid the drudgery of manually inserting (and managing!) related topic links. Based on the relationships you specify in the table, related topic links are generated in your output.

I imported a simple map file with a relationship table into Flare and created WebHelp. The output included the links to the related topics. I then tinkered with the project’s stylesheet and its language skin for English to change the default appearance and text of the heading for related concepts. The sentence-style capitalization and red text for “Related concepts” in the following screen shot reflect my modifications:

screen shot showing Related concepts heading in red and with sentence style capitalization
DITA conrefs let you reuse chunks of content. I created a simple conref for a note and then imported the map file with one DITA file that contains the actual note and a second file that references the note via a conref.

Flare happily imported the information and turned the conref into a Flare snippet. It’s worth noting that the referencing, while equivalent, is not the same. In my source DITA files, I had this:

aardvark.xml contains:
<note id=””>Do not feed the animals

baboon.xml contains:
<note conref=”aardvark.xml#aardvark/nofeeding”>

Thus, we have two instances of the content in the DITA files — the original content and the content reference. In Flare, we end up with three instances — the snippet and two references to the snippet. In other words, Flare separates out the content being reused into a snippet and then references the snippet. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth noting.

Specialized content is not officially supported at this point. According to MadCap, it worked for some people in testing, but not for others. If you need to publish specialized DITA content through Flare, you might consider generalizing back to standard DITA first.

Conditional processing
When you import DITA content that contains attribute values, Flare creates condition tags based on those values. I imported a map file with a topic that used the audience attribute: one paragraph had that attribute set to user, and another had the attribute set to admin. When I looked in the Project Organizer at the conditions for the WebHelp target, conditions based on my audience values were listed:

audience.admin and audience.user conditionsI set Audience.admin to Exclude and Audience.user to Include, and then I created WebHelp. As expected, the output included the user-level paragraph and excluded the admin-level one.

DITA support level
Flare supports DITA v1.1.

Our verdict

If you’re looking for a path to browser-based help for your DITA content, you should consider the new version of Flare. Without a lot of effort, we were able to create WebHelp from imported DITA content. Flare handled DITA constructs (such as conrefs and relationship tables) without any problems in our testing. Our only quibble was with the TOC entries in the WebHelp (as mentioned in Part 1), and we’ve heard that MadCap will likely be addressing that issue in the future.

We didn’t evaluate how Flare handles DITA-to-PDF conversion. However, if the PDF process in Flare works as smoothly as the one for WebHelp, Flare could provide a compelling alternative to modifying the XSL-FO templates that come with the Open Toolkit or adopting one of the commercial FO solutions for rendering PDF output.

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Flare 5 DITA feature review (Part 1: Overview and map files)

[Disclosure: Scriptorium is a Certified Flare Instructor.]
[Full disclosure: We’re also an Adobe Authorized Training Center, a JustSystems Services Partner, a founding member of TechComm Alliance, a North Carolina corporation, and a woman-owned business. Dog people outnumber cat people in our office. Can I start my post now?]

These days, most of our work uses XML and/or DITA as foundational technologies. As a result, our interest in help authoring tools such as Flare and RoboHelp has been muted. However, with the release of Flare 5, MadCap has added support for DITA. This review looks at the DITA features in the new product. (If you’re looking for a discussion of all the new features, I suggest you wander over to Paul Pehrson’s review. You might also read the official MadCap press release.)

The initial coverage reminds me a bit of this:

(My web site stats prove that you people are suckers for video. Also, I highly recommend TubeChop for extracting a portion of a YouTube video.)

Let’s take a look at the most important Flare/DITA integration pieces.

New output possibilities
After importing DITA content into Flare, you can publish to any of the output formats that Flare supports. Most important, in my opinion, is the option to publish cross-browser, cross-platform HTML-based help (“web help”) because the DITA Open Toolkit does not provide this output. We have created web help systems by customizing the Open Toolkit output, and that approach does make sense in certain situations, but the option to publish through Flare is appealing for several reasons:

  • Flare provides a default template for web help output (actually, three of them: WebHelp, WebHelp Plus, and WebHelp AIR)
  • Customizing Flare output is easier than configuring the Open Toolkit

I took some DITA files, opened them in Flare, made some minimal formatting changes, and published to WebHelp. The result is shown here:

Sample WebHelp from DITA through FlareNot bad at all for 10 minutes’ work. I added the owl logo and in the header, changed the default font to sans-serif, and made the heading purple. Tweaking CSS in Flare’s visual editor is straightforward, and changes automatically cascade (sorry) across all the project files.

Ease of configuration
Flare wins. Next topic. (Don’t believe me? Read the DITA Open Toolkit User Guide — actually, just skim the table of contents.)

Language support
The Open Toolkit wins on volume and for right-to-left languages; Flare wins on easy configuration (I’m detecting a theme here.)

Out of the box, both Flare and the Open Toolkit provide strings (that is, localized output for interface elements such as the “Table of Contents” label) for simplified and traditional Chinese, Danish, Dutch, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portugese, Spanish, Swedish, and Thai (I have omitted variations such as Canadian French).

Beyond that, we have the following:

  • Right-to-left language support: Only in the Open Toolkit
  • Language strings provided by the Open Toolkit but not by Flare: Arabic, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Czech, Greek, Estonian, Hebrew, Croatian, Hungarian, Icelandic, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, Turkish, and Ukrainian
  • Ease of adding support for a new language: Flare wins. In the Open Toolkit, you modify an XML file; in Flare, you use the Language Skin Editor (although it looks as though you could choose to modify the resource file directory directly if you really wanted to)

Thus, if you need Hebrew or Arabic publishing, you can’t use Flare. The Open Toolkit also provides default support for more languages.

Map files
I imported a map file into Flare and published. Then, I changed the map file to include a simple nested ditamap. Here is what I found:

  • Flare recognized the map file and the nested map file and built TOC files in Flare with the correct relationships.
  • Inexplicably, the nested map file was designated the primary TOC. I speculate that this might be because the nested map file was first in alphabetical order. I changed the parent map file to be the primary TOC to fix this. I don’t know what would happen for a more complex set of maps, but I am concerned.
  • Flare inserted an extra layer into the output TOC where the nested map is found.
  • The titles generated in the TOC are different in Flare than they are through the DITA Open Toolkit (see below).

I generated the output for my map file (the nested map is the “The decision to implement” section in this screen shot) through the DITA Open Toolkit and got the following XHTML output:
Then, I imported the same map file into Flare, generated WebHelp, and got the following TOC output:

Notice that:

    • The TOC text is different (!!). The DITA Open Toolkit uses the text of the topic titles from inside the topic files. Flare uses the text of the @navtitle attribute in the map file. My topic titles and @navtitles don’t match because I created the map file, then changed a bunch of topic titles. The map file didn’t keep up with the new titles (because it doesn’t matter in the Open Toolkit), but it appears to matter for Flare. The entry in the map file for the first item is:

&lt;topicref href="introduction.xml" navtitle="Introduction" type="topic"&gt;

Flare picks up the “Introduction” from the navtitle attribute.

Inside the file, you find:

&lt;title&gt;Executive summary&lt;/title&gt;

The Open Toolkit uses the content of the title element from inside the file.

  • The Implementation section has added an extra layer in the Flare output. It appears that nesting a map file results in an extra level of hierarchy.

The inconsistency between the two implementations is annoying.

In part 2 of this review (coming soon), I’ll look at cross-references, reltables, conrefs, specialization, and conditional processing.

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Top five reasons to like XMetal and OXygen

by Sheila Loring

Full disclosure: We’re an XMetaL Services Provider and have no particular affiliation with oXygen.

I’m in the fortunate situation of having access to both XMetaL 5.5 and oXygen 9.3. Both are excellent XML editors for different reasons. I’d hate for Scriptorium to make me choose one over the other.

From the viewpoint of authoring XML and XSLT, here are my top five features of both editors:


  • Apply XSLT on the fly: You can associate an XML file with an XSLT and transform the XML within oXygen. Goodbye, command line! XMetaL will convert the document to a selected output format. You don’t choose the XSLT–it hasn’t been a big concern for me.
  • Indented code: The pretty-print option makes working with code so easy. You can set oXygen to do this automatically when you open a file or on demand. The result is code indented according to the structure. XMetaL doesn’t have pretty print.
  • Autocompleting tags: As you type an element, oXygen pops up a list of elements beginning with the typed string. You press Enter when you find the right tag, and the end tag is inserted for you. The valid attributes at any particular point are also shown in a drop-down list. XMetaL doesn’t have autocompleting tags.
  • Find/replace in one or more documents: I’ve often needed to search and replace strings in an entire directory. In XMetaL, you can only find and replace in the current document.
  • Comparing two documents or directories: Compare files by content or timestamp. In a directory, you can even filter by type so only XML files, for example, are compared. XMetaL doesn’t offer this feature.


  • Auto-tagging content: You can copy and paste content from an unstructured document (a web page, for example), and XMetaL automatically wraps the content in elements. Even tables and lists are wrapped correctly. This can be handy if you have a few documents to convert. In oXygen, the content is pasted as plain text.
  • Auto-assignment of ID attributes: Never worry about coming up with unique IDs. XMetaL will assign them to the types of elements you select. Warning: The strings are quite long, as in “topic_BBEC2A36C97A4CADB130784380036FD6.” oXygen only inserts IDs on the top-level element but full support will be added in version 10.3.
  • Auto-insertion of basic elements: When you create a document, XMetaL inserts placeholders for elements such as title, shordesc, body, and p. It’s a small convenience. oXygen will also insert elements if you have Content Completion selected in the Preferences.
  • WYSIWYG view of tables: The table is displayed as you’d see it in a Word or FrameMaker document. In oXygen, all you see are the table element tags.
  • Reader-friendly tag view: The tags are a bit easier to read in XMetaL than oXygen. In XMetaL, the opening and closing tags are displayed on one line when possible. This feature saves space on the page and makes the document easier to read in tag view. For example, you might have a short sentence wrapped in p tags. In XMetal, the p tags are displayed on the same line. In oXygen, the p tags are always on separate lines. This is another convenience that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it really makes a difference while you’re authoring.

oXygen and XMetal have so many other strengths. I’ve just chosen my top five features.

What I’d like to see in XMetaL: The ability to indent code, the ability to drag and drop topics in the map editor.
What’s I’d like to see in oXygen: The ability to view a table–lines and all–in the WYSIWYG view instead of just the element tags.

So how do I choose which editor to use at a particular moment? When I’m casually authoring in XML, I choose XMetaL for all of reasons you read above. The WYSIWYG view is more user-friendly to me. But when I’m writing XSLT or just want to get at the code of an XML document, oXygen is my choice.

Get the scoop on oXygen from Read more about XMetaL at

Update 6/15/09:
I’m thrilled to report that two deficiencies I reported in oXygen 9 are now supported in the latest version of oXygen — 10.2.

  • In Author view, tables are now displayed in WYSIWYG format. Just like in your favorite word processor, you can drag and drop column rulings to resize columns. After you resize columns, the colwidth attribute in the colspec element is updated automatically. This is much easier than manually editing the colwidth.
  • In Author view, the tags are now displayed on one line when possible. Before, the tags were always on separate lines from the content.

Two more reasons to love oXygen!

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Webinar mania!

I have several webinar-related updates to share:

Next week, the State of Structure

You probably know that Scriptorium conducted an industry survey on structured authoring earlier this year. The report, The State of Structure in Technical Communication, is available in our online store for $200.

There is a cheaper option to get the highlights. On Tuesday, June 16, at 1 p.m. Eastern time, I’ll be delivering a one-hour webinar that highlights the most important findings.

Coming in July and August

Expect to see additional webinars in cooperation with our TechComm Alliance partners, Cherryleaf and HyperWrite. We are also welcoming Jack Molisani of ProSpring, who will offer excellent and candid career development advice. Watch this space for details about these upcoming events. Scriptorium consultants will also be offering additional content.

Recorded events

Two of our recent webinars are now available for download:

  • Hacking the DITA Open Toolkit
  • Documentation as Conversation

Each webinar lasts about one hour and is $20, either live or recorded. You can register for the Tuesday webcast and download recordings in our online store.

(Warning: The recorded webcast files are quite large.)

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Humor Opinion

More cowbell!

About a year ago, we added Google Analytics to our web site. I have done some research to see what posts were the most popular in the past year:

  1. The clear winner was our FrameMaker 9 review. With 21 comments, I think it was also the most heavily commented post. Interestingly, the post itself is little more than a pointer to the PDF file that contains the actual review.
  2. InDesign CS4 = Hannibal post, which discussed InDesign’s encroachment on traditional FrameMaker features.
  3. A surprise…a post from 2006 in which Mark Baker discussed the merits (or lack thereof) of DITA in To DITA or not to DITA

Our readers appear to like clever headlines, because I don’t think the content quality explains the high numbers for posts such as:

We noticed this pattern recently, when a carefully crafted, meticulously written post was ignored in favor of a throwaway post dashed off in minutes with a catchy title (Death to Recipes!).

For useful, thoughtful advice on blogging, I refer you to Tom Johnson and Rich Maggiani. I, however, have a new set of blogging recommendations:

  1. Write catchy titles
  2. Have an opinion, preferably an outrageous one
  3. More cowbell

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Our first experience with print on demand (POD)

It’s been a little over a month since we released the third edition of Technical Writing 101. The downloadable PDF version is the primary format for the new edition, and we’ve seen more sales from outside the U.S. because downloads eliminate shipping costs and delays.

Selling Technical Writing 101 as a PDF file has made the book readily available to a wider audience (and at a cheaper price of $20, too). However, we know that a lot of people still like to read printed books, so we wanted to offer printed copies—but without the expense of printing books, storing them, and shipping them out.

We have published several books over the past nine years, and declining revenue from books made it difficult for us to justify spending thousands of dollars to do an offset print run of 1000+ copies of Technical Writing 101 and then pay the added expense of preparing individual books for shipment as they are ordered. Storage has also been a problem: we have only so much space for storing books in our office, and we didn’t want to spend money on climate-controlled storage for inventory. (Book bindings would melt and warp without air conditioning during our hot, humid summers here in North Carolina.) For us, the logical solution was print on demand (POD): when a buyer orders the book, a publishing company prints a copy using a digital printing process and then ships it.

We chose for our first experiment with POD, and so far, we have been happy with the quality of the books from there. We are still exploring our options with POD and may try some other companies’ services in the future, but based on our experience so far, I can offer two pieces of advice:

  • Follow the specs and templates provided by the printer, and consider allowing even a bit more wiggle room for interior margins. The first test book I printed had text running too close to the binding, so I made some adjustments to add more room for the interior margins before we sold the book to the public.
  • Look at the page sizes offered by the different POD publishers before choosing a size. If you choose a page size that multiple POD publishers support, you’ll have more flexibility in using another publisher’s services in the future, particularly if they offer other services (distribution, etc.) that better suit your needs. Also, ensure the page size you choose is supported when printing occurs in a country other than your own; some publishers have facilities and partners in multiple countries. In an attempt to minimize the amount of production work for the third edition, I chose a page size for Technical Writing 101 that was the closest match to the footprint of the previous edition’s layout. However, I likely would have chosen a different page size if I had known more about the common sizes across the various POD companies. The page size I chose at Lulu is not supported by CreateSpace, which is Amazon’s POD arm. When you publish through CreateSpace, you get distribution through, which isn’t the necessarily the case with other POD publishers. (I’ve read several blog posts about how some authors use the same sets of files to simultaneously publish books through multiple POD firms to maximize the distribution of their content.)

In these tight economic times, POD publishing makes a lot of sense, particularly when you want to release content in print but don’t want to invest a lot of money in printing multiple copies that you have no guarantee of selling. The POD model certainly was a good match for Technical Writing 101, so we decided to give it a try.

I’ll keep you updated on our experiences with POD publishing in this blog. If you have experience with POD, please leave a comment about how it’s worked for you.

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A different take on Twittering and technical writers

by Sheila Loring

Technical writers abound on Twitter as do blog posts on how Twitter can make you a better tech writer.

I’d Rather Be Writing has an alternate take in the article Following the NBA Can Make You a Better Writer. Tom Johnson uses the analogy of Kobe Bryant and Lebron James playing their respective positions on the court. He argues that unless you’re a one-person shop, you’re doing yourself a disservice by trying to be a Jack- or Jill-of-all-trades. Play up your strengths, and minimize your weaknesses, tech writers. Read Tom’s article for more.

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Technical writing and social networks

There is an interesting thread on techwr-l about using social networking sites to deliver product information. In the thread, Geoff Hart notes there is a generation gap in those who turn to unofficial online resources vs. product documentation:

The young’uns go to the net and social networks more than we older folk, who still rely on developer-provided documentation. We ignore this change at our peril. Cheryl Lockett Zubak had a lovely anecdote at WritersUA a few years ago about how she and her son both set out to solve an iPod problem; they both found the solution in roughly equal amounts of time, but she found it in Apple’s documentation, while her son found it on YouTube.

My experience as a user straddles both relying on official docs and information available elsewhere. When my iPod locked up a few years ago, I found decent information on Apple’s web site, but the best resource for my particular problem turned out to be on YouTube. A user had made a video showing step-by-step what to do.

The dilemma of official docs vs. Web 2.0 information partially boils down to question of audience. As part of the process for planning and developing content, technical communicators should evaluate and remember the audience, and that audience consideration now needs to extend to how a company distributes the content. I don’t think there are cut-and-dried answers here; for example, it’s unwise to make the assumption that all folk over a certain age are unaware of or don’t use social networks and other Web 2.0 resources. Ignoring unofficial information channels is certainly not the solution, however.

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