Saturday, January 7, 2012

How Social Media Changes Technical Communication

Technology journalism is not so different from that other brand of technical communication in the sense that we both aim to make complicated information clear. My wife is an STC member from a couple of past gigs at software companies and some more recent consulting work, and I've occasionally done documentation and technical marketing writing. I also maintain a couple of WordPress plugins, which are documented in a series of blog posts that I have to revise on a regular basis because people complain when my explanations are unclear.

The Web in general has democratized the world of publishing, and social media only more so. Professional communicators must work harder because they're now in competition for attention with the voice of the crowd, blurring the distinction between author and audience. As a journalist, I can be excited about the dynamics of blogs and social media sites but still worry about them siphoning off of ad dollars from professional publications. Similarly, STC members must wonder whether it's to their advantage to organize documentation in a wiki that anyone can add to or edit.

On the other hand, denial is not a great strategy. The challenge for the professional communicator is to contribute at a higher level, welcoming community involvement and building on it. For the technical writer, that may mean doing less writing and more curating of content--for example, identifying and promoting the best wiki contributions, correcting errors, clarifying unclear language, adding illustrations, and improving organization.

"Tech writers have been humanists who ended up in the tech world and have been part of R&D, with their work thought of until fairly recently as part of the product release cycle," Schwartz told me a few months ago. But documentation no longer just gets stuffed in a box and shipped. Now that much of it is available online, it's become common for people to read the documentation before they buy the product--making it more important than ever to have clear documentation that makes a product inviting rather than intimidating.

Article by David Carr for Informationweek:
Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr.

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