Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading :: Conversation and Community

Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation
By Anne Gentle

I checked in my LinkedIn updates the other week, and Anne Gentle's status message said that she had just published this book. Curious, I checked out the description on, and then I did something I almost never do: I bought the book on Amazon, new, without even seeing it. That's because Gentle has finally taken on something that technical communicators desperately need to do: she has written a book that grapples with how technical communication is impacted by, and can leverage, social media.

I've ridden this hobby horse for a few years. The last chapter of Tracing Genres through Organizations, for instance, discusses a speculative "open system" in which users could contribute their own free-form documentation. These way-out predictions now look timorous and tentative, as I acknowledge in the summer 2009 issue of JBTC, since people use Google to find answers to very specific questions and Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc. to establish communities. In my principles of technical writing classes last year, I had a project based on establishing a relationship between static, official documentation and dynamic, user-contributed documentation. But I haven't done the practical groundwork to guide such work. So I was delighted to see that Anne Gentle has.

Gentle really comes to grips with the shift that ubiquitous Internet connections have precipitated. As she points out, consumers more and more frequently start their documentation searches with an Internet search engine, and they frequently look for documentation that matches their learning style – which may be a YouTube video, podcast, or set of photos rather than traditional written documentation (p. 17). Meanwhile, the third-party print market has begun to feature page turners (e.g. the For Dummies books) (p.21) rather than the spare reference guides and user guides that were developed during the tech comm heyday of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The tech comm landscape is much more populated these days, and writers have to be sensitive to the entire ecology of texts and what niche each one fills.

In Chapter 2, Gentle does a nice job of listing such niches of social media (pp.30-33), covering not just community content, discussions, and video, but also texting, microblogging, and tagging. She discusses user-generated examples such as the World of Warcraft wiki (p.37). And as the book progresses, she outlines how writers can determine the best contributions they can make, their starting points, and their strategies for best impacting social media. She describes social media roles (p.73) and the phases of a strategic plan for social media engagement, such as the listening phase, the participation phase, the content sharing phase, and the platform or stage phase (pp.75-78). She also discusses the social capital involved in developing documentation – and encouraging users to generate their own (p.107).

So I'm thrilled that Gentle has written the book and that it covers what it does. Conversation and Community isn't perfect – it's going to be difficult to follow for the people who need it most, students in introductory tech comm courses, who are not as familiar with basic tech comm concepts as the book requires them to be. But for those who have worked as technical writers, the book provides an accessible, strategically minded discussion of social media and how they can work with it. I am strongly considering adopting it for one of my classes. Take a look.


Chick Lit Gurrl said...

Thanks for talking about this book; I plan to buy it soon. As a newbie to tech. comm. and a lover of just about anything related to social media, this seems like a good book to get some understanding from.

With all the ways users can get information, the audience - more than ever - seems like it should be at the forefront of every tech commer's mind. No one has time for the traditional 1,000-paged manual anymore, not with our ADD and need to get an answer NOW.

Oh, BTW, this is ChickLitGurrl from Twitter!

Clay Spinuzzi said...

I figured :)

Anne Gentle said...

So glad my book turned into an impulse purchase! :)

Grapple, indeed. I was compelled to write this book, yet there is still much to learn about the social web and tech comm's role as it evolves and we evolve with it.

Thanks for writing this up, Clay, your input is extremely valuable.

@ChickLitGurrl - Thanks for your comment too! I hope you find the book useful as a writer yourself.