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Diverging Directions for Tech Comm: Social Media or Structured Authoring

Jun 9, 2011 • findability, web-design, wikis

Two powerful trends in tech comm seem to be moving in different directions: social media and structured authoring.

I have used a wiki as my primary format for documentation for the past year and a half. I tried to corral a group of volunteer technical writers to edit and update the wiki, because I embraced the idea that collective intelligence beats the individual thinker in the long run. But even the most advanced wikis don't have a structured authoring backend. With wikis, you compromise single sourcing, content re-use, and multi-channel publishing. So you really can't move in both directions well. I feel like I've had to choose whether I'll pursue structured authoring or social media formats for my help content.

While at the STC Summit, I kept thinking about metadata and the idea of sorting content semantically by queries that leverage the metadata. I asked more than a dozen of the smartest people in tech comm about this, and I came to the conclusion that if I ever wanted to do it, I'd need to embrace an XML format and develop custom semantic tags.

One evening I had a dinner conversation with Sarah O'Keefe about moving to XML. Sarah explained different ways to write XML and how to query the XML even when it's not structured as it should be. She grabbed a napkin and drew the following:

The picture Sarah drew for me
The code Sarah drew for me on a napkin.

Yes, I kept this napkin! It was the best souvenir from the STC Summit. It's funny because when she asked for an example of one of the metadata values and properties I wanted to use, I said role as the value, with editor as the property. But I must have mumbled it, because she wrote "elder" as the property instead.

After the conference ended and I returned to work, I decided to abandon my wiki and move all my content into our Mark Logic database, which stores content in XML. This is LDS.org's backend anyway.  To do this, I would need to convert all my wiki topics into XML and add the appropriate metadata to run all the custom queries and provide the faceted filtering I wanted.

I spent several weeks coming up with the right metadata and applying it to all my topics. I was basically saying goodbye to Mediawiki and the idea of collaboration. I would structure my content in XML, and I would be the sole author. Not that many community volunteers edited the wiki anyway, but there was always the possibility that some day it might take off. Still, I had given the wiki almost 2 years without seeing fruit. It was time to try something else.

When it finally came down to the time when I needed to convert my content, I learned that the web development team had created special help templates for me. These templates included a WYSIWYG editor where I would basically create pages. Further, I wouldn't even be the one converting the content. A special web development team would handle it all, populating the templates and creating pages, and even if I wanted to touch the content I could not. They planned to pull it directly from the wiki.

What about all of those metadata fields that I had labored over? I had to pitch the whole idea about semantic structure and findability again. In the end, they penciled in a future task in a later sprint to expose certain metadata fields in the templates for the web publishing team to use. The custom queries will be a future request, once my content is in XML.

I thought I would be swimming in XML and coding until my eyes turned blue, but it turns out that this approach is even less techie than the wiki. For the time being, I relinquished my publishing control.

I'm eager to see if the new format yields higher visibility and findability for the help. It probably won't be until the end of summer when I can evaluate whether the migration from wiki to XML was a good idea.

In the meantime, I have not altogether abandoned the idea of collaboration. I'm a project lead for a community LDSTech project that is more community-sourced than my wiki ever was. I have more than a handful of writers creating and submitting articles.

But hoping someone will land on a help page, realize its a wiki, log in and make intelligent updates is a dream that only few groups have ever achieved (most visibly, Wikipedia). The promises and potential of structured authoring, with faceted filtering, semantic structures, and intelligent queries, seems to outweigh the attempt to collaborate efforts across large groups using wikis.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. Topics I write about on this blog include technical writing, authoring and publishing tools, API documentation, tech comm trends, visual communication, technical writing career advice, information architecture and findability, developer documentation, and more. If you're a professional or aspiring technical writer, be sure to subscribe to email updates using the form above. You can learn more about me here.