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Social Media 101: Now Everyone's a Technical Writer

by Tom Johnson on May 8, 2008
categories: technical-writing

Speaker: Darren Barefoot (see
Conference: Doc Train 2008


For most of human history, we had few-to-few communication. One person spoke to a few around a campfire. Then in the 1500s, along came the printing press, and gave rise to a few-to-many communication model. The power to communicate is placed in the hands of a few, which communicate to everyone else. Today with the web, we have a many-to-many model. The ubiquity of the web and the abundance of cheap tools enable many-to-many communication. This is also called the "rise of the creative class." People are transforming from consumers to creators.

Social media is typified by several main concepts:

  • Conversation: A conversation is two-way.
  • Collaboration: People can collaborate in ways they never could before. For example, Wikipedia -- it's the biggest collaborative event in the world.
  • Sharing: Every social media tool has a sharing mechanism, such as the RSS feed.
  • Scope: There are no longer column inches or 42 minute hours. There are no buckets that limit the scope of your content. You can sell ebooks that are 10 pages or 1,000 pages.
  • Community: Communities are thin-sliced, meaning more granular. Now there are ways to gather people in more granular niches (e.g., walrus lovers) than ever before.
  • Transparency: Using a tool like a blog encourages you to be more transparent and authentic. People want to get to know you as a person inside your company, you as a creator. These mediums encourage you to become more authentic.

Social media tools: Facebook, RSS, Wikpedia, Brightkite, Digg, Twitter, Ning, Mashups, Flickr, Friendfeed, YouTube, Blogs, Wikis, Social Bookkmarking, virtual worlds, Stumbleupon, Linkedin, and so on.

Who creates social media? Dang near everybody. All sorts of people, ethnicities, regions. 42% of Chinese Internet users have a blog. Whoa. A lot of people are engaging in social media:

  • 83% of people watch video online.
  • 78% of people say they read blogs online (probably another 10% probably don't realize they're reading blogs).
  • 57% belong to a social network.

Why do people make social media? backup, brain, earn money, emote, entertain, experiment with technology, follow trends, join a community, keep a personal history, make change, practice writing, talk to friends and family. He showed a tag cloud, and I bolded the most common (largest) tags.

How does this apply to technical writing? People all over the world are creating instructions for different things, from creating a shirt pocket for your macbook, to explaining how to create a manual powered charger for your ipod.

Darren showed this video on Wikis in Plain English as a prime example of user-generated technical instructions.


This video is one of the most engaging technical explanations on the web. Originally it was a pet project by some people at Now they have an entire business creating this type of content, and a huge demand for it. Their videos have been viewed millions of times on the web.

Another example of social media user-generated content is with World of Warcraft. People have created extensive documentation about World of Warcraft, complete with screenshots, 3D models, image maps, migratory patterns, and more. No one is paying anyone to do these things. Hundreds of thousands of player hours have been spent in documentation.

Another example is forums on the web. There are millions of examples, but people who get involved in forums spend a lot of time helping each other out online, providing instructions and how-to's and workarounds. They participate in forums answering questions, giving advice, documenting procedures. This is another way that everyone is becoming a technical writer. It's like everyone is tech support.

He also showed -- "life explained on film." These are user-contributed how-to videos on the web. Users are generating this content, uploading it, and sharing it.

Other social media formats include podcasts. QA Podcast covers "expert conversations about the poor cousin of the software family." QA Podcast covers an expert talking about issues people have encountered. These podcasts are instructional, supporting the idea again that everyone is becoming a technical writer on the web.

Finally, Twitter is also a social media tool used to market your products, provide support, give announcements and news. If you're a Twitter user, this can be an excellent way to include your customers, to keep them up to date about changes or updates.

Lessons from social media:

  • Relinquish control. Probably the best instruction is no longer on your website, but is on Google generated by your users.
  • Users will help each other. You need to enable this behavior. Give them the tools to help each other. Give them video, screencasts, explanatory photos, and other media that they can share, mashup, build-upon, and write about.
  • Empower your most passionate users. Some of your users may have blogs dedicated entirely to your product (e.g., Red Book Chronicles). You should cater to your most passionate users and give them special perks, invitations, MVP-type programs. Give them more tools, more power, etc., to evangelize and promote your products.
  • Think outside the page. Use all forms, such as Twitter or other less commonly used media. Consider videos, audio, wiki, and other cutting edge forms.
  • Go where your usres are. Find out where your users are -- Facebook, blogs, etc. -- and respond to your users there. Engage with them there. Respond to their blog posts. Engage with them where they're having discussions.

In conclusion, when Tim Berners-Lee first created the web, it was a read-write format, similar to the wikis that we have today. So we've come full circle to where we originally started with the web.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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