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Social Networks and the TransAlpine Conference

by Tom Johnson on Jun 13, 2009
categories: technical-writing

Before I met my Shannon 11 years ago, she spent about seven weeks traveling across Europe. It was a time she trying to answer some questions, and during some point in her walking and train-riding and city exploring, she found answers. She also fell in love with Europe—with the little narrow streets, the bustling plazas, the rich histories, the winding rivers, the chocolates and pastries. Ever since then, for the past 11 years she's been telling me about Europe. So when the opportunity presented itself to go to Vienna and present at the TransAlpine conference, I accepted.

The TransAlpine Chapter (TAC) includes a number of countries across central Europe. Every year the chapter has a technical communication conference in some agreed-upon location--previously Slovenia, Zurich, and Berlin, this year Vienna. Technical writers come from all over Europe to attend it—from Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia, Italy, France, England, Poland, Austria, and other countries. For three days, the group—previously spread out, isolated, and alone—is combined into one.

Because the flight alone takes a day, I wanted to make the most of my trip. So I arrived two days early. I learned to navigate the bahn (the subway system). I explored Shonbrunn Palace, Stadt Park, ate real pizza and plum pastries, attended a Mozart-Strauss concert, marveled inside St. Stephen's 900 year-old cathedral, looked at the majestic architecture of the Hofsburg Palace and the Museum Quarters, got lost riding a city-rented bicycle, explored the Hall of Music, walked around the lively bustling District 1 streets and shops, watched outdoor opera on a giant screen, ate coconut ice cream from a gelatina, gazed up at the artistic Huntervasser house, and walked along the city edge of the Danube river.

The experience was, to say the least, visually and culturally stimulating. I can hardly believe the history everywhere. In the U.S., proud stores often advertise they've been in operation since the early 1900s. In Vienna, they advertise they've been operating since 1683. The architecture is also exquisite and ornate. Imagine the most stately architecture of a state capital building. Now imagine every building in the city (times 100) with the same architectural grandeur, only more palatial and from the 17th and 18th centuries.

But a travelogue of details is not my point here. I'm building up to something else, a hint at the importance of social networks. Everywhere I saw couples and groups enjoying the sights together. A group of tourists looking up at a historic building. A couple interpreting a map together. A group of teens wearing the same T-shirt to keep themselves together. Two lovers holding hands in the plaza. Senior citizens staring at the sides of cathedral walls. There's something about being with another that makes all the difference. In contrast, traveling solo gets to be a bit isolating, even immersed in crowds.

The technical writers in the TransAlpine chapter are more or less isolated from other technical writers. In Austria and many other countries, the profession of technical writing is largely unrecognized. Almost no one knows what a technical writer is. In many situations, the only technical writers are those employed by U.S. companies with overseas locations—most notably, IBM. Although these technical writers have the camaraderie of their fellow engineers, a thriving hub of other technical writers within the same area is rare. This is why the Transalpine Conference is so important—and why it's so powerful.

The TransAlpine Conference is an immersion in a social network. As the conference sessions started, I didn't just shake a few people's hands; I developed real friendships with over a dozen people. I hung out with Glen from Berlin, an outspoken Canadian expat who wasn't afraid to say what he thought. I exchanged views with Stuart, a brilliant Englishman and web developer living in Paris. I talked at length with Dan, an engaging and conversational Pennsylvania-born expat living in Zurich. I shared views with Anna from Poland and learned about her DITA experiences and the Workbench. I chatted with Ellis Pratt and David Farbey, two Englishmen—one an ingenious marketer who started Cherryleaf, the other a fascinating historian who knew all the details of English kings going back at least a thousand years.

I talked with a group of writers from Slovenia. Another writer from Poland. Two writers from Munich, Germany. Another from Copenhagen, Denmark. Locals from Austria. And more.

You meet a lot of people at conferences, but the TransAlpine Conference takes it to another level. Lunch is not an hour where everyone goes their own way to find food. Lunch is another session in the conference. After the sessions end each day, you spend the evening with the same group, mostly enjoying a long meal. And sometimes you ride the ferris wheel at the Prater together.

I've never lived on "the Continent," as they say about Europe. But I have lived overseas before—in Venezuela, Japan, and Cairo. I know the social dynamics that sometimes develop among expat communities. Your separation from family and home lead you to form strong friendships and close communities with those around you. Your social connections may be fewer, but they extend much deeper and are more meaningful.

The TransAlpine Conference helps facilitate the social networks that people need, especially for those writers living estranged from their homes, the expats and emigrants and foreigners living in new cities and lands, or for those solo native writers making a living at an unrecognized profession, who usually have almost no interaction with colleagues in their same field.

This is the tenth year that the TransAlpine chapter has been holding conferences. Vici Koster-Lenhardt, who works for Coca-Cola and has been in Vienna for 20+ years, is one of the main organizers who started the conference. The success of the TransAlpine chapter model, where more than 100 technical writers spread out across Europe can still be part of a tight-knit community, is a model that the STC has studied for possible implementation in other areas. Vici actually became an STC Fellow this year, not only for her 25 years of active engagement in the profession, but also for her pioneering of the TransAlpine model.

During the three day conference, I gave several presentations. I gave a workshop on WordPress, a presentation on blogging, podcasting, and screencasting, another presentation on quick reference guides, and I participated on a trends panel. I have grown to enjoy presenting more and more. I like the engagement in the conversation and the freedom to move in a direction I find interesting. I also enjoy defining the pace and fielding the questions. Every session went well, but I particularly liked the one on blogging. (I also recorded it and will be posting it soon.)

In the U.S., a three hour drive hardly gets you out of the same state. But a three hour drive from Slovenia actually gets you over the border to Vienna. Since the countries are so close together, the people are often more mixed. It's easy to find people from all over, from Poland and Switzerland and Italy and Germany, all in the same room. Each of these countries has a unique culture and language that provides fascinating topics for conversation. It was these lengthy conversations that I'll remember most from the conference.

Near the end of my trip, I walked along the Danube into non-touristy areas, listening to my iPod as I walked. Unlike Jane, my going to Europe didn't involve much soul-searching. But I did find myself thinking about the social ties that bind us together, and how even the most interesting places in Vienna suddenly lose appeal without another, without friends and colleagues to exchange ideas and perspectives and conversation. Do you ever wonder what life is about? It's about the people you share it with.

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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