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Review of Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation

by Tom Johnson on Aug 24, 2009
categories: book-reviews web-designwikis

One of the perks about being a blogger is that authors occasionally send me their books to review. Recently Anne Gentle sent me her new book, Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation. Anne's book is particularly important because it addresses the situation of the technical writer today, with the web in the state it is -- user generated, filled with blogs, wikis, Twitter, Facebook, social networks, and speckled with communities and conversations about the products we document.

Anne makes connections to a variety of concepts in a conversational style with her sources. It's a complex situation, and it's not about the tools or the technologies. It's about the people, and how you approach and interact with them. Focusing on people, Anne talks about participation levels, and she squarely addresses Nielsen's 90-9-1 percent rule -- that 90 percent will be silent, 9 percent will contribute occasionally, and 1 percent will contribute actively. She then explains strategies for increasing the 1% participation -- for example, relying on "read wear" with your content to make it naturally float in more visible spaces; recognizing the contributions your users make; helping users feel good when they contribute. She encourages writers to give their users freedom and to engage them with dialogue.

Beyond just reading about tips and strategies for the social web, Anne's book prompted me to reflect. It made me think carefully about how I'm listening and participating in conversations that my users are having. A lot of my documentation is behind the firewall. It never sees the light of the world wide web. As a result, I've often thought that social documentation doesn't really apply to my situation. Reading Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation made me challenge that idea. Anne says wikis are more popular internally than externally. Conversations can actually be even more open and engaging behind the firewall, through the blogs and wikis of countless SharePoint installations, because users already have trust -- a necessary ingredient for conversations.

The book also made me reflect on my light involvement in the community projects at my work, and how I should perhaps interact with that community. A growing number of developers, quality assurance engineers, designers, and technical writers are starting to contribute to those projects. What could I do to encourage more contributions? Am I listening? Am I enabling these communities to come together and have conversations? I hadn't really thought about these topics as much as I did after reading Anne's book.

I admit the approach to engendering conversation and community doesn't always seem to have a clear path. No one really knows whether some technologies are here to stay (for example, Twitter), or whether certain technologies (for example, wikis) are the best approach, or how you find time (for example, to blog about your products), or what you even write about. In short, the road through documentation on the social web is not a simple matter. But Anne provides several starting principles to ground any strategy you might have. First find out where the conversations are, she says. Then listen, participate, share, and finally lead.

A lot of companies take a reactive approach to social media, feeling the need to catch up so they aren't out of date. So they start blogs, or they join Twitter, or they launch a forum, but do they know how to navigate this space in a way that builds trust with users? Do they know how to open up lines of communication and channels of conversation in liberating ways? Do they know what net effect this engagement in the social web will have on their company? And how to measure it all? Conversation and Community covers all of these topics in depth.

We talk a lot about social media, and constantly look at ways to integrate best practices that will help us connect with customers in helpful ways. Anne's book, Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, will get you thinking in productive ways about the best approaches for entering this space. As technical writers needing capture the best information and tips from users about the products we document, the social web is not a space we can ignore and still be successful. Anne's book provides a map to this space that is more detailed and helpful than any other reference for technical writers. You will come away with more than a dozen ideas you can implement to increase conversations and communities with your users.

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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