Fragmented Communities and the Chapter/SIG Web Site Problem
Recently Will Sansbury and I gave a webinar to STC community leaders on chapter and SIG websites. Rather than giving a static, one-way presentation about theoretical concepts with web design, or boring people with technical details they probably didn't care about, we held the webinar more like a design review workshop, not too different from a writing group workshop.
Although I spent three years in a creative writing program holding exactly these types of writing workshops, in which a group of people provide feedback on the story or essay someone submits, it never crossed my mind that designers probably sit around tables doing the exact same thing with websites.
Regardless of the topic, the methodology of the workshop is mostly the same. In a tactful way, you explain what works well and what could be improved. Others either agree or disagree with your analysis, and hopefully they explain why. The only difference between critiquing creative stories and websites is in the questions you ask. Rather than ask, what's the story here? Are the characters believable? Does it have arc? You ask questions about findability, simplicity, readability, and so forth.
I found that in looking at websites, my feedback could be grouped into about seven categories:
- What are you trying to achieve with the site?
- What do you want the audience to do on the site?
- What do you want feedback about?
- What are some things your users might be looking for? Is it easy to find them?
- If you search for something, are the results accurate?
- Is the site navigation simple to understand?
- How does the site handle submenus to provide additional information?
- Is the site busy?
- Is there enough white space in the site?
- How easy is it to read the content?
- Is the font size, column width, leading, and typography working together in a readable way?
- Can I subscribe to the content with Facebook, Twitter, RSS, or e-mail to read it in the format I want?
- Are the paragraphs small, broken up with lists, blockquotes, and other formatting varieties?
- Can I add comments on things I read?
- Can I read other people's comments and reply to their comments in a threaded way?
- Can I contact someone through an email address or contact form? If a contact form, do I know where it goes or if it sent correctly?
- If I have a job to post, can I submit the details myself? Can I even post it myself?
- Is the content interesting to read?
- Is the content current?
- Can multiple people author and maintain content, so that all the burden isn't placed on one person?
- Do you integrate your news into real-time articles/posts on the site?
- Where do my eyes focus naturally focus on the site?
- Are there any design element repeated?
- Is the site attractive to look at? Why or why not?
Trends from the Analysis
If you go through each of these categories, you usually find something worthwhile to say. We analyzed six different sites: Quality Process SIG, Twin Cities, Heartland, Tech Editing SIG, Orlando, and the Contracting and Independent Consulting SIG.
The webinar description suggested that we would explore ways to build attractive online sites where members could interact and find value, because fewer and fewer people are physically gathering for meetings.
As we moved through the sites, it was clear that a lot of people were trying to move in exactly this direction -- towards collaboration and participation. The Quality Process SIG adopted SharePoint to make it easy for numerous people to author content. Twin Cites integrated a social networking component in a custom CMS where members could friend each other, add personal details, and even write blog posts. Orlando was in the process of moving their content to WordPress because their old site was a "dinosaur." The Tech Editing SIG built their content on a wiki platform containing a section that showed posts from their email list discussions in an automated way.
To enable participation and collaboration, many of the platforms allowed you to comment, subscribe, interact, log in, and manage the content. This makes sense.
But the platform is only the first step. Whether you're using WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, SharePoint, Ning, or any other Web 2.0-capable technology, a larger ingredient is missing from the recipe for a thriving online site where members naturally gravitate to for interaction. Your site can be as interactive as anything can be, and yet still remain dormant, unused, unexplored, rarely visited, and rarely even noticed unless you provide a reason for people to come together as a community.
For example, although the Twin Cities site offers the ability to friend others, blog, and add personal details about your location, interests, and other details, it isn't generating the activity you see on Facebook.
What's interesting about Facebook isn't that it allows you to write on other people's walls, provide status updates, or add other people as friends. What's interesting is that so many people are on Facebook, checking it and posting to it daily or even hourly.
Is it possible to create an online platform that technical communicators would use with as much popularity as Facebook or Twitter or even Stack Overflow?
The problem, I think, is in gathering a critical mass of community. Chapters are so small, it's hard to see much activity from members on a site. For example, our chapter now has about 20 members (as opposed to about 75 from last year). To think we'll convert the site into a thriving hub of online interaction is an illusion. You need thousands of people to build up the exchanges that take place in a popular community. When you have the thousands of people coming to your site every day, they begin to interact, and the interactions fuel more comments and replies and posts. At some point, you have a thriving community. But you don't build a community without a critical mass of participation.
Without a critical mass of people to form a community, you end up with a dormant-looking site -- for example, what most chapter sites look like.
The Ning Community Scott Abel created comes closest to the thriving online site where members can interact, but even that site seems underused. I just logged into the other day for the first time in months.
Again, the main problem is in the critical mass. There just aren't enough people in chapters to form a presence on a site. Chapters and SIGs fragment the already small online technical communicator audience.
Additionally, although SIGs have greater potential for online interaction, most of the activity is often better expressed through e-mail listservs and threaded forum discussions. As old-school as email or forums are, they're fast, immediate, and reach almost everyone.
I'm not really sure what solution is for chapter and SIG sites to move from dormant sites to thriving hubs of interaction. Technical writers are a small niche of overall people on the web, and when you fragment that already small niche into even smaller groups of chapters and SIGs, they never seem to come together in a critical mass of people.
This problem isn't unique to our group. It's a problem that stems for many independent publishing locations and sites. Conversations are taking place on blogs here and there, email listservs here and there, forums here and there, and the consequence is a bunch of whispers that you can't hear (unless you look in each of the individual places).
I believe the solution won't involve centralizing the information/people into one site and location. Instead, it will involve aggregating the sources through RSS and other technology.