Book Review: Everything is Miscellaneous, by David Weinberger
In Everything is Miscellaneous, Dave Weinberger argues that classifications that we have imposed on most everything from the alphabet to the encyclopedia, planets, books, and knowledge ultimately represent our own beliefs and priorities. As time changes, we see how our own thinking at that time inclined us to organize the information that way.
In reality, things in the world don't have such clear-cut categories and ordered absolutes. The world around us is ultimately miscellaneous, meaning, without clear division and order. Each thing has characteristics that overlap with other things, so that a classification that makes sense to one person doesn't make sense to another.
Even if we meticulously craft a careful organization of the content, our organization might not ring true to another's information needs. For example, organizing content on a map to include topography, water systems, roads, and trails might meet one person's needs, but the omission of businesses, schools, boundaries, and emergency shelters might make the map useless to others.
Rather than classifying things in absolute ways, or deciding what to include and exclude in systems, we should strive to add as much metadata to things as we can imagine -- and allow users to do the same. Applying metadata to everything allows us to manipulate the information in ways that make sense to each of us.
As another example, tagging photos in systems like Flickr allows you to retrieve virtually any set of information based on your queries. For example, you can search for all panorama beach photos in California containing sunrises and see a list of results. But if a group of librarians had forced the photos into rigid collections, their categorizations probably wouldn't have accommodated this specific category.
Weinberger argues that metadata is really the key to solving the problem of order and classification. Adding metadata should be one of the top priorities of help authors, in my opinion. Who hasn't wrung their hands in agony over where to put a help topic. We meticulously try to arrange topics into neat topical hierarchies, but these hierarchies often fail to communities of users. Trying to arrange content in the "right order," usually based on tasks or topics, inevitably frustrates users. They end up playing guessing games about how things might be named and categorized. After browsing for a few seconds, they resort to hopeless searches, usually trying to guess the right terms.
Even if the order makes logical sense to many users, people don't always think in topical ways. Maybe users are browsing to discover more advanced techniques, or are looking for troubleshooting issues, or are trying to locate specifications. If they could leverage metadata to arrange the information they need, they're more likely to find the right topics.
Recently I was working on a project documenting a simple online calendar. In this calendar, administrators can reserve blocks of time for different groups, so I put this topic under a section called "Managing Locations and Resources." Where would users -- not administrators -- look if they're trying to figure out how to submit requests to reserve calendar times? And where would calendar schedulers look if they're trying to view resource availability? Would they look in the same section where other administrator topics are grouped? Or in their own grouping of topics that relates to their own rights and roles?
Surely every help author who has documented software that contains at least 75 topics or more has wrestled with this conundrum. This is the threshold in which figuring out the right categories or folders for information poses challenges. It's where you realize the content could be organized in a number of different paths based on one's needs, priorities, and perspectives. To users unfamiliar with an application's rights and roles, unaware of its terms and workflows, figuring out where a topic is located within a large system of folders is a guessing game.
Amazingly, Weinberger doesn't use help systems as examples of miscellaneous. His domain is instead the Internet itself. But I have never read a more relevant book for technical communicators than Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous. Weinberger provides a strategy that, if followed, would largely solve the problem of findability with help. In a world of ever-increasing information, adding metadata to push and pull and arrange the information in user-centric ways provides the best strategy for attempting to organize content. Ultimately, Weinberger says to give up on organizing the content in one specific way and instead allow users to group it in ways that make sense to them.
The challenge, as always, lies in implementation. Exactly how do you add metadata to your help topics? What kind of metadata do you include? And how do allow the user to arrange or call the topics based on the metadata they want to sort by?
Weinberger is a masterful writer with a strong knowledge of history, philosophy, Internet, politics, and more. He weaves together stories from different disciplines in a mesmerizing way while always tying in his overall thesis -- that everything is ultimately miscellaneous (without absolute order and classification) -- to each chapter.
In the second half of the book, Weinberger focuses on the implications of not having a centralized, top-down hierarchy of knowledge. Some of his philosophical interests surface more visibly here, but overall the book is extremely relevant to the field of technical communication. For anyone who has ever struggled to organize help content, this book provides solid answers and strategies.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.