The state of free documentation

That’s free as in freedom, and today’s post includes a link to Adam Hyde’s blog entry of the same title on FLOSS Manuals and some response based on my experiences so far.

Floss Manuals

What motivates people to contribute to documentation projects for free? Is the documentation actually free as in no-cost? I’ll speak from my own experience and draw from recent research in this area. Plus, I just read Chris Anderson’s excellent essay on free as a business model and learned about the multiple economies and values and currencies available to us today such as the gift economy or labor exchange.

In my Wiki-fy your doc set presentation, I talk about the motivations for people contributing to any online or community documentation, and these four categories apply for any online community, be it a wiki or a mailing list:

  1. reciprocity
  2. reputation
  3. efficacy
  4. feeling like you belong or identify with a group or cause.

These four categories explain why people are motivated to contribute for no pay (for free) to a documentation project. This poster presentation for a “General Online Research” conference 2008, GOR 08, offers even more insight into contributions to Wikipedia as well as reasons people cite for not contributing content but reading only. Now, I agree with Stewart Mader that “your (enterprise) wiki is not Wikipedia” but there are lessons to be learned from Wikipedia as well. Take a look at what they found motivated contributors:

Rank Motive
3.71 Free access to knowledge for everyone
5.15 Task enjoyment / Fun
5.33 Learning
6.55 Belief in the future of Wikipedia
6.69 Existing information was inaccurate
7.25 Quality improvement of Wikipedia

At the unconference last week, Tom Johnson asked me, why did you get started with documenting the OLPC project? My initial motivation was that someone who I used to work for asked me, and he works for Joann Hackos. So reputation was one motivating factor, but as I read more and more about the education goals of the OLPC project on, the more I saw it as an opportunity to identify with an education cause especially as related to my own kids computer educations and expanding their horizons beyond Windows. Why are any of us interested in documenting a complex product or process? It’s possible that at the heart of our motivation is recognition or reward in terms of money or success. But, an underlying motivator for many technical writers is that we like to help others learn, which ties into my education motives. We may also think that writing and communicating with images, audio, or video is a great way to make a living. What I am observing more lately is that community members want to write or share content as well.

Last year, O’Reilly ran a survey asking about the motivations that people have for contributing to online documentation, be it via a forum, a mailing list, or a web site. With 354 responses, I’m sure there’s a wide variety of answers, but certainly some patterns emerged. Andy Oram dissects them in a five plus page article. My favorite line on the first page is “And while fixes to particular errors are easy to convey, best practices are not.”

His report contains many findings that are unique, because no one else had been asking the questions. What he found that surprised me was:

  • People surveyed don’t think they are contributing to the documentation
  • People surveyed didn’t think of themselves as writers

Indeed, community building is the more important ranked reason for contributing to online documentation, rather than personal growth.

I have seen that rather than the monetary gains you can make by freelancing documentation, the currency of community is a payment schedule all on its own right.

The “free” offerings represent a shift in thinking. It’s not that no one paid for the doc to receive it. Nor did anyone get paid to write it. But the infrastructure in place enabled a sense of free-ness, freedom, and lack of cost. In reality, an elite group of people who have computers (starting at US$600 or so) and pay US$40 a month for Internet connections trade in t their time and knowledge in hopes of getting repaid in time and knowledge, recognition, a sense of belonging, or a payback in time by being more efficient.

This shift represents a new economy for documentation. Payment is in a different, “free,” no monetary cost form.


  • May 16, 2008 - 5:12 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anne,

    Great post on free documentation. My experience in that field is that writing doc for free (software):

    – helps you better understand the software you use
    – helps you help others better manage their computers

    But also, there’s a sense of community which is hard to find these days. Of course everyone has to pay his bills and eat once in a while, but contributing to a free documentation effort is rewarding for the spirit and the mind.

    The comment you make about wanting to educate others is also true. If you have a knack for communicating your knowledge, you always want to share it with as many people as possible.

    Although I was (well) paid to write free documentation, I am certain that I wouldn’t know half of what I know today in terms of process, workflow and large project coordination hadn’t I worked on free documentation projects.

    Longue vie aux logiciels libres 🙂

  • May 18, 2008 - 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi LeRoy – what a great way of stating it.

    We not only teach by documenting free doc, we learn. 🙂

  • Pingback:   Weekly links roundup by Communications from DMN

  • Leave a Reply