One community takeaway

Here’s a question and answer writeup that I have had squirreled away for a while.

Q: You recently published a book entitled “Conversation and Community“. If you could pick just one thing from your book about interacting with the community, what would it be?

A: I actually blame Whurley and Michael Cote’ for getting me interested in open source communities and wikis for documentation! And by “blame” I mean “thank.” :) The one thing I’d take away from my book about community is how educational my experiences volunteering as a technical writer for open source projects have been. I feel like I’ve taken a wiki apprenticeship by volunteering with FLOSS Manuals, writing free documentation for free software. I got my wiki feet wet writing for the kids, parents, and teachers using the One Laptop per Child hardware and SugarLabs education platform.

I found that I was interacting with community members and volunteers through the wiki infrastructure itself. For example, we all know how difficult it can be to open the OLPC XO laptop when you first see it closed up. I used an “Art Wanted” wiki page to request simple line drawings showing the opening of the “rabbit ear” latches in a simple step-by-step fashion. In a few weeks’ time, I had links to two images sent to me through my wiki “talk” page from a volunteer that show the two step process for opening the laptop very clearly. This kind of story amazes technical writers who have been working in enterprise environments where a graphic design request wouldn’t have that fast turnaround time.

I also learned that early interactions with people can lead to bigger collaboration opportunities, and that sometimes in-person collaboration is the most efficient. My favorite community event from that experience was the week-long Book Sprint we held in Austin in August 2008. We invited all sorts of recognized community contributors including Walter Bender, one of the founders of the MIT Media Lab. He had written one of the first comments on the discussion for the original simple users guide in the OLPC wiki, pointing out some outdated screenshots. His involvement and helpful attitude led to enormously productive writing sessions at the Book Sprint. Embracing the wiki for authoring led to great results.

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