Monthly Archives: May 2011

techpubs tools writing

Crowdsourcing Inquisition

I consider myself a curious person. I was constantly questioning as a kid, much to the chagrin of my fifth grade teacher. I recall that he wrote in my yearbook, “Keep asking questions, but when you ask, listen and learn.” How fortunate I could become a professional technical writer, where curiosity and asking “how does that work?” is a requirement of my daily work. Of course, the listen and learn portion for my 30+-year-old self is, “write it down before you forget!”

What’s nice about working on OpenStack at such an early stage is that others are asking really good questions also. We started the project using Launchpad’s Answers feature for OpenStack projects. Launchpad Answers is a rudimentary question and answer system that’s a blend of a mailing list and a forum in one, attempting to help projects create community support sites. (We all know that building a community support site is about people, not tools, so I’ll just repeat that mantra here for emphasis, people over tools.)

With configurable notifications and the ability to turn a question into a bug, it acts as a substitute for overly-eager users filing tons of non-vetted bugs. I don’t find it as advanced in the community equity model as say, Stack Overflow’s Q&A sites, but you do earn “karma points” for answering questions, and you can comment on a question or ask for more information. Also, the person asking seems to have the upper hand for marking a question as answered. We’ve very recently started to explore the use of a forum rather than the Launchpad Answers area. I’m hoping we’ll see as much curiosity in the forums as we have seen in Launchpad Answers.

To me, the upsurge in community support sites means that the questioning nature of a technical writer can be spread out among even more questioners. Even if a user does not consider themselves to be technical writers, they are doing some of the work of a technical writer. People in the real world, trying out OpenStack, are coming back with all sorts of questions. Plus, the questions and answers can be searched for later reference. It’s a gold mine of technical info and specific scenarios. The challenge for the technical writer is to sift through the questions and answers and determine relevance for their audience and determine the majority use, eliminating edge cases. The challenge for the system itself is

And in the theme of yearbook quotes, how about this one? “Better ask twice than lose your way once.” My hope for OpenStack is to build a community support site where duplicate questions are not dinged but search-worthy, there are no dumb questions, and the questioners listen and learn, and then pay it forward.

Twitter’s Value to Technical Communication

Some responses to an inquiry I got via email from a student at the University of Minnesota in the Scientific and Technical Communication program. Thanks Mary, for asking nice thought-provoking questions!

1. What do you think is the value of Twitter compared to other forms of communication?

To me, the value of Twitter is that it was built based on the patterns some people saw of the ways people were really communicating online – In this interview with Noah Glass, one of Twitter’s founders, a journalist learns that Noah was reading myspace postings and figuring out that asynchronous, status-like updates were how people were really talking to each other online. The value of Twitter that I see after reading that article is that Twitter modeled itself after reality. It works well with mobile devices, a communication device that needed to fill a void in 2006-7. It’s hard to compare it to email or texting or instant messaging, when it’s a messaging system we didn’t know we needed until we had it. Recognizing and filling that need is how Twitter is thriving today.

2. Can Twitter really be used for documentation and if so, what are its unique qualities?

Sure, people are using Twitter for posting tips and tricks and encouraging others to do the same. It’s also being used for Twitter chats, periods of time set aside to talk on Twitter with a particular hashtag collecting and aggregating all the tweets within the time period. Tweets with a certain hashtag can also be displayed alongside online content that serves as documentation. Twitter can be used for the goals met with traditional documentation when the goals are customer support or service, engagement, adoption, research and feedback loops, and other similar customer-serving goals that doc fulfills. So yes, Twitter can be used for documentation, when documentation’s goals align with some Twitter use cases.

3. Are there any accessibility problems facing Twitter and what are the best ways to make Twitter more accessible?

Accessibility improvements usually apply to vision impairment, and the popularity of the iPhone or other smart phones that automatically eliminate most vision-impaired users mean that Twitter is not easily accessible to those usually served by accommodations such as screen readers. I don’t have real suggestions to make Twitter web content more accessible – I actually believe the mobile devices need to become more accessible to vision-impaired people. Touchscreens just aren’t going to cut it.

What’s more interesting to me are the articles about how much social media like Twitter suffers from a “club” problem – it can amplify how disconnected we are with other cultures. For example, when some BET award show topics started trending and some people on Twitter commented as if to say “I didn’t realize ‘they’ were here” I was mortified as were others. That lack of vision and close-mindedness is a huge social problem that social media can amplify. Also, there’s an often hidden advantage that doesn’t have to do with disabilities necessarily. Those of us with fairly “boring” lives (no horrid exes, no fear of violence or retaliation, no fear of identity theft or libelous charges) can use Twitter or other social platforms without fear, but others who grew up in gangs, had to reinvent themselves to avoid prosecution, or people who are chased by violent family members cannot use Twitter unless they’re willing to take much more risk than others.