Tag Archives: social networking

Choose Conversation and Community

We’re closing in on the second edition of my book being released and available! I’m super excited about it. I can’t stop thinking about it. On the way back from the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, I started doodling in a new notebook when all “items with an on/off switch” had to be off, and came up with this diagram for what the social web means to me.

The terms social relevance, social networking, and social media, as a triad for explaining the social web became very clear to me after reading this rather complex title: Enterprise Social Technology: Helping organizations harness the power of Social Media Social Networking Social Relevance by Scott Klososky.

Social Web

You see, these three social powers offer us content folks an entry to the strategic playing field of the social web.

What I realized is that there’s a stream of conversation and community throughout all these social threads. I hope that the second edition of my book connects these threads with more clarity than ever. I hope the long title doesn’t prevent you from tweeting about it. And I hope we all can relate our stories to each other to keep learning about the social web and growing our field’s influence on it. Let’s choose conversation and community as a strategic benefit to all our documentation efforts.

Social Support and Documentation Communities

Stories of Social Media Sticking in Unlikely Places
Saying, “No one reads the manual” just doesn’t hold water any more. Social technology has intersected even the classic user manual. There’s always someone who will read a book. But their true motivation may be a desire to become an expert on a forum or on Twitter, building an expert’s reputation or reciprocating assistance because they know they can rely on the social web to pay it forward.

The way to amplify knowledge is through social media, social networking, and social relevance tools, gathering a wider audience and working in an economy whose payment is in links and more links. To find a fix for a problem with a cell phone, some chose to go to the phone’s web site and download a manual. Others naturally search on YouTube for troubleshooting hints.

Social media for troubleshooting, training, or trying software or gadgets? Sure. Does this scenario sound familiar?

“The darn thing won’t sync up again,” she grumbled as she tried to unload the latest running data from a sensor in her shoe. The data should travel from the shoe to the iTunes software through her iPod which was connected to her computer so that the data would be uploaded to a third-party website. As you might guess, her first troubleshooting attempt started with the error message within iTunes itself, but after seeing a message from iTunes that told her to reboot the router, she instead opened up a browser window. Without even opening a new window, she searched on Google in a browser plugin. A helpful community posting from a year ago helped her get the data about her five mile run from her shoe to the website.

Google is a new entry point to every help system that is, well, helpful. From Google users can view videos, download PDF files of the manual, and read forum posts from people who have come across this problem before. Sometimes Google links go directly to a company’s set of manuals, but more often than not, Google is the entry point to user-generated or community-collected content from blogs, forums, or wikis.

Bloggers who build a reputation as an expert in Adobe products can now be found even more easily with the Community Help search tool, which is a curated collection of blogs, video tutorial sites, and other social media-centered sites. Searching within the Community Help on keywords such as “footnotes” offers up a list of links to Indesign experts who maintain blogs and offer how-to tips and advice.

If people are listening on Twitter to come to other user’s aid, even microblogging and instant messaging applies to the new aggregate troubleshooting guide. Social support communities crop up when social media tools are used to collect questions and answer them or point people on the social network to others who can answer their questions.

Documentation communities are built upon content systems such as wikis that lower the barrier to contribution by giving any page an Edit button. Rather than waiting for a long publishing process to finish, readers can be come authors and editors at the click of a button. And the publishing system itself notifies users when new content is brought on board.

Social and community techniques are a sensation everywhere, even for the boring, unsexy systems applied to customer support and technical documentation. You’ll be glad for it the next time your favorite portable gadget does an unfamiliar flip flop.

Tragedy of the commons

Are professional associations going the way of bowling leagues? I don’t think so. And I certainly hope not since my employer, ASI, provides software for non-profits which includes professional associations.

But it is certainly an interesting premise that there are fewer mechanisms for casual introductions because of a shared activity like bowling or bridge. Robert Putnam wrote an article in 2000 called “Bowling Alone” that turned into this book, Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community. It’s a fascinating premise and I’d like to read more just based on this quote, “Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.”


Technology – part of the solution?

If you’ve read my book, Conversation and Community, you might think I’d advocate for online activities like Scrabulous (now Lexulous) for casual introductions and getting to know people. And there are certainly stories where Twitter has introduced people to each other in new ways, such as Michael Hughes discovering common interests with others unexepctedly through Twitter and Facebook  interactions. In his post, Social Web: This old dog finally gets it, he says:

As an officer, I’ve taken quite a bit of heat over some unpopular decisions and problems lately from well-meaning and articulate critics. Twitter and Facebook have given me the opportunity to interface with some of these critics at the level of home-brewed beer and love of musical instruments.

A strong personal touch

Yet, there are some technologies that can make group work more difficult. As Clay Shirky eloquently explains in “Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software,” mailing lists can have the most difficulty with signal-to-noise ratio. You know you’ve seen it happen on lists over and over again. Someone writes something that everyone needs to respond to, and then the responses don’t add to the original discussion. Even the best-behaved list members have difficulty obeying rules of conduct set forth. Naturally, the problem is more difficult when the list is large, because people who crave the “upset” attention will get more drama on a larger list.

On the other hand, blogs and wikis have built-in rules of engagement that assist with this problem. Clay Shirky outlines many assistant design decisions in the essay referenced above. But you still have to be willing to moderate comments when you are a blogger or a wiki administrator. And you have to be willing to work hard to build a community that uses the technology in a productive way.

Storytelling and the Art of Community

I just received my pre-ordered copy of the Art of Community and wow! I am learning so much already. Jono Bacon is the author, and his experiences with communities come from years with the open source Linux project and now Ubuntu.

I believe many types of communities can benefit from reading this book, from professional organizations to preschool boards. So far I’ve only read about bikeshedding, governance, and conflict resolution, both areas I need to know how to handle!

The book opens with a story of a teen-aged boy racing across England to go to a meeting with people he has only met on the Internet – and he’s late! I loved this story as a hook for the book.

It reminded me of my own first-time experience with “Internet friends” (as the friend’s wife in the story calls the group.) My perspective was as a girlfriend whose boyfriend had the “Internet friends.” 🙂  Here’s my story.

It was the mid-nineties and my boyfriend Paul was working at a university as a system administrator. In his spare time, he stumbled across a group with a single goal that captured his attention – the distributed.net team, the Internet’s first general-purpose distributed computing project. Their goal was to win a contest to crack or decode an encryption key using many computers, each one doing a small amount of the calculation work.

From Cincinnati, Paul got more involved with their project, and chatted with the group on IRC quite a bit. As strange as it sounds, I got to know the group through their IRC handles – cow, dbaker, Nugget, Moonwick, and decibel, to name a few. One week they decided it would be great to get together for dinner in Indianapolis. My girlfriends from college who lived in Indianapolis didn’t quite know what I was talking about. “You’re coming to visit? And visiting us as well as some new friends of your new boyfriend? And he only knows them through the computer?”

Paul and I drove over from Cincinnati to Indianapolis, about a two-hour drive. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I trusted Paul knew these guys well enough to want to hang out. I was a tagalong but my curiosity, which I have in abundance, was piqued. Would the first meeting be awkward or natural? Would I have anything to talk to them about?

palmpilotsAs it turns out, we had a fun time at a fondue restaurant. We were stuffed full of food and good laughs. The guys happily played with their gadgets – Palm Pilots were the popular one of the time.

Oh, good times. That meeting was the first of many for our group. We traveled to Atlanta later to scope out different locations for a company and at the end of that quest, many of them moved to Austin to work at the United Devices startup company in 2000.

Wiki technical writer – job description

I found this “wiki technical writer” job description the other day and thought about the ideas in my book. Yippee! Companies are starting to demand the skills and strategies outlined in my book.

Here’s the job description, pasted from the STC Silicon Valley website.

Description:Oak Hill Corporation is currently looking for a Technical Writer with administrative-level experience using Confluence (or another major Wiki tool) to migrate and develop product documentation for one of our clients. The migration task requires some information architecture. This is an on-site full time position. The contract will be about 6 months and could result in a permanent position with the company.


* Bachelors degree in Computer Science or related field
* Thorough understanding of the business usage of wiki technologies (2+ years)
* Administrative knowledge of and experience with Wiki engines, preferably with Confluence or MediaWiki (2+ years)
* Experience documenting technical customer and developer materials
* Portfolio of work showing experience

Required Skills:

* Ability to design, implement, and maintain wiki namespaces and pages
* Ability to migrate legacy documents to wiki
* Ability to architect scalable wiki namespaces and page linking layouts
* Ability to create wiki templates
* Ability to fully utilize tagging and labeling wiki functionalities
* Excellent writing and communication skills
* Understanding of software development life cycle


Upon closer inspection I realized it is a six-month contract position, that may lead to a permanent position. One interpretation of the fact that it’s a contract position is that the company housing the Confluence wiki really only needs to use the wiki as a web CMS, not as a community site. That’s a valid use of the tool as it offers more interactive, shareable content than most help authoring tool outputs. Check out this case study on the Atlassian site for more information on using Confluence for user assistance.

Another interpretation is that the company hasn’t found anyone with this unique skillset and is hoping the Oak Hill Corporation’s reach will help them find that unique person. In a contract position, the technical writer will have to work hard in six months to establish themselves as a member of the community, as long as their online identity would be permanent enough to allow them to earn attribution on the content. Perhaps a writer who embraces the community would earn the permanent position, though.

I hope to see more job descriptions like this one. I know I see more and more demand for these skills and for user assistance on the web that blends well with the rest of the web content out there, is shareable, findable, and ultimately solves users problems.

What are you seeing? Is there demand for this type of content with these types of tools and skill sets? Are technical writers the ones filling the demand?

The why and how of writing a book

I’ve been asked a few times, why did you write this book? And often it’s paired with, how did you write this book? I think I answer both questions in this interview I just completed with Emmelyn Wang on the stcaustin.org site. Here’s an excerpt, but you can click through to read more.

STC Austin: In addition to your love of reading books and your desire to teach/learn, what other motivations compelled you to author Conversation and  Community: The Social Web for Documentation?

Anne Gentle: I felt compelled to write this book to capture this point in time – a time when user-created content is getting enough notice for Time magazine to name the person of the year “You.” As a wiki writer working on the open source education projects for One Laptop per Child and SugarLabs, I was seeing technical writing in a new light and I wanted to chronicle my experiences. Writing content that could be commented on and edited by other community members was different from a traditional technical writing role. Writing blog entries as a technical writer representing BMC Software was also rather unusual at the time I was doing it, in fall of 2005. We were working on the talk.bmc.com site because of a belief in the Cluetrain Manifesto.

Often I outlined or wrote sections of the book rather than write a blog entry twice a week. Little by little it formed into a book, with the help of Kelly Holcomb, my good friend and editor who would read the sections, ask questions to fill in the gaps, and stitch it together. I also am in debt to the writing communities and writers that gave me the experiences from which I gathered tales as examples. I wanted it to be in book format to reach a different audience than my typical blog readers. I wanted the book format to give more credibility to the premise that the social web is important enough that just another blog writing about it wasn’t enough, that the value here was enough for a publisher to invest in it. XML Press is the perfect publisher for that, because it provides content that helps technical communicators be more effective in their work and value proposition. What better value proposition can we provide than to get closer to our customers, understanding their needs and responding to them quickly.

Read more…

Webinar available now from Scriptorium Publishing

I gave a webinar this week for Scriptorium that will be available online titled “Documentation as Conversation.” The fact that it’s recorded lets you avoid scurrying around rearranging meetings in Outlook just to attend it. It sold out which was great to hear, but I like that the message and conversation continues through the recording. One of my fun examples was the Wordle visualization of my tags from the social bookmarking tool, del.icio.us.


During the question and answer session, someone mentioned they felt like social media made her feel like we’re becoming paleontologists. I think she referred to my many examples of how to “stalk” your users to learn more about them and their goals, especially if you document software. I search for my product’s name in Indeed.com job listings as well as look for job titles with my product’s name in LinkedIn to learn more about the people I’m writing for. I wrote up the technique in this blog post, Find your user’s vocabulary and use his or her key terms as keywords.

I also had a follow up email saying that people want to know, where should my team start conversations? Or where should we focus our time if we do start? In my book, I talk about phases: Listen, Participate, Share, Build a Platform. I think you should start with listening and monitoring what’s already being said. Next, start by commenting on blogs or by blogging yourself. A baby step towards blogging is to blog on an internal site, behind your firewall, just to limit your audience if that makes you more comfortable.

Also I’d recommend trying out tools that are already installed that you don’t have to maintain and install yourself. For example, I started justwriteclick.com on wordpress.com and paid $10 a year to map my domain name. When I knew WordPress was a good fit for me and my blogging and site needs, I went ahead and found an ISP and installed WordPress myself. And two years later, I’m hooked on WordPress and I’m even attending WordCamp Dallas in a few weeks.

Sharing content is the next step, and the final step is providing a platform for users to bring their own content in. These steps take time but you will learn valuable lessons along the way and hopefully avoid any stumbling or disastrous results. It’s okay to fail, though. You learn new lessons with each attempt and approach.

So keep an eye out for the recording of the webinar, Documentation as Conversation. The price remains at USD $20 and you get to schedule listening to it any any time of the day. It’s an hour long and if you do listen to the recording, feel free to contact me via email with any questions. I am looking forward to hearing even more feedback!

Social weather in online communities

I’m writing this as the rain falls down in Austin, Texas. I’m learning that with practice, you can learn the ebb and flow of a conversation and become a meteorologist for the “social weather” that’s ongoing in a community. For an example of social weather, do what Clay Shirky describes in his description of the course with the same name at New York University. Simply make some observations next time you walk into a restaurant. Is it noisy or quiet? Slow or busy? Are there couples or groups dining? That collective atmosphere is the social weather, which I first read about on Jason Kottke’s blog.

Photo courtesy DiscoverDuPage http://www.flickr.com/people/discoverdupage/

In a restaurant you have visual and auditory cues to give your inner meteorologist a chance to assess the social weather. In an online community, you need to understand the cues that occur in writing, in emoticons, and in frequency and intensity of updates to content. In the presentation “Blogs and the social weather” at the Internet Research 3.0 conference in October 2002, Alex Halavais describes a deep dive into analysis of blogger’s discourse.

“By measuring changes in word frequency within a large set of popular blogs over a period of four weeks, and comparing these changes to those in the ‘traditional’ media represented on the web, we are able to come to a better understanding of the nature of the content found on these sites. This view is further refined by clustering those blogs that carry similar content. While those who blog may not be very representative of the public at large, charting discourse in this way presents an interesting new window on public opinion.”

While this concept may sound new and exciting, it is quite 20th century. I was surprised to learn that analyzing newspaper content to determine public opinion was researcher Alvan Tenney’s original concept in 1912. 1912!

Climb collaboration levels with me in Atlanta

stonestairssomerights20 Photo courtesy lollaping
I finished my presentation about Climbing the Levels of Collaboration for the Collaboration Institute at the STC Summit and I’m so excited about it I can’t stand it! True confession: I was up until 1:00 AM finishing it up and uploaded it quite late.

I found this great collaboration exercise that I’ve incorporated into the session. So we’ll be drawing with Crayola markers. Maybe even collaboratively. I’m hoping for quite the Back of the Napkin experience. 🙂

This session walks through the different ways you can collaborate with your users (and co-workers) especially when wikis are enabling the collaboration. I’ll be talking about Book Sprints and FLOSS Manuals and tell stories from my experiences. I was inspired by the examples of amazing group accomplishments described in Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. While shopping around the ideas for the talk, I emailed people and asked what they thought of this description:

Groups can take action even quicker than ever before in history thanks to tools that amplify group communications such as wikis, blogs, and instant messaging. There are three distinct levels of collaboration that a group can attain and what they accomplish directly correlates to the level of collaboration.

People I talked with definitely wanted to know best practices for wiki authoring techniques. One person even wanted to know how to incorporate user-generated content into their help system. I’ve heard that request before – such as, how could you import wiki content into Robohelp? Also, what I learned at last weeks’ talk was a high number of people wanting recommendations for wiki engines. There are over 90 to choose from on wikimatrix.org. Eep. Writers also wanted to how to organize content on a wiki. I won’t promise to have all the answers or any of the answers but I am looking forward to sharing my stories and hearing yours.

Gather ’round, Wikify your Doc Set slides now available

I had a great time talking to the New York Metro STC chapter from my office in Austin, Texas last night! There were twenty-some in the room, plus an additional twenty or so online. This was a great turnout for a chapter meeting with a virtual component.

I found I needed the chat backchannel to get me through the blindness and silence on the phone – the audience was so polite and didn’t interrupt but I found myself constantly checking for feedback and realizing the only feedback I could get was from the WebEx chat window flashing orange and white every once in a while. And the discussion beforehand about Twitter (editing tweets and tweeting edits) was light and entertaining and certainly kept my nerves calmed by letting me snicker with my hand over the phone mic.

I’ve made my slides available on Slideshare and I hope you’ll comment there and ask any additional questions you may have. I was energized afterwards! I really appreciated the opportunity to talk about wikis and wiki-like documentation.