We were sent a review copy of Anne Gentle’s book , Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation (www.xmlpress.net). Anne has been a pioneer in developing technical documentation that includes Web 2.0 concepts, so I read it with great interest.
It’s a book that provides practical advice on how to add user generated content to your documentation, as well as how to explain to other departments how this approach complements their objectives. In other words, it looks at documents that allow for conversation, collaboration and aggregation of/about information.
It’s well researched too, with references to many articles, blog posts and software that you’ll want to read. Given this was written in Anne’s spare time, it’s incredibly up to date.
Because we’d been asked to review the book, I read it with a more critical eye than normal:
- It would have been nice if the book had contained a concluding chapter.
- As others have mentioned, there’s an irony in creating a book about conversation without a means to discuss the book.
- Sadly, Cherryleaf’s blog didn’t get a mention in the list of blogs, which means we need to raise our game.
- Adobe Air didn’t get mentioned as a possible solution.
These are minor points, however.
As I said, Anne has been a pioneer in this approach, and there few case studies to draw on. Having said that, Anne has done a really good job at providing examples.
Understandably, not all aspects of this vast subject were covered in the book, so there’s an opportunity for Anne to write a follow up book. I look forward to more debate on these questions and issues:
- Questions over the translation and localisation of user comments still need to be addressed (or will all the users have to write in English?).
- There are also big questions over re-using and re-purposing of content. Anne introduces wiki-slicing and round-tripping of content, but there’s likely to be a big debate about how to integrate user content into a typed (i.e. DITA based), semantic, authoring environment.
- There are issues around introducing collaborative approaches into organisations which have a communication culture of hierarchy, paternalism and/or authority. The open communication approach suits the cultures of open source software and open government, but there are many companies that prefer a more secretive approach. There’s a need to make the economic and business case to these more reluctant organisations.
- We’re also likely to see questions concerning what sort of skills and personality are needed to initiate and maintain an online community. Do technical writers have these skills and the right type of personality? Can they devise and make the business case for a successful social documentation strategy?
- Do we need a technical communication equivalent of “The Cluetrain Manifesto” or even Roald Dahl’s “The rights of the reader”?
Anyway, back to the book. I’d recommend the book to anyone creating user assistance in the many forms it comes in. It’s a very interesting and important subject, and Anne has written a book which anyone involved in this issue will find useful.