Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation

Conv_Comm_CoverI first heard the buzz on Ann Gentle’s book “Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation” last summer during the lead up to its publication, and followed it online until I was able to order it. While the target audience of the book is technical writers, the book has value to web workers of all stripes. The book is practical, up to date and isn’t just a “me too” social media tome.

Too many technical writing books and periodicals take an academic approach to the subject matter, which isn’t useful for readers who need real world advice to get their job done. Gentle’s practical approach opens the book up to anyone seeking to engage with their potential and existing customers online.

The book has lessons for all web workers, whether they are technical writers or not. That’s because the future Gentle paints for technical documentation isn’t just going to affect writers, but everybody who supports their customers via the web and social media. Her view of the future deftly shows how social media can take the place of tired old documentation standards — like print user guides — with planning, concise writing, and design skills aiding in the transition.

As well as being an excellent introduction to social media technologies in general, if you’re contemplating moving content to a wiki you’re going to find a lot of value in this book. The book’s coverage of wikis built upon the author’s real-life experience with the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) Project and working as a senior technical writer inside a major technology corporation. The is a highlight of the book, because she nails down the challenges of using social media — and wikis in particular — for writers and other content creators through real-life experience, versus the academic pontification that sometimes weighs down technical writing books. She also makes smart and appropriate usage of examples, focusing on well-known wikis.

The other element I liked about the wiki coverage is the author’s attention to the planning and management aspects necessary for a successful wiki implementation. Based on my own experience with wikis, these elements can be more integral to the ongoing success of the wiki, rather than the technology itself.

The fresh insights in this book transcend the technical writing profession; many web workers could learn something from it, or be challenged to think further about the role of the social web in engaging and supporting customers.

Have you read “Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation”? Are you using the social web for customer documentation?