I just finished reading Anne Gentle‘s Conversation and Community, freshly available from new publisher XMLPress. Anne is an ex-BMC technical writer who has done a considerable amount of work with FLOSS Manuals in documenting the OLPC laptop, and is obviously well-versed in both open-source documentation and social media. The book is designed to give technical writers and other information developers an overview of the tools and techniques available now for documenting products and communicating with end-users through social media and other non-traditional methods.

As a technical writer and community manager, I am exactly the target market for this book, so it is no wonder that I think it is an excellent resource that is long overdue. What surprised me was the depth with which she covered her subjects, the extensive yet highly selective quality of references in the book, and the sheer number of strategies that I hadn’t yet encountered even as a professional in this area.

The most important point Anne makes in the book is that documentation as we know it is changing dramatically. Practically all of the basic tenets of technical documentation are in question. Users depend far more often on advice from random strangers via mailing lists, community forums, and search engines than they do on the technical documentation that comes with the product. I have seen this to be true even for highly technical concepts and tools. This is not news to anyone who has ever used Google to find the answer to a technical question rather than looking in the docs, but it was fascinating to see that phenomenon addressed in such a way that my opinions of it were actually changed. Like many technical writers, I have a lingering fear that I will someday be obsolete and that my job of communicating technical issues to users of technology will be taken over by amateurs in ad-hoc communities. Anne gently reminds us that it is the quantity of information that is skyrocketing, not the quality, and that our jobs as technical communicators are more important than ever in making that information “findable”, even if that means abandoning what we traditionally think of as documentation. What I took away from this aspect of the book was the overwhelming necessity to make human connections, even in technical documentation, an idea that resonates strongly with my own role as a community builder. Chapter 3 spells it out best as “Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web”.

The book catalogs the available tools and strategies from several different viewpoints based on documentation strategy—in other words, use cases—rather than simply providing an annotated list. Anne specifically points to references and in-the-trenches stories that underscore her points in a very effective way. The subject that brought me the most “aha!” moments was that of wikis. I use wikis on a daily basis, but there were certain aspects of them that I had overlooked. There were so many interesting references in all sections that I felt compelled to stop reading the book and follow them, which is not a criticism of the writing but rather of the sheer amount of information out there. The consistent, confident, professional tone kept me riveted to the book, but I am now going back over every page and following links.

I was very glad to see the discussion of community metrics kept to a minimum. So much is made in community literature of the bean-counting logins, unique views, and value recognition systems inside communities that the valuable human connection is lost in the process. Anne avoided that by bringing up the subject, explaining the important parts, and then getting back to the business of describing the value of the human connection in conveying information. Also very welcome was the extended discussion of open documentation and “crowdsourcing“, and its value both to the product/project being documented and to the community who uses it. Even five years ago, encouraging amateur involvement in the process of educating users (and, more pointedly, customers) would have been an outrageous thought. In particular, the value of freely-donated documentation such as that in FLOSS Manuals extends to both the reader and the writer in non-obvious ways. I have seen the value for myself since my involvement in writing GNU documentation many years ago, but I have never seen it described this succinctly before.

The only quibbles I have with the book are not quibbles at all, but differences of opinion. The book failed to convince me that Twitter or any other “microblogging” tool is a technology for technical communication, or even a viable channel for technical support, regardless of the companies who are now experimenting with just that. In fact, my editor noted very dryly that Twitter is a sort of “write-only” medium in which everyone is talking but very few are listening, like a family reunion. Perhaps it will evolve into something more, but I think it is more likely that it will disappear like the hampsterdance, and we will get something different in its place. (I am saying this as a regular “tweeter” myself.) I feel the same way about Second Life.

Chapter by chapter, this is what the book presents:

1. Towards the Future of Documentation
2. Concepts and Tools of the Social Web
3. Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web
4. Community and Documentation
5. Commenting and Connecting with Users
6. Wikis and Open Documentation Systems
7. Finding your Voice

There are also 25 pages of glossary, index, recommended reading, and appendices.

I highly recommend this book to both technical communicators and those involved in social media and community. My copy is going straight to my boss’ desk.

PS. The universe sought to underscore the pervasiveness of social media in modern communications while I was writing this review. A message came through on a mailing list to which I subscribe with the subject “INCORPORATING SOCIAL MEDIA INTO DISASTER COMMUNICATIONS”. This mailing list is populated mostly by firefighters and ham radio operators who form communications nets in the event of large-scale emergencies (like earthquakes), not the usual social media crowd. More evidence of the power of communities, and the modern fuels that feed them.