The role of social media in technical documentation

Due to its pervasive nature, social media has reshaped a variety of business operations. When it comes to technical documentation, the intersection of social media with more traditional content-creation functions has many technical writers wondering about the future of their jobs, their skills, and their craft.

Blurring the difference between author and audience
Writing on behalf of Information Week, David Carr claimed that social media has – by way of wikis and blogs – reshaped the technical writing world into more of a “two-way communication.” He discussed how the rise of Internet commentary, largely driven by social media, has “democratized the world of publishing.” This has led to a struggle for some technical writers, as they fight for attention and authority while the line between “author and audience” starts to blur.

Carr pegged the challenge for technical document writers as welcoming “community involvement” and transitioning from creation-oriented processes to curating. In a way, this mirrors the transition happening within the world of technical documentation software: Modern content curation platforms allow for geographically dispersed teams to comment, edit and contribute content, rendering the document a truly collaborative effort. This, from an authorship standpoint, contributes to the work being considered as a living “social document,” versus the tightly controlled documentation of yesteryear.

“Social content has many implications for technical writing.”

‘A natural method’

The publishing and distribution of technical documents has also evolved alongside social media. In a survey published by the Center for Information-Development Management, the authors consulted with a number of companies, representing a strong cross-section of industries, corporate sizes, and business goals. They asked the companies to answer a variety of questions about the social media initiatives they had for their technical content programs.

The CIDM found that, similar to Carr’s assertion, the companies generally used social media in a two-pronged approach when it came to their technical documents: to “push content to users and to pull in user feedback and content.”

“Social media is a natural method for conversational interaction with users and customers,” wrote the study’s authors. “Typically, content is pushed through social media announcements with links to documentation sites and wikis where customers can then post comments, suggestions, and additional content.”

Building communities
The direct interaction with customers was particularly cited as a measure of effectiveness, according to over 40 percent of respondents to the CIDM survey. But soliciting meaningful feedback to technical documentation isn’t as simple as creating a post. The survey revealed that one of the major challenges for respondents was generating and maintaining interest, something that often may take “…a year or more of concentrated effort” to build.

This is what Michael Lykhinin in the STC India Indus blog referred to as the need for technical document authors to “learn how to architect and foster user communities and then how to incorporate user-generated content into their workflows.” Tying back to Carr’s assertion, Lykhinin urged authors to embrace a more curatorial approach to community input, becoming “community information librarians and conversation enablers/facilitators” for external communities.

For internal communities, like the closed loop of authorship software, Lykhinin wrote that technical authors can play many roles, but that the organization and delegation of a team is preferred, with roles designed to match “level of experience with the product, leadership ability, and communication style.”

A plan of action
All the voices cited in this blog advised that technical document authors focus of the creation of one specific thing: a social media strategy. This can help give structure to the way that social media is used by authors, as well as assign metrics to measure its efficacy. The goal is to both foster engagement while successfully establishing governance and standards, for the purpose of enriching technical documentation.

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