David F. Carr over at the Brainyard on Informationweek.com recently published an article entitled How Social Media Changes Technical Communication and poses the question, “Does all this community activity devalue the contribution of the professional writer or editor?” It’s a good question as more companies look to get more value out of their online and social media presences to support their customer community. However, just like back in the days when the users would measure the value of documentation by the girth of its spine, how social media changes technical communication comes down to the management and positioning of an organization’s technical documentation.
Tapping into a group collective through social media channels for user support and documentation is going to require a strong manager and communicator. I am intentionally avoiding the word curator here – remember curators are people like historians and archivists who work in museums – because online documentation is not a museum of art exhibit (even the really good documentation!).
Maintaining technical accuracy should be one concern for social media documentation and support channels because some organizations struggle with maintaining technical accuracy of their more traditional documentation deliverables. This is going to require a technical writer to take a stronger focus on technical accuracy and perhaps even recruiting a core group of community members who can keep online discussions on target and technically accurate.
My hope is that the rise of social media in technical communication may finally put a stake in the heart of technical writers who see no reason to learn the products they are documenting. Likewise, I’d like to see employers who don’t see technical acumen as a technical writer prerequisite revisit their job descriptions. The idiot as a user advocate for a technical writer is an industry myth that has done much to hurt the profession.
While Carr’s article does make mention of the technical writer as a community editor especially for wiki-based technical content, with technological adoption rates across the map and not to mention varied audience needs, traditional technical documentation isn’t going to disappear anytime soon. In the cases where comments and discussion boards augment traditional online documentation, the technical writer role can expand into vetting the feedback, answering comments, and then making requisite changes to the technical documentation once developers/subject matter experts vet the comments and feedback.
Social media and community activity may not kill the technical writer but should instill some positive changes in the technical writer role provided that writers and the organizations who hire them. Moreover, there are always going to be audiences that clamor for traditional documentation deliverables (online help and user guides) who aren’t served by social media/community based documentation and support.
Will social media kill the technical writer? Or, will social media help thin the herd and improve the technical writer role?