Tech Writing for Social Networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)?

Subject: Tech Writing for Social Networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L Writing <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "Blount, Patricia A" <Patricia -dot- Blount -at- ca -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 28 May 2009 17:18:39 -0400

Patricia Blount wondered: <<... how can tech writers exploit today's
social networking sites (Twitter, Facebook, maybe You Tube, chat
rooms) to deliver product instruction, if at all?>>

Really intriguing question. I think that listing the specific options
you chose is missing the larger point, namely that these are all just
specific instances of the real "social networking" tool: the Internet
itself. After all, I'd be surprised if anyone in this discussion group
has never gone straight to Google or the equivalent when they couldn't
find the answer to a question in the documentation for their product.

Similarly, the archives to techwr-l and other searchable discussion
groups are rapidly becoming a crucial source of information. I can't
imagine how many times I've found answers to some obscure question via
a quick Google; inevitably, someone else has already asked the same
question and had it answered. Call it "crowdsourcing" (
) or whatever you like, but the phenom really has changed the paradigm.

The flip side of crowdsourcing is the rise of self-appointed or
community-appointed experts -- people who acquire a reputation for
knowing what they're talking about and being willing to share that
knowledge, whether freely or for a price. Think of the Word MVPs site (
) and its kin. Better yet, think of online technical support via chat
technology; I've come to rely heavily on that approach for some topics
where the documentation is inadequate, and the notion of an expert who
is always on call is one worth reconsidering. Think of it as Internet-
based technical support.

<<Trends in connectivity technology have created a culture in which
instant gratification isn't just expected; it's delivered. Cell
phones, BlackBerry's, GPS's, instant messenger - pretty much any
information wanted is quite literally a click away.>>

Except when it isn't. Some day we may have 24/7 Internet access, but
that day isn't now. Having just returned from 2 weeks in rural
Ireland, I can attest that even in first-world countries, connectivity
isn't always what we'd want it to be; we had a truly astonishing
amount of difficulty getting online, even in places that nominally
offered wi-fi hotspots. It pays to remember that we don't always have
access to the Internet or our social networks, and that when that
happens, a detailed and helpful manual attached directly to the
product remains essential.

<<So where does all this connectivity and Must Have Now mentality
leave the instruction manual?>>

Right where it is now: as a crucial resource. Even the most expert of
experts don't always learn how products work simply by staring at them
until the meaning of life is made clear to them. Most at least start
with the documentation, particularly for less-common functions that
can't be guessed at based on their resemblance to functions we've
already used. There's a small core group of users that learn their
expertise solely by exploring and playing with a product; the vast
majority still need some kind of reference to guide them to successful
use of a product.

Note that this may also be a generational thing; the proverbial 14-
year-old computer whiz probably got that way because they're not
afraid to experiment until they find what works, whereas the
proverbial computer-illiterate and very intimidated alterkocker
becomes that way by being scared or unwilling to experiment. The
young'uns go to the net and social networks more than we older folk,
who still rely on developer-provided documentation. We ignore this
change at our peril. Cheryl Lockett Zubak had a lovely anecdote at
WritersUA a few years ago about how she and her son both set out to
solve an iPod problem; they both found the solution in roughly equal
amounts of time, but she found it in Apple's documentation, while her
son found it on YouTube.

<<Even though we deliver our books electronically, maybe long PDF
files are ready for pasture?>>

PDF documentation was never ready for prime time if it wasn't designed
specifically for onscreen use. Most PDF documents are poorly disguised
attempts to shift the costs of printing documentation onto the user of
the product, and as such, are unusable or usable only with
considerable pain. That's doubly so when they aren't professionally
indexed, and readers must guess at the keywords to use via the search

Geoff Hart (
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
Effective Onscreen Editing:


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Tech Writing for Social Networks (Twitter, Facebook, etc.): From: Blount, Patricia A

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