Credibility of the Internet (was: User-centered design)

Subject: Credibility of the Internet (was: User-centered design)
From: Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- CHISP -dot- NET>
Date: Tue, 9 Feb 1999 03:44:33 -0700

Steven Feldberg wrote:

>There are wonderful discussions on this list about all manner of topics of
>concern to technical writers. But, in my opinion, it all comes to naught
>when we (being professional technical writers) get our facts wrong. The
>prettiest document in the world--whether task based or not--is worse than
>useless, and our credibility evaporates when we assert as fact things that
>are simply not true.
>That applies to the value of this list as well (again, in my opinion).
>Consider: The weekly pubs department staff meeting: Hey, did you know that
>Donald Norman invented Notes? No, really?--where'd you see that. On
>TECHWR-L. (That large sucking sound was your credibility....)
>Opinions are a different animal--Frame is better than Word, My salary
>history is none of your business--by all means, fire away. But ``facts'' are
>holy to technical writers, or they should be (IMHO ;^)
>I'm not picking on anyone. I'm really not. I would just suggest that in the
>warm rush to contribute and help others via this list, that we all treat
>assertions of fact with respect and due diligence. In short, ``if in doubt,
>leave it out.''

Well, actually, I think that some better advice--though perhaps equally
likely to go unheeded--would be for readers to have some more realistic
expectations about TECHWR-L and the Internet in general.

Anyone can post here. It's a place to converse about technical
communication, not a place to announce official results. What we post here
is talk, not polished technical documents. (Just think how inappropriate
it would be to post a message criticizing other participants' grammar.)

That's mostly how the Internet is. It's easy to put stuff up on the
Internet, and for that reason, a lot of the ideas and information are poor.
Places with more credibility only get that credibility by filtering. That
is, a medium's credibility comes mainly (though not exclusively) from the
difficulties in getting published in that medium. (This is one reason that
people who self-publish get very little respect in the publishing world.)

But the ease of participation on the Internet also makes it a place to get
mistaken ideas corrected. Apparently a number of people had heard the same
false rumor about Donald Norman and Lotus Notes. If they hadn't posted,
they wouldn't have gotten corrected. To me, that sounds like wonderful use
of TECHWR-L. I'm glad it happened--both the original, erroneous postings,
and the correction.

All this has implications that go far beyond TECHWR-L. I don't know how
many techwhirlers do this, but I often look stuff up on the Internet and
compare it to what SMEs tell me. The discrepancies that come up are often
quite interesting and many times have led me to correct some serious
distortions in what I got from the SME. But it's important to realize that
very little information on the Internet deserves much credibility on its

Maybe people "should" self-censor when it comes to facts, but the fact is,
they don't.

Ben Kovitz <apteryx -at- chisp -dot- net>
Author, _Practical Software Requirements: A Manual of Content & Style_

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