Sunday, March 11, 2007

Web 2.0

What is Web 2.0? If you want a full definition, Google it - you'll find lots of info. I'll just provide what it boils down to for me. Web 2.0 means that the content is "owned" by the people who use it. Web 2.0 isn't the "new" Internet, it's just a term to describe what the Internet has become. Some Web 2.0 applications out there that you may already be familiar with are blogs, wikis, Google maps, digg.com, etc. All support a user community that has control over the content or tool. Rather than just reading information they find in a search, they can actually edit it or manipulate it to make it more meaningful. This, I think is a good thing, with probably more pluses than minuses. Think about mapping applications like Google Maps - can you imagine if someone had to create maps for every location in the world? They would never bother doing it at all, but with mapping applications on the web, you enter the information you want and get the results you need. Wikis intrigue me the most, so let's explore this area of Web 2.0.

As a technical writer, when I think of web sites, I think of the design and usability, but the upkeep of the content is the part that causes me to sigh with exhaustion. If content is to remain relevant and useful, it has to be updated as things change. This requires that someone or several people be responsible for content and it becomes his/her job to make sure the information is correct and up-to-date. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes it becomes difficult to keep up with all the changes that need to be made and/or you have to spend LOTS of money to employ enough people to keep up with it. Not a great situation in some cases if you have a lot of content to keep up with.

This is where wikis come in. There are many wikis on the Internet; the one you are probably most familiar with is Wikipedia(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main_Page). A wiki is a public website that can be written or edited by its users. There may be some rules and restrictions applied, but on the most part, it's all "open." Companies can also use wikis as internal tools for collaboration. We started using a wiki at my office to keep a running update on information on a software/process upgrade project. The goal of the wiki was to have all the subject matter experts contribute the information they're responsible for and that way, we all have access to it. The tool gave people an easy way to edit and update information and if other team members had something to share, they could edit other people's post.

My reaction to this endeavor was, to say the least, skeptical. How are we going to have meaningful information that people could understand and find easily if we're counting on the same people for content that I've counted on as SMEs for the documentation I've written? My experience when interviewing SMEs for document creation has been that they will give me information at a higher level than the average person using the document can understand, they'll put the information out there and forget about the need to keep it updated, and many of them are not good writers. I had one word in my mind for this project, "doomed."

Well, here it is 6 months later, and not only have the SMEs kept up with the information, they've expanded the wiki to add other projects and customer support information for Helpdesk personnel. Is it perfect? No. But, it does have a lot of merit. I can't imagine, without the wiki, that any of them would have put this information anywhere that anyone who needed it could find it. That's a success in and of itself. I would love to edit every post to put my spin on making it more usable, but how much of that is necessary and how much of it is my ego? Can people understand content that isn't well written and well-formatted? Apparently so. I would still argue that a technical writer improves information by making it more readable and understandable, so we still have value, but maybe we become a different kind of editor; an editor who is more focused on finding gaps of information in a wiki and encourages the right people to post their information.

Even Wikipedia recently stated that it will be more stringent in verifying the credentials of its users who make assertions about their credentials. (See article on CNN.com for more information http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/internet/03/08/wikipedia.credentials.ap/index.html.) Even though anyone can edit information on Wikipedia, you can't purport to be someone you're not - overall a good thing for information integrity.

So, Web 2.0, and wikis in particular, have me excited about these new "editable communities," but apprehensive at the same time. I am concerned about content integrity when you have just anyone put anything "out there." Unless someone is held responsible for the information provided, how can we trust it? How can we consider some information unbiased? It is very difficult to write content without bias, particularly about current events and history. We're human, right? Mark Glaser wrote an interesting perspective on this in Mediashift (http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2006/04/wikipedia_biasis_there_a_neutr.html)

But, I do think the ability to provide and contribute to information and perspectives on the Internet far outweighs the difficulties that may come along with it. I wonder if part of my apprehension may be about my own role as a technical writer - I understand how the web is evolving, how does the role of the technical writer evolve along with it?

I guess I'll just have to figure it out as I go along. My company is starting a new wiki project that I'll be involved in soon. I'll be sure to post about my experiences here.

P.S. - My apologies for the awkward links in this post; the hyperlink feature doesn't seem to be working today...

1 comment:

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