Is Help 2.0 any different from Usenet 1.0?

This afternoon, I watched Scott Abel’s webinar What’s Next? Socially-Enabled User Assistance, Interactive Documentation, and Location-Aware Help. It was a tour de force tour of the past, present, and potential future of computer mediated help. But despite all the cool stuff that Scott covered — and he covered a lot of cool stuff — I found myself asking this: how is Help 2.0 different from Usenet 1.0?

For those of you who came in half way through the revolution, before the there was the web, there was Usenet, a distributed network of discussion groups on a wide variety of subjects, and the main reason I first got myself an Internet connection. It was a place were you could get in touch with users of just about any software or electronic product and get help when you needed it. The Usenet archive was a vast organized collection of help information on all those subjects, regularly consulted by users across the world. It was, in short, socially enabled help, and it went on line in 1980.

So, how is Help 2.0 different from Usenet 1.0? Here are a few ways:

* It is easier to use. This is a product of the web, which has made it easier for ordinary people without geek credentials to communicate on the net. Help 2.0 is essentially a web forum or social network built around a help system. It benefits from 20 years of usability research, and 20 years of users learning how this stuff works.

* It has potentially greater scope. Usenet covered a wide range of topics, but for a limited range of users. Usenet was a network of geeks; the web is a network of everybody. But while web forums and social networks are indisputably greater in scope and variety of users than Usenet ever was, actual Help 2.0 is currently in its infancy. Whether it will attain broad scope is currently TBD.

These differences are significant, but they are not unique or definitive. Everything on the web is easier to use and greater in scope than it was last year or the year before, or thirty years ago.

It would be tempting to suggest that what makes Help 2.0 different from Usenet 1.0 is the Help 2.0 is built around a structured organized body of help information. But many Usenet groups were built around a structured organized body of help information. This is where we get the term FAQ from. Most major Usenet group had a FAQ, drawn from the best content from the group, as selected by the users of the group and maintained by a volunteer or group of volunteers.

Socially enabled help is nothing new. It has been around for ten years longer than the Web itself. So what is going on in Help 2.0? Is Help 2.0 a case of tech writers bringing something new and wonderful to their users? Or is it a case of tech writers turning up to the party 30 years late?

Well, we shouldn’t feel too bad about it if it is. Most people are late to most of the parties these days. I just figured out that there might be something to this blogging business. Hindsight is 20-20.

What value can we take from the 20-20 hindsight observation that users have been doing socially-enabled help without us for the last 30 years?

This, I think: make sure we are adding value. Either add value to the conversation, or get out of the way. As companies have been discovering for quite a while, you can’t control the conversation. If you attempt to, people simply move on and resume the conversation in an independent space. You can create a space, but you cannot create a community; you can only welcome one.

Or maybe this: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If your product already has an active, socially-engaged user community helping each other use your products, do you really want to set up a rival and potentially split the community?

And also this: don’t waste time and money duplicating the function that the community is already providing. You are only part of the information economy around your product; find the place where you can add the most value to that economy and focus your effort there.

Whether you make your help system the seed from which a community grows, or whether you already have a thriving community around your product, the meaning of socially-enabled help is that you don’t own it all, you can’t control it all, and you don’t have to do it all.

This changes the job in profound ways — ways we should perhaps have woken up to many years ago. It is not about having new toys to play with. It is about recognizing that we are no longer solely responsible for, or solely the creators and owners of, the information about our products. It is no longer about being comprehensive, but about being selective, about finding the needs that are not being served by the community, the needs that perhaps the community can’t serve, and making your contribution there.

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