We Are None of Us Publishers Anymore

By | 2012/05/30

“We are all publishers now” — It is one of the defining tropes of content strategy, spoken, in one form or another, by many of the pioneers of the field. So if when say, “We Are None of Us Publishers Anymore,” am I just being even more contrarian than usual?

Sometimes a corrective is needed to stay out of the ditch.

Sometimes a corrective is needed to stay out of the ditch.

Not really. Phrases like these are more about course correction than they are about defining the center line of a field. If you are heading into the ditch on the left side of the road, you need to make a turn to the right. But if you keep turning right, you will end up in the ditch on the right hand side of the road.

The rallying cry that keeps you out of the left hand ditch is a necessary and good thing at the time. But at some point your need to supply the opposite correction in order to stay out of the opposite ditch.

The danger of going into the left hand ditch was certainly very real. At first, the corporate website manifested itself as a technical problem. You had all sorts of people across the corporation who wanted to put stuff on the web. The technical problem was to give them a means to get their content up, and to give their managers a way of supervising and approving stuff before it went live.

Web content management systems addressed this problem, and lots of people started putting stuff up on corporate websites.  Websites sometimes ended up looking like the public message board at the mall. Lots of people could put up notices, and they were all approved by management, but it hardly made a good impression, and it certainly didn’t make it easy to find anything.

Corporate websites started looking like the notice board at the mall.

Corporate websites started looking like the notice board at the mall.

Some kind of order had to be brought to the chaos, and the people with experience developing and organizing content within a corporation were the publications people. The publications model was the most obvious model to apply, and the people who understood it and could make it work were available. Starting to treat the website as a publication helped steer corporate websites out of the left hand ditch, and that is a very good thing. Indeed, for people still careening into the left ditch, the publishing story may still be the most expeditious corrective to apply.

At the same time, though, the web has been changing the way information is developed and exchanged in some pretty profound ways. People are talking to each other in forums and searching the web rather than reading docs. The Web, in other words, is knocking the traditional assumptions and methods of publishing into a cocked hat. Tech pubs (in particular) was (and is) busy steering itself into the right hand ditch by failing to recognize how communication is happening on the web and how it is changing people’s practices and expectations when it came to finding information.

The way in which a corporation transacted the bulk of its information exchange with its customers in the past was through publications. Today that is no longer the case. While publications still play a part (and I think always will) they are now just part of a mosaic of information exchanges, most of them far more immediate and far more personal than a publication.

But that’s only part of the picture. In the past, the bulk of the information exchanges about a company’s products originated from the company or its agents. The company spoke; the customer listened. Today, that is no longer the case. Today, customers talk to companies, and customers talk to other customers, and the web records it all for all to see and read.

There has always been word of mouth, of course, and it has always mattered, but word of web takes it to a whole new level of volume and reach. When your customers look for information about your company and its products today, this is (increasingly) the forum in which they look. If your voice is not there, there is a very good chance that they will not look for it elsewhere. If you are merely publishing, and not interacting, chances are your publications are not being read.

Over correcting will land you in the opposite ditch.

Over correcting will land you in the opposite ditch.

The web is not a publication, then, it is a colloquium. If thinking of your website as a publication helped steer you out of the left ditch of regarding it simply as a technical problem, it may well now be steering you straight into the right ditch of regarding it simply as a publishing media rather than as your presence in the global colloquium that is the modern Web.

Publications are certainly still part of what we bring to the colloquium, but they are only part of it. We can’t segregate that part of our engagement from the rest and expect it to be effective. We can’t think of the function as a publishing function anymore.

So here’s the course correction of the moment: We are none of us publishers anymore. We are conveners of and participants in the colloquium. And I don’t just mean marketing. Tech pubs, I mean you too.


Photo credits: Notice board, BlueAndWhiteArmy; others, Copyright (c) 123RF Stock Photos

Category: Content Strategy Tags: , , ,

About Mark Baker

I am an aspiring novelist and former technical writer and content strategist. On the technical side, I am the author of Every Page is Page One: Topic-based Writing for Technical Communication and the Web and Structured Writing: Rhetoric and Process. I blog at everypageispageone.com and tweet as @mbakeranalecta.

3 thoughts on “We Are None of Us Publishers Anymore

  1. Tim Penner

    I don’t know about this.

    I think about a handful of writers led by an editor/curator maintaining thousands of pages of hardcore technical information: references, how-to’s, etc. The next big release results in fresh new versions being pushed out onto the doc site where customers can fish around for the stuff that interests them. Then they settle down to the job of upgrading using our hard-won explanations.

    Not too many of us are working on iPads or anything remotely similar to that milieu, so the notion of the public product endlessly discussed and fretted-about, tweeted and liked has only limited validity. Techcomm in the trenches, not the roadside ditches, is very much about publishing from where I stand.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Hi Tim. Thanks for the comment.

      I am certainly not suggesting that there will be no publishing. I know of no reason to think that publishing will cease to be a component of technical communications. My point, though, is that it is now a component, not the whole of the business.

      At a strategic level, then, we need to ask, is this a communication problem best addressed with a publication, or is it best addressed by creating a forum, or by maintaining an interactive knowledge base, or some other form of more immediate interaction, or is it a problem that we can leave it to the community to solve (or one that the community has already solved, thanks very much), or is the community actively asking us for something that we are not delivering?

      I certainly agree that not every product has a substantial web community associated with it, though I think there are far more things than iPads that do. Any and every kind of software development or IT tool, seems to have a vast and voluble web community. The same is true of cars and cameras, and I recently had occasion to discover that there are dozens of you tube videos on how to replace the string in a garden trimmer. And you don’t need to have a vast and voluble community for your customers to expect you to interact with them on the Web.

      But the point is, whether publishing is going to be a major or a minor part of how you communicate, the question now has to be asked. We can no longer just assume that the answer lies in publishing, or that publishing conventions and methods can be the assumed background to our strategic planning.

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