Noz Urbina asks, Is Communication Mired in the Past? Well, yes, obviously. Most of the tech comms world is still making books in FrameMaker. But also no, because the problem is more profound than the words “mired in the past suggest”. People get mired in things through carelessness or misfortune. They want to get out, but they can’t. Technical communications isn’t mired in the past, it is entrenched there, gallantly, if with dwindling hope, guarding the battlements against the encroaching hoards of readers.
You would think that writers and readers would be natural allies. But think about the language that writers use to talk about readers. You have to “grab the reader” and “hold their attention”. Sound more like a kidnapping than a coffee klatch. And what is the first words that every technical writer is taught in their cradle: RTFM. Read The Flaming Manual. An expression of outrage and exasperation. Make no mistake, the reader is the enemy.
This is not new. Readers and writers are two dogs with one bone. And that bone is the right, privilege, and power of organizing information. As David Weinberger documents, writers have been trying for centuries to impose order on human knowledge. The early encyclopedists attempted to organize all of human knowledge in a grand hierarchy. Readers preferred alphabetical order. Yahoo tried to catalog the web. Readers preferred to Google. Miscellany, it turns out, is more powerful than order.
Readers do not win every round, however. DITA was originally developed to create help content — independent topics that could be accessed in random order. Writers fought back and added DITA maps so that they could organize topics hierarchically into books. Readers turned to the web for free access to content the way they wanted it. Writers are fighting back by rebranding themselves Information Architects and organizing entire websites into complex hierarchies in an attempt to control how readers access the information. Writers are working actively to remove internal linking from content so as to prevent readers from surfing away when they should be paying attention. “Links are distracting” they say, in defence of this practice. Readers are supposed to finish all the content on their plate. No desert until you eat all your peas.
To give them their due, writers are well meaning in this. They genuinely believe that readers cannot organize information for themselves, and that they both need and want writers to organize if for them. This is fundamental to the writer’s identity. It is what they do. It is what makes them valuable and respected members of society. And, as I have noted previously, there is a definite and well understood hierarchy among writers. The longer the pieces you write, the higher your status as a writer. The highest status writers are those who write books. Asking a book writer to write topics is like asking Michael Jordan to play tiddly-winks. It is low status work, and they don’t want to do it.
I’m not sure if this is the case among younger writers. After all, bloggers today can be higher status than many novelists and journalists, and many high-status book writing writers also blog. The short form, the transient online form, is gaining in stature every day. And, as Weinberger has demonstrated, the battle to control the organization of content is over. The readers have won. Any further resistance is mere rearguard action. A few enclaves of writer control may live on, particularly in regulated environments, but the war is over. Time to hoist a new flag.
Is communication mired in the past? If so, the problem is not one of technology, but of identity. Writers need to discover a new role, a new self image, new marks of status, and new ways of delivering value. Perhaps they may even learn to find satisfaction in helping readers to organize content for themselves.