Three Roles for Technical Communicators on the Social Web

In her recent presentation, “Strategies for the Social Web for Documentation,” sponsored by the STC Education Department, Anne Gentle described three possible roles for technical communicators, on the social web.

  • Reporter/Observer
  • Enabler/Sharer
  • Collaborator/Instigator

Reporter/Observer Role

In the Reporter/Observer role, technical communicators use tools like Google Alerts, blog-only searches (via Technorati and Google Blogs), and Delicious to listen to conversations on the social web. They then aggregate information and curate content from users.

Enabler/Sharer Role

In the Enabler role, technical communicators enable comments and conversation through their user assistance deliverables. In the Sharer role, technical communicators share content through linking and syndication.

Enabling commentsJS Kit ECHO embeds the comment form on web pages and stores comments locally.
Enabling conversationsDISQUS – Hosted comments provide threaded conversations and moderation features.
Sharing Role: Linking.
AddThis – Register on the site, embed the code, and configure the sites, on which your users can share content.
TweetMeme– Add a retweet button to any web page.
Sharing Role: Syndicating Content. Offer users notifications of content updates. Embed content from RSS feeds.

Collaborator/Instigator Role

For the Collaborator/Instigator role, Gentle advises applying best practices from Social CRM to identify your organization’s influencers. She also advises thinking of your alignment in the organization. What corporate objectives does the technical documentation support?

  • Marketing & Sales – purchasing decisions
  • Service & Support – notifications, sharing, reciprocity, reputation
  • Invention & Development – users sharing ideas
  • Collaboration – shared goals, shared tasks
  • Customer Experience – convert prospects to customers
  • Learning & Education – study groups

Are You An Instigator or Enabler of Conversation?

In her book Conversation and Community:  The Social Web for Documentation, Gentle explores these themes in greater detail, in the chapter, “Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web.” In that chapter, Gentle refers to a post from the Web Worker Daily site, in which Anne Zelenka discusses the information age, versus the connectivity age.

Gentle expands on Zelenka’s post, with the following question for technical communicators: “Are you an information worker or a connection worker, and does your corporate culture support you more in one model or another?” (p. 72).

Gentle defines the instigator of conversation versus the enabler of conversation, in these ways:

An instigator provides a starting point for a conversation, perhaps by communicating a controversial decision or a highly debated strategic choice. A writer in an instigator role should know customers’ business needs and be well-connected with those he or she plans to talk to online.

An enabler of conversation understands the underlying concepts of a product or service well enough to help others understand those concepts as well. An enabler gives a community the authority to make decisions or provides patterns that help a community develop and grow. (p. 73)

“Whether you’re an instigator or enabler, you can repeatedly gather knowledge from communities and conversation, then bring it back and incorporate what you’ve learned into the documentation,” Gentle concludes.

What’s Your Business Goal?

In summary, what business objectives does the technical documentation serve in your culture?  Where is your natural alignment in the organization? Are you more of an instigator or enabler of conversation? What role on the social web—reporter/observer, enabler/sharer, or collaborator/instigator—best supports your company’s business goals for the technical documentation?

For me, these questions are among the most important take-aways from Gentle’s STC presentation and book.  The answer to these questions are probably at least as important as the answers to the traditional audience analysis questions, which technical writers are trained to always ask.  And the answers about business objectives for technical documentation are as diverse, as each of our organizations. The cross-disciplinary and often inconsistent objectives for technical documentation (across various corporate cultures) remains the greatest ongoing challenge for positioning the technical communication discipline for the future, on the social web, or otherwise. The diversity of business goals that technical documentation deliverables support is simultaneously technical communicators’ greatest business opportunity.

About This Blog: Copyright Information

Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog

Book Review: Conversation and Community by Anne Gentle

I remember our last weekend get-away in the camper this past October, when it rained all day that Saturday. While the kids watched videos and the hubby snoozed, I uncharacteristically stayed in bed and read away a good part of that relaxing afternoon, finishing Anne Gentle’s Conversation and Community. I didn’t mind at all that it rained that day, because it gave me the opportunity to absorb uninterrupted, what to me is a must-read, for any technical communicator who wants to remain viable in a Web 2.0 world.

Using the Social Web for Documentation: Seizing the Opportunity

In the year that I’ve been on Twitter, I’ve noticed that when discussions arise about how the different disciplines are using social technologies, or which disciplines are most suited for using those technologies, I often hear about “marketing, customer service, public relations, and ‘others’.”

Technical communicators, I imagine, are lumped into the “and others” category, and if that remains the case, we will bear the ultimate blame, because as Anne Gentle so accurately notes in the introduction to her book on the social web for documentation, “professional writers now have the tools to collaborate with their audience easily for the first time in history” (p. 7). She observes the irony that “some content creators do not yet see a link between online help and the blogs, wikis, and forum posts with which users are finding help online” (p. 13).

Enabling Conversation and Community

In Conversation and Community, there is finally a book available for technical communicators, who are interested in using social media and social networking to “enable conversation and community” in our documentation (p. 9). Gentle’s book is also relevant to “technical development, support, or that most intriguing new job description–community manager” (p. 2), because of Gentle’s broad definition of documentation:

The definition of documentation ranges from the standard email message on a mailing list, to a 140-character microblog post, to an exhaustively examined and discussed forum post or wiki article, to a traditional online help file, to the trusty dog-eared manual or often-opened PDF (p. 9).


In her well-researched and innovative book, Gentle blazes the way for technical communicators to start integrating conversation and community into their user assistance. Here is a snapshot of the book’s contents:

  • Chapter 1, “Towards the Future of Documentation”: Provides reasons for moving content towards the social web. Examines how expectations for documentation have shifted and describes how search may affect delivery and presentation methods. Advises making sure that your online user assistance is available on the Internet to be found by search engines. “If search engines value user-generated content more than other types of content, consider integrating user-generated content into your user assistance” (p. 20).
  • Chapter 2, “Concepts and Tools of the Social Web”: Contains a “frozen-in-time list of some terms and tools in 2009 that are related to social media” (p. 29). If you are new to the social web and are trying to make sense of all the buzzwords and technologies, then this is the chapter for you.
  • Chapter 3, “Defining a Writer’s Role with the Social Web”: Discusses strategies for determining your role, as an instigator or enabler of conversation, and offers strategies for a phased approach to integrating the social web in your writing. Asks you to consider “whether you are an information worker or a connection worker, and whether your corporate culture supports you more in one model or another” (p. 72). Recommends understanding “your department’s place in the organization—are you more helpful to marketing and pre-sales efforts or to technical support?” (p. 89).  Notes that “rather than being directly involved in conversations, writers can [also] facilitate conversations and community by incorporating them into the documentation system” (p. 88).
  • Chapter 4, “Community and Documentation”: Explores the idea that “a small group of people who have a sense of belonging in an online community may provide content much like a technical writer does. Regardless of their background, education, or training, more people are becoming providers of technical information on the web” (p. 101).  This shift means changing roles for writers, including that of “content curator,” “someone who assembles collections based on themes.” “As an extension of [the] writer’s role of training the trainer, a writer may become a leader within the online community, teaching other community members” (p. 105).  The chapter also provides tips on growing a community, as well as a description of how Adam Hyde, founder of the FLOSS Manuals, experimented with collaborative authoring through book sprints.
  • Chapter 5, “Commenting and Connecting with Users”: (My Favorite Chapter) Discusses ideas for starting conversations, building on the  stages of listening, participating, and offering a platform” (p. 126). Provides tips on starting and maintaining a blog, offers examples of corporate blogs, maintained by technical writers, and recommends ways to integrate user content into your user assistance, including wikislices, screencasts, comment and feedback systems.
  • Chapter 6, :Wikis and Open Documentation Systems”: Provides tips for evaluating wikis, starting or reinvigorating a wiki, and integrating the wiki with other content. Suggests finding ways “to expand the user assistance system to include the wiki or support forums in a search” (p.156). Discusses wiki round tripping, the conversion from source to wiki to back” (p. 164). Provides wiki examples.
  • Chapter 7, “Finding Your Voice”: Describes how to write with the “social media audience” in mind (p. 183), as well as provides tips on publishing strategies and idea generation.


This book is a helpful way to immerse yourself into the jargon of the social web and begin considering ways to integrate conversation and community into your user assistance,  incorporating wikislices, screencasts, and comment/feedback systems. I especially appreciated the technical tips interspersed throughout the book, including suggestions on how to mashup your wiki content with your user assistance content  (p. 135), as well as tips on using DITA, as an in-between authoring-source-and-wiki-storage mechanism (p. 165). Other bonuses include helpful tables, a solid glossary, and useful reading list.

In my opinion book Conversation and Communit s a transformative and very necessary book, in the field of technical communication.

About This Blog: Copyright Information

Contacting the Author: Content for a Convergent World – Peg Mulligan’s Blog