Book review – Conversation and Community by Anne Gentle

I’ve just had the pleasure of reading Anne Gentle‘s book, Conversation and Community, The Social Web for Documentation. I highly recommend it. The book is brim full of useful information and, even better, great ideas. This blog post is about some bits of the book that were especially interesting to me. When you read the book, you’re sure to find other sections that tickle your fancy or kick-start a killer idea 🙂

Conversation and Community by Anne Gentle

Conversation and Community by Anne Gentle

The book arrived in the middle of a busy week. My first impressions were: Yay, it found it’s way to Oz so quickly! Then I opened the package and saw the cover. You can almost taste the chocolate. Those people are all interacting with each other, great picture. What sort of keyboard is that — not QWERTY? Ah, the credits say it’s Danish. Cool.

It’s all about ‘now’

What really hits you when you read the book, is that the content is very current. It refers to blog posts written just a few weeks ago! You get the feeling that you’re engaging in a conversation with Anne and the other people she mentions, right now. You could go and comment on the blog posts and still be relevant. Awesome.

The foreword, by Andy Oram, sets the scene perfectly. Great opening: “A few years ago, this book could not have been written… A few years from now this book will be unnecessary… You are fortunate to have this book at this moment, for you can lead the next generation of information providers into the era of expert/amateur interaction.”

It’s all about ideas

Here’s a tip: When reading this book, have a notebook with you. The ideas will just keep popping into your head. For example, chapter 2 is a useful whiz-through of concepts and tools in the social web. Sprinkled throughout the chapter are some neat tips. It’s well worth a read, even if you already know most of the tools and concepts.

One idea I’d like to try, is using a Twitter feed right on the documentation pages as a way of displaying tips and FAQs. I haven’t quite figured out how to get the technology to do that for me. We need a Twitter widget for the wiki — one that shows a stream of tweets rather than just one tweet. But it’s almost possible. Then our community authors could tweet tips as they work!

Heh, this idea tickled my fancy: something to try when you’re struggling to write in a casual, simple style. Stick a picture of someone you know on your computer screen and pretend you’re explaining the concepts to them. (Page 23.)

Technical writers are in there, boots and all

Anne makes some excellent points about how our skills are transferable to the social web, particularly in integrating the social network into user assistance. (Page 25.) Key to the book is the point that readers of user assistance don’t usually care about where the information came from or who wrote it, provided it does the trick. (Page 9.) Our role includes taking this idea on board and working with the broader scope of available information.

That’s a bit daunting, but the book goes on to give guidelines on how to jump in, boots and all. Page 72 describes some participation models, and the following pages have pointers to getting involved in the social media.

How about style and standardisation? Those are endlessly debatable 😉 and particularly in the less formal online / social environment. Undaunted, Anne has written up some good guidelines. (Pages 184-8.)

Working with communities is an art unto itself

Anne encourages us to get started by listening, observing and then building up our own participation slowly, before establishing a community ourselves. Once we have a documentation community, there are ways to check the social weather in the community and keep it sunny. (Page 109.)

Anne notes that we can probably expect a small percentage of contributors, and that we should value them highly. She mentions the 90-9-1 rule: 90% reader, 9% infrequent contributor, and 1% active contributor. (Page 160.) This rings true with our own experience at Atlassian, of community contributions to the documentation. It’s interesting to see the researched statistics. And we do value our contributors, very highly.

Here’s a clever metaphor cum reference to current wisdoms: “Teaching the community to fish (for information) feeds them longer than just answering questions without citing how you learned the information yourself.” (Page 137.)

Booksprints sound like so much fun, and so productive. I’d love to get involved in one. So it’s great to see some detailed advice from a book sprint diva. 😉  The book has a long section (pages 112-124) going all the way from planning, through logistics to just plain fun.

So, did I like it?

Conversation and Community by Anne Gentle

Conversation and Community by Anne Gentle

Yes! The book is easy to read, authoritative yet friendly. That must be a hard balance to strike. Anne’s command of her subject, her wide-ranging interests and her skill with language make the book a pleasure to read. For example, I love the combined precision and pragmatism of this statement:

“This chapter contains a frozen-in-time list of some terms and tools in 2009 that are related to social media.” (Page 29.)

And the interesting perspectives on social contributions to Shakespeare’s scripts and the OED, gleaned by Anne from Alan Porter. (Page 66.)

Anne has tweeted that she’s experimenting with virtual book signings. Cool idea! I’m hoping her experiment succeeds and I’ll get a virtual signing of my copy too. Go Anne!

What other people are saying

I’ve purposefully restrained myself from reading anyone else’s review of Conversation and Community, so that I could write mine with an uninfluenced mind. Next I plan to read what everyone else has to say. A quick search reveals:

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 22 August 2009, in atlassian, Book reviews, technical writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Sarah,

    Thanks very much for your review of Anne’s book.

    Regarding the cover, your readers might be interested to know that the cover pictures came from flickr under Creative Commons licenses. The flickr ids of the photographers are “thisparticulargreg” and “jetheriot” The cover (and interior) design are by Patrick Davison, who has also worked with FLOSS Manuals.

  2. Thanks for this review Sarah! I’m so glad you found it practical and friendly.

    Jude Theriot, the photographer of the Danish keyboard, came to my book release party and brought a mounted, matted, and signed print of the photograph! As it turns out, he lives in Houston. Small world! He took the picture in Copenhagen in 2007 at a design museum.

    And, for anyone who wants to learn about book sprints, there’s a book hosted at FLOSS Manuals on that very topic! Adam Hyde is the real expert but it has been fun learning while we experiment.

  3. Hallo Richard and Anne

    Thank you both for the follow-up information about the book cover and book sprints. It’s so cool to hear the personal stories behind the different aspects of the book!


  4. Oh, and one more comment. I too love the idea of putting a photo at your computer or workstation and write as if you’re speaking to that person.

    When I was at BMC I went to a user group meeting, and met two brothers who worked at two different companies here in Austin. They let me take their picture, and I posted it in this blog post in 2005 I found their image very helpful somehow while figuring out what to write about BMC products!

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