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Editing in a Web 2.0 world

by Geoff Hart

Previously published (in slightly shorter form) as: Hart, G. 2013. Editing in a Web 2.0 world. Program book, 15th Annual Conference of the Society for Technical Communication India chapter.

When the Web first became big, there was much talk among technical communicators about how everything had changed and nothing would ever be the same again. It soon became clear that despite the new technologies, the key elements of communication (concision, clarity, accuracy, and sensitivity to one’s audience) hadn’t changed at all. Moreover, communication remained a one-way deal (from us to our audience), making it more of a lecture than a dialogue. Mostly what changed was the speed of publication; by eliminating the delays caused by printing and distribution (back then, still mostly by mail or courier), Web-based publishing achieved an immediacy that had never before been possible. That, in turn, created a sense of urgency that led many publishers to prioritize speed over quality. This was old news to editors, of course; we’ve always been seen as a drag on the publication process and have always had to fight for enough time to do our job right.

Enter Web 2.0, a term Darcy DiNucci invented around 1999, and Tim O’Reilly subsequently popularized. The 2.0 provides a handy reminder of what changed: the communication is now “2.0 way”, and although we still tend to lecture our audience, they can now speak back to us, transforming lecture into dialogue. The “social” technologies responsible for this change range from relatively slow and static technologies such as wikis that allow collaborative content development, but require an editing and approval phase, to technologies such as Twitter that allow instant communication with anyone who subscribes to your feed. (To learn how Web 2.0 changed the communication context, see Michael Wesch’s brilliant video; for technical communication–related aspects, see my articles on the subject. All are listed in the References section.) Even more than with Web 1.0, immediacy became a salient feature. And once again, we were told that everything had changed.

This time, everything really has changed. Social media can propagate information—including problematic information released unedited or with inadequate editing—to thousands without even requiring them to visit our Web site to see what the fuss is about. Information now propagates exponentially: the first person to see your tweet can retweet it to 100 friends, or post it on their blog or Facebook page, and each new reader can repeat the process, almost literally ad infinitum. An error can circumnavigate the globe and reach our entire audience long before we notice the problem.

To communicate well, we need to learn what has changed and how to respond to those changes. All the skills related to successful communication remain the same. What’s changed is how we apply those skills, now and in the future. In this article, I’ll ponder the editorial challenges arising from these changes.

Some things change slightly

Concision remains important. As the volume of information has exploded, so has the task of paring down what we ask our audience to read: nobody has time for flabby text. Though a bit of verbosity might have been tolerable 20 years ago, it no longer is. Verbose, and the world ignores us. Twitter provides a good way to learn how to trim thoughts to their essentials: it’s challenging to communicate complexity in only 140 characters. It’s doubly challenging because this brevity risks inadvertent puns and other unintended meanings, particularly when text is taken out of context. Because we no longer know our audience’s context when they receive our information, that’s a non-trivial problem. We can gain some insights from the art of crafting newspaper headlines. (For some thoughts, see Matt Thompson’s advice in the References.)

Clarity is also important. As writers, we strive to “think twice, write once” because we rarely have time to write twice. As editors, we recognize the difficulty and help authors who only have time to think once. Adopting Wikipedia-style publishing and peer review might help us learn which parts of our information aren’t as clear as we thought and how readers want us to change it. But communal editing raises the issue of accuracy—always an editorial responsibility (e.g., fact checking, logical consistency). Communal editing offers us allies, but not all sources are equally credible. This will force us to develop mechanisms to validate reader-supplied information. One possibility: mining discussion forums for information, and Googling to compare multiple sources so we can “triangulate” to identify the facts.

Most editors understand the need for audience sensitivity, but it’s even more important now that we have no reliable way of knowing (in a globally networked world) who that audience might be at any given moment. One solution is to edit our text for the lowest common denominator—not because readers are stupid, but rather because they’re international, and lack the English expertise we used to take for granted. Tracking tools can reveal our audience’s characteristics (e.g., via FaceBook user profiles), and sophisticated Web site monitoring tools provide data such as a visitor’s IP address, which may reveal their nationality; if we see many visits from a country, that's a strong hint that we must simplify our language and possibly even translate or localize our information.

Some things are entirely new...

New tools create new challenges. The biggest one is the democratization of information. Countless online communities have emerged, and communal knowledge creation has exploded. This removes our former control over information and its revision, and places it in our audience’s hands. How will we ensure that information remains valid?

The semantic Web is another challenge, because it forces us to rethink how we look at information and to learn how to separate format from content. For example, “Title” can be considered a paragraph style (a format) or a function (to communicate the document’s purpose). Those of us who grew up in the HTML world of Web 1.0 face the challenge of Web 2.0’s XML, in which the function of chunks of information and the structure of information are far more important. We’ve done this before in the guise of developmental or substantive editing; now we’ll do it in the context of single-sourcing.

The Web increasingly provides ways to understand how our audience thinks and speaks about our information. Tagging and tag clouds provide powerful insights into the categories people create for information, which may be very different from the categories we’ve been assuming they use. The language that people use in online forums, both to describe problems and to help others solve them, provides tangible evidence we can incorporate in audience-focused editorial style guides.

Hypertext, of course, is a defining feature of the Web, and creates new editorial tasks: confirming that links go to the right place, that we’ve chosen suitable links (e.g., ones that will still exist in 1 month or 1 year), and that links aren’t broken. But Web 2.0 has evolved beyond text: we must learn to edit graphics, sound, video, and animation. We must increasingly deal with “mashups”, since our audience increasingly combines information from many sources into personalized repositories. The skills we learn to design XML schemas to support single-sourcing will help us create information that can be (more?) safely reused by our audience in unpredictable contexts. This requires mastering a new and subtle way of thinking about information.

Copyright and authorship become muddy when information has multiple sources, many of which are beyond our control. In a world where information is increasingly created communally, it’s tempting to cling to old models (e.g., asking contributors to a forum to transfer copyright for their contribution to us), but those models are fading and new ones are not yet fully in place. This only represents a fraction of the ethical issues we face; Web tracking software can improve audience experiences by teaching us about audience needs, but raises significant privacy issues. Online communities raise serious liability issues: if we host a global user forum, information will be contributed during the 16 hours per day when we’re not working. Who will test this information to ensure that it’s safe and accurate so that nobody will lose crucial information, hours of work, or even their life by following information provided via our site? Who is liable if we fail to perform that testing?

Conclusions

These changes notwithstanding, our core editorial skills remain the same, particularly those related to understanding the writer’s need to communicate and the reader’s need to understand. As editors, we remain the translators who ensure that communication succeeds as often as possible. But our roles may change: we will increasingly become coordinators of a vast array of tools other than dictionaries and word processors; these will range from blogs and Twitter feeds to online communities. On the one hand, the ability to engage with our audience is a tremendous gift; for the first time, we can know that we’re meeting their needs instead of guessing based purely on our editorial intuition. On the other hand, we must relinquish our former control over information and find ways to let our audience guide us.

These challenges lack proven answers, nor will it be easy to develop “best practices” that are easy or even feasible to implement. I hope that some readers of this article will be inspired to develop or support the development of new editorial techniques for coping with this complexity. The need for such editorial input is growing; after all, Web 3.0 can’t be too far down the road.

References

Hart, G. 2011.  Taking advantage of social media. Part I: the media are the message. <http://www.techwr-l.com/content/taking-advantage-social-media-part-i-media-are-message>
Hart, G. 2011. Taking advantage of social media. Part II: The media aren't the message. <http://www.techwr-l.com/content/taking-advantage-social-media-part-ii-media-arent-message>
Thompson, M. 2011. 10 questions to help you write better headlines.
Wesch, M. 2007. Web 2.0... the machine is us/ing us. (YouTube video)


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