I attended several interesting presentations while I was at the CMS/DITA 2010 Conference in Santa Clara, but one conversation I had while down there stands out from the rest, especially in terms of its implications.
I met with a former work colleague and friend who now works for Google down in The Valley. I asked him whether or not Google has anyone who does nothing but provide metadata to describe their internal content. He responded by jokingingly saying the quote that is the main title if this piece. There may be some metadata buried in their own doc materials, but there is an expected reliance on search-fu abilities to find information.
This get-together came at the close of the first day of the conference, with another statement from that morning’s keynote panel rattling around in my head. The panel keynote was good, but one key phrase from it struck me as being fundamentally wrong-headed: that the new DITA 1.2 specification had hooks in it that could tie into “better and more robust taxonomies”. I think we need to look less into building better top-down hierarchies of information and into bottom-up, folksonomic ways to let people find and tag the information they actually search for and use.
One of the defining characteristics of any taxonomy is that it is a hierarchical arrangement of information, typically devised by experts. Taxonomies are manifest in things like the way that books are arranged on library shelves, museums (think the “tree of life” that used to be evident in older natural history museums), and to online catalogs of goods and to a lesser extent even to the Table of Contents for any technical publication.
Taxonomies have been the way we have traditionally arranged information. But would better and more improved taxonomies do away with the need for search? I for one don’t see Google disappearing after the construction of the perfect ontology.
When I asked blogger Euan Semple after a talk he gave last week on the evolution of social media as to whether he thought there was a future for taxonomies in an increasingly social architected online world, his reply was a simple “no”. He illustrated his point with an anecdote: when the lint collector on his dryer began to fail, he traversed the hierarchies of the Hoover web site (which lacks a search function) searching for information on what to do. Giving up, he then put out a tweet asking people in his network what to do. He then discovered that there a core of informal “dryer geeks” who knew exactly what to do, and told himhowtofixhisproblem. Twitter 1, Hoover 0.
I don’t think this is whole story however, and that the Tech Writing community (or the firms that employ them) shouldn’t just abandon tech docs in the hopes that end users will end up creating their own. No matter how good a mashup of information might be, there still has to be something for it to connect to. Somebody somewhere has read the manual at some point. The more technical the domain (aerospace, electrical engineering, pharmaceuticals) the less likely it appears there will be information available in informal formats.
So what’s all this got to do with DITA? I think that one of its advantages is its topic-based approach to conveying information, compartmentalizing all you need to know about a task, concept or reference material in a single “atomic” unit of information. I suspect that if we can find ways to tie folksonomies and “the power of the crowd” with DITA topics, people can more readily search for the specific info they want, and tag it so that other people can more easily find it.
An alternative to devising more/better taxonomies is to allow the user to tag material in a way that they find useful. I suspect that the new subjectdef element in the 1.2 DITA specification might be a good taxonomical hook upon which users can lay their folksonomic hats. While designed for adding taxonomical information, I suspect it can be adapted for more folksonomic purposes — assuming that there is some mechanism in place for two-way communication between the user and tech writer (which in many circumstances simply isn’t the case).
This is not the only way to tackle this problem, and there may be better ways of doing this without the need to tie things back directly to elements within the DITA specification, but as a technical communicator I do think we need to find ways to make information more findable and useful for the end-user, and I doubt that improved taxonomies are the solution. Nor do I believe that users are going to write their own content when a better alternative is available. I think JoAnn Hackos set the right tone near the end of the keynote talk when she asked the open question “How do we help improve the ability of our information consumers to find what they need?” DITA or no, as Technical Communicators we need to figure this one out. I suspect a bottom-up, folksonomic approach to making information more findable (and mashable) is the way to go.
"DITAWriter" is Keith Schengili-Roberts. I work for IXIASOFT as a DITA Specialist/Information Architect. And I like to write about DITA and the technical writing community. To get ahold of me you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.