Recent conversations about online documentation

Computer documentation has long been like government funding: nobody
wants to contribute to it, but everybody wants it to be there when
they need it. In considering the free, online documentation produced
by amateurs for open source projects, there are other somewhat
whimsical ways it can be compared to government funding:

  • It’s allocated haphazardly, reflecting the interests of “whoever shows
    up at the table.” (In documentation, each volunteer writes about what
    he or she finds interesting.)

  • The prerequisites needed to make it effective are sometimes missing.
    (Advanced topics and fussy details may get into the documentation
    without background material.)

  • Efforts are not sufficiently coordinated to achieve the results they
    merit. (Authors don’t check for overlaps, gaps, and consistency.)

Enough strained metaphors–I am now happy to say that attitudes seem
to be shifting in online documentation. Major projects are hiring
authors or coordinators for amateur contributions. They’re undertaking
large tutorial works and trying to organize the documentation along
more rational lines, usually through wikis or content management

My own goals are to find technologies and practices that promote
user-contributed documentation, and to find a role in this space for
my work as editor and O’Reilly’s work as a publisher and information
disseminator. Recently I’ve discussed the topic and the
results of my research
at a number of conferences and other public events, and had a chance a
chance to exchange email with a number of interesting people working
in the area.

Motivation through a reputation system

answered by 350 contributors to online documentation showed that
building reputation could be a useful motivation for getting people to
contribute, although reputation interests them less than
community-building. As I point out in the article, enhancing chances
for building reputation may help to attract the people who tend to
provide high-quality documentation: trainers, consultants, and others
trying to fashion a career around a technology.

I was thus happy to be introduced by open source activist William
Hurley to a simple, flexible reputation system for a mailing
list or forum. His company, BMC Software, has implemented this
reputation system, which is a part of the Jive Forums product, on their
developer network.
the system lets participants label their postings as
“questions,” and then rate each answer as “helpful” and “correct.” The
people who earn the most points through helpful and correct answers
are posted on the site, thus furnishing them with a reputation on
which they can build a business, while helping new members of the
forums learn whose postings are particularly worth reading.

Streamlining contributions

I had several discussions with Adam Hyde of
FLOSS Manuals,
which provides tools to facilitate the creation of documentation for
free software. Hyde has built a formatting layer on top of the popular
software so that documents can be presented as more attractive web

FLOSS Manuals has also recently started printing and selling
books; the first one (on the audio editing utility Audacity) is available at their own site or
Whereas most publishers (including O’Reilly) struggle to automate the
conversion of documents between online and print formats–a process
that never goes smoothly except for very simply laid-out
documents–Adam just bytes the bullet and pays someone to manually put
the text into InDesign. The process takes a couple days per
book. They’re moving to Scribus for print-ready layout, and plan to
develop plug-ins that make conversion from wiki format to Scribus
format more automatic.

The provision of different formats for the same documents leads to a
two-stage system. FLOSS manuals have a development version that can be
viewed in the standard TWiki format, and a stable version that gets
put up in the attractive format and printed.

FLOSS Manuals also offers a facility for mixing sections from
different documents. Their “live manual” function lets people serve a
remixed manual on a new website by just pasting in five lines of HTML.

Who writes, and why?

I exchanged some very interesting mail with Lance Smith, who believes
that people who write documentation have an artistic bent and are
chronically unsatisfied with the sloppiness that accompanies most of
the work they see around them. The urge to intervene and tell people
how to use their computers is aesthetic. The kind of person who
contributes to mailing lists and web pages just finds it demoralizing
to see bad practices carried on by generation after generation of new

While this is a hard hypothesis to test, it fits nicely with the
skills I see as necessary for writing good documentation: a sense of
when a passage looks and sounds right, combined with the determination
to revise and rework the passage until it reaches the quality that the
author can live with.