Educating computer users: the need for community/author collaboration (Part 1 of 2)

(This is the first part of a two-part article.)

Every computing project with a heart-beat is out recruiting new users,
because the trajectories of competing projects place them in a
grow-or-die situation. Celebrating the project’s 100,000th download,
noting increased traffic on its mailing lists, and boasting the
release of a book about it–all these typical milestones implicitly
measure success in terms of new users. It makes sense that the more
effectively a project can educate its new users and turn them into
masters, the more successful it will be.

Mailing lists and books represent the two ends of a spectrum of
educational opportunities. On a mailing list, IRC channel, or web
forum, questions and answers stream back and forth with a speed
reflecting the tendency of the current state of affairs to evaporate.
A book, by contrast, represents stability (not to mention
opportunities for revenue). In between lie blogs, tutorials, wikis,
FAQs, and a range of other tools for helping users mature.

Recently, the less stable end of this ecosystem has been destabilizing
the other end, and this calls for a reassessment of their

The symptom: a shift online

More than a decade ago, O’Reilly realized that online content was
gaining in importance. The company responded with high-quality edited
content in the form of
The O’Reilly Network
Safari Books Online.
But readers continued to turn more and more to online sources of
information that were anything but high-quality edited content.

Some of the free online material is pretty well-written. But the
organization, pace, and tone are virtually never of professional
quality. And even more significant, these isolated descriptions of
particular tasks or how to recover from particular problems suffer
from lack of context. Information that readers need is scattered over
a dozen different sites, all written from slightly different angles
and for different audiences. I’ve explored the strengths and
weaknesses of online contributions in a
series of articles.

One may ask whether top-notch quality could be achieved by volunteer
input, bypassing the need for professional editing. The answer, in a
word, is no. As I pointed out in a
recent posting,
professional editing provides a comprehensive and incisive view that
uncoordinated volunteer efforts hardly ever can do.

Yet sales of most books on professional computer topics are declining.
An occasional spike will appear in the book market when a new
technology captures the public’s attention (for instance, Ajax) but
after a year or so it fades. And such topics are becoming rarer.

The challenge: where value lies in educational content

Why are so many readers turning to free online content? The answers
are simple:

  • Material comes up quickly in web searches and can be displayed easily.

  • Updates can be posted immediately.

  • In the case of public wikis and other open-license documentation,
    multiple contributors can make updates.

  • The information is the right size–you can download just an
    explanation with a couple hundred words if that’s all you need.

What these familiar traits add up to is this: the value in
educational content lies in context (what immediate problem
the reader is trying to solve) and timeliness (what’s true
today will be outdated tomorrow). Value no longer lies in the traits
associated organization, pace, and tone as in traditional books.

Another way to put this is that the bulk of online material defies the
need for professional authoring and editing. First, most web pages and
postings are so short that they aren’t candidates for the careful
pacing and organization that go into a good book; in other words,
coherence is easy to achieve without professional help. Second, the
content goes out of date so quickly that professional authoring and
editing don’t pay off.

And of course, interactivity changes all the rules. Clear writing
doesn’t matter much on forums and chat sites because the recipient of
each message can ask for clarification.

This situation comes right out of Christensen’s Innovator’s
. The day has arrived for low-cost (free, in this case)
offerings that fall short of the quality standards treasured in the
past, but that provide better quality when judged by their
audience’s needs.

And they’re free (in terms of cost) because there’s no value in adding
extra cost by polishing the text.

But research I’ve conducted presents evidence that online content is
not meeting user needs. Impressive as it is–reflecting the
time and caring invested by many people to build communities–it just
doesn’t work as often as it should.

study I performed on technical mailing lists,
confirmed by a similar
follow-up study,
reveals three key points:

  • Only half the technical questions asked on mailing lists receive
    successful answers.

  • Respondents don’t invest much effort in answering questions. If they
    don’t come up with an answer right away, they rarely take time to
    delve deeper into the problem and work closely with the questioner.

  • Many people come to the lists without sufficient background to solve
    their problems, and the lists cannot provide them with this
    background. (This assertion is more speculative than the other two,
    because it’s based on my deduction from what’s missing rather than
    from measurements.)

The community can’t do it alone. Self-organizing is wonderful (after
all, half the questions do receive answers), but it’s not

“Well,” you say, “perhaps you’ve established that mailing lists don’t
solve all problems. But what about the other educational tools you
mentioned: all those online manuals, articles, wikis, and blogs?” The
presence of these resources, however, doesn’t solve the dilemma. The
very popularity of mailing lists shows that the rest is lacking as
well. If users could find the information in the online manuals,
articles, wikis, and blogs, they wouldn’t have to bother with the
mailing lists.

And if most online content is so short that intensive editing is not
required, the problem of coherence moves from the stand-alone posting
to the larger collection spread across the Internet. Documents don’t
use the same terms for the same things, don’t fill in the gaps in
background, and don’t adequately indicate the purposes and potential
applications for the techniques they teach. The community is not
solving this problem–but no professional editor can solve it
either. I’ve suggested a technical approach to the problem in an
earlier article.

A proponent of free documentation (actually, I count myself as one)
might complain that it’s not the fault of the free documentation if
users are too lazy to search for answers or too ignorant to understand
the documentation. I can retort that it’s not the fault of O’Reilly
books if users are too cheapskate or too indifferent to buy an
O’Reilly book for every topic they need. OK, now we’re even. Let’s
move on and try to meet the needs of computer users.