Volume 1, Number 2
May 1, 2006

Articles

What is Web 2.0 and How Will Technical Writers be Impacted?
by Amy Diehl

Understanding the potential implications of a paradigm shift in how we view writing for the web.

When many of us first became aware of the Internet, we associated "surfing" with visiting a variety of sites, scanning through pages for information, and just as one might surf the television, we browsed and skimmed through content located at a variety of destinations. The metaphor of "surfing" the web is quintessentially what Web 1.0 was all about. Web 1.0 relied on the idea of content being housed somewhere, and we use our computer to visit these places where the content lived, view it on our screen, and then move on to other places. Designers and technical writers in the Web 1.0 era were trained to create and fill these "places" with content situated within the space, and constrained both visually and rhetorically by their locations.

Web 2.0 is a movement away from understanding content as housed in websites, but instead views content as "granular." In this way, the content can be syndicated and distributed in decentralized ways and without relying on the user visiting a site or page in order to find the information or content. With the advent of Web 2.0, or the web as platform, not place, technical writers and designers will need to rethink many of their strategies regarding how their writing works in relation to "place".

The Web 2.0 movement focuses on the Web as a "platform" where already existing products, tools, or data are combined in ways that move beyond their original intentions. Whereas Web 1.0 focused on the location of information, products, or tools as located at a specific URL, Web 2.0 focuses on data in a syndicated format. For example, multiple interfaces, with multiple rhetorical purposes, can all be built upon the same set of syndicated data.

MacManus and Porter, in "Web 2.0 for Designers" give the example of amazon.com, whose database of content is made available for anyone to remix. "Anyone can design an interface to replace Amazon's that better suits specific needs (see Amazon Light)". The power of this type of syndication is that content can be remixed to suit multiple rhetorical contexts, many of which may never have been intended nor imagined by the original content creators or distributors.

Associated Press CEO Tom Curley has argued that ". content will be more important than its container in this next phase [of the Web]. Killer apps, such as search, RSS and video-capture software such as TiVo-to name just a few-have begun to unlock content from any vessel we try to put it in."

Google map mash-up program called Grassroots. Interfaces, such as Grassroots, use the Google Map API to create new programs. These mash-ups are quintessential web 2.0.

For content to reach the types of syndication and distribution imagined by web 2.0 enthusists, content needs to break free of the containers that both bind it and display it. One of the most significant ways that this transition to Web 2.0 can be seen is in the move toward XML, and semantic markup. With this move toward the granulation of content however technical writers need to rethink how to present content. "Because content flows across the Web in RSS feeds and can be remixed along the way, Web designers must now think beyond sites and figure out how to brand the content itself."

Implications for Technical Writers

But what exactly does this transition to the granulation of information mean for the technical writer? As writers, we have long been taught to consider the means of delivery of a piece of writing as a fundamental component of the rhetorical act. That is, the medium is the message. But with the advent of syndicated content, the writer will have much less agency over the future vessels in which their content will be used. In this way, Web 2.0 represents a possible paradigm shift in how we view writing, as well as how those who hire technical writers view the work that we do. In many ways, as MacManus and Porter argue, designers and writers in the Web 2.0 era will need to think more like programmers.

One of the most potentially exciting pieces of the Web 2.0 movement is that the user of the information will have far greater control in accessing, influencing, and remixing information for their own use. Granulated content means that users can choose to bypass many of the "places" on the web where that content was generated. The social web, folksonomy, and other areas which focus on communities pooling their knowledge in interesting ways, will also most likely be an area in which the technical writer will need to apply her skills. As O'Reilly argues "The central principle behind the success of the giants born in the Web 1.0 era who have survived to lead the Web 2.0 era appears to be this, that they have embraced the power of the web to harness collective intelligence" (What Is Web 2.0).

The technical writer's work of composing syndicated data will require that the technical writer understand the ways in which the "social web" can and will remix, search and tag their information, which can already be seen in certain applications such as del.icio.us and Flickr, as well as the numerous mapping interfaces, such as Grassroots, that rely on user's creating new interfaces with Google map's API. In the era of Web 2.0, the users will not only have a great deal of control over the information they see, but they will also be consistently generating metadata, new interfaces, and new content, from that which is supplied to them. The technical writer will need to work with and for the collective intelligence, not against them.

"The effects of Web 2.0 are far-reaching. Like all paradigm shifts, it affects the people who use it socially, culturally, and even politically. One of the most affected groups is the designers and developers who will be building it-not just because their technical skills will change, but also because they'll need to treat content as part of a unified whole, an ecosystem if you will, and not just an island"( MacManus and Porter).

In conclusion, as MacManus and Porter argue, the major elements technical writers will need to consider in regards to the Web 2.0 movement include the rise of XML and semantic mark-up, which allows for the easy syndication and granulation of information, the rise of the social web and the user's role in creating metadata, the movement for technical writers and designers to think and act more like programmers, and for the movement away from Web as places to Web as platform.

 

About the Author

Amy Diehl

Amy Diehl is a graduate student in the Digital Rhetoric & Professional Writing program at Michigan State University.

Email: diehlamy AT msu DOT edu

Web: http://wide.msu.edu/

References

MacManus, R. & Porter, J. "Web 2.0 Design: Bootstrapping the Social Web ."
Digital Web Magazine (May 4, 2005).
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Folksonomy. "Wikipedia."
Accessed January 31, 2005.
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Social Web. "Wikipedia."
Accessed January 31, 2005.
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O'Reilly, T. "What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software"
Digital Web Magazine (September 9, 2005).
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Extended Readings

Web 2.0 Conference

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