Is technical communication ready for the crowd?
Posted by jebehles
Way back in 2010, I was involved with a platform similar to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, but for editors. A program would break a long document, such as a novel or somebody’s thesis, into 300-400 word chunks. Then a pool of editors (I among them) would edit however many of those chunks they felt like until all were edited, at which point the program would reassemble. The edits were peer-reviewed–having an edit rejected hurt your credibility score, and if your score dropped too low, you lost the ability to edit.
I was (and still am) fascinated by crowdsourcing, especially wikis. When it came time to write my capstone paper for my BS in TechComm, I desperately wanted to write about crowdsourcing in TC, but there was just no literature on it. As Andy Oram states in the Foreword of Anne Gentle’s Conversation and Community: The Social Web for Documentation, “A few years ago this book could not have been written, because the phenomena it describes were just poking their heads out of the sea, and no one could predict what form their evolution would take. A few years from now this book will be unnecessary, because we’ll all be participating so fully in the phenomena that newcomers will take to them like ducks to water.”
I wanted to know if the latter was true–is TC, as a field, moving toward crowdsourcing and user-generated content? To determine this, I am performing a review of the literature in TC to see who is writing about it and what they’re saying. The preliminary results say that, yeah the field knows all about it, but academia still hasn’t caught up. Blog post after blog post discusses using wikis, forums, and other Web 2.0 tools to build and feed a community of content-generating users, with the technical communicator acting as a facilitator, moderator, and editor-in-chief. StackExhange and FLOSS manuals are almost entirely written and curated by the crowd. From the practitioner standpoint, crowdsourcing is here, and it’s working.
Yet academia is strangely silent. While there is a seemingly endless supply of books and articles about crowdsourcing, there is very little relating to our field. Only a single book exists dedicated to the topic as it pertains specifically to TC (Anne Gentle’s from above), and a few others (many of them readings from this course) mention crowdsourcing in passing, but don’t focus on it. Precious few articles from scholarly sources mention it, and only one article (from a non-scholarly source) actually uses the term crowdsourcing.
Is academia lagging behind industry, as it is inclined to do at times in this field? Is academia, with its more conservative approach, less open to the reinvention of the field? I don’t know the answer, but it is clear that there is a need for more scholarly discussion and research into crowdsourcing and user-generated content, because they are alive and well in the field. As they become more widely embraced, practitioners will start to search for guidance and best practices–if they don’t find them in scholarly sources, they will turn to blogs more and more, perhaps leading to the extinction of our field’s journals.