22 March 2013

The Underground

Academics, especially the non-scientists, often face the criticism that they have an aloof existence in ivory towers. An easily recollected if ill-favoured example is academic and author H.G. Widdowson who in his book Practical Stylistics has the unfortunate habit of calling non-canonical poems “dogrel”; even when they’ve been written effectively and serve their intended audience well, and especially when they’ve been written in memory of departed relatives. This blindness to, and denigration of, changes in a field weakens not the target of the dismissal and contempt, but the person making the aspersions (which is why traditionalist generals lost out to Germans with panzers and a remarkably modern air force during the early years of WWII). With this in mind this week’s blog is a bit of a walk on the wild side, because out there in cyberspace there are thousands of amateur technical communicators doing very interesting things, sometimes approximating the tools we use, and sometimes innovating to get their message across.

First up there’s YouTube and the ubiquitous video demonstration; the most popular result for the search terms “how to” come from Household Hacker and run from an introduction to the manufacture (at home) of a magnetically responsive liquid to the creation of a candle powered space heater. The presenter uses a variety of camera angles and captions to get his message across, and succeeds in presenting easily reproducible experiments and activities to end users. Whilst he’s not using the latest and greatest technical communications software, he achieves his aims in a way that would make any technical communicator feel it’s a job well done.

Those of us who spend our time writing rather than getting to create video tutorials may feel that there’s less competition from amateur authors, but it does exist for some fairly commonly used software packages. Of course by “commonly used software packages” I’m talking about video games! There are entire communities of gamers on-line who dedicate hours of their lives to documenting the solutions and tricks that go into beating their favourite games. Matt Hughes writes guides to killing (virtual) aliens that are detailed, entertaining AND in line with best-practice in software documentation whilst gamer community forums share exceptionally detailed tips about complex virtual worlds and control methodology with accuracy and incredible end-user awareness (as effectively we have users writing for users).

What does this vibrant underground scene do for us as technical authors? Well, it should be serving to keep us on our toes and pointing towards effective uses of new platforms and media choices for our content.