What is with All These Four-Letter Words
This is my regular column that appears in the STC Carolina Communiqué (the newsletter of the STC Carolina Chapter). It is published under the Creative Commons license. Your feedback on this, as on any of my articles, is appreciated. This appears in the 4Q2005 issue.

by Bill Albing

If you are reading the news or searching on the Web, you cannot help but notice that there is a steady stream of new communication technologies appearing every week. And they all have very brief, and it might be said, four-letter word, names. These names include blog, feed, wiki, iPod, and others. It's almost as if we don't have time to say the names before we move on to the next technology. Even the phrases that are most commonly used in email or instant messages have been reduced to acronyms, such as ASAP and IMHO. I have recently read several articles about the death of newspapers as a business; they cannot print and deliver the information fast enough because the news changes hourly. Boy, it is a good thing we developed the Internet and the cell phone, huh? We're just in time.

Now social bookmarking doesn't have a four-letter word, but this is the exception that is required to make the rule. Perhaps someone will come up with a catchy phrase for that too, or maybe we will just shorten it and say "mark" and we'll all know what that means. Ah, a four-letter word; now that's short enough. There are also some cool networking tools like Plaxo and LinkedIn that link our contact lists. I guess the shortened name there will be "link" or something like that. Then there are the acronyms that stay within the four-letter limit, such as ITIL and others. (In case you don't know what ITIL is, it stands for IT Infrastructure Library, where IT is information technology, and the infrastructure library is a set of documents that lay out the best practices for managing the processes in the IT group.) And I think that the reason that CMS (content management system) added an E (for enterprise) to the front was to make it an even four letters. But all this is mere speculation. Whether you adopt any of these technologies or processes is up to you.

Lately, I have been helping to judge some entries for our local STC Online Competition and have had a chance to reflect on all this nonsense. It struck me that all the entries I was reviewing were already last year's technology with last quarter's information. Was it just me, or did anyone else involved get a sense of nostalgia opening a CHM file or looking at a Web page that didn't have every square millimeter packed with links and information in small type face font? I felt so retro. Of course, I'm up on some of these new technologies, so for the entry of a Demonstration, I asked "Where's the blog, so I can read the author's latest opinion?" and for the Tutorial, I asked "Where is the RSS feed so I can read the latest updates?" And it's not just the entries that are becoming out of date. The process itself, which used to involve filling out hard-copy forms, turned to online versions only in the last year or so. But even so, the online version is still a Microsoft Word document that is emailed around. This year, my fellow judges asked me how to give feedback about how to improve the online form. And they didn't even think of asking for the online form on the Web. So now I'm asking the competition officials "Where is the wiki, so all of us judges can post our comments together and do it all from our web browser?" and "Where is the online Web form for immediate processing?" But I know what the answer is for all these questions. We just still think that four-letter words shouldn't be spoken, except in escape action films or prohibited Web sites, where hyperbole is expected. You wouldn't actually want to say them at work, would you? We wouldn't use them in STC would we?

Well, I do not think that we should be afraid of saying these words or even using the technologies. I read an article claiming that wikis don't work for technical documentation. What the author meant was that open source documentation where the public writes the documentation never gets written properly. Of course wikis can work for technical content—but not if no one is responsible for the content of the deliverables. The technology of the wiki or the blog or the feed, or whatever comes next, is not something to fear, but something to enjoy if it allows you to communicate collaboratively and deliver content quickly. These new technologies offer faster and more accurate communication with a wider reach for our intended audience.

I have noticed that these four-letter things are no longer packaged as nicely and neatly as before. They come out and are adopted before we have a chance to process them as we used to do. No one waits for the book to come out anymore. The technology hits the street, or in this case, the Web, and people start adopting it. What these terms all have in common is that they involve the Web and a new way of thinking and approaching communication, because the assumed "one-to-one" communication of phone calls has become the "collaborating many–to–diverse multitude audience many" of the conference call, which the Web allows and even promotes in visual as well as auditory ways. Communication is no longer a linear chain where the technical writer takes the technical jargon of the person to one side and converts it into understandable, personally relevant language for the customer on the other side. There are a lot more directions and a lot more types of information and levels of meaning that are involved.

We are not constrained to a single dimension. Which of course then brings up the whole matter of properly tagging the information with metadata, (or maybe I should just say "meta" so we keep it to four letters) so we know how to deliver what information to whom. But I'll talk about tagging and metadata in a future column. With regards to adopting the new technologies, "welcome to the party", or as my son who plays online communal games says, "welcome to the game"—oh, no, another four-letter word.


© 2006 by Bill Albing
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mailto:bill.albing@keycontent.org

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Contributors to this page: Bill Albing .
Page last modified on Sunday, October 07, 2007 04:44:00 pm EDT by Bill Albing.

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