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Key Content: Working with the Web
Published
2006, Q4 (February 23, 2007)
By Bill Albing, Carolina Chapter Past President

Bill Albing
Bill Albing

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Background

When the editor of this newsletter told me about all the changes she has seen at her work recently and how my writing caused her to think about the direction of things, I thought it might be productive to put some aspects of our work in perspective.

We work in an arena fraught with change, and the Web is a big part of it, whether the actual Web or an internal version of Web technology. The Web has provided the foundation for new ways of connecting and communicating that we have only begun to see and use. There has been so much hoopla lately with Google, YouTube, and "Web 2.0" that I thought it would be good to step back and take a look at where we've been. You don't have to think in terms of the future to see mind-boggling change — just look at the present and your own work practices over the last few years. The way we work is changing, and has been changing for years.

The First Two Stages

While some people refer to the latest awareness of the Web as "Web 2.0" and others refer to it as the "Social Web," let's review the fast paced changes that have been happening over the last decade or two. The Web has evolved in several stages, and I believe there have been a lot more than two; I'd say we're more like on version 4.0.

In one sense, the first stage (or version) of the Web was the original implementation by Tim Berners-Lee that allowed him to link to other researchers at other universities and share information by creating hyperlinks to each other's pages. With a simple piece of software (a browser) you could join the fun. In a sense, Tim is right that the Web has always been social. But in a way, only university researchers were using it back then, so it certainly was not social in the sense that we use the word today.

Soon, businesses joined in and the second stage began with an exponential growth of commercial interests joining the Web. This second stage forced the browser wars, promoted the popularity of the Web, and spawned whole industries dedicated to advancing business-to-business and business-to-consumer solutions.

The Third Stage

The third stage came more recently when developers came up with cool ways to add features to browsers (including JavaScript) that made Web pages more interactive and powerful. No longer were there simply just static HTML pages; Web sites were front-ends to databases that allowed users to buy and sell, to perform data mining, to search, etc. This third stage was a very important stage because companies began to refine how they were using the Web. It also led to the growth of more open source software solutions since the Web allowed many developers to work together to develop good software that would work across systems. Such development led the way into the next stage, but before we get there, let me digress for a moment.

Many of our workplaces are still catching up with the third stage. Many corporations are moving to collaborative approaches, including the use of Web portals and collaborative environments made possible via software such as Microsoft SharePoint. While SharePoint successfully creates a central place for everyone to gather documents, it also keeps alive the "document" paradigm. I believe that, at some point, we will have to abandon this paradigm because it is too slow, too cumbersome, and represents an old way of communicating (which was great before we had the Web). We all know that our role as technical communicators is not limited to developing and maintaining technical manuals; we know there are all sorts of internal communication, from specs to reports to training, that facilitate the flow of information - the grease that keeps the wheels of commerce turning. There are many ways that the Web can be used internally to facilitate communication that we are only slowly adopting these new tools. With blogs and wikis, individuals and groups in and outside of an organization can publish content on the Web instantly without knowing about databases, programming, or scripting languages. This leads us back to the next stage of the Web.

Latest (Fourth) Stage

This latest version of the Web sees the entrance of a still larger audience of ordinary users. These users are neither universities nor businesses, but individuals. With blogs and wikis, anyone can post content from anywhere, and this may impact on how we work with the Web. If users are allowed to contribute content on wikis, if remote technical communicators deliver content on specific blogs, if the Web becomes one big sea of information from which each of us picks the information we need, then we will need to adapt to this change. Other common practice technologies, such as virtual games, allow you to attend classes and interact with others (see http://www.SecondLife.com as a good example of "an online society within a 3D world, where users can explore, build, socialize, and participate in their own economy").

Thus, because we use the Web as a virtual space to do more than simply read text, the communication we have with our end users can be transformed. For example, the way users visit technical support avatars for answers on the company website has the potential be a totally different online experience going forward.

This latest stage not only increases the size of the audience and includes more participation, but also begins to use the Web as a platform. So whether they'll be as much hoopla about Microsoft coming out with Vista or not remains to be seen. Perhaps it's not about the operating system anymore. Perhaps we are beginning to use the word platform not to mean operating system, but to mean working environment that is increasingly becoming the Web. "Probably one of the most compelling promises of the Web 2.0 crowd is that at some point in the future we'll all be able to ditch the overhead and problems of our increasingly buggy operating systems and do everything online," says Sean Carton at http://choarawonderland. blogspot.com/2006/11/i-love-yournew-web-20-app-now-fix-it.html.

And Beyond

Following the trajectory of the stages of the Web so far enumerated, the next version of the Web may include the millions of people outside of industrialized countries who have little or no access to the Web or to computers in general. By adding them to the project, we may be able to make use of what many see as a key to global collective intelligence. Along with this, we might see the Web used for something other than research or business; we might use it for governance. The Web might be used for gathering votes and making decisions in governance that require input from the largest part of our population. By getting input from everyone, we might live up to the goal of a democracy and not have to depend on representatives to give us a voice. But only the future will tell.

Conclusion

For now, I hope you see the growth of the Web and its importance in communication. As the Web 2.0 Summit happened November 7-9, 2006, in San Francisco, be assured there is more going on than just venture capitalists and Internet startups.

Our profession will continue to be influenced by this technology, and we will continue to influence it as we join others in communicating larger amounts of information to wider and wider audiences. While the audience may be more narrow in scope as it becomes more disparate in location, so the Web will be a very instrumental part of communication.

As communication in many forms becomes even more ubiquitous, the Web will be a fundamental part of our work.

Reference



Bill can be contacted at bill dot albing at keycontent dot org. End of article.


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