Community: Inviting Participation (Part 2 of 2)

This is the second part of a two part series, Community. The previous part, Asking for Permission is available in the archives.

Despite my misgivings about STC and some of the problematic processes and behaviors which have evolved in that institution, I still want to engage with its members, since they’re part of a broader ecosystem of technical communicators. I’ve long felt that the people in STC are its greatest asset and I’d love the opportunity to get to know those people in a context perhaps less structured than that of STC. And I’d like to get to know the technical communicators who have, for whatever reason, decided to forgo membership in STC.

Luckily, I’ve found that there is a community of technical communicators developing that isn’t tied to a non-profit status or a particular company. And it’s developing using a core tool of my livelihood, the web. By way of Twitter and through new web-based discussion groups like the Association of Technical Communicators (formerly, the Society of Young Technical Communicators), writers are joining together on an informal basis which has not apparent or available in the past.

One thing that excites me about the community forming is that the foundation of the community is the web. While a formal organization that collects dues and holds elections benefits from a certain kind of seriousness about itself, an open community founded on the web ultimately succeeds or fails on the basis of community participation, not on it’s ability to pay the bills.

Moreover, an informal community with low barriers to entry is going to be more diverse and bring a broader range of experiences to discussions. Barriers like membership dues or Robert’s Rules of Order turn away would-be community participants before they’ve had a chance to see the value of participating.

But perhaps the biggest reason for my excitement is that I feel that there’s an invitation to read, learn, and contribute. In the new web-based community, there’s no need to ask for permission: not only is it ready to have me as a member, but the only thing stopping me from contributing is me.

The recent development of a genuinely web-based community of writers reminds me of open source software communities. In many open source software projects the importance of status and authority is deemphasized (though not wholly eliminated) in favor of practical contribution. Subsequently, formal organizations appear to enable the work of the community, rather than to direct it explicitly. In a culture where making stuff happen is important, a formal or semi-formal organization can do a lot of good.

In particular, I look to the Python Software Foundation as a good example of what such an organization can be. One of the PSF board members, Jesse Noller says, “Our job is to provide resources to the entire Python ecosystem.” For example, the PSF sets aside money each month for groups creating open source software with Python to hold programming events.

I hope that the future of the technical communication community is along such lines. I think we can accomplish so much by creating a community where the objective is to enable sharing and learning by technical communicators of all kinds, regardless of their membership status, their location, their ability to pay dues, or even their self-identification as technical communicators.

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