A couple of weeks ago, a coworker sent a link to our company’s software documentation team.
“Thought this might be of interest,” he said.
It seemed both offhanded and ominous. When I clicked the link, the blog post’s headline definitely gave me pause: Introducing Stack Overflow Documentation Beta.
Stack Overflow, the eminently popular discussion site where programmers can ask and answer coding questions, is staking out new territory. It intends to be the go-to site for technical documentation. Crowdsourced technical documentation.
As Stack Overflow sees it, documentation “by most appearances stopped improving in 1996. We think, together, we can make it a lot better.” So at Stack Overflow Documentation, people can create and publish documentation that will be continually buffed and polished by the developer community. As on the Q&A site, quality answers can be up-voted, and contributors can earn reputation points and badges.
In short, according to TechCrunch, “Stack Overflow Documentation wants to be a complement and maybe even a replacement for existing instruction manuals and similar resources.”
What’s more, partners like Microsoft will be supporting these efforts by contributing content, and possibly co-opting some of the community-created documentation into their own documentation.
As a technical writer, working not for free, but to make a living, I did wonder briefly: is this the sound of my career going down the drain? Is this what it feels like when your industry is … what do you call it … disrupted? After all, I’d heard rumors that Microsoft was keen to let users create YouTube videos, etc. for its products in order to keep its documentation teams small.
As I dug deeper, though, I found that there seemed to be some confusion about what Stack Overflow Documentation is and isn’t.
By its own account, Stack Overflow says its documentation will focus on examples in the form of code snippets. (As a footnote in their post explains, “We literally almost called this Stack Overflow Examples.”)
Stack Overflow also notes that it’s not meant to duplicate existing high-quality documentation.
“Some things have obsessively-curated and up-to-date documentation with plenty of practical examples that illustrate real-world use cases. So, we’re going to focus on the other 97% of documentation.”
It’s hard to argue that a lot of documentation, when it exists at all, can’t use some improvement. Technical writers and the companies that employ them could use Stack Overflow Documentation as a way to see what kind of information users are really interested in.
It remains to be seen how this all will play out. There’s some skepticism, and a quick tour around the beta site shows a lack of organization within topics. But there’s also some excitement, especially from the partner companies.
I’m curious to know what other technical writers make of this. Do you think it’ll be successful? Perhaps too successful? Will it be a useful complement to the work we do, or a potentially duplicative and disorganized disaster?
Please share your thoughts in the comments!
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