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Documents: Dead or grizzled survivors?

My friend Frank Gilbane has unearthed anissue of my old e-zine from 1998 in which I proposed that documents are dead, and in which he counter-proposed that they are not. This morning Frank writes: “I was gratified to find that I still agree with my 1998-self, and will check with David to see whether he is the same self he was.”

I will acknowledge that there is one itsy-bitsy way in which Frank was right and I was wrong: Documents are not dead. And it’s also undeniably the case that Web sites have not taken over from them. But I do think I was sort of right about some points in that post.

So, we still write and read documents. Just today, for example, I was at a contentious meeting of a task force at which we debated what the structure of our final report should be. The finality of the document is serving as a forcing function for getting us literally on the same page. It’s not a very elegant mechanism, but neither is a 15-pound sledge hammer, yet it’s sometimes the tool for the job.

But, we write and read old-style documents in a context saturated with documents that are more like the Web sites my old post describes. Indeed, the document the task force is working on is a Google Doc where we are tussling by writing (and over-writing) collaboratively, using the built-in, minimal chatting function. Not a lot like an old document…until the moment we have to declare it done and settled. It lives once we pronounce it dead, so to speak.

And the task force is pulling into our report material posted on the Web site we created for the project. The one with drafts and plenty of places for people to comment.

In 1998 blogging wasn’t yet a thing, and a whole bunch of old style document work has moved onto the Web — and has taken up webby characteristics — in that form. The task force’s web site uses blogging software. (Actually, I think it may not. But it could have.)

Then there are the streams of tweets that match some of the characteristics my old post describes as the future of documents. And the rise of wikis that are never fully done. And the wild aggregation and re-aggregation of content. And RSS feeds. Etc. etc.

So, no, documents live. But they are surrounded be an ecosystem that is overflowing with variants on documents that have the characteristics my old post pointed to. I was wrong about the death of documents, but not so wrong about the direction we were headed in.

Still, let me be clear: I was wrong.

Happy, Frank? :)

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