Free for All?  Applying the Open Source Model to Documentation

By Ken Adams

The open source movement began in the 1960's in the computer science laboratories of Stanford, Berkeley and MIT (Rasch 2000).  Until recently however, it has been relegated to the periphery of the software market.  But the recent growth of Linux and the exploding popularity of Firefox have proven that open source might finally be ready for the mainstream.  These developments have also shown that the open source model might be applied to other areas, including documentation.

The principle behind the open source model is simple.  If the source code for a software program is made freely available, programmers can easily fix bugs and make other improvements.  This can happen at a much quicker pace than under the traditional industry model.

This principle is already being applied to documentation, at least informally.  Imagine this scenario: Your new $200 MP3 player freezes and your morning jog is suddenly tuneless.  What do you do?  The "Trouble Shooting" section of the manual is filled with gems like this:

  • Problem:  No sound comes from the player.
  • Solution:  Make sure the power is turned on.

No help there.    Maybe the technical support number will shed some light on the subject.  But after waiting on hold for forty-five minutes, you finally get a real person, only to have them refer you very politely to the "Trouble Shooting" section of the manual.

Clearly this isn't going well.   Finally, you turn to the internet.  Two minutes and a couple Google searches later, you find dozens of posts from user just like you who have encountered the same problem.  Several detail their own solution.  You try their fix and ten minutes later your player is back to its former glory.

Message boards and other internet communities create a fertile ground for this kind of user-driven problem solving.   Such communities exist for virtually all major consumer electronic products, and more are created every day.  More and more users are flocking to them because they can often provide solutions to problems that companies seem either unwilling or unable to address.

This phenomenon provides the basis for a more formal open source documentation model.  Under this model, a user community would be developed through message boards, mailing lists, etc.  Users would post questions about the product or program, and others would provide answers based on their own experience.  It would be the job of the technical writer to moderate the boards, select what answers to incorporate into the official FAQ or other documentation, and to edit and rewrite those answers if needed (Berglund 2001).

This model has a number of pros and cons.  Just as with open source software, it might provide solutions quicker than the traditional model.  It might also prove to be cheaper in the long run.  On the other hand, it would require the creation of a rather  large and dependable community of skilled users in order to provide timely and accurate answers (Berglund 2001).

Clearly, open source documentation will not completely replace the more traditional models anytime soon.  However, the recent success of open source software and the growth of informal technical support communities prove that if will be a viable option in the future.



Berglund, E.  2001.  "Open-Source Documentation:  In Search of User-Driven, Just-in-Time Writing."  Retrieved on April 30, 2005.

Udell, J.  2005.  "Open Source Documentation."  Retrieved on April 30, 2005.