L. Detweiler

from the Internet Writers Resource Guide

The FAQ as the Future

An interesting form of cyberspatial writing has existed for essentially as long as Usenet and continues to gain momentum and prestige, and may be the bridge to the vision of the future I have written about previously. The Frequently Asked Question List, or FAQ-- a document designed to answer questions that pop up on newsgroups, hopefully in turn decreasing the annoyance factor of reading them-- started out as not even something that was ever archived at a public site; FAQs were just regularly posted by their volunteer authors as a selfless public service to the denizens of a particular newsgroup. They also started out as haphazard collections of old posts that covered the core issues of interest to the group.

Today, however, FAQs have evolved into extremely sophisticated collections of information on virtually any subject, becoming highly refined over many years and involving whole hierarchies of contributing teams and editors. A FAQ is even superior to many other types of static collections of writing in this way-- they are far more valuable (but also sometimes more difficult to keep track of) because they are continually updated. There is almost a feverish intensity of all FAQ authors in updating their FAQs, many feel they are not doing their job properly unless they are updated every few weeks, and in fact some are perpetually apologizing that their precious baby nevertheless seems to be perpetually out of date!

The drive to organize and present information in the most efficient and unadorned simplicity is the key to FAQs. Sometimes, new authors will compete to cover the same area as existing ones, thinking they can do a better job. Most FAQs share a very valuable aspect of objectivity as well. A FAQ is generally written by a unprejudiced outsider who is simply interested in key issues, uninfluenced by narrow politics. For example, a programming FAQ written by any commercial company would emphasize their own product, and would be narrow and centric to their aims of selling the product. But a programming FAQ might have input from many different impartial programmers contributing to its "idea" of the "best" programming package. These programmers would be unimpressed by vaporware and flash. They would be able to apply their intricate knowledge to discriminate between the vast options available to them to a few straight forward choices, expressed with clarity in the FAQ.

Many FAQs have evolved into books, and many books include FAQs or assorted collections of them. Book authors now frequently consult FAQs before or during the writing of their book when it touches areas covered by existing FAQs. But FAQs are very much like living things and books like inanimate objects when seen in comparison. The book is useful in presenting a snapshot at a given time of some topic, but for areas related to cyberspatial issues, books become obsolete alarmingly quickly.

The fluidity of cyberspace is very daunting to the existing publishing system. Sites go up and down, addresses change, services evolve and morph with breathtaking rapidity, to the great consternation of any author who puts them in a book. A continually updated document, a FAQ, seems to be today's best approach of establishing some kind of framework of knowledge around cyberspace. Many FAQ authors use sophisticated automated tools and dynamic submission procedures to structure the chaos into cyberspatial masterpieces and works of art not merely intelligible, but crisp, entertaining, and illuminating.

A periodic Usenet posting itself represents different kind of publishing that is unique to cyberspace-- somewhat reminiscent of the way an electron beam of a television set displays a picture by continually retracing it. Although these FAQ posts were obviously such gems that they inevitably were sought to be archived in centralized locations. They represent in a sense the consensus or convergence of the voluminous froth that courses daily through the veins of the Internet and Usenet in particular (the latter becoming a powerful packet-vacuum, sucking up increasing amounts of Internet "bandwidth"). The Web is a natural extension, home, and "delivery system" or vehicle for the FAQ. FAQs were already very tightly organized based on tables of contents and could easily be converted to the hypertext form. In fact, FAQ authors are some of the pioneers of the hypertext presentation via the Web, the first to develop tools, guidelines, procedures, and techniques for incorporating existing documents. Because they deal with organization of information, they were and are very well equipped, mentally and mechanically, to head the exodus. The distinction of the difference between a web page and a FAQ has blurred significantly. Even a home page, a seemingly unique characteristic of the Web, can be thought of as a very specialized FAQ that answers the questions, "What are my favorite places in cyberspace?" or "What is this company or organization about?"

What is the FAQ author's reward for all this selfless, humanitarian labor? The satisfaction of organizing and having at one's fingertips the most up-to-date knowledge is not to be underestimated. The FAQ author has such a passionate interest in his or her area of coverage that the FAQ is almost like their personal journal of copious notes and references. By keeping it current, they benefit in their own field by being a centralized conduit for the most critical new information. Nevertheless, FAQ authors are the first to tell how much time they have spent on not only a thankless job, but one that often earns them ill-tempered flames from others for their hard work. They become respected personalities, celebrities, but also lightning rods for the gripes of the members of the group.

The most important new development in FAQ writing is that of the commercial factor. Buried in that phrase are many multifaceted pots of gold, but also many bugaboos. Very soon, the Internet will have a standard for mercantile commerce, and some FAQs will be one of the first pieces of the pie to be commercialized. I foresee some great, wrenching upheavals in the FAQ structures as the forces of volunteerism and entrepreneurialism meet face to face. I believe that a certain percentage of all FAQs, which in many ways are a microcosm of the Internet, will remain free and maintained by volunteers. But the rewards to both writers and readers in a fee-based structure for access are great. For even extremely inconsequential fees to individual readers, writers could be compensated, rewarded, and encouraged in their writing quite tangibly. And I believe a commensurate increase in the quality of the FAQs written by them, for their consumers, will be quite dramatic. The FAQ will continue to be at the forefront of cyberspatial writing frontiers.

I urge anyone interested in cyberspatial writing to read the news.answers FAQ posted to that group and write a FAQ on their favorite subject of interest if it is not already covered. Even the simple process of taking existing FAQs and reorganizing them into more useful collections of information, or "spinning off" into your own angle, is an extremely valuable service to the net. Writing a FAQ in many ways is one of the ultimate community services to your fellow cyberspatial citizens. Just browsing the rtfm.mit.edu FAQ archives is an extremely pleasureable activity. At the time of writing, the existing FAQ archival infrastructure centralized at rtfm.mit.edu by Johnathin Kamens is bulging at the seams, and approval delays have entered the picture, but these are in my view growing pains on the way to new archival procedures that will be faster, less centralized, and less tricky to follow. J. Kamens can be considered the patron saint of FAQs in cyberspace, developing a system so successful it has surpassed his ability to maintain it. Speaking of FAQ heroes, another very important contributer to FAQ infrastructure is Thomas Fine, who built the first Web archive and developed some of the first automatic hypertext conversion software. And Gene Spafford, one of the more important Usenet innovators and organizers, may be considered to have originated the FAQ in the form it has evolved into today, starting some of the most important and widespread FAQs such as "Emily Postnews guide to Usenet".

The FAQ is a beautiful model of the future of writing in cyberspace. As it exists, the current process on Usenet to submit an official FAQ is far from Herculean and in fact highly accessable to virtually anyone with a modicum of interest in writing. In fact, the effort is astonishingly less than that required for that of say, a book, but, with newsgroup and Web distributions reaching tens of thousands of readers, amazingly the exposure in many cases can be greater than that of a published book. And this exposure will increase tremendously as cyberspace becomes more ubiquitous, and I am convinced the entrance requirements will also become even more trivial to pass such that, as I wrote above, virtually anyone who can write can publish. Even the necessity of owning a computer is bypassed!

nonfiction contents or Next