Style vs Structure: the crossover mashup in documentation

I was listening to Steve Erquiaga’s Windham Hill version of Faure’s Pavane and noticed the poster’s comment that Steve is a Jazz and Classical crossover artist. It struck me that Steve’s seamless performance, blending styles in a single stream, is not unlike a mashup artist blending streams in a single style. Moreover, these techniques apply to writing appreciation as well as to music appreciation!

The standard recipe for a mashup is to find several songs with common beats and harmonies and blend them into an overlapping whole, while the goal of crossover is to take a song in one genre and play it using another genre’s stylistic norms or key signatures. Walter Murphey’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” is a classic example of crossover, as is “Lover’s Concerto” (“How gentle is the rain…”) based on a Bach minuet. Relating these two different musical editing approaches to documentation might take a stretch, but let’s try.

One of the premises of topic-oriented information is that various topics might be assembled like a conventional mashup, informed by some logic of order and nesting that puts the information architect in the role of the mashup master. These are the map/topic collections with which DITA users are familiar. The crossover approach is more like applying a different stylesheet or even different branding to a set of content (which might itself be a new aggregation/mashup). This is common for OEM-rebranded DITA information or for internal infocenters that need a common, corporate look and feel.

In the document world, crossover (style) and mashup (reorganization) techniques have been the tools for writers and information architects for updating content and creating new product versions. Increasingly, content aggregation tools are being provided for product users to customize and manage their own views of product docs, at least for some major installed products.

The next big turn of events will come when DITA content can be made more globally accessible on the Web–open source content for open use, as it were. With the right open source tools in the hands of users, any open DITA content could be managed into new forms just as easily.

One recent scenario for this kind of collaboration came with the release of the Google+ social service. As is all too common for new agile releases, the Google+ rollout came with very little documentation, and users quickly organized to create cheat sheets, fan sites, blogs, videos, and other scattered versions of helps for new users. Imagine how reliable and consistent that content might be if contributors could collaborate on a common version in an open repository and users could access open aggregation tools to build their own custom versions of the parts they needed?

In general, mashups or crossover performances are easy if you have tools that meet you halfway with knowledge you need to complete the task. What would that ideal documentation tool for creating blended content styles and streams look like?  I am fairly certain that DITA will be part of that picture!

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