By Scott Abel, The Content Wrangler and The Content Wrangler Community

The remix. It used to be a term used purely to describe different renditions of the same dance tune. Now, it’s a term creeping into our daily lives in a variety of new ways made possible by recent advances in computer and Internet technologies.

imageOriginally crafted by talented music producers like Tom Moulton and dj’s like Larry Levin, remixes were designed for one purpose: To make the audience dance. Okay, that’s not entirely true, there was also another motive: To increase profit by selling the same song to different audiences by creating customized versions attractive to various target groups. Remixes were created to be attractive to specific demographics (blacks, gays, Latinos) and to patrons of niche clubs that feature specific genres of music (reggae, trance, hip-hop, garage, disco) by repurposing existing components of music (the vocals, the baseline, the guitar solo) and recombining them in new and innovative ways. One popular Top 40 tune might be remixed into a dozen different “official” versions, each with a target audience in mind.

This early form of content reuse, allowed record companies to do what nearly everyone is trying to do today – earn more revenue by personalizing content (i.e. delivering the right information, to the right people, in the right language, in the right format, at the right time). But, the music companies aren’t the only ones creating remixes anymore. Today, nearly anyone can be a music remixer.

User-Generated Remixes

The widespread availability of digital music (legals issues aside) and access to easy-to-use music remixing software, has created an entire generation of digital djs. Armed with a laptop and a connection to the Internet, these new school music mavens are at the heart of user-generated content movement. While record companies can afford to hire some of the best djs in the world to create officially sanctioned remixes, user-generated remixes, created by wanna-be music producers and bedroom djs, often become more popular than the official renditions. But the remixing phenomena isn’t limited to dance music. Content mashups made possible by services like Microsoft Popfly and Yahoo Pipes are allowing organizations and individuals alike to create value-added content services. Even toy companies are in on the action. Hasbro recently launched a video mashup tool designed to promote its popular Transformers line of children’s toys. Kids can combine video clips, sound effects, and music to make their own Transformers video remixes.

Remixing Documentation

The same principles behind music remixing are at the heart of a hugely important open source software documentation experiment, taking place on the web today. It’s called FLOSS Manuals, a content remixing project that provides its website visitors with the ability to read, write and remix documentation.

The FLOSS acronym stands for Free/Libre/Open-Source Software.

Reading FLOSS Manuals

FLOSS Manuals provides access to a collection of user-generated documentation sets that explain how to install and use a range of free and open source software including Audacity, an audio editing software for Linux, Mac OSX and Windows and WordPress, a popular blogging platform. You can also find a manual for the One Laptop Per Child XO computer, the education project whose goal was to produce a $100 laptop for children of the world using all open source software.

FLOSS Manuals are designed to be user-friendly and simple-to-understand. They are intended to encourage people to explore the wide range of free, open source alternatives to expensive and restrictively licensed software. FLOSS allows visitors to make a PDF of desired manuals – or read and print them in HTML—with the click of the mouse.

Writing FLOSS Manuals

FLOSS Manuals also provides site visitors with the tools needed to create a manual online, using wiki software that runs in a web-browser. Would-be writers and editors can learn how to use the wiki by editing a test manual and by reading the FLOSS Manuals documentation. A discussion listserv is also available to help editors find answers quickly from their peers.

Remixing FLOSS Manuals

The really cool thing about FLOSS Manuals is its remixing capabilities. Users can remix chapters from any manuals in the FLOSS repository to create their own customized manuals. And, doing so is quick and easy, through a user-friendly drag-and-drop interface that works from within a web browser. The resulting remix can be styled and exported to PDF or HTML.

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An even more useful feature—live manuals—allows users to generate code that will allow them to embed their “live” manual into a webpage, just like SlideShare allows you to embed slide decks or YouTube allows you to embed videos. The big difference is that “live manuals” are indeed live versions of the document. Changes made to the files on FLOSS Manuals website are automatically reflected in the “live” version displayed on your website, providing your site visitors with the most-up-to-date content possible and avoiding typical delays caused by traditional documentation creation processes.

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Remixing enables users to create a manual that suits their needs. Perhaps they need just one section of one manual and three sections of another. In this case, remixing only the desired components from both manuals allows users to create a customized manual that meets their specific needs. Nothing more, nothing less.

By remixing components from various manuals you can get exactly the content you need. Typical uses:

  • Workshop leaders and trainers can create remixes that contain only the chapters relevant to students. This will minimize the amount of training materials produced, provide targeted learning materials, and decrease the impact on the environment.
  • Students can create subsets of the documentation to help them perform specific tasks, share these miniture manuals with co-workers and customers, and publish the resulting “live manuals” to their website, intranet, or partner extranet.

Why Does FLOSS Manuals Matter?

Remixing is a hot topic in many a circle on the internet discussion boards. Technical communication bloggers Keith Soltys, Janet Swisher, and Charles Jeter jumped on the FLOSS Manuals story shortly after it started making headlines. Eaqch of them share the reasons they think FLOSS Manuals matters. Of course, the technology behind FLOSS Manuals is really what matters, not the content being produced.

Extending the FLOSS Manuals concept to other types of content would allow us to:

  • Create a receipe website to allow professional and amateur cooks alike to share (read/write) recipes and remix individual recipes into custom cookbooks. Live cookbooks could be shared using the “live manuals” feature on websites, blogs, and wikis that cover specific food types. Churches, schools and other non-profit groups coulod use the service to create and publish cookbooks for fund-raisers. Makers of culinary products could also reuse the cookbook content in their online newsletters and product websites.
  • A shopping/e-commerce website could provide FLOSS Manuals type interface to their websites to allow users to create custom product gift registries, holiday gift lists, and shopping guides and catalogs. Manufacturers could update their content when it changes and see those changes reflected in the “live manuals” (gift guides, registries, directories) created by users.

The technological concepts behind FLOSS Manuals are the same ones being employed by organizations around the globe that are moving to a component-based XML content management paradigm. Content reuse, repurposing, and remixing are all extremely valuable techniques that allow us to laser target the content we provide to our customers, but, as FLOSS Manuals clearly demonstrates, these same principles can be used to empower users to generate their own, unique content and remix it with content provided by others to meet their individual needs. Expect these types of solutions to become the way we work in the future, because although FLOSS Manuals is an open source, non-commercial application of component content management principles, it won’t be long before a software vendor takes the same approach and creates a commercial product that can help any web user read, write and remix content in a web browser. In fact, I’m certain there are programmers working on this very challenge in a cubicle farm somewhere right this very moment.