European Honey Bee Touching Down by autan.
Photo by autan

Every month, there are new business books on the market promising “secrets & insights” into “exciting change” which is happening… right now! They often use curiosity-baiting phrases like “Learn how [BUZZWORD] is transforming the way we communicate” or “Use the power of [ANOTHER BUZZWORD] to engage your customers”.

Buzzwords include but aren’t limited to “Web 2.0″, “virtual worlds”, and just about anything with “social” and “media” in them — “social media”, “social networks”, and “rich media” are fair game. If you’re smiling after reading that sentence, then you already know how true this is.

Buzzwords used badly

Just like delicious food is gladly eaten and digested before being excreted, buzzwords get used up. They even get turned into silly games, like Buzzword Bingo. The importance of realizing this is: absolutely avoiding buzzwords is foolish and impractical. It limits your ability to relate to others, since many people, including some of your colleagues, do jump buzzword bandwagons. You can’t escape buzzwords if you want to make progress in a modern work environment. A better approach: control the words, use them meaningfully, and don’t insert them as vapid filler.

“The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words. If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words.” -Philip K. Dick, awesome sci-fi author

Buzzwords repackage classic notions in new forms

Ever since our ancestors hunted in the wilderness instead of making a trip to the supermarket, we’ve been telling stories. Whether scribbled on papyrus or streamed via YouTube, we also love to share those stories — and the same stories keep being retold with contemporary twists. Why? First, because the core principles work well and have stood the test of time (otherwise those stories wouldn’t continue to be popular). Second, while you may have heard your fair share of stories, there are plenty of people who haven’t, and marketers and others reach out to them, hoping to fill their mindshare (buzzword!) before competitors can. Which is why even though you may be annoyed by the 100th airing of an ad, there are going to be many people who’ve never seen/heard it before.

Seth Godin Rides A Unicorn by zoomar.
Photo by zoomar

Seth Godin (pictured as action figure above) is a master of stating the obvious when it’s welcome, with unparalleled clarity and simplicity. This is why he’s so popular; try as you might to rearrange what he’s saying, it always comes back to the core principles, which he presents better than 99% of everyone out there. I’m a fan of his teachings, and it’s no surprise he makes a big deal about storytelling in All Marketers Are Liars:

Everyone is a liar. We tell ourselves stories because we’re superstitious. Stories are shortcuts we use because we’re too overwhelmed by data to discover all the details. The stories we tell ourselves are lies that make it far easier to live in a very complicated world.”

Just as humans learn from their mistakes, adapt to improve, and pass lessons onto the next generation, part of what we’re continuing to spread are stories, an easy way of transmitting ideas. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe these shareable thoughts, but I bet he never foresaw it being used to spawn cumulative successions of lolcats and “Chocolate Rain” parodies, pillars of user-generated, community-created content (OMG buzzword!).

So why do buzzwords keep bursting to the front?

Since stories facilitate transmitting ideas, they serve as a memory aid. A popular mnemonic technique for remembering foreign words is to make up a story. For example, take the French word for grapefruit, “pamplemousse“. Now, visualize this in your mind’s eye: a moose with a grapefruit-sized pimple. Vividly picture the moose wailing out in pain and charging towards the doctor’s office (or whatever it is adolescent moose do when they have bad acne). Did that help you remember it? I think so! And while it wasn’t À la recherche du temps perdu, it was nevertheless a little story.

Memory plays into the big picture here, because buzzwords are often tethered to the zeitgeist — what’s happening now. As human beings, we have emotions. We also forget things, which messes with our emotions, and makes us see ex-relationships as being more attractive, while selectively forgetting why we broke up in the first place. And in repeating an experience multiple times, we become desensitized to them — do you remember the first time you ever surfed the World Wide Web compared to how you feel about it now? I confess I don’t gawk in amazement daily like my initial stretch of weeks trying out NCSA Mosaic and waiting minutes for animated GIFs to download on my 14.4k modem — and boy, that Virtual Louvre was really something! But if I lock myself in a quiet room and really, really think of my first time on the Web intensely, I can almost feel waves, echoes of those initial moments.

The same is true for many human experiences. Buzzwords in context often reference our past and graft it with a new lingual sheen — look closely at the Holden Efijy concept car: eye-catching with its plum coat…


Photo by Ian Muttoo

… and inspired by the original Holden FJ.


Photo by Liam Ryan

Long story short, like cars paying homage to retro designs, buzzwords attract because they mix novelty with familiarity. Buzzwords help us to cope with “accelerating change” (arguably a buzzword!) by blending the old with the new, making the past not just more perceptually exciting, but marketable as well. Otherwise, we’d be in passive danger of (1) being bored and not caring or (2) being wayyyy too excitable and not well-grounded.

Humans don’t change, humankind does

Some things about us are fundamentally the same and will be for a long time, unless we reach the Singularity sooner than expected. For effective purposes, we can consider our core principles as “permanent”, as far back as we can recall.

We love to be loved. When we find delight, we often share it with others. We’re anxious and insecure (and have a hard time expressing this) and express dislike of fellow humans more often than we should. In exchange, we try to celebrate our “unity” as a species, or what we think it should be — like the Olympic Games. Even as the media morphs throughout time and we find new ways of crafting stories, ideas — buzzwords being a specific variant — continue to be sprouted. We will, sadly, often fight about the words framing those ideas from each of our limited worldviews, instead of joining forces to advance what is infact the same idea seen in different ways.

I liken it to observers seated in a circle around a magnificent sculpture which looks different at every viewpoint. No one person sees the whole sculpture, merely a fraction of angles. You an either choose to dispute that your view is the best and (incorrectly) represents the whole sculpture. Or, you can draw your part, encourage others to do the same, and everyone contributes to the whole vision. What will you choose?

You gotta see through the crap

A notable, buzzword-laden book is Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel. It’s intriguing how books with similar titles like Clear Blogging: How People Blogging Are Changing the World and How You Can Join Them and Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies have appeared, reinforcing what I said about the same idea seen in different ways. (And scroll back to the first paragraph if you’re still laughing.)

I believe the ideas within are smart ones to spread. But those titles are perfect examples of how to gussy up “the same old” in a new dress.

When we lived in caves, we literally often had “naked & clear conversations”. Sheer survival was prized above diplomatic wording and textural embellishment (“political correctness” and “spin” to some). Today’s story has different priorities but the same core principles: “blog” is a contraction of “weblog”, which in turn is a glorified way to say “I have a diary/journal on the Internet”. Which makes me think of teenage girls writing “dear diary”, except it’s an open book. If they’re earnest about it, then that makes it naked, clear — or transparent (buzzword!).

With that understood, the big idea here (imagine me growling this like a Neanderthal) is:

HUMANS BE HUMAN BEINGS! NO CRAP!

And the contemporary twist:

HUMANS USE MACHINES TO BE MORE HUMAN!

Not surprising, but people need to be reminded. It’s something you’ll hear over and over, and which you may’ve heard related to in a fairy tale called “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.

Buzzwords used badly (Vol. II)

Like those non-existent clothes on the pretentious Emperor, don’t be fooled by what’s not actually there: words themselves are a liquid currency subject to much semantic argument, and a simple principle I recommend is to “sanity-check” yourself that there’s actually substance behind what you’re saying or being told, and that you aren’t deep in mental feces (wish it was a buzzword but I’m ‘fraid it won’t catch on) like the Emperor was.

Buzzwords used emptily are wasteful slop to chop: if mention of a word isn’t going to get you ahead, don’t use it. Instead of technobabble and abstract vaguery, pick a more understandable word. Respect Hemingway.

“Web 2.0″ is one of the worst offenders, because 1000s of people have their own conflicting definitions of what it is, and then butt heads when using it, because they never agreed to begin with. Of amusing note at the top of that wikiality (another buzzword!) is:

ALERT: Web 1.0 is inheritently (sic) different from Web 2.0! Why does this redirect?

Maybe it’s because they’re more similar than some would have us believe. Distinguishable, like bands of color on a rainbow, yet contiguous. :)

Somewhere over the rainbow by you.
Photo by Torley (me) showing virtual world (buzzword!Second Life

Another horrendous-yet-hilarious example of word wars are the arguments concerning 100s of electronic music styles, which you can hear in Ishkur’s guide (I’m still waiting for him to release version 3). If you’ve ever been in “the scene” as I have, it’s both embarrassing and shameful to hear two technosnobs get into a verbal brawl over whether a piece of music is “trance”, “progressive house”, or “minimal melodic techno”. I often say, “If it’s a wonderful track, then it’s all of those… and even maybe more.” That counterintuitively tends to confound, and immediately identifies limited, not-seeing-the-whole-rainbow thinking in others.

My simple, ongoing approach to buzzwords calls for dynamic balance: allow words to lead you to new places. Remember, buzzwords are disposable: some have great longevity, but the majority are going to fade. “Horseless carriage” was a buzzword back in its time, and see how far we’ve come with our cars like that Efijy?

Lastly, never forget: the “buzz” in “buzzword” comes from bees. Bees fly from flower to flower, pollinating and spreading what they carry as they go on. They don’t stay still, and neither should you.

Buzz on!

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