The New Year is a time for us to reflect on the past, make adjustments for the future and — in tech — to clean up our language.

Every few years, I whip myself into a linguistic frenzy and create a list. In writing (as well as marketing), the most-effective words are specific, staking a claim in the mind by evoking clear imagery. In tech, too often, the most-used words are vague, the vocabulary equivalent of a placeholder that sounds fresh without saying anything new.

With that in mind (and a grateful nod to Lake Superior State University’s more ambitious Unicorn Hunters), here are five overused, abused or misused tech buzz words to refuse in 2013.

1) Disrupt. Why change an industry via technology when you can disrupt it? Easily the most overheated term of the year, it was ensconced in headlines of over-the-top claims (“Could Zaarly Disrupt the Global Economy?”) and questionable impact on one’s livelihood (“How to Develop Ideas that Will Disrupt Your Industry”).

Disrupt has become this year’s revolutionize, leading Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey to opine at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, “Maybe we need to change the name of this conference.” Disrupt literally means interruption causing a disturbance or problem. I don’t want my life disrupted by tech. I want it improved.

PublishThis Content Curation Platform

2) Curate. Much like bespoke has replaced custom in soft goods, curate has replaced less self-important words when used to describe the act of pulling together digital detritus for social media and websites. With rare exception, few digital “curators” are carefully selecting items and presenting them with analysis of the original creator’s intent, to be placed in proper sequence and perspective. Instead, they organize, collect, gather, assemble or (a fave from years past) aggregate. But none sound nearly as impressive.

I asked Patricia Junker, Seattle Art Museum’s Curator of American Art, how she’s respond if someone said to her they curate content. “I think I’d ask, ‘Don’t you mean that you edit a collection…?’”she answered. “Seems to me we’ve always had this perfectly good term for what these folks are doing — as it applies to newspapers and to anthologies of literature.”

3) Conversation. What companies say: we want to use social media to have a conversation with our customers. What companies mean:  Follow or Like us. It’s as much of a true conversation as that had by reporters shouting questions across a noisy tarmac to the President — who may, or may not, briefly shout back.

“It might be faster through social media, but consumer/corporate feedback is not a new concept,” agreed Seattle public relations consultant Scott Janzen. “Smart companies have always listened to their customers. The idea that social media started and perfected these ‘conversations’ is silly.”

Frank Catalano

4) Big Data. This was briefly an actual concept with a somewhat agreed-upon definition: unwieldy data from multiple sources that leads to a, uh, ginormous data set which can reveal predictive patterns. At a minimum, Matt Heinz of Heinz Marketing says increasing fascination with whatever big data might hold is blinding organizations to effectively using and refining the data they already have.

At most, big data is being morphed by marketers into a sexy synonym for any data. (One recent claim for a school student information system containing grades and attendance detail said this single source would meet all big data needs.) While there truly is big data, it’s not all data. Unless you believe all those unsolicited emails which claim the only measure that matters is size.

5) Leading. Fifteen years ago, I (so to speak) led the charge to ban leading as a descriptor of tech companies or products. Why? If you lead in something, you should be able to stake a claim as to exactly how: the largest, most experienced, most tweeted. If you can support the claim of leadership with specifics, you don’t need the fuzzy word.  Save leading for athletic events or questions.

Yet leading still persists as an epitome of vague thinking and lazy writing. In 1997, out of the 1,107 news releases I saved, 61 percent touted “leading” companies or products.  I’d be afraid to count today.

There are, of course, many more words on the banishment bubble, new or regurgitated from the dot-com era: meme, appify, viral, monetize and anything 2.0/3.0.

The beauty of language is that it changes and evolves. But definition shouldn’t dissolve.

Really want to disrupt something? Tackle how trend-chasing public pronouncements erode perfectly good terms until they are meaningless. Drastically altering or destroying the structure of that process would definitely be an improvement.

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  • Guest

    Munitr aims to disrupt the big data conversation with a curated catalog of industry-leading technologies.

    Money, please?

    • FrankCatalano

      @tjowens beat you on Twitter with “2012, when leading big data curators joined the conversation & disrupted all the things.”

      So no remaining Amazing Cash Prize. Though I’m delighted you worked in “industry-leading” and not just “leading.”

  • Rod Brooks

    80% on the mark Frank. Not bad. You’ld be amazing if that was a batting average. Unfortunately, it’s not. But I digress.
    I’m with you on all but the word conversation. I don’t mind banning it, but I disagree with your observation that companies that use it really mean “follow us or like us.” I sincerely believe, and have experience, real and valued conversations taking place by companies that truly lead their business model with a relationship ephasis. Conversations are the currency of leading and differentiated brands. Those conversations emphasize listening for sure, but also bring insight and understanding into the mix.
    Wouldn’t it be great if leading brands would disrupt the yelling and curate converstions that were informed by big data resulting in rich conversations? Well wouldn’t it?

    • FrankCatalano

      Why, Rod, it would. (I said, smiling.) I think, though, that for every company like PEMCO that honors both the meaning and intent of “conversation” in social media and web interactions, there are 99 others that don’t use it with the objective of listening as much as they speak. Nor do they dig beneath the Like-or-140-character surface to actually learn things. But those may be organizations that always have had a tin ear to customer speech.

      That’s why I think “conversation” is misused, as it’s not a synonym for “social media or web presence.”

  • kegill

    Hi, Frank – there is a time and place for the verb “disrupt” but I agree with you that those examples are neither. For example, digital information continues to disrupt (“Drastically alter or destroy the structure” – also the definition of “disrupt”) traditional media (print and music remains at the forefront but TV and movies aren’t exempt, just laggards) — and not just from an economic/business model sense.

    Regarding “curation” — there may be a debate/discussion of what to call the journalistic work by folks like Andy Carvin @acarvin … but he’s not editing. When I create a Storify story, I am “[s]elect[ing], organize[ing], and look[ing] after the items in (a collection or exhibition).” That’s the definition of “to curate” that Google offers up, btw. The essence of editing is changing/correcting — which is not what any of us do when we select representative tweets, status updates, photos and such to provide a history of or commentary on an event.

    • FrankCatalano

      Agreed that there are proper uses for “disrupt.” But I see far more inappropriate uses that ignore the actual negative meaning of disrupt (“disrupt education,” no; “disrupt the monolithic and high-priced degree path,” maybe). So much so, there should be a moratorium on its use. That, in itself, might be positively disruptive.

      Not with you on curate, I’m afraid. Journalists have always gathered information, organized it, synthesized it and presented it. That’s just good journalism. No one ever felt the need to call it curation in the past.

      “Organize” or even “cull” is still a better word for what happens with Storify or other tools, if there’s little explanation of the original creator’s perspective or context. And if there’s a preponderance of original material added by the organizer? Then that’s creation, not curation. Curate seems to be more commonly used in the digital world to inflate the “curator,” not the result.

      • kegill

        Hi, Frank – yes to really good editors being more than making sure grammar and spelling are correct. We’ll have to disagree re curate — heck, even Google’s definition disagrees with you. :-)

        Generally speaking, I see too much hyperbole – period – in tech writing and tech press release/corporate copy. I put the use of disrupt/revolutionize in this category. (Ack! I just activated a keyboard shortcut for Chrome’s inspect element view but I don’t know what odd combo I used. Anybody? I’m @kegill)

        • FrankCatalano

          A key part of the standard definition for “curate” is to also look after an actual collection. While this is fuzzier in the digital world, Patti Junker of SAM explained she thinks the term curator has always referred to a keeper, “a keeper of a collection, even a keeper of ideas — I think of myself as the person who preserves, insofar as possible, an artist’s intention, too.” Patti went on to say curating is less about the curator’s point of view than about bringing forth “whatever is innate to things being ‘curated.'”

          But we can agree to disagree. And I appreciate the perspective.

          (Oh,try clicking in the upper right hand corner of Chrome’s Inspect Element frame to dismiss it. I do that a lot, too.)

  • Tyson Supasatit

    I very much support the banishment of these five words. The result will be more informative marketing. It’s similar to how my 7th grade English teacher forbade us from using weak verbs in our writing, forcing us to find more descriptive verbs and clearly identify subjects in sentences. I challenge all marketers everywhere, especially in the tech industry, to stop relying on crutch adjectives like leading, disruptive, and game-changing. Instead, prove out those claims with statistics, customer wins, or other data points.

  • AstroKev

    Sounds like we need to add a few terms to the dack “web economy bs generator”

  • Guest

    Great article! I thought I was the only one getting tired of “disruptive”, “Big Data”, and “curate”. Maybe I missed these in previous years, but “conservative” (estimates in market projections) or “ushering in” (new technologies) also got on annoyingly ubiquitous this year.

  • Barry Goffe

    Please, please, please add “Cloud” to this list…

    • Jill

      I second that one.

      • FrankCatalano

        I’ve also had Twitter suggestions of “innovative,” “pivot” and “siloed.” Plus, for the un-Pinterested, “pinnable.”

  • WARainGirl

    Can we add “vetted” to this list? So over-used and really not appropriate unless you are speaking of your dog, cat, horse….guinea pig. Not IT.

  • Dane Tidwell

    Please add optics. It drives me crazy to hear some talking head say “The optics of the situation” or “I’m not sure about the optics of it all”.

  • Harkonnen

    I actually like the term “conversation,” assuming that a company is actually having one. I don’t agree that smart companies have always done this since it does require a certain level of technology to actually “conversate” and most companies that claim to “converse” with customers usually don’t actually do it. They just speak and expect people to listen.

    • FrankCatalano

      I think that’s the qualifying phrase: “assuming a company is actually having one.” Rod Brooks with PEMCO accurately points out some are (and organizations like WOMMA are helping enable that). But too many still talk the talk without walking the walk. I’d be happy if that changed.

      • Elizabeth M. Rice

        I don’t think that we can ignore the fact that we are re-defining the meaning of the word “conversation”. The “conversation” of today is not the conversation of yesterday. We can and should add the word, “friend”, “Connection”, “relationship” to the sublist under conversation. The future generations are changing the meaning of relationships and the way we relate to each other and therefore to our customers. So do we come up with new words or except the somewhat “fluid” definition of some of these words?

  • Leslie

    I’d like to add a couple. See if you can guess what they are, from the following sentence:

    – We are going describe a method for organizing data according to industry standards.

    The words, ‘method’ and ‘data’ are much too simple for the average techno-geek (is that a bad word), to use. Must add a few extra syllables.

    – We are going to describe a method-ology for organizing meta-data according to industry standards.

    Now that is much better. Both sentences have the same meaning, but the second helps to keep us in our jobs a little longer.

  • guest

    How about “tech titans”? It’s rare to read a story on Geekwire that doesn’t mention a tech titan.

    • FrankCatalano

      Damn. And all this time I thought they were referring to the “Teen Titans.”

      • johnhcook

        Hey, I am guilty. I admit to using “tech titan” way too much!

  • Brian Hansford

    Don’t forget “pivot”…. one of the most overused words in Seattle this year.

    • johnhcook


    • Guest

      Absolutely! Ugh!

  • swagv

    I’ve been using “curate” since 2006. Don’t blame me and ask me to change my lingo just because a hoard of latecomers decides to make it a recent fad.

  • Mark D. Walters – GC To Go

    Here’s two phrases that should be banished in my industry – “we bill by the hour” and “we cannot guarantee how much it will cost”

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