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.
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.”
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.
Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. He usually dislikes compiling lists of words because of elementary school spelling issues, so thanks Tom Vander Ark, Todd Bishop, Marilyn Holt, Nazila Merati and many more for their nomenclature nominations.