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Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson

Suw Charman-Anderson is a social software consultant and writer who specialises in the use of blogs and wikis behind the firewall. With a background in journalism, publishing and web design, Suw is now one of the UK’s best known bloggers, frequently speaking at conferences and seminars.

Her personal blog is Chocolate and Vodka, and yes, she’s married to Kevin.

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Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson is a freelance journalist and digital strategist with more than a decade of experience with the BBC and the Guardian. He has been a digital journalist since 1996 with experience in radio, television, print and the web. As a journalist, he uses blogs, social networks, Web 2.0 tools and mobile technology to break news, to engage with audiences and tell the story behind the headlines in multiple media and on multiple platforms.

From 2009-2010, he was the digital research editor at The Guardian where he focused on evaluating and adapting digital innovations to support The Guardian’s world-class journalism. He joined The Guardian in September 2006 as their first blogs editor after 8 years with the BBC working across the web, television and radio. He joined the BBC in 1998 to become their first online journalist outside of the UK, working as the Washington correspondent for BBCNews.com.

And, yes, he’s married to Suw.

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Friday, October 9th, 2009

The curse of social media jargon

Posted by Suw Charman-Anderson

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about jargon, especially in the field of social media. As someone who’s watched the social media market grow up over the last seven years, I’ve also watched the field-specific terminology flourish and I’ve seen it frustrate and flummox people too.

Early in my social media career I had a client who could not explain what their company did without using huge amount of what was then brand-new terminology. It was a problem, because if you can’t explain to potential new clients what you do and how you do it in words they can understand, it can make it difficult to close new deals.

On the other hand when you are talking about new technology, ideas and concepts, sometimes you need new terms. There was no way to get around using the word “blog” (or “weblog”), for example, because existing terms like “website” or “web page” do not mean the same thing - a blog is distinctly different from a website or web page.

So where do you draw the line? A good social media consultant keeps specialist terminology to a minimum and explains new concepts when they crop up. In real life, of course, sometimes one can get a bit excited and the odd neologism can slip out, but it should be such that the context provides enough information that the listener can understand what’s going on.

Specialist terminology doesn’t just describe new technology and concepts, it also acts as a community identifier - talking about RSS and blogs and wikis and social networks marks me as a member of the social media community. It creates an “in-group” - people who all understand what I’m talking about because they are part of the same community. Of course, as soon as you create an in-group, you also create an out-group - all those people who haven’t the foggiest what I’m on about.

In-groups and out-groups are everywhere and we are all members of both sorts of groups in different context. I’m a member of the kitten in-group, but the puppy out-group, for example.

The job of the social media consultant is to act as a bridge between the social media in-group (developers, designers, community managers, other social media experts, etc) and its out-group (clients). At my best, I take the ideas, concepts and examples of social media and I express them in a way that I hope out-group members can understand.

Increasingly, I’m seeing social media consultants who are taking the specialist terminology to a whole new level by creating complex jargon to obfuscate meaning. Instead of bridging in-groups and out-groups, they are creating stronger linguistic barriers around the in-group, excluding more people. The people they are excluding aren’t just random strangers, they are clients. One would expect a good consultant to take their clients on a journey from the out-group into the in-group, rather than to park them firmly on the outside of a wall of jargon.

In some ways, this is a sad but reliable indicator that the social media market is maturing. Demand is high, supplier of competent and experienced consultants is low, and companies lack the knowledge to accurately assess the actual level of expertise of the individuals or agencies they are considering engaging. Thus they choose to work with those individuals or agencies who sound most impressive. (I’m sure they also look at track record, but for many that is either absent or not a reliable indicator.) Thanks to a widespread corporate culture that values unintelligible jargon, it’s the talkers who get hired, rather than the walkers.

It seems to me from casual observation that those people who understand social media, are pragmatic about it’s capabilities and who talk about it in plain English are now falling into a new out-group in opposition to the in-group of jargon-spouting charlatans. This is something that’s been coming on for a while. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long.

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6 Responses to “The curse of social media jargon”

  1. cyberdoyle Says:

    one further thing to mention, the vast majority of the people don’t understand the term ’social media’ either.
    We did a survey of 100 teenagers, and asked them (on facebook) which social networks they belonged to. They nearly all replied ‘orange, O2 etc’
    The words we use to describe what we do aren’t the words the public use. They just use IT. they don’t talk about IT.
    just saying…

  2. Suw Charman-Anderson Says:

    Not sure it’s valid to extrapolate from a poll of 100 teens on Facebook to “people”, but yes of course sometimes (frequently) we have to explain what “social media” is. It’s new terminology, but it is at least useful in so far as it marks out these new tools as being different from old ones, which they are. Of course the words to describe what we do aren’t the words ‘the public’ use - ‘the public’ probably don’t spend much time describing what we do. That’s why we have to take them on a journey with us from out-group to in-group, when it’s relevant.

    However, I’d caution against lumping the entire public into one group and assume they are all in the out-group. That’s very woolly, to say the least. Some people actually do know what this stuff is all about, because they are happily doing it.

  3. Carl Morris Says:

    Yes and can we stop this whole “corporate language” silliness in general please? It’s about having the honesty to state precisely what you mean. And the freedom at all times for others to say “actually I have no idea what you just said”.

    Everybody should be required to read George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

    The web has amplified certain things that have always existed offline. I think one of these is the potential benefit of creating jargon. Invent a compelling word or phrase that describes something useful and maybe you’ll win stacks of kudos, blog buzz and page rank. Maybe golden invites to events.

    Language is a technology. If you invent new language you become the best person in the world to come and explain its use. It happened to the people who coined “post-structuralism”, “positioning”, “natural selection”, almost any specialist term. It’s a form of economic scarcity.

  4. bree Says:

    Hi, I’ve just come across this post - I am curious, what do think is the most over used social media jargon term?

  5. Suw Charman-Anderson Says:

    Bree,

    I struggled to figure out what the very worst term is, but then I realised that even new, jargony terms by themselves, in the right context, can be meaningful so it’s hard to single one out for special attention. But this post illustrates what I mean quite beautifully:

    http://brandautopsy.typepad.com/brandautopsy/2009/10/sbd_flaw.html

  6. Suw Charman-Anderson Says:

    Carl, totally agree with you about corporate speak, and why it evolves. I think sometimes that one reason I’m not more successful is that I talk in plain English, and that makes people who are used to hearing jargon undervalue what I do. There really is a push towards more jargon and more bs, and that’s a shame. I’m never going to start talking crap just to impress a new client, though, so I guess I’m doomed.