Yesterday, this blog featured a macroview of the Internet. Today, hold on for a microview of cyberspace. Thus far, this blogger has avoided Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the rest of the time-wasters. However, today's post provides an explanation of the jargon that we confront everyday as we ROFL. If this is a (fair & balanced) preliminary consideration of the Web vernacular, so be it.
[x NY Fishwrap]
Coining Terminology For Life On The Web
By Jenna Wortham
Tag Cloud of the following article
When a friend recently asked for advice about using social media, I excitedly embarked on a description of my daily routine — checking in on Foursquare to share my whereabouts with friends, posting tweets to Twitter, sharing screenshots from the latest “Mad Men” episode on Tumblr, and skimming through the stylized images on Instagram.
He shook his head. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t familiar with the microblogging sites I regularly use. “You’re speaking another language,” he said.
And in a way, I am. It’s the vernacular of the Web.
Some of the words and phrases many of us use to describe our behavior on the Internet did not exist just a few years ago. Others have taken on new uses. In a recent update, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary altered its lexicon, including the coinages “LOL”(laugh out loud) and “OMG” (oh my God).
Often, these changes reflect behaviors spurred by start-ups that deliberately coin clever monikers intended to shape the syntax that we use to describe actions on the Web. Coming up with a name that sticks for an online service may be as important to a new company as a sleek site design or a sophisticated set of algorithms.
Jeremy Fisher, an entrepreneur in New York who is working on a travel start-up called Wander, pointed to Twitter as an example of a site that has established its own lingo with spectacular results.
“Tweet,” for posting a message, has become a common word, but that’s not all. “There’s already a microsyntax on Twitter,” he said. A word like “follow” (to subscribe to someone’s Twitter feed), and the symbols @ (denoting an online name) and # (a “hashtag,” denoting a searchable topic) have specific meanings on Twitter that have begun to migrate across the entire Web and beyond. “Even people outside of the site understand what that means,” he said.
Mr. Fisher is building his company around a piece of microsyntax that he hopes will help distinguish it from its peers. “This is probably the most important thing that we are doing,” he said.
He calls the new syntax a “star mention.” Two asterisks are typed around the name of, say, a restaurant or a city, and clicking on that star mention will lead to more information about it. “That is our atomic unit for content,” he said. He hopes it will one day be universally recognizable.
Developing a unique signifier that is closely tied to your company’s brand and purpose is a great way to ensure that people will remember your company, said Jordan Cooper, a venture capitalist and entrepreneur.
“People are trying to understand what market they own in an industry that is flooded with similar companies,” he said. “If you can take a piece of language that is commonly used and be associated with it, it’s a very powerful way to say you’re leading in your space.”
It’s a strategy that many attribute to the meteoric success of Instagram — whose name has become inexorably linked with a photo rendered to look like a faded, vintage Polaroid — and plenty of other popular companies.
Typically, only the most ubiquitous companies and tools become woven into the fabric of everyday language. When looking up something online, for example, the verb “to Google,” tends to dominate, even though there are a multitude of search engines. The same goes for “friending,” the act of accepting someone into a social network online — which Facebook helped popularize.
Many entrepreneurs are trying to ensure that their invented name — and purpose — is the one that trickles into daily vocabulary.
Andrew Kortina and Iqram Magdon-Ismail, co-founders of a mobile payments company called Venmo, wanted the name to be brief and catchy.
“We were playing with different root words for buying, selling, paying,” said Mr. Kortina. “Eventually, we were talking about Latin, tried Venmo, it was available, and felt like a verb. We tried it, ‘Just venmo me for it.’ It worked. So we got it.”
Neal Whitman, a linguist who blogs at LiteralMinded, said that for centuries, old words have taken on new meanings — the way “like” and “fan” have been altered on Facebook to become expressions of routine interest in a person, an artist or a restaurant. “The Internet and the new behaviors emerging around it are pushing the adoption of these new meanings faster,” he said.
David Lee, a partner at SV Angel, an investment firm in Silicon Valley that has helped finance Wander, said that he was seeing an influx of companies focused on one specific function — like photo-sharing or friend-finding. “We’re seeing more companies start with that small gesture,” he said. “It’s almost easier to associate that gesture with the company.” That single-minded focus could be accelerating the rate at which our vocabulary is changing, he said, but he cautioned that forcing the adoption of new words doesn’t work.
“It needs to feel more organic than strategic and tap into a human impulse,” he said. “If something catches on, it can translate to a human behavior that becomes part of the language of the Web.”
Similarly, Mr. Cooper said, “I see a lot more people fail at this than succeed. It’s not something a company can force. It happens on its own because a company has created a new behavior that has penetrated the industry.”
Take, for example, Microsoft’s efforts to supplant the verb “Google” with “Bing,” the name of its search engine. The company paid for placement on a popular show, “Gossip Girl,” having characters say the phrase “Bing it!” That effort met with ridicule around the Web.
Susan Etlinger, an analyst for the Altimeter Group who studies how people use technology, compared it to a running gag in the movie “Mean Girls,” when a bubbly character by the name of Gretchen Wieners repeatedly tries — and fails — to get her friends to say “fetch” to mean something that is in vogue.
Still, when a start-up’s core word catches on, it’s akin to finding the holy grail.
She gave the example of Pinterest, a start-up that lets people create virtual pinboards, or bulletin boards, and “pin” their favorite images. It set off a ripple around the Web of fashion-minded sites scrambling to incorporate the pin into their designs and sites.
“I’m not sure they thought about it that much,” she said. “It may have just been an organic extension of what they were trying to do instead of thinking about, ‘How can we fill a market void?’ ”
These creations may be entirely artificial, but the successful ones seem quite natural.
“When they go viral,” she said, “they’re naturally lightweight and unpretentious.” Ω
[Jenna Wortham, technology reporter for The New York Times, covers Web start-ups, digital culture, mobile communications, digital convergence and the local tech scene for the Bits blog, as well as writing feature-length pieces for print. Before joining The New York Times in 2008, Wortham was a technology and culture reporter for Wired (both print and online). She received a B.A, in Anthropology, Biology from the University of Virginia.]
Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company
Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2012 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves