Kevin Cheng  

Buzzword Inflation: Does Internet Speed Apply to Language?

May 23rd, 2006 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Not too long ago, I had an instant message conversation with my brother where I was regaling a humorous anecdote. He responded with:

> Literally laughing out loud

Which at first made me think about one of the other VOIP [features][5] we talked about but then made me think about how the value of our Internet language seems to go down at … Internet speed.

After all “LOL” was supposed to meet the need of expressing that you’re laughing out loud instead of :) or just “[hehe][6]”. (We could debate whether people actually ever **R**oll on the **F**loor **L**aughing **M**y **A**ss **O**ff because frankly I’ve never seen it in person.)

Now we’re seeing the usage of the word Beta become questionable. Betas traditionally are buggy and lack polish. When a video game is in beta, you expect crashes and such. With a plethora of “Web 2.0″ companies coming out with their own products each one seems to be perpetually in Beta. [Flickr][1] takes this to a new level with “Gamma”. In this case, the word Beta is being used to describe products that are in fact very polished and rarely crashing.

If a new startup released a Beta product today, the expectation of its level of functionality would be far greater than it had been in the past. This elevated expectation renders the word Beta to be less meaningful. So they resort to “early beta” or “alpha”. What comes before alpha, anyways? (We say Epsilon not because it’s the previous character in the Greek alphabet. Most geeks will know what Epsilon also refers to.)

I use the term inflation to describe this effect because it’s like basic economics: people are overusing word in places where the meaning doesn’t really apply (i.e., excess supply) and thus diluting the original meaning of the words.

But wait there’s more. At the same time that we see the existing vocabulary lose significance, two new slang words replace it. The rapid rise in [popularity][2] of [Urban Dictionary][3] speaks to both how difficult it is to keep up with the slang as well as how many new buzz words are cropping up each day.

Of course, most of the slang is not widespread but are specific to gaming and internet cultures - or even sub-cultures. The verb to “[Leroy][4]” (or to be a Leroy) is widely known by almost anyone that played World of Warcraft last year. It has very specific meaning and conveys succinctly a certain type pf player action to the players but has little to no meaning outside of the online game’s audience.

What this trend indicates is that even in language, designers can no longer design for control, but instead designing for appropriation - not just appropriation in usage but even in vocabulary. While designing with the right voice and language for our audience should be a given, designing for changing language patterns probably isn’t. Even [censors don’t make that much sense][7] anymore, because if you censor out one word, a [new word][8] will just be used to indicate the same.

New words. Old words losing meaning. All in the span of years not decades. [Hella][9] [tight][10].

[1]: “Flickr”
[2]: “ traffic over 2 yrs”
[3]: “Urban Dictionary”
[4]: “Leroy”
[5]: “Noise Over IP”
[6]: “Ending Conversations”
[8]: “Frack”
[9]: “Hella”
[10]: “Tight”

12 Responses to “Buzzword Inflation: Does Internet Speed Apply to Language?”
J-K wrote:

Isn’t the finished version of a product the alpha-version? If so, we have a a bunch of letters to use for the pre-finished versions.

Josh wrote:

No, alpha is before beta. Traditionally the sequence is alpha, beta then gold.

Allison wrote:

Favorite “” Quote of the Day is: Be like Google, ‘in a constant beta state’.

I guess the corporate benefit is that if a company (say Google) released a stable “beta” product on the market and it broke down, perhaps they couldn’t get sued. (Gmail’s still beta!)

Tropylium wrote:

Wait - if Alpha is _less_ finished than Beta, what’s so bad with Gamma being all polished up?

Anyway, it’s old news that vocabulary doesn’t stay intact & language innovations spread relatively fast… back in the previous millenia, the speed of a horse, or a sailboat, was the limit, but they still propagated widely in only a couple of decades. It’s only expected that global communication would tighten the process a bit further. And yes, short-lived slangwords are a part of the system too.

Nick Finck wrote:

This article is along the same lines of Jonathan Follett’s article Why the Tech Industry Needs to Change Its Language over at Digital Web Magazine. I think it’s all just politics… why just release a product when you can call it “beta” and excuse it’s buggyness. Betas were something never intended for mainstream public use… but today it’s more like a scapegoat for bad interaction design, poor programming, and not fully thought through design.

Sean Savage wrote:

That’s so Beta2.0.

A couple years ago I had a great conversation with Howard Rheingold (who wrote “They Have a Word for It”) and Bill (flashmob inventor) Wasik about flash mobs — and how that phrase and the trend it referred to rocketed through the cycle of emergence, buzz, adoption/usage/participation, media coverage, backlash, parody, passe-ness at lightning speed, in just ~ a couple of months (give or take, depending on what you consider the start and the end).

It’s strange that one element of the cycle — appropriation of the phrase and alteration of its meaning by mega corporations for large advertising and marketing campaigns — lagged behind much longer than usual, and took place long after the other stages. Part of Bill’s incentive in pushing flash mobs was to see how quickly one might push a trend through the cycle.

I think it’s getting faster still. A challenge: get out there and invent a meme that gains massive international awareness but completes the cycle in 2 weeks or less! Meme singularity here we come..

Sean Savage wrote:

PS- Another great site for fans of new and evolving words/phrases/memes:

Leo wrote:

If new words come up and fade away eventually, that’s ok. The worst thing the computer industry can do is to take on words with historical meanings. One of the words that I cannot take is the word “architecting”. Is it even in correct grammar? Perhaps the computer engineers just want a more prestigious word to describe themselves, and so they use the word “architecture” instead of what should be “superstructure”. While architecture (buildings) take on both arts, cultural and scientific meanings, software ‘architecture’ is merely super-structure of software structures. The software construction analogy is broken anyway ( Computer words are words that lack meanings perhaps due to its transience thus the lack of emotional attachment to them.

Allison wrote:

Leo’s point in the dual uses of “architecture” is a good one, considering it’s use in practical terms. The problem is that contending opponents (say Marketing vs. Software) use the same word, but they don’t realize that they are talking about different ideas - confusion ensues. [Sigh] Darn semantics.

Shoobe01 wrote:

Um… read up on prgramming history before you start talking up the changes in historical usage. Alpha, then beta, then /often/ its done, but a gamma or even delta release is fine. These are all pre-final releases. I seem to recall gold only came about once CDs were the distro method; went to gold master (which was a master disk with a gold layer.

Also, these used to be not released to the public. They still had code names so test and dev knew what they were working on, but they were internal terms. Hence the geek-speak.

So, there’s three phases (for this specific phenomenon). One is internal use, two is buggy public releases and you say we’re now entering the third era of reliable (or expected to be reliable) public pre-release releases.

If you are just commenting on verbiage changing, then Leo is spot on. Things change. Often badly, but its hard to keep them in place just by wishing.

kL wrote:

* development version - work in progress, many things can be broken/incomplete
* alpha - something that looks like product, but can have obvious flaws. it’s sent for testing and evaluation - all features may change.
* beta - feature set is *complete*. only small changes are made and bugs are fixed.
* release candidate - this is extensive testing for apps that must have high reliability or work in very different environments.
* release. product is good-enough to ship. it doesn’t have to be 100% bug-free (some bugs are intentionally left if fixing them gives risk of introducing more bugs)

IMHO all those “web2.0″ betas are just poor 1.0 releases that use “beta” as an excuse.

Jessica wrote:

The english langauge is constantly evolving I am glad you pointed out that it is happening in years not decades like it used to.But even the web is in beta but we still call it a trusted place to do biz.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?