These exciting new words should be used cautiously; not to exclude and confuse, but to elucidate.
As we cope with and revel in a new business environment - with opportunities and challenges we've never faced before - we're also busy developing a new language to describe that environment and those channels and conditions. Unfortunately, the language of social media sounds almost as buzzy and insincere as those cringe-worthy business terms we see peppered in so many presentations and business documents. How many times have you heard about the "holistic" business approach used to "leverage" "best practices"? Too many, whatever your answer might have been.
Because social media environments, tools, and experience are all relatively new to us, they test our ability to describe the phenomena using only our pre-existing vocabulary. We've now invented a new language to describe this powerful force, and some of it is as colorful, passionate, and organically-derived as the channel itself. From the right source, with thoughtful use, words like "memes" or phrases like "semantic web" can relay specific and purposeful information. Common words like transparency, engagement, authenticity, and viral are examples of buzz-endangered terms that succinctly convey important concepts newly applied to business circumstances but are often misused or misapplied. They are most definitely overused and in that overuse they have become, perhaps unfairly, buzzwords that lose meaning or credibility, or both.
Who Is Speaking? Who Is Listening?
Some of the buzz factor relates directly to the credibility of the user throwing the term around as well as the depth of knowledge of the people in the conversation. Many people hide behind jargon when they don't have a firm grasp on the concepts. Our new set of social media buzzwords undoubtedly serve that function for all the social media "experts" and self-proclaimed gurus out there to daze and confuse, but when used appropriately, these same words also describe new phenomena or provide a useful linguistic shortcut to describe complex ideas.
When someone describes a "troll" or refers to "the social graph" or a "tag cloud" in social media, if you know the field you know exactly what they mean without the need for additional explanation. Those not on the professional side of this industry simply shake their head and wonder what we're talking about. Of course, every field has their insider language and social media is not unique in this. I would certainly be as lost in a conversation with physicists, engineers, artists, or doctors as they would be in our conversation, but it would not be likely to come up because I don't dabble in black holes or new radiology techniques, while they likely participate to one degree or another in social media and can claim familiarity from a user's perspective.
Generally, these terms fall into a few distinct categories. There are familiar words that take on new or related meanings in social media context, for example "like," "real time," or "sentiment." There are new words to describe new products or business models like "ebook" or "wiki," as well as those that support new communication modes like "blog" or "hash tag."
Sometimes the words or phrases are simply descriptive and combine two concepts in a new way to mimic the combination of the actual functions. "Social search" combines traditional search algorithmic results with friend data and other information from social networking sites to deliver intuitive and relevant search results. "Social gaming" combines casual and other gaming opportunities with shared experiences or in shared environments. "Social shopping," "social commerce," and "social CRM" join a long list of other online behaviors finding their way into social environments. With each new possibility, a new term is born.
Pity the Poor Words; It's Not Their Fault
In an industry that is so rapidly evolving, it's not surprising that the language feels new and may be subject to interpretation and misuse for a bit of time. Like a new toy, they are getting a lot of use and attention right now, but it would be better if we thought of them as tools, not toys. The trade words have meaning and are useful when used in context and judiciously. They should not be used to exclude and confuse, but to elucidate. For those hoping to impress with insider wordplay, save yourself from the eye-rolling crowd behind your back and impress instead with results.
P.S. If you started this column expecting a glossary of social media buzzwords, there is no shortage of good resources out there; just Google "social media buzzwords" and you will find some excellent glossaries.
What's your favorite social media buzzword and what would your great Aunt Agnes think it meant?
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