Sausage, traffic, clueless users

Yesterday, as I listened to a podcast about the future of publishing, media, information systems, and social software, I made a list of troublesome words and phrases:

user experience
rich interface

Drawing inspiration from the linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff, Doc Searls has adroitly analyzed the poisonous effects of such terminology. We must, he argues,

...come to respect the Net as a place where markets (and much more) can grow and thrive, rather than as just another shipping system for transporting "content" from producers to consumers.

Doc is deeply right. We've arrived at an extraordinary moment in history. What science fiction foretold and we dreamed of is now becoming real. We are routinely augmented by information systems and by other people in ways that I once thought I might not live to see. What constrains us is not technology, though more innovation is always needed, but rather our ability to describe and thus to understand the world we're creating.

At a summit meeting of online publishers last year, I listened to speaker after speaker recite the word content until it was drained of all meaning (if it ever had any to begin with). When I realized that substituting sausage for content made no difference, something snapped. So now, when I hear publishers talk about driving traffic, I push back. People are not cattle, and publishers do not herd them. When writers, editors, and publishers manage to be interesting, informative, or entertaining -- in short, useful -- we attract readers. If we are consistently useful, a relationship bond may form. And if we are clever, we will figure out how the tangible expression of that bond -- the RSS subscription -- can mediate exchanges of money for value. But language determines thought, and our language of sausage and traffic prevents us from focusing on what we actually do, why it matters, and how to reinvent ourselves in a networked world.

As with publishers, so with information technologists. Our language betrays that we hold in contempt the clueless users who can't understand or apply the tools we give them. We don't seriously believe that people are co-creators and innovators.

What's in a name? A lot. The podcasting and AJAX revolutions were mainly linguistic phenomena. Suddenly there were words that crystallized ideas and patterns of behavior that had been evolving for years. We won't solve our problems by coining new buzzwords. But awareness of what our words condition us to think, and not think, has never mattered more.

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