Semantics, Definitions, Meaning, Clarity … It’s Important

signpostsignpostSometimes Grammar Nazis are really funny - and sometimes they are a pain in the neck, and if you watch this video you’ll see what I mean. But there is no smoke without fire.

I had an email exchange recently through one of the many lists I belong to. I popped in and dropped my usual pithy comment and back, (rather unusually actually), came a reply; telling me that I was ‘splitting hairs’. The writer went on to write - “Consumer = user = audience = customer, etc.” I do hope that I am not seen as a grammar nazi, but if that’s what it takes to get people to think about how we use language, so be it.

Language is essential to be able to convey the true meaning of what we are saying. There is a reason that the OED contains nearly 200,000 words and each of the words do have different meanings.

We live in an industrialized world where the language of the military was co-opted by business to describe what it was doing. Think of words and phrases like ‘corporate officer’, ‘strategy’, ‘plan of attack’ .. heavens - even Reid Hoffman was quoted in the Marc Andreesen article in the New Yorker this month …

“I look to see if someone has a marine strategy, for taking the beach; an army strategy, for taking the country; and a police strategy, for governing the country afterward.”

… the ‘someone’ is the exec in a pitch meeting with Reid and Greylock on their latest business idea.

Over the years the brand / enterprise / corporate speak that has dominated our culture for decades is now in the day to day language of people. If we continue to use the language of the enterprise to describe what we want as people  we will fail to take back our humanity. That is the topic of a third article that I hope to see published in a series I have recently written.

So … what do I mean ?

Consider Twitter … (just to pick one of the many options).

  • As a user of twitter I am absolutely not a ‘customer’, I am a ‘user’
  • For their ‘customers’, (those who Twitter sell things like placement of messages to), I am indeed part of that customer’s ‘audience’.
  • To Twitter, I am also probably part of their ‘product’.

My point is that the definition of who I am is highly contextual when it comes to me the individual. On the other hand it serves Enterprises well to conflate the definitions. Broadening my example base, why wouldn’t Facebook want to call me ‘their customer’ … doesn’t that sound better than their ‘user’ or even their ‘product’? And corporate speak is renowned for brevity and over simplification.

But there’s more. Vendors, brands, enterprises have lived in their industrialized world for too long. If they call all of us customers, then there is already a set up in play - you are already a customer, you are part of the ‘collective’. In fact, Salesforce actually see the internet as “An Internet of Customers”. Seriously ? And though this link might seem to be buried - these were the words that Marc Benioff used when they launched Salesforce1.

I have a bit of a thing going at the moment about people and their individuality, one example in this article just published last week - where I write:

As people, we need the power to manage brands, let alone just keep them at bay. Are we just going to roll over and allow brands, corporations, governments, data agencies, and the like to keep building bigger and more personal profiles about us? Or are we – as John Lennon would have it – really going to give “Power to the People”?

I believe that it is incumbent on any community that it is attempting to change the status quo to be absolutely precise about what it means. If we switch and interchange terms without thought, the message becomes garbled - and it will be co-opted to their detriment to prove an alternative point. More importantly, if we simply adopt the language of the previous system - we will also adopt the behaviors, the methods, the … nothing will change. And the fact is, change is going to happen. I just want it on our terms, not theirs.

What do you think ? Is it time to bring clarity to how we communicate ?

Post Script ::: BTW - I hope you will agree that I have clearly demonstrated by the use of language in this article that I am incapable of being a Grammar Nazi :-)


This Was Originally Posted To Beyond Bridges

The site has been closed down and the material moved to this site for posterity.

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