I’ve been thinking a lot lately about jargon, especially in the field of social media. As someone who’s watched the social media market grow up over the last seven years, I’ve also watched the field-specific terminology flourish and I’ve seen it frustrate and flummox people too.
Early in my social media career I had a client who could not explain what their company did without using huge amount of what was then brand-new terminology. It was a problem, because if you can’t explain to potential new clients what you do and how you do it in words they can understand, it can make it difficult to close new deals.
On the other hand when you are talking about new technology, ideas and concepts, sometimes you need new terms. There was no way to get around using the word “blog” (or “weblog”), for example, because existing terms like “website” or “web page” do not mean the same thing – a blog is distinctly different from a website or web page.
So where do you draw the line? A good social media consultant keeps specialist terminology to a minimum and explains new concepts when they crop up. In real life, of course, sometimes one can get a bit excited and the odd neologism can slip out, but it should be such that the context provides enough information that the listener can understand what’s going on.
Specialist terminology doesn’t just describe new technology and concepts, it also acts as a community identifier – talking about RSS and blogs and wikis and social networks marks me as a member of the social media community. It creates an “in-group” – people who all understand what I’m talking about because they are part of the same community. Of course, as soon as you create an in-group, you also create an out-group – all those people who haven’t the foggiest what I’m on about.
In-groups and out-groups are everywhere and we are all members of both sorts of groups in different context. I’m a member of the kitten in-group, but the puppy out-group, for example.
The job of the social media consultant is to act as a bridge between the social media in-group (developers, designers, community managers, other social media experts, etc) and its out-group (clients). At my best, I take the ideas, concepts and examples of social media and I express them in a way that I hope out-group members can understand.
Increasingly, I’m seeing social media consultants who are taking the specialist terminology to a whole new level by creating complex jargon to obfuscate meaning. Instead of bridging in-groups and out-groups, they are creating stronger linguistic barriers around the in-group, excluding more people. The people they are excluding aren’t just random strangers, they are clients. One would expect a good consultant to take their clients on a journey from the out-group into the in-group, rather than to park them firmly on the outside of a wall of jargon.
In some ways, this is a sad but reliable indicator that the social media market is maturing. Demand is high, supplier of competent and experienced consultants is low, and companies lack the knowledge to accurately assess the actual level of expertise of the individuals or agencies they are considering engaging. Thus they choose to work with those individuals or agencies who sound most impressive. (I’m sure they also look at track record, but for many that is either absent or not a reliable indicator.) Thanks to a widespread corporate culture that values unintelligible jargon, it’s the talkers who get hired, rather than the walkers.
It seems to me from casual observation that those people who understand social media, are pragmatic about it’s capabilities and who talk about it in plain English are now falling into a new out-group in opposition to the in-group of jargon-spouting charlatans. This is something that’s been coming on for a while. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken this long.