"The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts," said George Orwell in "Politics and the English Language." Thank God the man never worked in tech. Starting with the recently abused "conversation," here are five words that signal bullshit in corpspeak.
1. Conversation: This word excellently described markets in the 1999 book The Cluetrain Manifesto. It is this meaning — the market as a dialog where the consumer matters, as opposed to a one-to-many broadcast like those in traditional modern advertising — that has been perverted in Newspeak fashion to mean the opposite of itself. The most recent example is the spokesbloggers scandal, in which Federated Media Publishing called the practice of paying bloggers to make advertising slogans a "conversation." In Orwellian fashion, this word attempts to defend a (relatively harmless) old-media practice by implying that the critic of the "conversation" is unpatriotic to the New Media cause.
2. Long Tail: I thought this one died in 2006, until I went to the Supernova Conference this month and heard several speakers say the phrase popularized by Wired editor Chris Anderson. The "long tail" is the trailing-off bit of a power law distribution representing the lower-frequency segment of a market. In a graph of book sales in America, for example, an obscure book would belong in the long tail, while The Secret would be in the "fat head."
The term is not heinous in itself (it describes a common phenomenon with meaningful implications for markets and other systems), but the glorification of what it represents leads to misguided thoughts about business. For example, Anderson may have overestimated how much of Amazon's book sales came from rarely-purchased long-tail titles. Those with something to pitch will find a way to summon the long tail when their business in fact deals with the fat head. For example, human-built search engine Mahalo claims to find more accurate results for the fat head of search (the few thousand most-searched terms) while leaving the long tail of search to Google's algorithms. This claim avoids the argument that Google's searches can handle popular searches quite well, and it ignores the many other factors that go into an ideal search experience (such as relying on one default search engine instead of making the choice before each search).
4. Ecosystem: "Facebook Platform creates an ecosystem for developers," says CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Princeton's WordNet defines an ecosystem as "a system formed by the interaction of a community of organisms with their physical environment." Facebook applications don't interact with each other (though they could) but only with the Facebook environment. Nearly every application so far released on the site is made for the benefit of its creators and Facebook, not any other app. To break down the definition like this is not fair, but critiquing Zuckerberg's intended implication is. He wants to encourage a community feel among developers, though the actual community is between the users, as he intended. Zuckerberg is interested in developers as a way to get to the users and enrich their ecosystem.
5. Any word in a poll: Marketers want to show numbers to support their claims. Sadly, most marketing claims are bogus, so marketers have to make fake numbers. (Even the Pepsi Challenge is bullshit.) Thus polls that ask, for example, what consumers think about media, asking the man on the street which medium is most essential in their lives. All this measures is perception; a true test of essential media would involve tracking consumers' media habits. While perception matters, results of "what-if" polls like this (where the latent question is "Which type of media could you not live without?") should be far less arresting than actual use statistics. But readers are gullible and polls are cheap.