The life of a buzzword

A buzzword is no black swan, but when one breaks out of the long tail into the short head and hits the tipping point it still makes me question the wisdom of the crowds. But because the world is flat, I've listed a freakonomical list of the lifespan of a buzzword. Purple cow.

1. Birth in an article

While some buzzwords grow in the wild, and some are introduced in books, most start in an ephemeral text medium like a magazine or blog: two media with a big news hole to fill and a tendency to fill it with bullshit. Among other gimmicks like numbered lists and quizzes, blogs and magazines attract readers with pop theories. The pop theory needs a buzzword.

Upon publication, the theory is actually being debated and honed. After writing up his "long tail" theory in Wired, magazine editor Chris Anderson hashed it out with bloggers in preparation for the next stage.

The life of a buzzword

2. Book deal

A pop theory may be solid enough for an article, but once it's stretched to book length, the author is forced to invent supporting terms so the theory can "change the way you think about the world." In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell names "Salesmen," "mavens," and "connectors;" in The Long Tail Chris Anderson discusses "The New Producers," "New Markets," and "New Tastemakers." The theory takes on a pseudoscientific structure; Anderson invents "the three forces of the Long Tail" and prematurely declares death to "the hit." This is because people who read pop-theory books are even more gullible than people who read magazines.

The book's cover is white, with the title in big letters and one simple, metaphorical image.

The life of a buzzword

3. Co-optetition

By this point every other magazine has published a me-too theory, and Amazon has three other books to recommend along with the one the gullible reader purchases. If you think the world is flat, you may also want to "think without thinking" and tap into "freakonomics."

4. Widespread misuse

The buzzword has reached the gullible, those who need to impress the gullible, and people who read BusinessWeek. It now loses all real meaning. I recently heard a Facebook app maker say, "Monetizing our apps is all about the long tail — transitioning from viewers to users." He may as well have stuttered about "South Korea and the Iraq," because the "long tail" has nothing to do with turning viewers into users. I like to call this "alchemical thinking."

The life of a buzzword

5. Backlash

This phase actually began shortly after stage 1, with a new wave of backlash for every stage after. Now the backlash has finally saturated among everyone who ever heard the buzzword. Blogs have satirized it, Fake Steve Jobs has ironically name-dropped it, and it's a category on Valleywag. The opposite of the buzzword has earned its own buzz, meaning that even a "short head" business can co-opt the buzz of the "long tail."

6. Hallmark of cluelessness

The real use of the buzzword has long since fallen out of use as people rediscovered the other, older words that meant the same thing: "tipping point" has become "breakout moment" and "black swan" has become "surprise." Anyone who still uses the buzzword is clearly an ass.

Nick Douglas writes at Valleywag and Too Much Nick. In two years he'll have a book called "Alchemical Thinking." Dude, it'll change your life.