Showing posts with label Semantics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Semantics. Show all posts

Wednesday, August 5

Exploring Social Media Semantics: Falls

Jason Falls, principal of Social Media Explorer LLC, presented a potential challenge with social media: not everyone who practices it is comfortable with the term. And while many carry similar definitions, few have embraced the same definition.

The good news is that it doesn't matter when people listen. The bad news is people don't always listen, which can confuse the professional arena (probably not the personal arena because, frankly, most people don't care) much like there is ample confusion over public relations, with its varied definitions and even more practices.

The reason it doesn't matter is because as long as Falls defines it before speaking about it, we all know what he means.

Social Media can be best described as mediums, mostly on the Internet, that allow users to add or generate content to published works, creating conversations and sharing around the content and conversations. — Jason Falls

It's similar to the definition I use prior to presentations. Yet, as similar as they are, the two meanings eventually diverge.

Social media describes online technologies that people use to share content, opinions, insights, experiences perspectives, and media. — Richard Becker

The good news is that it doesn't matter because I listen (and so does Falls). So when Falls says that "A blog doesn’t qualify as social media unless the ability to comment is enabled," I understand where he is coming from even though my construct absolutely allows for blogs to disallow comments and still qualify as social media because any conversations about the content can still happen anywhere — on forums, message services, and whatnot.

The bad news is that most people, clients and even some colleagues, don't listen, which is why so many companies hire public relations firms to do nothing more than media relations. And, it's also why a design studio in my market recently adopted the term "integrated communication" when in fact all they mean is that they can make their various designs all look the same. (Integrated communication means something much different to me, and I hope to you too.)

While the challenge might be semantics, the real blame belongs to whatever point at which bad marketing intersects a living language.

For example, once upon a time, "blogs" were really "web logs" until the population employing them abbreviated the name as they will and do. Corporate marketers and executives, which loathe the name for no other reason than it sounds bad, came too late to change it (even though several have tried unsuccessfully to do so since).

They did, however, find some wiggle room as blogs failed to define other channels of communication online, which the online population described as "new media." Corporate marketers and many company executives didn't really like the term new media either, and successfully repositioned it as "social media" on the basis that "new media" wouldn't have a name when it became old. Since, we've seen social media called anything and everything from social computing to collaborative marketing (eek), with reasons that range from trying to create a better definition to less admirable attempts to highjack the coining credit.

All of this has been going for a very long time. It will continue to do so, which is why I generally stay out of the name game. Let whomever call it whatever they want. As long as people who listen take the time to discuss definitions, it will all work out.

The reality is over the long haul, I don't expect the term social media to survive as it will eventually be absorbed into integrated communication (which is okay, even though I prefer the strategic communication umbrella better. Not that it is up to me). But for now, social media works because most people understand it, especially when it is defined as simply as possible.

As for my presentation definition, that is the intent. After I define social media, I break it down a bit further. The media part means online technologies. The social part means people. Because at the end of the day, that is all there is.

Thursday, March 15

Targeting Gibberish: David Meerman Scott

Most people would never know it, looking out over the vast expanse of desert, but Nevada's biodiversity ranks as the fourth highest in the United States, placed near Florida and Hawaii. There are many reasons for what some call an environmental paradox, but the simplest explanation is the combination of dramatic elevations and abundance of mini-ecosystems that were created when the ocean receded from the Great Basin.

Not dissimilar from business, each complete ecosystem provides a home for tiny pockets of unique animals and plant species that can survive nowhere else. Just as Devil's Hole pupfish adapted to living inside a limestone cavern, business people in every industry adapt to the language used by their company. Inside, it's a matter of survival to know the terms; outside, no one really gets it.

David Meerman Scott gets a hat tip today for sharing how an agency public relations professional, who obviously learned to survive in the "comprehensive electronic document management" industry, forgot that those survival skills might not translate into the real world. Scott didn't get what the company (Esker) does and I suspect that the pupfish, er, public relations professional, still doesn't understand why.

Scott goes on to ask that public relations professionals eliminate gobbledygook and try to speak like human beings. If your mother doesn't know what the company does, neither will the media that you are trying to pitch. He also defines that gobbledygook often resembles the meaningless terms he found in 388,000 news releases in 2006 alone; words like next generation, scalable, and mission critical.

I appreciate what he is talking about because there are many days I want to take down "Words. Concepts. Strategies." from our banner and put up "Translator." The only reason I don't is because some people will not appreciate the humor when I begin listing industries as opposed to foreign languages. You see, I believe that business communicators and writers are the ones who are supposed to translate all those inner ecosystem terms into words that everyday people can understand.

Usually, after I make this case, someone like Eric Eggerston will come along (he commented on Scott's blog) and say “Most administration managers or IT managers know what a document management system is, so I don't think the jargon will get in the way of communicating with their target market."

Hmmm... since when did the burden of communication become the responsibility of the listener and not the speaker?

The answer is never. As Scott points out, the media, analysts, employees, partners, and suppliers don't really want to learn a new language every time they turn around.

No, I don't mind learning new terms because I enjoy working in many different industries. However, when it comes time to communicate to a specific public (and all those other publics), I think it's best to drop the jargon and speak English. (I am not even going to touch on anacronyms, considering I recently spent 20 minutes discovering that "I-n-A," as pronounced, means "Information And Assistance," which is what you need when you first hear the term.)

One of the first examples I share with my "Writing for Public Relations" class is a very telling example: a writer working for us asked me my opinion about a sentence that started "The object of sequential inputs for counting..."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"I don't know," she said. "That's what they told me. Does it sound good?"

Yeah, well, um, maybe … maybe it sounds good to the five people on the planet who actually know what you are talking about.

The sentence was promptly tossed out. It's a good trick. If an editor with little or no experience on an account can understand the communication when they read it, then you are on the right track. Sure, naysayers will always come back to the idea that everybody in their ecosystem understands what they are saying. Fair enough...

However, if you go out into the world wearing your "burro" suit, don't be offended if someone thinks you're just a ... um, burro.


Thursday, October 26

Correcting For Politics

I seldom write about the same subject two posts in a row, but the Wee Shu Min story (after her father, Wee Siew Kim, apologized for his apology) continues to develop as a topical case study about political correctness. Specially, he apologized for saying "I should not have said what I did about people's inability to take the brutal truth and strong language" and reinforced that he counseled his daughter Shu Min.

In the United States, it's called political correctness (PC), though the concept is not exclusive to the English language. The term is commonly used to describe language, or behavior, which is claimed to be calculated to provide a minimum of offense, particularly to the racial, cultural, or other identity groups being described.

The "earliest cited usage of the term" is said to come from a U.S. Supreme Court decision — Chisholm v. Georgia (1793) — where it clearly means that the statement it referred to is not ''literally'' correct. However, for most Americans, the real PC movement began in late 1980's and early 1990's. By the end of the 1990's, the term was equally loathed by political conservatives and liberals alike because more often than not it hindered communication rather than enhanced it.

Part of the reason Americans began abandoning PC usage came after the push to use "gender-neutral" job titles ("lineworker" instead of "lineman," "chairperson" or "chair" instead of "chairman," etc.). Some stuck. Some did not ("maintenance hole" never really replaced "manhole"). Some, it depends on who you talk to (many female executives have insisted on being identified as chairman vs. chairperson.) And some characterizations are moving targets, most notably among people over age 55, who have been reclassified from "elder" to "elderly" to "senior" to "older adult" to "active adult" in the last few decades. In addition, ''handicapped'' became ''disabled'' became ''people with disabilities.''

Besides renaming specific groups and objects, particularly around issues of race and gender, the real movement was aimed at watering down heated political speak about social issues, as if social issues can somehow be discussed without emotion or passion. And that is the real trap Wee Siew Kim is putting himself in. As I've written before, public figures and companies are seldom judged on a crisis, but rather on how well they manage the crisis (even if it really wasn't a crisis to begin with).

In Singapore, many bloggers seem to feel that the issue, not the words, deserve discussion. But unfortunately, they are learning just as Americans (or should I say people of the United States?) continue to learn, that too much focus on semantics will always overshadow the real issues, paralyzing entire communities and countries. Analyzing the apology and demanding an apology will serve as nothing more than a distraction over the real issue. Meanwhile, nothing is done.

Certainly, this is not a popular view, not even among some fellow citizens, but a solution for Singapore borders on the obvious. As long as a society prefers capitalism over communism, which has proven ineffective as the great equalizer it was claimed to be (communistic leaders often assume exclusive privileges over the people anyway), then there will always be people who covet what other people have, even if what they have or do not have was their own choice. Anyway, all that is missing, or seems to be missing, is opportunity.

Ergo, Derek Wee was possibly right in his assessment of a problem. However, Wee Shu Min was perhaps equally right to say the solution was not for the government to create jobs to meet the skill sets of the workers (which despite her colorful quips is really what she meant, I think). However, that is not to say that the government could not invest in a worker rehabilitation program that provides these unemployed workers with the skill sets they need to meet the demand of the job market. Then, those who choose to pursue marketable skills will be qualified to fill those jobs, currently being taken by foreigners.

The concept is simple enough. Give a man a fish and he has a meal. Teach a man to fish and he eats for life. And if too many people are fishing, then teach him another trade that is underserved. And if progress replaces that need, teach him something else. (Historically speaking, governments did not subsidize corrals when the automobile made them obsolete.)

But alas, all this is lost in the focus of whether calling something the brutal truth is appropriate or not. And meanwhile, the real effort to communicate is spiraling out of control because rather than propose a solution to the problem, Wee Siew Kim has to provide apology after apology because his daughter posted it rather than some other 18-year-old, who would have been largely ignored for making the same statements.

This basically means that 18-year-olds who happen to have parents in prominent positions are held to a different standard, are required to censor their ideas, and are not entitled to the same liberty and freedom of thought as other people. And if that is not discrimination on its face, then I do not know what is.

Thursday, August 18

Working With A Living Language

Working with a living language is both a blessing and a curse. It gives writers like me the opportunity to invent new definitions for clarity, but it can also cause headaches when other writers use the weight of words to mask their intent.

For example, when I was still evolving my company from the freelance writer I was into the corporation it is today, most Internet search engines narrowly categorized writers into very specific disciplines. You were either a copywriter (meaning advertising) or a freelance writer (meaning journalist), a technical writer or a business writer, a direct response writer or a script writer, or ... blah, blah, blah.

Since I didn't want to limit our capabilities to any of these categories, I was one of the first, if not the first, to lobby for a new term: writing services. It made sense, because our company works within all the other sub-categories. Today, most Internet search engines include a 'writing services' category. It works well for our company and the few others like us because the definition better clarifies what we offer. It's not the only example I could cite, but I like to think that it's a good one.

Then, of course, there are shifts in our language that I do not appreciate because the goal is not to add clarity but rather to mask a meaning. One of my least favorite in Nevada (and I hope it dies a horrible death) is the concept of 'government revenue.' There is no such thing. Governments do not have revenues, they have budgets that are created by taking a percentage of other people's revenue. Yours and mine, to be precise.

Sure, you can find it in some dictionaries. Revenue: the income of a government from all sources appropriated for the payment of public expenses. No problem ... until you abuse the usage. It's easy to do. Ask the handful of government officials who began pushing a perceived need to 'increase government revenue' in Nevada a few years ago. That sounds almost admirable until you appreciate they wanted to 'increase taxes.' (As footnote, they were never going to appropriate money for the payment of public expenses. Rather, they appropriated money in order to create additional public expenses.)

Personally, I've always subscribed to an underutilized code of ethics in communication developed by the International Association of Business Communicators. While there are several points worth considering at IABC Code of Ethics, the one that best fits this post is: engage in truthful, accurate and fair communication that facilitates respect and mutual understanding.

The real buzz term in this case is 'mutual understanding.' Communication should be designed to clarify rather than confuse your audience. It's a concept that many people forget, including those people who call you on the telephone and claim it's a courtesy call. Baloney. It's a direct marketing call, pure and simple.

Oh well. The most we can hope for is that the definitions with merits outweigh the abuses at the end of the day. And today, there was one that came out of a new survey by Zogby International for the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The definition of old, it seems, is changing again.

Based on a pool of 1,000 people by telephone about what they considered to be "old," a third of the participants claimed
that 71 to 80 is considered old. Younger survey participants, those under 30, considered 61 to 70 to be over the hill. Among the respondents 65 or older, nearly 60 percent said that 71 to 90 was considered old. And even younger people, those between 18 and 24, have adjusted their idea of old. A majority--59 percent--refer to "old" as someone over 60.

Zogby International claims this shows that since the population is aging, the idea that old begins at 30 as it did in the 1960s is long gone. (Given that I'm over 30, er barely if you allow me a little fudged indulgence, I'd like to think that this new definition of old is a merit.) Grin. More to the point though, as people live longer and there are an increased number of people working or donating time to their community later in life, the definition and the attitudes about the definition will change.

And that is the best thing about working with a living language. You have to stay up to date with the language and, with luck, use it responsibly so that you create more mutual understandings than maximum confusions.

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