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Why Web 2.0 is more than a buzzword


Many people hate the phrase "Web 2.0" even more than they hate what they believe it represents. No, that's not quite right... many people hate the phrase precisely because they think it represents nothing. Or they're annoyed by the idea of a web version number. Or they think it's "elitist." Or they're convinced it's so much marketing hype. But what if it's not an empty phrase? What if it's simply a way of representing a concept that some people DO understand? What if it's like so many other domain-specific terms that sound like nonsense to everyone else?

That doesn't mean zillions of people haven't abused the term for everything from sounding tech-savvy to getting a piece of the hype-fueled-please-god-bring-back-the-bubble-and-I-promise-I-won't-piss-it-away-this-time VC pie. And it doesn't mean that there's all that much consensus even among those who think they DO know what "Web 2.0" means. But to say it means nothing (or WORSE--to say it's just a marketing label) is to mistake jargon (good) for buzzwords (bad). Where buzzwords are used to impress or mislead, jargon is used to communicate more efficiently and interestingly with others who share a similar level of knowledge and skills in a specific area.

Part of the benefit of being "into" something is having an insider lexicon.

It's not about elitism--it's about efficiency. It's not about impressing others--it's about a shared understanding of specific concepts. It's about being able to talk about ideas or processes or even parts with fewer words and (potentially) greater meaning. If two heart surgeons debate the merits of a new medical procedure, I'd be lost. Hell, I'm over my head when the conversation turns to cooking. But I can talk about cantles and pommels, and I know exactly what topline means in the context of collection. And I can talk about recursion and dependency-injection and backward-chaining. Just don't ask me how to carmelize.

Dinner conversations around my house often are about one of those two things--programming or horses--and most non-horse, non-developer folks might wonder if we're just making s*** up. But if you took away our jargon, the conversations would not just be slower, they'd be dumber. We couldn't converse on some of the more sophisticated, complex, higher-level ideas about horses or software development. The experience wouldn't be as rich, productive, or engaging. Strip away the specialized words and you strip away part of why being better is better.

One of the biggest mistakes I see community builders make (however well-intentioned) is fretting over inclusivity and newbie-friendliness. They want the beginners to feel welcome, and few experiences are more daunting than stepping into a new domain where you have no idea what anyone's talking about. It feels... uncomfortable. Confusing. Discouraging. But in our quest to cut the jargon and perceived (or even real) elitism, we risk ruining one of the biggest benefits of sticking with it. Not only should we allow domain-specific jargon or expert-speak, we should be driving it! We should help invent short-cuts and specialized words and phrases to make communication among our most passionate--our experts--even more stimulating and useful.

If you're afraid of newbies feeling intimidated or unwelcome, by all means give them a separate safe zone. Whether the newbie space is the default while the advanced users have their own special area (site, forum, club, whatever), or just the opposite--the advanced users are the default and the newbies get their own special beginner area, the key is to not sacrifice your advanced users in an effort to make beginners feel better. That's a short-term benefit to the beginner but a long-term wet blanket over those who might otherwise be more motivated to move up the ranks.

So... back to "Web 2.0"--I'll admit that this one's trickier than most domain-specific phrases because it wraps many different--and big and ill-defined--concepts. But when Tim O'Reilly and Dale Dougherty (the guy who first coined the term) talk about Web 2.0, it represents something real and specific and meaningful. Over time, a lot of other people (especially those who've spent time around them, including me) have come to understand at least a part of what they've encapsulated in that one small phrase. "Web 2.0" may be the least understood phrase in the history of the world, but that still doesn't make it meaningless.

Think of all the other words or phrases that mean nothing to us simply because we're not in that profession or hobby. Pop Quiz: From which domains do these sets of words or phrases come from? (And hey, try to see how much you can get without Google.)

A) The flop, the turn, and the river
B) purlwise, stockinette, double-pointed
C) snowman, gimmie, duck hook
D) blowbag, escutcheon, gas cock
E) grind, fakie, bluntslide
F) abseil, hexcentric, friend
G) sente, tiger's mouth, "black is thick"
H) break, build, "train wreck"
I) vermin type, use-activated, swarm subtype
J) ruck, maul, blood-bin
K) HIWAS, option approach, DOD FLIP
L) clipping, phantom power, patch bay
M) flashback, freelist, Scott
N) Class M, dilithium, positronic

First person to get all of them gets a surprise.

[UPDATE: once you look at the comments, you'll see everyone else's answers so... watch for the spoilers.]

[UPDATE: OK, new challenge... since everyone guessed mine so quickly, I'd love to hear YOUR idea for a set of three words/phrases from some domain/profession/hobby that the rest of us have to guess...]

Posted by Kathy on November 26, 2006 | Permalink


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A) The flop, the turn, and the river - Texas Hold'em
B) purlwise, stockinette, double-pointed - Knitting
C) snowman, gimmie, duck hook - Golf
D) blowbag, escutcheon, gas cock - plumbing
E) grind, fakie, bluntslide - Skateboarding
F) abseil, hexcentric, friend - Rock Climbing
G) sente, tiger's mouth, "black is thick" - Go
H) break, build, "train wreck" - software development (although I assume they can be used in all sorts of environments)
I) vermin type, use-activated, swarm subtype - Yay Dungeons and Dragons
J) ruck, maul, blood-bin - Rugby
K) HIWAS, option approach, DOD FLIP - Air Traffic Control
L) clipping, phantom power, patch bay - Sound desk stuff (so DJs, Audio engineers etc)
M) flashback, freelist, Scott - Database (Oracle)
N) Class M, dilithium, positronic - Star Trek

Yeah, I had to cheat on a couple, but I knew most of them :)

Do I win?


Posted by: RodeoClown | Nov 26, 2006 10:07:57 PM

RodeoClown -- you rock! Well, almost...

What a well-rounded individual you've proven yourself to be ; )
Unfortunately, you got one wrong, although I think I'll have to give it to you anyway because you acknowledged it could apply to other things, and now that I look at it... I can agree. I'm talking about "H". Want to give it another shot? (you'll still get the surprise)

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Nov 26, 2006 10:23:26 PM

H. DJ terms

No sense copying the earlier ones :)


Posted by: Chris Hajer | Nov 26, 2006 10:34:21 PM

Thanks :)
I guessed software dev. because most mornings someone has broken the build (although I'd probably be fired if I suggested the whole project was a "Train Wreck" ;))

Here are a few other possibilities for 'H':

- Engineering (often to do with building bridges and preventing them breaking)
- 'Liberating' foreign countries (breaking stuff, rebuilding economies)
- DJ-ing (as in with the records, and the scratching and the like, building stuff up, playing breaks - try and avoid a train wreck on the dance floor.)
- Driving trains? (Building up speed, breaking for stations (yes, I know it's spelled brake...) etc)

It's a pretty vague set of terms you've specified.

I'll be interested to see what you originally meant.

Posted by: RodeoClown | Nov 26, 2006 10:34:28 PM

Kathy, this is one of the most insightful posts I've ever read, anywhere on the blogosphere!

Would definitely love for you to explore the subject of lexicons further.

This would help me a lot to think more progressively about my product.


Posted by: Sam Aparicio | Nov 26, 2006 10:40:53 PM

One of the reasons I enjoy reading your blog is your excellent use of charts and graphs to convey topics. I think you really do a nice job of illustrating your points visually.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: Kevin Hillstrom | Nov 26, 2006 11:05:03 PM

Unfortunately I read this too late to play the contest, but per the second update, here are a few jargon triplets I'll throw out:

* Paceline, endo, lanterne rouge
* Single 9, eggbeater, invert cheese
* Calling, garment, sustain
* Swell, great, expression shoe
* Mark time, pit, battery

Posted by: Jacob Thurman | Nov 26, 2006 11:54:21 PM

Some triples:

* shift, step, break
* ferment, sponge, poolish
* zone, push, pull

I'm stumped on all of Jacob's, but I'm guessing that 'single 9, eggbeater and invert cheese' are to do with freestyle skiing.

Posted by: Piers Cawley | Nov 27, 2006 12:22:52 AM

Here's a question for you, Kathy!

Different types of people are drawn into different professions and hobbies. Some people enter a domain because of love for the domain itself; others enter because they love the people in the domain. Which real-life domain affords one the highest probability of entering an extremely fulfilling clique? Which domain contains the greatest concentration of highly charismatic people?

For example, in fiction, such a domain would be "saving the world." Parties of characters that save the world usually have deep and fulfilling bonds. The upper blogosphere also has a high concentration of great people, but it would not qualify because the internet prevents these bonds from forming.

Posted by: l | Nov 27, 2006 1:01:25 AM


Posted by: Scott Hale | Nov 27, 2006 1:14:32 AM

What about these ones? I always think of these when the subject is jargon terms:

* Laydown, lowball, bumping

Posted by: Norskie | Nov 27, 2006 2:54:00 AM

While I take your point about jargon, the problem tends to be with people using it *outside* of the group that know what it refers to. Like any other inappropriate use of jargon, that's impolite.

Posted by: Paul Moore | Nov 27, 2006 3:24:15 AM

Jargon is not meant for the layman, which means that Web 2.0 should be hidden, but exactly the opposite happens. You see every new website claiming to be Web 2.0 to the public. It should stay within the domain, for the specialists, for their convenience.

As you said, jargon is very effective between specialists. But it can cause effective miscommunication if everyone involved has different understandings. Web 2.0 means so many things that all the participants are hardly on the same ground.

If Web 2.0 represents a set of ideas or concepts, in my opinion there could have been a better name for it. Version numbers are used for a specific reason, it is not very apparent when someone reads a short description about it. I agree with the Web 2.0 concepts, not the way it is used in each and every space available.

Posted by: Abhijit Nadgouda | Nov 27, 2006 3:36:54 AM

What's Web 2.0? We love to say: 'Web' for ordinary people.

I'll give you my triads

* convention over configuration, DRY, agile

and the holy one

* cru, terroir, cépage

Posted by: Luca Cremonini | Nov 27, 2006 5:08:25 AM

I suggest that a relevant triad is:

Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Godel Incompleteness Theorem, Quantum Mechanics Observer


Because these share the property that

a) They are real technical concepts
b) Almost everyone you will ever meet who invokes them is a marketing hypester who is horribly abusing the technical concepts in order to sell you something.

"Web 2.0" is a net bubble-blower way of saying "New And Improved".

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein | Nov 27, 2006 5:39:31 AM




Posted by: Sean C. | Nov 27, 2006 6:41:09 AM

"cru, terroir, cépage"

I'm going to guess things related to wine.

Terroir is the only one that I recognize.

Posted by: Sean C. | Nov 27, 2006 6:43:22 AM

* cru, terroir, cépage

These are wine, though it's a little unfair to use another language.


jump, gutter, slug

Posted by: Anne | Nov 27, 2006 6:51:50 AM

I thought H was DJing, for sure... all 3 are VERY common terms.

Posted by: Jimmy | Nov 27, 2006 7:25:11 AM

This is an epic post. Thanks for putting it together I have saved your graph for other posts on my blog. The insight is so right on. Concepts like efficiency and relevance ring true and conversations evolve quickly when optimized.

Look forward to reading your blog. I'm now subscribed.

Posted by: John Furrier | Nov 27, 2006 7:44:11 AM

Try this one:
feather, telemark, whisk

Posted by: Glenn | Nov 27, 2006 7:55:03 AM

Sports are really god for churning out jargon:

Y) huck, breakmark, lay out
Z) seated row, split snatch, power clean
AA) blade, catch, cox
BB) button hook, fly, post
CC) stunt, swim, rip
DD) floater, 2-3, jab step
EE) hit and run, squeeze, balk
FF) blue-dot, tin, PARS

So is medicine. My girlfriend's a doctor, and she doesn't poke a patient, she "palpates" him. A patient doesn't walk, he "ambulates". Nobody has a bruise, they have a "hematoma". And so on and so forth. I could go into domain-specific jargon groups just from hearing her speak, but I don't trust myself to get them completely right.

Which leads me to my serious point: Jargon is good and bad. Doctors from different disciplines sometimes have difficulty speaking to each other, because emergency physicians may call something by one name, while obstetricians call it another.

While this is fairly rare in her experience, doctors have a much more standard education than do computer scientists, and smaller gaps in communication between disciplines. Thus, I fear we're already at a point where database specialists may have a different name for a concept than do programming language researchers.

We should take care to try and make our jargon (of which there is already quite a lot) compatible and eliminate duplication in it as much as possible. If we do so, then I think it does indeed raise the level of discussion.

If I get a chance, maybe I'll write something coherent about the balance on my blog.

Posted by: Bill Mill | Nov 27, 2006 8:23:38 AM

H is definitely from the electronic music arena. Although it's a bit confusing because break/build are from the production side whereas trainwreck is a DJ term. Still, I'm impressed that the first reply got all of the others right. Never would have known half of those.

Unfortunately Kathy, I think the fact that you put a set of Star Trek terms in there belies your point that jargon necessarily communicates anything tangible. Jargon can be science, but it can also often be pseudoscience (autointoxication, colloidal, coffee enema - there's a nice set of jargon that actually does have technical meaning but is still bunk).

The real problem with Web 2.0 as jargon is that jargon is specific to a domain, whereas the term "Web 2.0" actually collects concepts from several different domains: economics, politics, technology, management, and marketing to name a few. That leads to it being used (correctly, in a sense) by all sorts of people in all the different domains who only understand the part that applies to their domain.

Just say what you mean instead of relying on these one-size-fits-all labels. Democratic, decentralized, Ajax, social, feedback-driven, etc.

Posted by: Aaron | Nov 27, 2006 8:31:51 AM

Anne, cru - terroir - cépage...
you can't translate these, please!

Posted by: Luca Cremonini | Nov 27, 2006 8:34:27 AM

On making "newbies" feel welcome to a community forum: the other day, I was looking at a couple of PDF documents I downloaded from "lordoftherings-soundtrack.com", containing detailed track notes from the complete "Fellowship of the Ring" and "Two Towers" film scores. These contain a fair amount of music jargon -- but all of the music terms, including instrument names, are hot-linked to Wikipedia articles.

So, why couldn't a community forum do something similar? Surely there's an automated way of identifying specialized keywords on the fly, and cross-linking them to a dictionary. Or perhaps the definitions could appear in a pop-up when the user hovers the mouse cursor over a keyword of interest. Then "newbies" could learn as they go.

Posted by: Bob from Denver | Nov 27, 2006 9:20:01 AM

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