Words start out with good intentions and narrow definitions. When lots of people begin using a particular word or phrase connoting a movement or process, it gains “buzz,” and soon becomes fashionable for use in seemingly every other sentence. At the same time, its definition becomes increasingly amorphous; what previously had momentum or excitement soon becomes something of a joke, filler for PowerPoint decks and unimaginative seminars.
Every buzzword goes through this cycle; here are four recent ones that should probably be retired in the near future:
Best Practices: Yes, the term “best practices” actually signifies something, versus so many buzzwords that mean precious little. But it’s also a term that’s overused, and often meant to suggest an activity that everybody in an organization does by rote, rather than an action performed because it’s the most efficient or effective alternative. “Are you employed to follow the crowd or does your company pay you to think for yourself?” Paul Martin, a talent acquisition team manager for power provider EnergyAustralia, recently wrote in a much-circulated LinkedIn column. “For me the term ‘Best Practice’ conjures up images of a race toward uniform mediocrity, led by those who follow the crowd.”
Big Data: TED founder Richard Saul Wurman is over the idea of Big Data: Without innovative tools, he thinks, massive collections of unstructured data are pretty much useless. “[You] have to have it in a form that you can understand. They’re leaving that step out,” he recently told Engadget. At the same time, however, Wurman has his own data project to promote: the Urban Observatory, which aims to surface city data in five categories: work, people, public, systems, and movement. The duality of his thought and action aside, Wurman has a point: Companies throw around the term “Big Data” to connote everything from sentiment analysis of social networks to more efficient algorithms for long-term digital storage, rendering it into a buzzword that doesn’t really mean much at all anymore.
Disrupt: Every new startup seems anxious to “disrupt” its market, whether the market in question is hotel rooms, rent-a-cars, or grilled-cheese sandwiches. It’s a dramatic term, and one that seems apt for a handful of businesses that have radically changed how we live and work—but when every startup is using it to describe even the most mundane functionality, it’s perhaps time to get a new term.
Viral: The stated goal of many an app builder or media company is to go “viral,” or have their product spread quickly though its particular ecosystem. It’s a fairly accurate word for the exponential speed at which those companies hope their product will reach new customers; but given the frequency with which it appears in PowerPoint decks, websites, and professional talks, “viral” has become a rhetorical plague. It’s time for a new term.
Of course, many others could be added to this list.