Does Danger Lurk in the Language of Social Media?

No writer can become good at the craft without being sensitive to language. But in other contexts, that vocational advantage can be a liability. This seems to be true of many journalists who resist the benefits of new media solely because of the language used to describe them. When they hear words like user instead of reader, branding instead of reputation, or content instead of editorial, their writerly instincts tell them that accepting such language would be a sellout to the corporate world.

They’ve got it wrong, of course. But we should not be too quick to dismiss their reactions. They may be on to something. If the language of new media is so prone to misinterpretation, is it not also dangerously vulnerable to manipulation?

That was the lesson I took from Gene Weingarten’s criticism last month of the new-media concept of personal branding. When the Washington Post columnist wrote that branding is ruining journalism, he set off a barrage of rejoinders from personal-branding advocates, most notably and prolifically Steve Buttry.

Replying to a journalism student who had written to ask how he had built his personal brand, Weingarten offered a scathing but eloquently funny response:

“The best way to build a brand is to take a three-foot length of malleable iron and get one end red-hot. Then, apply it vigorously to the buttocks of the instructor who gave you this question. You want a nice, meaty sizzle.”

As Buttry points out, it’s clear that Weingarten in fact has no objection to the concept represented by the phrase “personal brand.” What he objects to, rather, is its intimation of commercialism, that it’s turning individuals into “Cheez Doodles.” As he put it, “We are slowly redefining our craft so it is no longer a calling but a commodity. From this execrable marketing trend arises the term you ask me about: ‘branding.’”

Ironically, the idea behind personal branding is just the opposite: taking a depersonalized commodity—the average byline, say—and showing the human face behind it.  It is, really, a revolutionary concept. A word like reputation just won’t do to describe it. As Buttry says in a subsequent post on new-media buzzwords, “Life is always changing, and journalism is certainly changing swiftly. Why should we use inadequate and inaccurate old words and phrases to describe the changes?”

But while I’m firmly on Buttry’s side in this debate, I worry nonetheless about the vulnerable duality of much new-media vocabulary. There is, I suspect, a troubling nub of validity in Weingarten’s reaction to it that should sound a note of caution for all of us new-media enthusiasts.

If on the one hand social media has co-opted the language of corporations and humanized it, there is an equal likelihood that corporations will try to do the same to the language of new media. In the blink of an eye the emphasis in the phrase personal branding can shift from humanizing a brand to branding a human.

Similarly, I worry about a phrase like content marketing. When Joe Pulizzi talks about it, I’m ready to leap onto the barricades with him and raise the banner for personalizing and equalizing the relationship with customers through great editorial. But how many corporations will see it only as another tool for trapping yet more leads into the ever-ravenous sales funnel?

If a writer as sensitive to the subtleties of words as Weingarten can mistake the meaning of personal branding, the risk that ruder corporate ears will do the same is high. Will the social media revolution be co-opted? I don’t think so. But its benefits will be slow in coming if its language remains ambiguous.  Proponents of new media probably can’t change that language, but they can do the next best thing: constantly and consistently define its key terms.