David Weinberger
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The physics of buzz words

24 April 2000

Buzz words have been emerging at Internet speed. By the time you arrive at a conference, the conference chairperson is explaining why the buzz word in the title is obsolete. We barely have time to launder our new cool T shirt before its clever buzz word pun ("I KM, I Saw, I Conquered," "Any Portal in a Data Storm" -- examples courtesy of the AutoBlurber 2000) marks us as pathetic has-beens who don't Get It.

This isn't an accident. It's the law. According to the new Net physics, the Half Life of Buzz Words is:

z = i / c

That is, the cycle time between buzz words (as measured by conference re-namings) equals the importance of a topic divided by the confusion about it. Confusion itself can be expressed as (b * c), or as the breadth of the topic multiplied by the number of consultants explaining it.

When Confusion is divided by Marketing, we get the Law of Inverse Buzz Words, which results in buzz words that mean the opposite of what they say. For example, Web directories such as Yahoo! and Lycos started out as places you go to in order to go somewhere else: you do your search, find the site, and kiss Yahoo! or Lycos goodbye. But it slowly dawned on these sites that they make money by keeping you on their site, not by sending you away. They accordingly started adding more content and services so you'd never have to leave. They became, they told us, "portals," although a portal really is a place you pass through to get somewhere else. In fact, these directory sites used to be portals and only ceased being portals once they said they became portals.

Similarly, personalization systems provide fake messages addressed to individuals or classes of individuals. They in fact know knothing about us except what we've exposed -- by accident or on purpose -- in our travels on the Web. They wouldn't know us from Tipper Gore if they met us in jail. They're profoundly impersonal and even de-personalizing...which is why they are such a powerful proof of the power of the Law of Inverse Buzz Words.

There are also laws covering the genetic recombination of buzz words, the only way to explain the existence of terms such as "e-mail-enabled collaborative knowledge management portals" and "enterprise document management," but we'll save this advanced topic for another day. Suffice it to say that the scientific community is confident that it can prevent these mutant forms from escaping from the labs and entering our delicate biosphere, wreaking lord knows what havoc. Let's pray they're right.

David Weinberger publishes JOHO (the Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization) and is a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto.