Buzzwurgatory: Words and phrases we should use more carefully in 2013

Buzzwords are underrated.

A concept often doesn't cohere for people until it's given a name. Web designers had been using CSS media queries and Javascript triggers to present Web pages differently in different contexts well before Ethan Marcotte gave us the term "responsive web design," but the phrase helped the concept to catch fire.

The problem with buzzwords is that they usually have a life cycle. As they become more and more popular, they get applied and misapplied to an ever-widening cluster of concepts, making them more vague than meaningful. This prompts a backlash, and before long, the term can seem outmoded or even wrongheaded.

Take the word "curate," for example, recently hated-on in Jen Doll's guide to 2012's worst words. It's not hard to see why. "Curation," as it's long been known, was a rarefied task, left to experts in museums and galleries. When folks started appropriating the term to describe basic Web behaviors like excerpting and linking, it felt like an abuse of the term. Oh, right, now my cousin's not posting banal links to her Facebook page, she's "curating" her feed.

The thing is, it's actually useful to think of the work folks like Maria Popova do in terms of classic curation. If you want to argue that point, first you have to read Erin Kissane's wonderful five-part epic on the subject of curation, which involves, in part, hearing from actual curators describing aspects of their work. The fact that "curation" has become a buzzword now tends to overshadow the fact that many genuine, longstanding principles and lessons of curation can helpfully be applied to the work many journalists do online.

I propose a new, awful portmanteau: Buzzwurgatory - n. The period when a buzzword has been overused to the point of meaninglessness, yet continues to be used. What follows are three buzzwords/buzz phrases in imminent danger of entering buzzwurgatory. I resolve to use these words more carefully in 2013, and I hope you will too.


Somewhere around the time someone started a Twitter feed called @themediaisdying, we started to hear the words "entrepreneurial" and "journalism" thrown together a lot more often. (Here it is in 2010, in scare quotes, in a reference to the new business model of Entrepreneurialism was (and is) a useful, relevant concept for journalists, whose individual followings and business skills increasingly affect their professional prospects. And for a while, I thought its overuse was harmless.

My mind started changing when I heard a journalism instructor encouraging students to practice entrepreneurial journalism. A good example of said practice, the instructor suggested, would be to start a blog, an act which has propelled the careers of such entrepreneurial journalists as Nate Silver and Ezra Klein.

Now, I happen to believe most journalism students could benefit from having blogs. And sure, having a blog can help someone develop some of the skills necessary to develop a media business. But starting a blog is a far, far cry from being an entrepreneur.

Not long ago, after speaking at a conference, I was approached by a woman who wanted advice on kickstarting her digital media venture. She said she'd sunk a couple thousand dollars into getting a website developed -- a place where she could post stories and solicit stories from users. She was starting to think she'd made a bad investment -- the software they gave her was inflexible, they wanted more money to make changes to it, and the site had no clear revenue prospects on the horizon. To be clear: the woman had made a bad investment.

This is what happens when the concept of entrepreneurialism enters buzzwurgatory - people think it's just that easy, and then they get burned. Next time you hail someone's entrepreneurialism, let it be because you read their smart, rigorous business plan or admired their profitable freelance operation, not because you saw them install WordPress.


I've got to thank my editor, Mallary Tenore, for suggesting this one. The concept of "engagement" really only seems to be concrete when there's a ring involved. Apply it to media -- which is itself a woolly concept -- and you're asking for trouble. After all, anytime a user is reading your article you're "engaging" them, right?

My friend and fellow Reynolds Fellow Joy Mayer spent a year exploring what journalists mean when they talk about engagement. She found something both important and concrete at the root of the term, which in its application to journalism she defines as "a focus on, respect for and enthusiasm about the role of the audience." Meg Pickard, former head of digital engagement at the Guardian, described her job function to Joy with a graph that I think captures it quite clearly. When deployed with care, "engagement" is a genuine, valuable thing.

But in its vaguer usage, "engagement" breeds cynicism. Sometimes it's used to mean merely exposing more of our work to more people, rather than deepening our users' involvement in the creation and furtherance of our work. (It's not difficult to find ads for "audience engagement services" that essentially help you post more links to your content on Twitter.) Or it's used as shorthand for just "getting out in 'the community,'" and dismissed as merely something reporters have always done anyway.

Go check out Meg's graph, and read about what it means. She's advancing a specific set of values and practices that are being lost in buzzwurgatory. Let's talk more about that stuff, and less abstractly about "engagement."


Poor "hyperlocal." It was once upheld as the buzzword that would save newspapers. But then, derisive stabs at failed or struggling "hyperlocal" ventures became almost as common as West Seattle Blog shoutouts in future-of-news reports.

While the term "hyperlocal" might have been coined to describe sites focusing on neighborhoods and other intimate, geographical user communities, it was appropriated almost immediately to refer to a model notable only for the extent to which it could scale nationwide. Sometimes it seemed as though almost everyone using the term was interested not in what was happening to neighborhood coverage, but what was happening to the news industry on a national level. Anything local suddenly became hyperlocal.

For a while now, the most widely watched "hyperlocal" effort has probably been Patch, which is almost more of a national play than a neighborhood one. Even efforts like my own Project Argo, with sites focusing on issues of national scope at a state or regional level, were described -- strangely -- as hyperlocal. Yet for all that national attention, there wasn't even an event to bring together publishers of sites truly hyperlocal in scale until Michelle McLellan and Jay Rosen convened the first Block by Block Community News Summit in September 2010.

But the fate of this sector of the industry seems to echo in macro the experience of Everyblock: long after the hype had faded, it was becoming more interesting and significant than ever. While the "hyperlocal" hype was ballooning and popping, a rich galaxy of genuinely hyperlocal sites was forming, as variegated as the neighborhoods these sites inhabit. They share many of the attributes of the neighborhood newsletters and community newspapers we've long known, but in my experience they tend to be newsier and even more intimate, more social.

Watch this space. "Hyperlocal" may have entered buzzwurgatory, but the stuff that actually merits the term has never been more worthy of your attention. StreetFightMag is doing a terrific job of chronicling the burgeoning business of hyperlocal media, especially as non-media companies have started to really compete at this scale. Just as in my last Poynter piece, I'm going to link to J-Lab's recent synthesis of the ethical practices of local-local journalists, because I think it includes much for journalists at larger shops to think about and learn from.

And if you're still hung up on the buzzword, protip: just call 'em "neighborhood sites."

Moar buzzwurgatory!

I can think of a lot more terms that are in this predicament, but I won't go into detail on these, just urge caution with their use:

  • Multimedia: (Sorry, Chip.) Sure, it's a harmless, innocuous term. It's also now almost devoid of meaning. I have seen so many résumés describing their authors as "multimedia journalists" that all it tells me now is that you have a smartphone and a Facebook account. We Are All "Multimedia Journalists" Now.
  • Agile: Basically this is my excuse to link to yet another piece I wrote last year for Poynter. The tl;dr version: "agile" isn't just an adjective, it's a rigorous methodology, and you might profit from learning more about it.
  • Big Data: I'll let TechCrunch take this. It's true: much, much more data is being captured, making sophisticated data analysis exponentially more valuable, difficult, and mainstream. But too many people hear this term and think, "Whoa! Data's getting big!" ("One word. Plastics.") Focus on the burgeoning cluster of data analysis needs and your role in satisfying them, not on the hypothetical trendiness of stuff involving data.

I'm going to make a prediction, here at the bottom of this piece. Someone is going to see my list of words in buzzwurgatory and say, "Hey, this dude said we shouldn't say 'engagement' anymore." Any masochist who made it this far, please be my witness: That is not what this post is meant to convey. These are useful terms whose use is in danger of becoming corroded. So use them -- carefully.

Finally, don't throw the proverbial baby out with the baby-grooming fluid. Feel free to hate on all the buzzwords you'd like. But don't forget that they often serve a useful purpose -- providing an understandable, recognized shorthand for good concepts that might not have spread without the right vehicle.

One last prediction: I will not [unironically] use the term "buzzwurgatory" again. You're welcome. Happy 2013.

  • Matt Thompson

    I serve as an Editorial Product Manager at NPR, where I work with member stations to develop niche websites. Before coming to NPR, I worked with the Knight Foundation and the Reynolds Journalism Institute.


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