What’s the problem with semantics?

Sometimes I think that we live in an era of oversimplification which does no good to the learning and discussion processes around some topics. Some will just say: if people don’t understand A let’s just label it as B, even if B is not the accurate term for A. Confused? Let me give you two examples.   

Exhibit 1: Oscar Berg tweeted some weeks (or was it months?) ago that he was kind of puzzled for being specifically asked by the organization of a conference NOT to use the term Enterprise 2.0. When I asked him what reason they had given he told me that they said something like “the attendants are not familiar with the concept”, to which I replied (and he agreed) that then it was the perfect timing to enlighten them.

Exhibit 2: the other day I was helping to plan a training session on social media. Someone labeled the session as being on “social networks” and during the preparation meeting I tried to understand if the focus was solely on social networking or if, as I suspected, it envisaged a broader concept. As the meeting went on I eventually confirmed my suspicion and suggested that we had then to find a new name for the session. To my surprise someone said “you can name it all you want but people will still call it social networks”.

To me these two simple examples show a quite disturbing truth: we run the risk of oversimplifying things for the sake of (supposed) immediate comprehension and to demand as little effort as possible from the brain cells of the recipients of our messages.

If people are not familiar with new topics then it is the mission (or art if you like) of those that are to enlighten them, to help them understand and differentiate concepts. Otherwise, can someone please explain to me how the hell we guarantee that we are in fact discussing the same topics if we don’t align concepts first?

I therefore refuse to simplify, even if I know that some concepts are harder to explain and require people a different mindset. We may be lost for words at times but we should not sacrifice substance. 

There’s nothing wrong with semantics. The right words are there just waiting to be used in the right context.


8 thoughts on “What’s the problem with semantics?

  1. Semantics are transient… the meaning today might not be the meaning tomorrow.

    The problem wasn’t people not being familiar with the concepts. The perception of semantics is affected by a whole set of factors, hype being one of them.

    So, when a term is overused, it will invariably be *misused*. Thus, people gain a gut reaction that will sometimes work against the term, sometimes leading to the term being dropped and/or replaced. 😉

    It has happened to Web 2.0, Ajax (this one kinda survived), Web 3.0 (I hoped this would never be born, but it has) and many many more.

    Another matter is that some buzzwords are better than the other. What makes a good one? Being original and clever. Web 2.0 was, but it kinda spoiled all “_______ 2.0” and other numbering gimmicks.

    I mean, IMHO of course. 😉 All this doesn’t justify why the conference org would want you to avoid using the term… maybe to sound less… vaporware? Some people are scared of buzzwords.

  2. Oh my, there’s nothing like starting the day with a thoughtful comment on your blog 🙂 André, I think you’re right in many aspects. Some people run off at the sight of a buzzword, while others just (ab)use it.

    But what I don’t like is giving up on accurateness for the sake of keeping it simpler (which is different from keeping it simple). In the example of exhibit 2, if people don’t know what social media is then find a title for the session that is appealing (without compromising accuracy) and then explain to them during the session the differences between concepts. If they then decide to keep calling B to A then it’s their choice but you completed your mission as far as aligning concepts goes.

    PS – I’ve just realized that I didn’t have coffee yet and still I’m able to write a 100-plus reply to a comment on my blog. I must be really passionate about this topic 🙂

  3. Ana,

    couldn’t agree more. It’s a challenge every speaker with a buzzword on their abstract faces, to demystify and separate them from similar concepts.

    However, people will decide whether to attend or not your talk before you can say another word. That’s why abstracts and titles are so important in a conference schedule. Specially if there are other tracks to choose from. Just put it bluntly on the summary: Social Media is not the same as social networks! If you think it is, you should come! lol hehehe

    And thanks for the de-caffeinated early reply. Shows commitment, indeed it does.

    • Ah, I see, something like “Social media for dummies” 😀
      I totally agree with you on the importance of titles and abstracts, they should portrait a clear picture of the subjects covered even (an especially) for the “non-experts”.

  4. Personally I like simplification, when done correctly but I also understand why some people might what to exclude certain terms from an audience.
    For example the term Social Media involves many concepts and strategies that might get people confused about what is it exactly.

    On my personal opinion, unless someone is able to give a completely clear idea of what they are talking about they shouldn’t really be mentioning it.

    • Mário, thank you for the comment! But aren’t we contributing to more confusion by avoiding talking about the subject altogether?
      Nevertheless, I do agree with you on one point: if you cannot give a clear idea of what is a certain concept, you shouldn’t talk about it at a conference. The only problem is that not everyone abides by this rule and self-proclaimed experts grow like mushrooms…

  5. Well this is has two ways. By not talking about it, you can’t make people confused about it, by not talking about it you are not helping educate people about it.

    But a group discussion is definably a great way to gain knowledge, as long as it’s not about national football :p

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