Darren Mothersele

Software Developer

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Semantic Drift

Mar 11, 2016


Language is always evolving. Words go out of common usage, new words appear, and words change their meaning. The firehose of social media has given us new words, like the “selfie” and “clickbait”. The narcissistic undercurrent in these new terms indicates how these technologies are changing us. But, more concerning, are words where the actual meaning is changing.

George Orwell coined the term doublethink in the novel 1984. It formed part of Big Brother’s brainwashing programmes in which words take on dual meanings, leading to acceptance of conflict or contradiction via language.

We talk about social media, but a more appropriate term would be anti-social media. When you hear phrases like “my selfie has 50 likes”, it’s less about being social, and more about bragging. A “social stream” feeds trivialities to followers, fans and friends. The danger is that this shallow form of connection, via the screen, mediated by technology, is replacing real meaningful connection and companionship.

This brings us to the concept of friend. As I mentioned in my post about why I left Facebook, “you can have 1000 friends on Facebook, but only if you reduce your definition of what it means to be a friend.” We also now have unfriend as a verb.

Other nouns are becoming verbs, like inbox. I hear people saying “inbox me”, or “I’ll inbox you”, when they referring to sending a private message. This annoys me. It may seem innocuous, but it highlights a lack of understanding about the difference between a message and where the message is stored. We have, in one word, conflated the process of sending a message with both it’s place of storage and the act of receiving it. When you consider the temporal aspects of this, it reveals the acceptance of omnipresent access to our attention.

Perhaps the most abused word is share. We have lost touch completely with what it really means to share something. From the compulsive sharing of selfies driven by a need for acceptance and dopamine reward, to the rebranding of “unsolicited advertising” as “sharing” on social media.

We also hear a lot of the word share with the rise of the (so called) sharing economy. Uber and AirBnB are not based on sharing at all. It’s not sharing if you are paying a fee. And, the focus of startups in the “sharing economy” isn’t on creating a cooperative (shared) platform. They are actually about crowd-sourcing a monopoly.