Monday morning, I almost became a brand. When a speaker failed to show for the “Cross Media Marketing” panel of last week’s bustling Silicon Alley Conference ’98, Jason Calacanis–the organizer, human router, and networker nonpareil of the event–pulled me aside and said, “Come on, you’d be great.” Sure, I was there to report on the conference, which presented some conflict of interest, but I was tempted. At this massive two-day brainshare, I could finally leverage “Bunn” into the cross-platform, global brand it was meant to be.
Confused? It comes down to the level of language. As New York’s successful young entrepreneurs turn from struggling graduates into industry savants, the argot of new media has developed into a veritable dialect. Executives pepper their speeches with the newest “turn-key solution,” “revenue stream,” or “content aggregator,” and it’s better than jargon–it’s a way of life. But why is it that an industry so alive with creativity and thinking “outside the box” relies on words so flat, overworn, and colorless?
It’s because the entrepreneurs aren’t talking to us–they’re talking to the advertisers and venture capitalists who support them, says Bo Peabody, the amiable 26-year-old CEO of million-member online community Tripod (tripod.com). Peabody, one of the youngest and best practitioners of this wordplay (and a speaker at last Tuesday’s SA conference), admits the buzzwords are “a defense mechanism” in the corporate sphere. But, says Peabody, “they’re the language of business and they’re crucial–[the lingo] lets people know who’s in and who’s out.” Clearly, Peabody is in. Just three weeks ago, Tripod was acquired by the search engine company Lycos for a staggering $58 million in stock options, proving that Peabody speaks as fluently to the business side as his company does to its stampede of twentysomething members.
But there’s another reason for the sheer uniformity of the jargoneering: youth. According to Donna Hoffman, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt University and one of the directors of Project 2000, which studies the effects of marketing on the Net, the psychological need of greenhorn entrepreneurs to “be legit” drives them to rely on lingo. “Young people who are at the forefront are finding that as the industry matures, there are more of us older folks who are saying, ‘Show me the business plan,”‘ says Hoffman. “And to be successful you have to have the vocabulary.”
Some Alley entrepreneurs are themselves responsible for crafting the words in the first place. Peabody gives Tripod (among others) credit for pushing “community” as a consumer-marketing device (Hoffman disagrees). And Ted Werth, a Wharton undergrad and local entrepreneur now working for a start-up, remembers first using the word “cybercast” at Total New York back in 1995. But Werth comments that there are still gaps in the lingo, like “Web zine,” which annoys both paper “zine” editors, who feel like the term has been hijacked, and online producers, who feel that it diminishes their work. “Why don’t we have a new word for that?” he asks.
The only phrase that seems to heading out of the argot was the most loathed to begin with. When Tripod uses “Gen X” in their media kit, they apologize first. The fact of the matter is that “the term has currency [for advertisers],” says Peabody, “and if the advertisers want to call us that, who cares? Everybody’s trying to coin a damn new phrase.” And some of us are actually making a pretty penny off minting them.
“You want I should tell you a story?” Abbe Don’s bubbe (Yiddish for grandma) would ask, roped again by her granddaughter into recounting the history of her family’s immigrant experience in Chicago at the turn of the century. Don, an interface designer and artist in San Francisco, remembers, “I loved the inflection of her words. To be candid, part of why I do this work is to keep her alive.”
The “work” is Don’s extraordinary, homegrown Web site, bubbe.com, where she acts as a one-woman oral historian–a literary (and feminist) Alan Lomax, hungry to rescue family stories by archiving them publicly online. The site plays host to hundreds of searing personal narratives, all submitted by its visitors. “I wanted to create a context where my stories about my grandmother could act as a catalyst for other people to tell theirs,” says Don.
Don’s folk collective became the model for a series of international “Digital Story Bees” held last week during Jewish Web Week. In eight cities, including New York, Tel Aviv, and St. Petersburg, Jewish women gathered in person to share stories about their grandmothers and turn their memories into HTML and JPEG files on bubbe.com. “It was spectacular,” says Barbara Dobkin, who heads a Jewish feminist nonprofit and ran the New York session at the Digital Sandbox at 55 Broad Street. “One woman talked about her ‘Commie’ mother’s kosher chicken protest, another recalled her mother wearing white gloves to Barnard in the ’50s–people want to tell these stories.”
But the story bees seemed to be the week’s only events worth breaking out the Manischewitz for. The JWW site simply culled teaser headlines and articles from seven independent sites such as Jewishfamily.com, AOL’s Jewish Community, and Jewish Quality Singles. For the most part, the week’s online events–including a “Most Eligible Bachelor and Bachelorette of the JWW” contest and a “global prayer for peace”–were as much a marketing and promotional love-in for those sites as a cultural celebration.
Now that the week is over, the organizers have decided to keep the site live in some fashion, but there will be no lasting coalition. “We wanted the JWW to keep with the way the Net developed–grassroots, with no monolithic organization, and we aren’t setting out to create one either,” says the event’s codirector, Martin Kaminer.
Bubbe.com will continue to grow, however, and Don already has a backlog of almost 100 stories to post. Her biggest obstacle is the fact that she’s doing it all by hand. When asked about how she’ll manage, she invokes her grandmother again: “How we survived was miracles.”
Signal and Noise