The functions of buzzwords: A comparison of 'Web 2.0' and 'telematics'
First Monday

The functions of buzzwords: A comparison of Web 2.0 and telematics by Ole J. Mjos, Hallvard Moe, and Vilde Schanke Sundet

It is a key task for media research to uncover the assumptions underpinning fashion terms like buzzwords, and to show their functions in business, political debate and social life. In this article, we ask which purposes media buzzwords serve, and for whom. We also question the presumed newness of buzzwords. By critically addressing two corresponding terms — ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘telematics’ — we argue that a media buzzword serves three important functions: it simplifies a complex field, promotes a phenomenon as something new, and legitimates strategies and actions. Thus, a media buzzword can be used rhetorically to define a discursive frame for new media developments. Further, we argue, even though media buzzwords bring forward a promise of something new, the use of such buzzwords is not new.


1. Introduction
2. The discourse on buzzwords
3. The emergence and context of ‘Web 2.0’
4. The functions of ‘Web 2.0’ as a buzzword
5. The emergence and context of ‘telematics’
6. The functions of ‘telematics’ as a buzzword
7. Conclusion



1. Introduction

The age of digital media seems swamped by a wealth of more or less comprehensible labels and expressions. A label that creates buzz accompanies every new service or practice that emerges. Think of ‘big data’, ‘social media’, ‘Web 2.0’, ‘convergence’, ‘user-generated content’ and ‘interactivity’. These are industry buzzwords. We construct the reality by defining it, to paraphrase Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (2006). Terms and expressions are not neutral. They reflect our notions of reality, and the position we take in it. And in the battle of concepts, buzzwords have a particular role. It is therefore a key task for media research to uncover the assumptions underpinning such fashion terms, and to illustrate their functions in business, political debate and social life (van Dijck and Nieborg, 2009; John, 2013; Allen, 2013).

In this article, we ask which purposes media buzzwords serve, and for whom. We also question the presumed newness of buzzwords: How can we understand the seemingly abundance of swiftly emerging and fading buzzwords related to digital media, and the assumption that this represents something new?

To discuss these questions, this article critically addresses buzzwords as a phenomenon. The aim is to understand the functions of buzzwords, and, by exploring the societal aspects that impinge on their functions, also to get a better grasp of our mediated societies. In short, we claim that the words we use to label new media technologies influence the way we think about such technologies, and then again the way we make use of them (see also Weick, 1995; Schein, 2010). In this respect, a socio-economic analysis of buzzwords is important as it gives us a peek into the more hidden ways of making sense of the world — in particular new media technologies. Furthermore, a critical analysis may uncover some of the power relations or paradigms underlying the use of these particular buzzwords (see also Taylor, 2002; Mansell, 2012).

We start by analysing the discourse on buzzwords, uncovering how they originate with a specific meaning in a specialist context, then become fashionable among non-specialists and simultaneously lose their precise meaning.

On that basis, we discuss the functions of ‘Web 2.0’, a key term linked to the growth of the Internet as a ubiquitous part of everyday life in the early 2000s. Based on the analysis, we argue that as a media buzzword, ‘Web 2.0’ serves three important purposes for the industry: (1) it simplifies a complex field; (2) promotes a phenomenon as something new; and, (3) legitimates strategies and actions directed towards this new area.

To scrutinize the perceived newness of buzzwords, we then look into ‘telematics’ as an analogous term from a different era. Through a comparative analysis, we find that also this term shares the basic characteristics with ‘Web 2.0’ as well as inhabiting the functions that makes it a buzzword. On this basis, we argue that although buzzwords bring forward a promise of the new, the use of buzzwords is not. On the contrary, the analysis of ‘telematics’ and ‘Web 2.0’ illustrate that industry buzzwords has existed for a long time, with similar discursive functions.

The presumed newness of buzzwords, we conclude, is thus not the result of buzzwords being a new thing. Instead, it may be due to, firstly, the cultural context in which these terms develop, and secondly, the fact that the media industry as well as researchers and politicians have a tendency to overestimate the pace of change in recent history — and in effect fall for the buzz.

Our analysis is akin to conceptual history, as far as we trace the emergence and use of, and discussions about, specific terms across settings. Our analysis also resemble studies of ‘essential contested concepts’ (Gallie, 1956), in such a way that is emphasises hard-to-handle concepts with several possible readings and interpretations (see also Jensen, 2010; Ytreberg, 2011). Empirically, we rely on different sources — ranging from business literature, to encyclopaedias, newspapers, trade press, and corporate and pubic industry information — to analyse the phenomena under scrutiny. In our analysis, these sources are used both as reports and records, that is, both to give us information about the certain terms as well as the time and context in which they were produced (Dahl, 2004; see also Wysocki, 2008). Hence, our sources resemble ‘cultural artefacts’ in the socio-economic business world, giving us important information of specific terms in a cultural, societal and technological context (Neuman, 2006). In the analysis of ‘Web 2.0’, the magazine Wired became a chief cultural artefact, identifying both the early uses of the term ‘Web 2.0’ as well as the way in which American new media journalists tend to talk about and report on new media technologies in the early 2000s. In the analysis of ‘telematics’, the chief cultural artefacts was promoted by a French policy report about computerization in society.



2. The discourse on buzzwords

In order to discuss the functions and newness of buzzwords, we first need to understand the discourse on buzzwords, that is, how buzzword as a phenomenon has emerged, and which connotations it carries.

The Oxford English Dictionary describes it as “a keyword; a catchword or expression currently fashionable; a term used more to impress than to inform, esp. a technical or jargon term” [1]. Further emphasizing its negative aspects, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary calls buzzword “an important-sounding usually technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress laymen” and “a voguish ward of phrase” [2]. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was first used in American business schools in the mid-1940s. From the late 1960s, the term was also used in response to new technology to create a new type of jargon that was nearly as incomprehensible as it was sophisticated. As such, the term ‘buzzword’ has its historical roots within the language of the business and technology sector.

One of the early books within business literature to discuss the term ‘buzzword’ is Robert K. Mueller’s Buzzwords: A guide to the language of leadership published in 1974. Mueller argues that buzzwords can be temporary phenomena that quickly vanish, or they can get introduced in the common word stock of language [3]. In his 1990 book Business buzzwords: The tough new jargon of modern business, Michael Johnson defines buzzwords as “terms that capture the big trends and issues of the moment” [4]. Thus, also here we see the link to trends and fashion. Johnson does however employ the term broadly; even as a synonym for ‘jargon’ and ‘new vocabulary’. These uses stress the characteristics of buzzwords once they have gained momentum and caught on in widespread use. Importantly, though, a buzzword is not born as such. A term we see as a buzzword had a different and more precise definition in its original context, before it became a buzzword proper. It develops from a term with a specific meaning in a specialist context, becomes fashionable among non-specialists and simultaneously loses its precise meaning. Thus, one cannot invent a buzzword, but a term one hopes will become a buzzword.

Although such an understanding may inform us about the roles of buzzwords, it tells us less about the function of buzzwords and the actions of those embracing them. To understand these aspects, we need to scrutinize buzzwords from the viewpoint of those promoting them. A few studies do seek to understand the functions of buzzwords. David Collins takes what he calls a critical-practical perspective on business buzzwords and describes these terms as organizational phenomena [5]. He claims buzzwords do not simply occur, but are actively sought and produced to serve an explicit or implicit purpose: Concepts that become buzzwords are created and disseminated by groups of people working within an apparatus, which has grown to become an industry in itself [6]. Collins also acknowledges that buzzwords, especially when coupled to management consultancy, take on a pejorative tone [7]. Furthermore, he argues that these phenomena should be taken seriously, because of their impact: management fads and buzzwords are important in the way they reject critical inquiry and present a ready-made-view of the world. This claim is also supported by studies on how business communicators relate to buzzwords (Gilsdorf, 1983).

By tracing the development of the term buzzword, and by mapping how it has been understood within different spheres, we have shown the term’s significance. The seed of a buzzword is planted within a specialist field. Here the term in question has a precise meaning. However, as the term gets adopted outside its original context, its meaning changes — simultaneously serving other functions for the users. But what, more specifically, are these functions? In order answer this question, we now turn to consider two media buzzwords — ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘telematics’. This is done by first mapping the emergence and history of the two terms, and then, by tracing their functions within society.



3. The emergence and context of ‘Web 2.0’

The term ‘Web 2.0’ is often claimed to have first appeared at the Web 2.0 Conference organized by the O’Reilly Media in San Francisco in 2004, as a label of the new kind of experiences the ‘new’ Web allowed for (Web 2.0 Conference, 2004; O’Reilly, 2005). Tim O’Reilly, wrote in a promotional piece for the first Web 2.0 Conference:

“I hope I’ll get your attention when I say that the trends that are emerging today are at least as earth-shaking as the Web and the open source movement turned out to be” ... “’m talking about the emergence of what I’ve started to call Web 2.0, the Internet as platform.” (O’Reilly, 2004)

However, the term did in fact emerge much earlier, although with a somewhat different meaning. Already before the “dot-com-bust”, in 2000, Clay Shirky, the American consultant and lecturer on Internet technologies, used the concept. He referred to the general corporatization of the Internet business — previously populated by “young, revolutionary zealots” — into a more conventional corporate and business culture, as ‘Web 2.0’ (quoted in Tedeschi, 2000; see also Rivlin, 2005; Allen, 2013).

Still, it is probably right to say that it was the O’Reilly Media’s conference in 2004, and the following conference the year after that defined and promoted the term to a broader public. In 2005, the term caught on, as pointed out in Wired: “After O’Reilly hosted his Web 2.0 Conference last autumn [...], digi-pundits began using the term Web 2.0 to describe the growing swarm of applications and Web sites that exploit collective intelligence and participation” (Levy, 2005).

It was no coincidence that Wired picked up on the ‘Web 2.0’ term. Since 1993, and initially with the support of professor and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, Wired had covered new technological developments and their impact, and particularly the Internet. Just weeks prior to the second Web 2.0 conference in 2005, O’Reilly published an essay entitled “What is Web 2.0?” (O’Reilly, 2005). Soon after, Wired journalist Ryan Singel commented on it: “The theory has been percolating for some time. But it intensified last week when O’Reilly published an essay on the topic, as well as a graphic outlining the key categories of this new medium” (Singel, 2005). In this essay, O’Reilly attempted to explain what the term meant and its implications. With the graphic outline, “Web 2.0 Meme Map”, O’Reilly aimed to show how “[y]ou can visualize 2.0 as a set of principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites that demonstrate some or all of those principles, at a varying distance from that core” (O’Reilly, 2005).

In this same essay, O’Reilly pointed out how the term had begun to catch on, referring to “more than 9.5 million citations in Google” (O’Reilly, 2005). Although some U.S. and international media had reported on the first conference (i.e., BBC, 2004), it was around the second conference, in October 2005, a few days after the publishing of “What is Web 2.0?”, that the term begun to be more widely reported by various stakeholders — particularly in the U.S., but also internationally. The organizers of O’Reilly Media’s Web 2.0 conference promoted the term in interviews with media and in op-eds (e.g., Battelle, 2005). The term was also covered by Wired under headings like “Are you ready for Web 2.0?” (Singel, 2005). Furthermore, the technology sections in mainstream media, both in the U.S. and the U.K., such as the Guardian, BBC and Boston Globe, devoted space to the term (Schofield, 2005; Kirsner, 2005). Technology journalists in the the New York Times had already been referring to the term in the summer 2005 (Rivlin, 2005; Markhoff, 2005).

The attention given to the buzzword ‘Web 2.0’ reached its peak with Time’s announcement of ‘You’ as ‘Time’s Person of the Year’ in 2006. According to Time, the individual was at the centre of the development of the ‘new’ Internet, and new technology would empower the user in unprecedented ways. And further, all this was made possible by ‘Web 2.0’:

The tool that makes this possible is the World Wide Web. Not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee hacked together (15 years ago, according to Wikipedia) as a way for scientists to share research. It’s not even the overhyped dotcom Web of the late 1990s. The new Web is a very different thing. It’s a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web 2.0, as if it were a new version of some old software. But it’s really a revolution (Grossman, 2006).

This explicit reference to the ‘new Web’ in contrast to the ‘overhyped dotcom Web’ clearly resonates with O’Reilly’s notion of ‘Web 2.0’. By resolutely distinguishing between the new and the old Web, Time joined the promotion of the idea and the transformative qualities of ‘Web 2.0’. With ‘Web 2.0’, the Internet could be re-defined: Left behind was the dark age of the Internet, which ended in the bursting dotcom bubble. Ahead was the golden age of the ‘new Internet’ characterised by collective intelligence, user-generated content and new business opportunities.

Hence, having been introduced among specialists within the IT-industries around 2000, ‘Web 2.0’ was “re-launched” with an altered meaning a few years later. It caught on in the technology press, and later the mainstream media. At the same time, O’Reilly Media continued to fiercely promote the term within the industry through the annual Web 2.0 conferences, and by publishing books and publications in the years that followed, including Web 2.0 mash-ups and the niche aggregators (Kelley, 2008), Web 2.0: A strategy guide (Shuen, 2008) and Web 2.0 architectures (Governor, et al., 2009).

A decade into the twenty-first century, there seems to be a consensus that there is no consensus on the meaning of ‘Web 2.0’. It can refer to “technologies that enhance collaboration, software languages that make these kinds of websites possible, and business plans that propose funding ‘bring-your-own-content’ schemes“, or even a design aesthetic [8]. At this point in time, ‘Web 2.0’ has clearly emerged as a buzzword. With that follows also the critical rebuttals. Andrew Keen, an author on technological development, attended the first Web 2.0 conference in 2004. In his book, The cult of the amateur, Keen (2008) describes how unified “graying hippies, new media entrepreneurs and technological geeks” with a “shared hostility toward traditional media and entertainment” [9] met to promote the new. In Keen’s sarcastic words:

So here we were, two hundred of us, Silicon Valley’s antiestablishment establishment, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars, gazing at the stars from the lawn of O’Reilly Media’s corporate headquarters. [...] The Internet was back! And unlike the Gold Rush Nineties, this time around our exuberance wasn’t irrational. This shiny new version of the Internet, what Tim O’Reilly called Web 2.0, really was going to change everything. [10]

Similarly, José van Dijck and David Nieborg draw attention to the widespread celebration of the term, at the cost of more critical reflections: “The hidden ‘magic’ of Web 2.0 technologies remains conspicuously unquestioned by all promoters, whether business gurus or cultural experts. They all claim a brave new world where the spirits of commonality are finally merged with the interests of capitalism” [11]. At this point, the seeds planted and nourished by O’Reilly and other industry actors had clearly yielded a full-blown buzzword.



4. The functions of ‘Web 2.0’ as a buzzword

Based on the history of the term ‘Web 2.0’, we can identify several purposes that the term serves as a buzzword. Here, we focus on three functions, meant as an analytical frame for better understanding which purposes media buzzwords serve, and for whom.

To start with, ‘Web 2.0’ serves to simplify a complex technological field, namely the new Web and the kind of experiences it allows for. This is the first function of ‘Web 2.0’ as a buzzword. As stressed by Anders Fagerjord and Tanja Storsul, concepts that can simplify complex phenomena will often gain momentum:

Most people that are not heavily involved in media and communication are not even interested in understanding all details and complexities of the developments. Therefore, in order to inform people, politicians, and practitioners about the relevance and impact of media change, it is useful to have metaphors and pictures that are easy to communicate. [12]

Although the term ‘Web 2.0’ is neither intuitive nor easily comprehensible, it served as a heading of a set of developments, more or less perceived as pointing in the same direction. While such a term does little good in specific discussions of technical or academic nature, it is useful in less formal settings as it sketches a loosely defined field. As Rick Singel, journalist at Wired, pointed out: “No one may be able to agree on what Web 2.0 means, but the idea of a new, more collaborative internet is creating buzz reminiscent of the go-go days of the late 1990s” (Singel, 2005).

The second function of ‘Web 2.0’ is to promote a novelty. With its “2.0”, it signals a clear break from the “old” Web, which by the early 2000s connoted downfall and economic crisis. As such, ‘Web 2.0’ is a rhetoric tool to help “launch” something new. In the mid-2000s, the term was used to endorse and sell a potential, and stand in stark contrast to the failures of Web 1.0 in the past. By distancing the new initiatives from the old, ‘Web 2.0’ serves to promote a fresh start for the industry, investors, politicians, and, importantly, the new stakeholders of the Web; the users themselves. According to Matthew Allen, ‘Web 2.0’ should be considered a “rhetorical technology”, in which the “computing industry attempted to change the way we think of the Internet” [13]. This focus on newness and potential resonates well with the attempts to define the term. In the words of the term’s key instigators:

Five years ago, we launched a conference based on a simple idea, and that idea grew into a movement. The original Web 2.0 Conference [...] was designed to restore confidence in an industry that had lost its way after the dotcom bust. The Web was far from done, we argued. In fact, it was on its way to becoming a robust platform for a culture-changing generation of computer applications and services. [14]

Finally, as the third function, the term ‘Web 2.0’ also serves to legitimize strategies. This follows from the second function, but is especially important — and useful — in settings removed from the original sectors of use. The more fuzzy its meaning, the more general strategies can it serve. Further, as the term points to a “set of principles” (O’Reilly, 2005), it can also be used to legitimate a new set of strategies, which more or less point in the same direction. For instance, Nicholas A. John (2013) finds that ‘Web 2.0’ has been used by many user-generated content Internet services (Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter) to legitimate a rhetoric of sharing, although this form of sharing for the most part is about commercial interests (either by making users perform task the company would otherwise pay people to carry out or by monetizing from the users’ activities). As concluded by John:

When Facebook, Google and others talk about sharing information about us with third parties, rather than selling it, or even just transferring or sending it — two much more neutral terms — a parallel is created between our online social interactions with out friends on the one hand, and commercial interactions involving some of the wealthiest organizations on the planet on the other. [...] However, it is still the case that every time we share something online, we create traces of data, which constitute the hard currency of commercial organizations in Web 2.0. [15]

Summing up, in the first years of the new millennium, the term ‘Web 2.0’ quickly grew to become a key industry buzzword. We have identified three core functions: the functions of simplifying a complex field, promoting it as something new, and justifying strategies and actions. It might seem paradoxical that a fuzzy term no one agrees what means can serve as a powerful tool for strategic purposes. However, the analysis of the ‘Web 2.0’ case clearly brings out how the ambiguity of the meaning is key for its function as a successful buzzword. Identifying such functions help us understanding the role of buzzwords, their nature and place in the society in the digital era.

The question remains, however, how we can make sense of the perceived growth and intensity of buzzwords. To investigate this, we now turn to look closer at an earlier example of an ICT industry term — ‘telematics’ — that emerged across the Atlantic, in France, in the late 1970s.



5. The emergence and context of ‘telematics’

The term ‘telematics’ was coined (as télématique) in a French policy report akin to a Green Paper, written by researcher Simon Nora and Inspector of Finance Alain Minc. The report, developed at the request of the French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (elected in 1974), was published in 1978. It dealt with the “computerization” of society. Nora and Minc wanted to show how new technology could reshape the social structure, and why the French political system had to change in face of the new patterns and scales of economic and social life. The context was French ICT policy meeting a U.S.-dominated new era of telecom business and satellite communication technology. The year d’Estaing was elected the French telecom sector was described as “very weak”. For instance, France had “seven million telephone lines for a population of 47 million (one of the lowest penetration rates in the industrialized world, equivalent to that of Czechoslovakia)” [16]. Therefore, throughout the late 1970s, the escalating strength of the U.S. within the sector internationally was of general concern for France (e.g., Cats-Baril and Jelassi, 1994).

In their report, Nora and Minc defined ‘telematics’ as the convergence of computers and telecom, and argued that this development was of major importance:

Henceforth, mass computerization will take hold, becoming as indispensable to society as electricity. This transformation can be traced to two technological advances. In the past, the only computers to be found were gigantic. Nowadays, a multitude of small, powerful, and inexpensive machines are on the market. They are no longer isolated from one another, but rather linked together in “networks”. This increasing interconnection between computers and telecommunications — which we will term “telematics” — opens radically new horizons. [17]

The interconnections, argued Nora and Minc, would have wide-ranging effects: Affecting “the economic balance, modify power relations, and increase the stakes of sovereignty” [18].

The report instigated a heated public and political debate in France, heated enough to attract attention overseas. Three years after its original publication, MIT Press printed an English translation. In its introduction, American sociologist Daniel Bell tried to explain why the term ‘telematics’ had caught on and resulted in “instantaneous and widespread public discussion” [19]. He pointed to two reasons. First, “[t]he intrinsic fascination of the subject matter [...] which had not been covered by the French press. Thus, it had the impact of a modern Jules Verne story” [20]. Second, Bell argued that the report had raised possibilities for restructuring French political structure with telematics — timely after a period of debate about the political system. However, in addition to these two reasons, Bell added in parenthesis: “(There was also — and this should not be minimized — the impact a new concept or new idea can have when expressed in a bold new word)” [21]. And, he concluded, “The word télématique [...] may soon spread in our language, as it has, already, in French” [22].

Bell was right; the term did spread outside its specialist area also in English speaking parts of the world. For a period of time around the mid-1980s, the term ‘telematics’ was used widely in different social contexts as a label for the new possibilities related to information technologies.

However, as ‘telematics’ became a buzzword, it also instigated criticism. Contemporaries criticized ‘telematics’ as a catch phrase emblematic for a new era. In 1984, Danish critical media scholar Lars Qvortrup, for instance, published a book on the political philosophy of the information society, attacking technological determinist ideas he saw as flourishing. The heading of the book was “Telematics”. Qvotrup wrote:

Telematics is one of these rare terms that roam the world and spreads excitement and fear. In its trail, grand, national development programs are initiated, while sceptics claim that [Orwells’s] 1984 will be realized on time. For some, telematics represents the fulfilment of Popper’s ‘open society’, the kingdom of freedom. For others, it signals a return to Bentham’s panopticon, where the power is staged as collective self-surveillance. [23]

Across the North Sea, in the U.K., Nicholas Garnham — another critical media scholar — used no less grand terms to describe the importance of ‘telematics’: “Apart from the threat of nuclear war”, he wrote in a book review, “perhaps the most important problem facing advanced industrial countries is the impact of telematics” [24]. By 1984, then, ‘telematics’ showed one of the characteristics found in ‘Web 2.0’; the rebuttal by critics. The term‘s meaning was, at this point “of vanishing significance”, argued Qvortrup: “Telematics means an integrated system of telecommunications and information processing. But, telematics also means prosperity, democracy, happiness — and, unemployment, oppression, cultural impoverishment [...]” [25]. This also meant that the significance of the term for specialists was diminishing. By 2014, telematics is long gone from the mainstream of public debate. It is no longer a buzzword, but has been re-appropriated by specialists [26].



6. The functions of ‘telematics’ as a buzzword

If we apply the analytical frame of the functions of buzzwords identified in our discussion above, we can compare ‘telematics’ to our more current example of a media industry buzzword.

Concerning the first function, ‘telematics’ arguably served to simplify a complex technological field. The budding potential of telecommunication innovations coupled with the emerging technologies of networked computing was, in late 1970s France, unknown territory to anyone outside a small group of specialists. This was an explicit aim for Nora and Minc, and also an factor pointed to by David Bell in his 1981 foreword: describing in a compelling way a phenomenon — the impact of the unfamiliar developments of computer technology — which had not previously reached the attention of the country’s public.

Through its simplifying character, ‘telematics’ could be used to promote a novel phenomenon, the handy computers networked through telecommunications and their potential for economic growth and prosperity. That is, ‘telematics’ served the second function of buzzwords identified in our analysis of ‘Web 2.0’: promoting something new. Again, it is important to understand the original report in its cultural and political context. For the French government and the actors who picked the term up and put it to use, it was paramount to bring attention to what was perceived as an important new field for societal development and economic expansion.

Bell, in fact, also pointed to the third function of ‘telematics’ as a buzzword when he linked the term to a pressing political issue, that of restructuring the French telecom sector. ‘Telematics’ came to serve as a heading for a solution to the problem of a telecom sector lagging behind neighbouring countries, and loosing out in the international race for development and business potential. In other words, ‘telematics’ acted as a tool to legitimize a strategy — a policy shift in France to exploit the new technology.

‘Telematics’, then, was a buzzword of the analogue era, having similar functions as ‘Web 2.0’, and a similar pattern of use. This serves to remind us not to overstate the novelty of buzzwords in the digital era — not to get caught up in the buzz, so to speak. Buzzwords are not a new phenomenon. When embarking on critiques of buzzwords, we are well served by a historical and contextual awareness, which helps us understand the underlying perspectives at play in the use of buzzwords. The explicit business strategy motivations behind the invention of ‘Web 2.0’, for instance, are a case in point. The specialists who spread the term had an open agenda, motivated by economic gain. We have showed how, from the very beginning, the idea of ‘Web 2.0’ centres on business. Similar considerations were, however, also key to Nora and Minc when they came up with ‘telematics’. Explaining the term, Nora and Minc notes:

The neologism closely resembles the term used in the United States, “compunication”. The fact that the American term stresses the computer and ours the telecommunications aspect is not accidental. It expresses a set of power relationships that in France give the upper hand to the latter. [27]

The concept of ‘telematics’ was, then, constructed strategically to emphasize fields or businesses where the French could compete against the U.S. Here, the resemblance to ‘Web 2.0’ — some 25 years later — is striking. Both ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘telematics’ were used to simplify, promote, and legitimate. The analytical frame of the three identified functions allow us to focus on certain aspects to highlight how the two terms are similar; they represent key buzzwords on technology, communication and “new” media, with an interval of a couple of decades. A frame that brings out similarities should, however, not lead us to ignore differences.

Both ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘telematics’ bring promises of commodity, of markets and of income, as both has been used to promote new services and technologies for the new information economy. Yet, the extensive marketization of the media and telecom since the 1980s and onwards have meant that buzzwords like ‘Web 2.0’ exist in a very different world.

‘Telematics’ was coined in the context of national, state policy, in an era — and region (Western Europe) — where the commercial possibility of media and telecom was heavily limited by state politics (see e.g., Hallin and Mancini, 2004). Although parts of the French telecommunication monopoly had been “sectionized” during the 1960s and 1970s, “greater autonomy from the civil service” was only gained by the late 1980s [28], and de facto privatization only happened towards the mid-1990s. Similarly, the French state monopoly in broadcasting was only brought to an end in the early 1980s. Thus, during the first years of the 1980s, when the French debated télématique, telecommunication and the media were still firmly defined as public services — not as commodities.

‘Web 2.0’, on the other hand, grew as a buzzword in the U.S. context, where the information technology industry of the early 2000s was not only through-and-through a wholly marketized sector, but also one subject to a distinct light-touch regulation. In addition, online media were, as illustrated in the discussion of the emergence of ‘Web 2.0’, surrounded by a frenzy of commercial initiatives. ‘Web 2.0’ had its roots within the private media industry itself and was strongly linked to the promotion of new inventions from Silicon Valley. Thus, to a higher degree than ‘telematics’, ‘Web 2.0’ underlined the economic potential of new technology and the marketization of the society.

While ‘telematics’ reflected a technology more or less incomprehensible — or at least irrelevant — for the everyday life of people in late 1970s and early 1980s Western Europe, ‘Web 2.0’ had a far broader reach as it served to label, among other things, services preferred by a growing population of Internet users worldwide. Around 1980, the global communications infrastructure and the computer industry were in their infancy. Though satellites and telephone lines facilitated communication across continents, and though visions of networked communication, as showed above, fuelled the very invention of the term ‘telematics’, global electronic communication was confined to only a few spheres of society: it was expensive and cumbersome compared to the opportunities provided by today’s globalizing industry landscape.

This does not indicate that ‘telematics’ was a term reserved for the few. If so, it would not have caught on as a buzzword. Rather, ‘telematics’ to a larger extent than ‘Web 2.0’ pointed ahead, to a near future of networked media and communication with ample opportunities for industry, and new services for users. ‘Web 2.0’ pointed to something more readily available for the general user. One might argue that this difference in the direction of the two terms — the degree to which they present visions rather than existing practices — constitute a basic division. However, it seems more useful to grasp the difference by reference to historical and societal contexts. A key is therefore to acknowledge that the technologies in question, and the public’s use and take-up of them, were at very different stages. In this sense, technological maturity matter for our understanding of buzzwords. In our case, it entails that buzzwords related to digital media in general, and networked communication especially, by the 2000s appear as more widely relevant as they refer to something — no matter how vague — that exists and affects everyday life right now, and not just an industry or a field of policy-making.

Broad societal developments create different contexts for an industry buzzword at different places and different times. In our cases these societal developments can be related to marketization and the maturity of a globally networked communication system, and they explain why there is a perceived newness to buzzwords in the digital era. In a marketized, media-saturated, networked society, buzzwords might be easier to spot and appear stronger or more abundant. Beyond such impressions, though, the basic functions remain the same.



7. Conclusion

Based on an interest in analysing the discourse on buzzwords, and to get a better understanding of how buzzwords serve purposes in the media sphere, we have traced the emergence of buzzword as a term and described its characteristic journey from being given a specific meaning within a specialist field, through its dissemination among non-specialists and the corresponding loss of a precise meaning. Further, we have used the case of ‘Web 2.0’ to develop an analytical frame for the analysis of buzzwords, identifying three key functions — to simplify, promote and legitimate. With this frame, we have studied ‘telematics’ in comparison with ‘Web 2.0’, bringing attention to pervasive features of buzzwords and at the same time underlining how contextual aspects help us understand difference.

This article has shown how different sorts of actors invented the two terms, at different times, for somewhat different purposes and with different effects. Still, the comparative analysis has illustrated that the terms share basic characteristics that make them buzzwords. The media industry as well as researchers and politicians have a tendency to overestimate the pace of change in recent history. But whereas the term ‘buzzword’ bring forward a promise of something new, the use of buzzwords is really not: Industry buzzwords have existed for a long time, with more or less the same discursive functions.

Our analysis of buzzwords helps peek into taken-for-granted discursive paradigms enclosing our language about new technology and our perceptions of how technology can be used to serve our society. As this article has illustrated, both ‘telematics’ and ‘Web 2.0’ have been followed by a strong belief in growth and progress, yet, in ways that favours certain forms of growth and progress: While ‘telematics’ stresses the importance of interconnections, infrastructure and industrialisation, the term ‘Web 2.0’ has been linked to commoditization and commercialisation, masked in more acceptable terms such as creativity, connected individualism and collective intelligence. Both terms point ahead, but to a somewhat different future.

Finally, the historical comparison serves yet another purpose, sorely needed within the media and communication sector: The case of ‘telematics’ encourages us to take a step back and look at our use of buzzwords today. In 30 years, ‘Web 2.0’ will for the few be a quaint idea, a distant memory of a bygone era. For the majority, ‘Web 2.0’ will be long forgotten. In its place, new buzzwords will emerge. End of article


About the authors

Ole J. Mjøs is Associate Professor at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen, Norway. He specializes in the fields of international communication and global media. He is co-author (with Trine Syvertsen, Gunn Enli and Hallvard Moe) of The Media Welfare State: Nordic Media in the Digital Era (University of Michigan Press, 2014), and is the author of Music, Social Media and Global Mobility (Routledge, 2012) and Media Globalization and the Discovery Channel Networks (Routledge, 2010).
E-mail: ole [dot] mjos [at] infomedia [dot] uib [dot] no

Hallvard Moe is Professor of Media Studies at the Department of Information Science and Media Studies, University of Bergen, Norway. He is the co-author (with Trine Syvertsen, Gunn Enli and Ole J. Mjøs) of The Media Welfare State: Nordic Media in the Digital Era (University of Michigan Press, 2014) and is currently editing (with Hilde Van den Bulck) a collection of essays on the history of teletext in Europe.
E-mail: hallvard [dot] moe [at] infomedia [dot] uib [dot] no

Vilde Schanke Sundet is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Film and Television, Lillehammer University College, Norway. Her research interests include digitalization and media convergence, audience participation and television studies. She is the co-author (with Gunn Enli, Hallvard Moe and Trine Syvertsen) of TV — en innføring [TV — a introduction] (Universitetsforlaget, 2010), and has published several articles in journals like Media, Culture & Society, Convergence, Media History and Nordicom Review.
E-mail: vilde [dot] schanke [dot] sundet [at] hil [dot] no

The authors are listed alphabetically and have contributed equally to this article.



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Editorial history

Received 17 October 2013; revised 29 October 2014; accepted 6 November 2014.

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Dette verk er lisensieret under en Creative Commons Navngivelse-IkkeKommersiell-Ingen bearbeidelser 4.0 Internasjonal lisens.

The functions of buzzwords: A comparison of ‘Web 2.0’ and ‘telematics’
by Ole J. Mjøs, Hallvard Moe, and Vilde Schanke Sundet.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 12 - 1 December 2014

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