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Unlocking communities with carefully chosen words

Photo courtesty of Ellie van Houtte via Flickr

Photo courtesty of Ellie van Houtte via Flickr

When you’re trying to win over a community, terminology matters. The words you use can make you seem to have a finger on the pulse of things, or they can identify you as an outsider. For example, bloggers who cover social media trends treat the word “viral” as a shibboleth; if you use it with a straight face when referring to popular blog posts and videos, you’re not “one of them”. Other times, words and phrases creep into the public discourse through news and advertising without much fanfare. Green collar. Interwebs. Drinkability. So Harper’s Magazine struck a chord last week when it declared war on the use of a word in the latter category: “content” in the context of media.

I did a quick check and found that out of the last 250 posts from the blogs in our blogroll, 67 posts, or nearly one third, discuss “content” in some way: how to monitor it, how to generate it, how to interact with it, how to get people to pay for it. Harper’s ran a full-page ad last week that declared “Everybody gives you ‘content.’ But you’ll never find that in Harper’s Magazine. Instead, you’ll get literature. Investigative reporting. Criticism. Photojournalism. Provocative adventures. Daring commentary…Subscribe today and join thoughtful, skeptical, witty people just like you who pay for culture, not content.”

“Content” is a useful word for generalizing about a great many formats of information. But it also relegates long-form journalism and insightful commentary to a category alongside photos of someone’s birthday party on Flickr. Harper’s has a point here; whether it gains steam on blogs, Twitter and elsewhere remains to be seen. But the larger point is this: if you’re trying to build relationships within a particular group of bloggers or commenters on the social Web, you’ll need to pay attention to the words they use. Otherwise you will have trouble generating, shall we say, viral content.

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