Friday, July 3, 2009

The maniacal use of “comfortable”

In several posts I have discussed the abuse of certain fad words; for example, issues and drive. For various reasons, many writers have developed a maniacal attachment to these words. They abuse these words egregiously, most often for purposes of obfuscation.

Today I want to discuss the abuse of comfortable. This abuse has continued and increased for years. The abuse became a controversy in the social-media world this week, when TechCrunch published an article titled, “Twitter Grows ‘Uncomfortable’ With The Use Of The Word Tweet In Applications.” The article quoted a statement from an unnamed employee at Twitter:

“ ‘Hi,

Twitter, Inc is uncomfortable with the use of the word Tweet (our trademark) and the similarity in your UI and our own. How can we go about having you change your UI to better differentiate your offering from our own?

Thanks,’ ”

TechCrunch asked Twitter management for clarification and received a response from Biz Stone, a co-founder of Twitter:

“ ‘The ecosystem growing around Twitter is something we very much believe in nourishing and supporting. As part of this support, we encourage developers of new applications and services built using Twitter APIs to invent original branding for their projects rather than use our marks, logos, or look and feel. This approach leaves room for applications to evolve as they grow and it avoids potential confusion down the line.

As we build our platform team, we will be adding more guidelines and best practices to help developers get the most out of our growing set of open APIs. We have healthy relationships with existing developers who sometimes include Twitter logos, marks, or look and feel in their applications and services. We’ll continue to work together in a fair and flexible way to ensure success for Twitter, developers, and everyone who uses these services.’ ”

TechCrunch commented: “It’s a rather vague statement that doesn’t really make it clear whether the use of the word ‘tweet’ is now frowned upon or not.”

I comment further, on the unnamed employee’s reference to the policy and on Mr. Stone’s statement of the policy:

The reference to the policy

When an employee uses a vague word while referring to a company policy, the reader or hearer cannot know for certain whether the employee is (1) uninformed; (2) semiliterate; (3) literate but careless; (4) literate and usually careful, but careless while making the reference; (5) literate and careful, and signaling (consciously or unconsciously) that the policy itself is vague.

The statement of the policy

The vagueness of Mr. Stone’s statement indicates that the unnamed employee’s use of uncomfortable was probably an example of (5). That is to say, Mr. Stone’s statement demonstrates that the policy is vague; therefore the unnamed employee probably was revealing the vagueness of the policy.

The Takeaway: Don’t abuse the fad word comfortable. Write like a grown-up; say what you mean and mean what you say. If a policy is vague, don’t discuss it publicly. If pressed, say that your company has not yet clarified the policy enough for public discussion. And always assume that anything you write about your company could be demanded in a subpoena someday; to assume otherwise is childish. For a good example of a grown-up statement of policy, take a look at this page of the Sun Microsystems web site. Yes, it’s tedious, but many grown-up things are.

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