Almost overnight, it seems, the world has fallen head over heels for Slack.
“I am basically in love with Slack,” declares About.me founder Tony Conrad in a testimonial on Slack’s home page. “Slack, a messaging tool designed for team collaboration, is the working digital world’s latest paramour,” writes Scott Rosenberg in an admiring article published earlier this month on Medium (“Shut Down Your Office. You Now Work in Slack”). “Slack is the new favourite tool of newsrooms” reads a headline in Digiday, which calls itself “the authority on digital media.” In April, Slack’s co-founders won a Crunchie—one of the technology awards bestowed each year by TechCrunch—for founder of the year. Slack is also the investment world’s BFF: launched less than two years ago, it has only about 750,000 daily users—more than two-thirds of whom pay nothing for the service—but is worth $2.8 billion, according to Business Insider.
Chart via Business Insider(May 19, 2015), which is shaky on its spelling of Pinterest.
The numbers and accolades are impressive. But how does that name—Slack—stack up?
“Clickspittle: an unquestioningly loyal follower who obediently shares every trivial thought of their idol on social media.” Post-modern portmanteaus from The Age of Earthquakes: A Guide to the Extreme Present, excerpted in The Independent. (Via @Catchword)
“Most important, it stood for Internet. But it also stood for other valuable i things, like individual, imagination, i as in me, etc. It also did a pretty good job of laying a solid foundation for future product naming.” A knowledgeable Quora answer to the question “What is the history of the i prefix in Apple product names?”(Via @AlanBrew)
“Around the time of the birth of OK, there was a fad for komical Ks instead of Cs on the pages of newspapers … including from 1839: ‘The gentleman to the left of the speaker, in klaret kolored koat with krimson kollar, is Mr. Klay, member of Kongress from Kentucky’.”Allan Metcalf, author of OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word, marks the 176th anniversary of “OK” with a post about the word’s “konspicuous, kurious, komical” … uh, kwalities. (Read my 2010 post about “OK.”)
What do we lose when dictionaries delete words like bluebell, catkin, lark, and mistletoe to make room for blog, broadband, MP3 player, and chatroom? British nature writer Robert Macfarlane—most recently the author of Landmarks—writes in The Guardian about “the importance of preserving and plenishing a diverse language for landscape.” His essay includes some beautiful, obscure words like ammil, “a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs, and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter.” Plenishing is pretty wonderful, too. (Via @StanCarey)
The Gyges effect takes its name from a story related in Plato’s Republic about the Ring of Gyges, which bestowed the power of invisibility on the wearer. Gyges was a historical king of Lydia, but the story centers on a mythical shepherd said to be Gyges’ ancestor; in the tale, the shepherd uses the cloak of invisibility to seduce the queen, murder the king, and seize the throne. In recounting the tale, Plato’s brother Glaucon asks “whether any man can be so virtuous that he could resist the temptation of being able to perform any act without being known or discovered,” and concludes that morality is a social construct.
The Ring of Gyges has taken on metaphorical significance in the Internet era. In an opinion piece about “the epidemic of facelessness” published in the New York Times on February 15, 2015, Stephen Marche writes about “the faceless communication social media creates, the linked distances between people, both provokes and mitigates the inherent capacity for monstrosity”:
The Gyges effect, the well-noted disinhibition created by communications over the distances of the Internet, in which all speech and image are muted and at arm’s reach, produces an inevitable reaction — the desire for impact at any cost, the desire to reach through the screen, to make somebody feel something, anything.
Telematics: The science and technology of sending, receiving, and processing information via telecommunications.
Telematics is not a new word: it was borrowed from the French télématique, which was coined in 1978 by the authors of a report on “the computerization of society.” (That report was largely responsible for the national launch in 1982 of Minitel, France’s pioneering network of computers that at its apex was installed in 9 million homes. Supplanted by the Internet, Minitel was finally shut down in 2012.) The OED’s earliest citation for telematics in English is from an October 1979 article in The Economist, where telematics was called “the new vogue word for the high-growth industries of telecommunications, computers, microchips and databanks.”
In recent years, telematics has taken on a specific new meaning. That new definition is the subject of “The Spy Who Fired Me,” a report by Esther Kaplan in the March 2015 Harper’s. (The article is behind a subscriber paywall.)
Kaplan writes that she became interested in “the data-driven workforce” when she began noticing that UPS deliveries “never arrived” at the Brooklyn apartment she’d recently moved to. Instead, she’d get attempted-delivery notes—even when she was at home. “Then,” she writes, “I learned about UPS’s use of something called telematics”:
Telematics is a neologism coined from two other neologisms — telecommunications and informatics — to describe technologies that wirelessly transmit data from remote sensors and GPS devices to computers for analysis. The telematics system that now governs the working life of a driver for UPS includes handheld DIADs, or delivery-information acquisition devices, as well as more than 200 sensors on each delivery truck that track everything from backup speeds to stop times to seat-belt use.
One New York City UPS driver Kaplan interviewed makes 110 stops and delivers 400 packages in a typical shift, which can last more than 12 hours. The Teamsters (“North America’s strongest union”), which represents UPS employees, won contract language preventing drivers from being fired based on their telematics reports, but, Kaplan writes, “supervisors have found workarounds, and telematics-related firings have become routine.”
UPS is far from an outlier: McDonald’s, Stop & Shop, Gap, Starbucks, and Uniqlo are among the many companies that are governing their employees’ lives by the rule of telematics, and Kaplan writes that telematics “is expected to become a $30 billion industry by 2013.” Typically, at a telematics-driven restaurant, “[a] point-of-sale (P.O.S.) system connected to the cash register captures the length of time between the end of the last customer’s transaction and the beginning of yours, how quickly the cashier rings up your order, and whether she has sold you on the new Jalapeño Double. … This data is being tracked at the employee level: some chains even post scan rates like scorecards in the break room; others have a cap on how many mistakes an employee can make before he or she is put on probation.”
One result of this relentless tracking is “to keep staffing as lean as possible, to treat employees as temporary and replaceable, and to schedule them exactly and only when needed.” At one chain, Abercrombie & Fitch, “employees started receiving entire schedules composed of on-call shifts that never materialized. … Employees were slowly being turned into day laborers. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported that the number of retail employees involuntarily working part-time more than doubled between 2006 and 2010, from 644,000 to 1.6 million.”
Telematics appears in 34 live marks in the U.S. trademark database, all of which were registered in the last decade. Many, such as Octo Telematics and Mix Telematics, are for vehicle tracking (or “providing information about driver behavior to third parties”) devices and services; at least one, Kore Telematics, sells a full range of monitoring systems “for use in vehicle location and tracking, point of sale and vending, asset tracking, personal security, healthcare, energy management, environmental services, and industrial monitoring.” And phone companies are getting in on the action, too: Verizon’s Networkfleet divisionsells “fleet management solutions” that drive “more efficient ways of working.”
My January column for the Visual Thesaurus looks at how smart came to be attached to so many inanimate objects, from phones to skin lotion, from bombs to highways, from quotation marks to fabric. Along the way, I consider the multiple senses of this very old word, which can mean “stylish,” “cheeky,” or “to cause pain,” as well as “witty” or “intelligent.”
No subscription needed to view the column this month (not always the case!). Here’s a taste:
The sense of smart = shrewd extends to the slangy smart-ass, which first appeared in print in 1951 in an American detective novel. (OED on smart-ass: “orig. and chiefly U.S.; characterized by an overly clever or smug display of intelligence or [esp. professional] knowledge.”) The term’s mild vulgarity might seem to preclude its incorporation into branding and advertising, but that’s not the case at all.
Blog extra: A smart gun is one that uses biometrics to recognize its user. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about one such gun for the January 18, 2015, Sunday Review:
Doesn’t it seem odd that your cellphone can be set up to require a PIN or a fingerprint, but there’s no such option for a gun?
Which brings us to Kai Kloepfer, a lanky 17-year-old high school senior in Boulder, Colo. After the cinema shooting in nearby Aurora, Kloepfer decided that for a science fair project he would engineer a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user.
“I started with iris recognition, and that seemed a good idea until you realize that many people firing guns wear sunglasses,” Kloepfer recalls. “So I moved on to fingerprints.”
Smart guns are “smart” in at least two senses of the word: clever and connected. And yet, Kristof writes, “The National Rifle Association seems set against smart guns, apparently fearing that they might become mandatory.”
Two years ago, the American Dialect Society selected hashtag as its word of the year for 2012. Last week, for its 2014 word of the year, the ADS chose an actual hashtag, #blacklivesmatter, the slogan that—as the press releaseput it—“took on special significance in 2014 after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in Staten Island, N.Y., and the failure of grand juries to indict police officers in both cases.” It was the first time in the contest’s 25 that a hashtag had been selected for the distinction. The vote at the Hilton in Portland, Oregon, was nearly unanimous, but the response has been anything but. (“It’s not a word” and “It’s too political” were two of the negative reactions.) Read Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS New Words Committee, on the WOTY selection (and on other words discussed at the meeting). For supporting viewpoints, see Anne Curzan’s post on the Lingua Franca blog(“The linguistic work of hashtags is especially interesting”) and linguist/librarian Lauren B. Collister’s post on her own blog(“a pretty historic moment for the field of linguistics for a number of reasons”). For a dissenting view, see Schnaufblog: “Call me old school -- I like the idea of a word as a combination of form (sound, gesture, writing) and meaning (lexical or grammatical) that can combine with other words according to the rules of grammar to form a clause.”
Sad Internet: “A place full of unwatched videos, unliked photographs, unheard music, tweets that no one cared about, and crowdfunding projects that nobody backed.” – Rob Walker.
In an article for Yahoo! Tech published last week, Rob Walker takes a mournful look at websites that fit neither of the Internet’s dominant tropes: Happy (“delightful and hilarious memes and GIFs and videos made by GoPro-wearing puppies”) and Angry (“nasty troll attacks, flame wars, and outrage galore”). “Some manifestations of the Sad Internet,” Walker writes, “make a mockery of the pervasive cliché of the magical technology that connects us all, builds community, and generally permits the ‘crowd’ to find and reward the wonderful.”
Among those manifestations (with my naming notes):
Forgotify:Walker writes that this site “plumbs Spotify’s unheard depths to present you with a random m selection from the zero-listen archives.” The -ify name, overplayed as it is, seems perfectly ironic here. And I appreciate the rhyme with Spotify.
No Likes Yet: “All the photos on Instagram with no likes yet.” I agree with Walker about the agreeable “note of optimism, or at least yearning” in that Yet. But the name suffers a little for not riffing more directly on Instagram. (Instagrump? Un-stagram? Disinstergram?)
Sad Tweets: “Connect the application to your Twitter account, and it presents you with a lowlights reel of your attempts at ‘sharing’ that attracted no likes, and no retweets.” Another brutally descriptive name, which probably is as it should be.
Kickended: What happens to Kickstarter crowdfunding campaigns that don’t raise a single dime? Kickended happens. Walker: “It’s a useful, albeit bleak, reality check. Yes, the Internet makes magic and wondrous and unprecedented things occur. But only sometimes, and not for everyone.” The name falls short of its goal, too: Kicked to the Curb is more to the point.
“There seems to be no leading candidate for Word (or Phrase) of the Year,” writes Allan Metcalf, executive director of the American Dialect Society, in the Lingua Franca blog. That lack, he maintains, “will make discussion and voting more lively” at the ADS’s annual meeting in Portland next month. No question that the discussion will be lively—it always is—but I beg to differ about “no leading candidate.” It may not be as controversial as the 2013 selection, because, or as social-media-friendly as 2012’s hashtag, but it’s still the clear front-runner.
My submissions to the ADS vote, to be held January 9: