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These Aren’t The Words You’re Looking For

picture of vezzinni and inigo montoya with captionIn one of my all-time favorite movies (especially for enduring quotes) The Princess Bride, Inigo Montoya turns to Vezzini after hearing him say “Inconceivable!” one too many times and says rather earnestly: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

One of the problems when you’re in the business of communication is that words are kind of slippery.  One day you’re happily using a word the same way you’ve used it for 20 years when along comes someone and uses it in a way that is not at all the same way you and pretty much everyone you know has been using it and the next thing you know, the new definition has caught on with a bunch of people.

The biggest problem with this happening isn’t that the definition changes – it’s that it stays the same some of the time but not all of the time. And it can get pretty confusing when you run up against someone who really doesn’t seem to care if his or her usage fits the word’s meanings any of the time at all.

Is there a way to tell if someone is using the old version, the new one, or the utterly wrong one?

In theory, it can usually be determined by context.  Say, for example, the phrase ‘social media’ (because it’s such a good example.) If I said “we use social media to transmit our message on the Internet and to hear back other peoples’ replies,” and Bob said “we’re hiring a Social Media Expert to figure out our strategy,” and Susie said “we need to get some of this social media to put on the Twitter and Facebook accounts.”  You could pretty easily tell that I was using an older definition, Bob was using one that has become common acceptance, and Susie is not someone you should ever let near the Internet.

But what if the context is used to hide the meaning so that you will mistake one for another?

See, that’s what prompted this post.  I read something that made me realize that a word had been co-opted to mean something else, and then had been put into paragraphs that contained sentences with the original meaning in such a way that it was easy to confuse the two.  I’m not sure if it was intentional – but it sure is messy.

My always-worth-reading friend Geoff Livingston (seriously, he’s always worth reading, even when you don’t want to like what he says) had posted to his Facebook wall the pie chart to the left accompanying the text:

56% Of Content Shared Online Occurs Via Facebook

More than half of all content shared on the web occurs via Facebook.

So like the half-sleepy, ready-to-be-impressed audience member I was. I saw it, used the “share link” to put it on my own Facebook
wall and into the newstreams of my friends with a pithy remark.

Only then I realized that if you look closely, there’s just no way that any of those numbers add up to 56%.  38, 34, 17, 17… even if you’re a C student in math, those don’t ever add up to 56%.  (*Edit: apparently TechCrunch readers are not easily fooled – they added up the 106% and commented – this brought an updated chart from Comscore 18 hours after this entry was initially posted.)

Rats. Suckered by a Pretty Pie Chart & an impressive sounding statistic!

larger more informative pie chartI looked more closely. I clicked through the link that promised me such interesting math! All the while thinking with my critical voice now “Wait a minute… half of all content shared on the web occurs via Facebook. That sentence doesn’t just have grammar issues, it’s also impossible. Facebook isn’t in China and they share enough content over there to make a significant dent in that figure.  What are we defining as “the Web” now anyways? And does the sharing occur on Facebook, or does the shared content reside/occur on Facebook? By thus time I was clicking through to yet another link to ‘read more’ and I had a new chart with more info (seen far right).

Now suddenly there was an added metric at the bottom “Sharing is 31% of site referral traffic!“  and a mystifying headline about “Clicking on Links by Sharing Channel“. There was also a slew of incomprehensible text that sounded like it should be good, until you tried to make sense out of it instead of just basking in the numbers.

Facebook clearly dominates in the sharing category, accounting for 38 percent of all sharing referral traffic (the next closest are email and Twitter, tied at 17 percent each.)  And that’s just the percent of folks who click through.

When examining the raw numbers (links shared but not clicked on), the figure is even higher. In that case, Facebook accounts for a whopping 56 percent of all shared content on the Web, up 11 points from August, 2010. - via

Well, at lest now I know where the 56% in the headline came from. But I’m even more lost. Because someone clearly has taken the words “share” and “sharing” and has given them alternate meanings. If 38% if all sharing referral traffic comes from Facebook, how does that number go up if you take out the links “shared” but not clicked on?

By share here, do we mean “displayed”? or do we mean something else – because if we’re using share like “display” then the first sentence is whacko “38% of all displayed referral traffic” doesn’t make sense.  But if we remove the folks who click through? Then apparently those Facebook people have shared even more. (Which really makes no sense now, does it?) What metric makes “posts links about but that only about 1/2 of the people follow” makes the 56% metric meaningful in any way?

I had to get out of that mad logic loop!

The only place to go was to the source!  There was something about a TechCrunch article at the bottom there.  I went off to TechCrunch to save my sanity! ShareThis Study: Facebook Accounts For 38 Percent Of Sharing Traffic On The Web.  Well, at least they got the 38% right, so th is must be better, no?

No. Not really.

Looking across the sharing and clicking habits of the more than 300 million people a month who pass links with a ShareThis button on over a million websites (producing 7 billion pageviews a month), a few things stood out.
It’s starting to come clear, isn’t it? See when we read “56% of Content Shared Online Occurs Via Facebook” – well I don’t know about you, but I didn’t think “by shared they mean by clicking the ‘ShareThis’ button.” Did you? Because the word share already had a meaning in my book. If I share content, I’m giving you access to it.  I’m posting it on a website.  I may even be broadcasting it’s location out on Twitter or emailing you my link – but those different methodologies are all ways of “sharing” to me.
If you go visit our friends at the study – I’m afraid you’ll walk away even more confused. They seem to have a hidden definition of “social sharing” that doesn’t gibe either.
Sharing is bigger than fans, friends and followers. Sharing generates almost half of the traffic for websites and brands that is created by search — 10 percent of website visits come from sharing. Sharing also accounts for 31 percent of referral traffic.
If you can tell me who you are sharing with that isn’t search engines (disquallified above) fans, friends, or followers? Then I’m sure we’d be a step closer to this making sense. Maybe we do all of this sharing with our families? Or random strangers who are apparently wandering around on the internet devoid of anything to read until they find it?  Okay, let me run this again: sharing generates almost half the traffic for websites and brands that is created by search. So, search traffic is 2x sharing. And 10% of website visits come from sharing. So, visits come from 10% sharing & 20% search engines. Sharing also accounts for 31 percent of referral traffic. Um… so is that 31% more than the 10% we just said came from sharing? Now you’ve lost me again.
I just can’t do it anymore.  The truth is that you’ve got a lovely pie chart, some meaningless statistics that totally don’t add up, and a pretty picture that tells absolutely nothing except that the guys doing the “study” – have decided that the usual terms of “sharing” don’t apply – but they aren’t going to tell you what they really want to tell you.  Not once in these sites does someone outline “social sharing means posting a link” or “social sharing requires using a sharethis button” or “social sharing isn’t the only type of sharing.”
Look, it’s just a great, frustrating, complex example.
Never assume that someone isn’t trying to co-opt a perfectly good word to try and own it and make it mean something else. We work in an industry where even our acronyms get highjacked in nonsensical ways (don’t get me started on why ROI can not be devolved into ROR as they are not the same concept in the least.)  You’ve got to watch your words.  But more than that? You’ve got to watch the *other guys* words.
So have you heard any of these fun words this week? What word do you want returned to its original meaning? What word(s) have you hijacked yourself?

Edit 5/16/11: some links seem to have wandered away from other posts when the pie charts were updated. Fortunately, I had already posted them here in this comment, with a note about the fun math – 1000 ‘top sites’ that use their widget, which represent 10% of all Internet traffic is *not* representative.  Posting the comment in its entirety here, lest that wanders away as well.
Or not.…
“The study focuses on ShareThis’ database of sharing activity for the month of March 2011 and includes a detailed analysis of more than 7 billion sharing signals across all major sharing channels, specifically looking at the sharing patterns of more than 300 million monthly users across the top 1,000 publisher websites of ShareThis.”…
Even TechCrunch’s article gets it right “Overall, sharing now produces an estimated 10 percent of all Internet traffic and 31 percent of referral traffic to sites from search and social. Search is still about twice as big.”
To put a nuance to it “shared on the web” is not the same as “posted somewhere else by using a ShareThis widget.” 56% of data reposted using a Sharethis button which only accounts for about 10% of internet traffic – that’s the line you’re looking for.

Posted in analysis, Marketing, puzzling, site, Social Behavior, Uncategorized.

  • Nathan Gilliatt

    I want people to develop some minimal awareness that, when they put “social” in front of a word to coin a new buzzword, they may be taking a term that was already in use. Social intelligence, social maturity–quick, is that a social media discussion or a parent-teacher conference?

    • Lucretia

      Oh! Now that is something I can totally get behind! The word “social” has started to have one of those ‘rather meaningless and sounds funny if you say it too many times’ qualities to it – but you are dead on when you say “it may already have a widespread definition that has nothing to do with social media.”
      Thanks for that input! I could go on with that for awhile.

  • Sean McGinnis

    One of my favorite recent reads is a book called “Proofiness” that details how we are all fooled by statistics and data. Loved every page of it. Highly recommended. 

    Oh, and I join you in your healthy skepticism. What’s even worse is when this type of subterfuge is deliberate and not just done out of misinterpretation or ignorance….  :)

    • Lucretia

      “Proofiness” is now on my amazon wishlist – it just sounds like a word you expect Stephen Colbert to say, isn’t it?
      I’m always minded of the “4 out of 5 dentists whose patients chew gum recommend sugarless gum” Trident example.
      In July 1976 the folks who make Trident gum commissioned a study of 1,200 dentists who were supposed to represent a cross-section of their profession. The dentists were asked what they recommended to their gum-chewing patients: “sugared gum, sugarless gum, or no gum at all.”
      80% said sugarless, 15% said no gum, and apparently 5% said sugared gum. No joke. 60 of those people said “sugared gum”. That’s pretty huge all things considered.

  • spool32

    I would like to see “random” returned to its original meaning, rather than acting as a stand-in for “odd and unexpected”. 

    • Lucretia

      Ooh – you know, I’m not sure that I know the original meaning! I’m also fairly sure I’m probably guilty of misusing it!
      Which really disturbs me. I suspect I learned it via cultural usage and never got the real meaning.
      Sadly, the dictionary definitions seem to reflect the stand-in definition now. So I’m not even sure what the origin is.

    • JessicaGottlieb

      Oh, I thought “random” means “Mom, you’re so dumb stop embarrassing me.” Because usually my kids have one hip out and their eyes pointed toward heaven when they say it. 

  • Jeannie Walters

    Magic math! I love it. Many people like to repeat, repeat, repeat without actually understanding the words or numbers they’ve just read. Way to pull the curtain back! Great read.

    • Lucretia

      I have to admit that I’m just as guilty of passing along the impressive numbers myself without engaging my skeptic brain.
      I really think that sometimes we *want* numbers that back up our own beliefs that it’s easy to ignore how easily manipulated they are. :\

  • Complicated Mama

    Not sure what hurt my head more the math or the various definitions of sharing.

    For the record, the term “ROR” irks me. “Return on relationships” just makes social media sound completely slimy and car salesmen-y to me…. but- maybe thats just me.

  • Robert Visser

    Spoken vernacular to further a character’s development or the occasional quip such as, “are you coming with” aside, words for which I’m looking rarely include dangling prepositions.

    • Lucretia

      Ha! That’s actually a good policy. Fairly sure that most people catch the Princess Bride reference, but the Star Wars reference in the title is a little harder to catch and I probably should’ve eschewed it. But it stuck me as funny when I was writing this. Another argument against trying to be witty in the headline.

  • Jay Andrew Allen

    Ahhhh – so the upshot is that 38% of content shared *using ShareThis* is shared to Facebook, right? A different kettle of fish entirely!

    • Lucretia

      Yes! Said concisely and clearly, thank you!