Jargon is a tricky thing. I come from academia with a doctorate in rhetoric specializing in postmodern, French, and German philosophy — which is just to say I know of jargon, both its pleasures and pains. I’ve also been developing brand strategies for tech companies over the last 21 years and all tech is mired in its special dialects.
On the one hand, it’s easy to poo poo jargon as somehow unnecessary — all those wacky words and phrases seem at best, silly, at worst, exclusionary. On the other hand, jargon is not only efficient for those within the community, it can be necessary and, yes, beautiful as new ideas reach for new modes of expression. The trick is to know your audience, know your goals, then find that proverbial sweet spot in which new worlds are forged while the old world is invited to play along.
The blockchain-crypto-decentralized world is certainly no exception. As anyone who’s tried sticking their toes into this world knows, the crypto world is overrun with an absurd amount of esoteric jargon. This creates an insular, exclusive community of people in-the know, those versed in dApps and DAOs; hashes, forks (hard and soft), and gas; of ledgers, fungibility, and keys both public and private; different kinds of stakes, tokens, and platforms; and that is only the beginning.
The overuse of such words creates a moat around this community, each person trying to up the ante with more plentiful use of arcane words. Meanwhile, everyone else — the overwhelming majority of the world — is left out. When there are so many words you don’t understand all at at once, you’re neither intrigued nor educated. You’re simply turned off as you walk away believing this obviously isn’t for you and, understandably, you never give it a second thought. Which is, well, ineffective branding.
And it runs contrary to the interests of decentralization. One of the main tenets of crypto is inclusiveness, banking the unbanked, creating an economy that is open to everyone everywhere. Even if you’re not aligned with that mission and, say, are more interested in crypto as a get-rich asset, it behooves you to cast a wider net to create greater demand and hence greater value. In either case, overuse of jargon works against your best interests. It keeps the crypto world insular when it’s a world that quite literally needs adoption in order to thrive.
Jargon is seductive, however, as it gives the user a sense of superiority. Indeed, jargon is an easy, quick way to distinguish yourself as being more in-the-know while making others feel inadequate. But, in the long run, this works against you as you’re left alone with tokens and dApps no one wants because no one understands, or cares, what they heck they are.
Of course, sometimes you want to use jargon because you’re speaking to a particular audience. Not every app, service, and feature needs to be explainable to everyone. Some tools are made for a very small audience in which case using jargon efficiently calls out to them Hey, we’re talking to you!
But jargon serves an even more essential function. New ideas need new modes of expression. Language, after all, isn’t static. It’s constantly evolving with us, with the world, with the things we do. There is no such thing as a language, a singular set of words and rules. There are only languages, dialects, inflections, as different communities operate with language and life differently. (To lend you some jargon, the philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, refer to these as minor languages.)
Decentralization and cryptocurrency radically recast the financial and technological landscape. They are new modes of operation and hence need new words and phrases — a new language within the common language (a minor language). How else can you talk about the blockchain other than with distributed ledgers?
I have to say, I love the way words we all know but rarely use get taken up by this new mode of operation and its lingo. Ledger! It makes me think of a mob bookkeeper from the 1920s. There’s something so beautiful about it taking on a whole new life in this futuristic universe. (Yes, I realize database architects and accountants have long used this word. But in common parlance, it is anachronistic.)
And then there is my favorite term — trustless. It shouldn’t be so odd. After all, trust is a word we regularly use. But that less inflects it in a such a surprising way that, when I first heard it (from Anatha’s CEO, Edward Hickman) it stopped me in my tracks and had me furrowing my brow. Like most people I assume, I at first thought: Who wants to be without trust?? That doesn’t seem like a good thing at all.
And then the wheels of cogitation began to spin. It’s without the need for trust! It’s post trust. Or perhaps a-trust (as in amoral, being without morals, which is quite different than immoral). But both of those phrases are ugly. Trustless flows off the tongue and winds around the mind in an exquisite, poetic way. The mere process of understanding this word is in and of itself a pedagogy as I learned about the role of trust and intermediaries in financial systems — just by coming to understand the use of the word trustless!
Trustless flows off the tongue and winds around the mind in an exquisite, poetic way.
Of course, over time, what was once jargon becomes vernacular. Who thought email would be an everyday word flowing from the mouths of grandmothers, toddlers, and developers alike? Meanwhile, some jargon will remain arcane but hopefully in the background, there for those who need to understand the fine distinctions between kinds of forks or consensus. For most people, such things will fade into the background.
Jargon, alas, offers its pleasures and its pain, its necessity and its nuisance. When used poorly, it can isolate this emerging economy, slow its adoption, hinder its growth. But wielded well, it can invite the world to think, and do, differently.