The “About Us” hoax

by Ellada Evangelou

Working in the field of social innovation, when you come from a language background, has a small twist: you ask “what’s in a name” a lot more than the average person. You reflect on words, you want them to do justice to the work, the often amazing work of social innovators. 

As we continue to mentor the winning teams of Mahallae Challenges on innovation, the use of language has kept me thinking about a few things.

There’s a classic line that the Eskimos have sixty, seventy, one hundred and five different words for snow, depending on whose account you read. It’s the kind of claim that tells us the use of language is intrinsically related –defined even- by the world we live in.

The hypothesis, however, is based on a practice that is the death of accuracy: generalizations. For the hypothesis to work, Eskimos are any peoples living in a cold country and wearing fur (who are not rappers), and “word for snow” is defined as any word associated with the qualities of snow, ice and how those substances behave in nature. It’s not surprising, then, that after further research, the hypothesis has been overturned, termed the “Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax”, with the Pullman article coining the term became compulsory reading for my Sociolinguistics 101 class.

This myth-buster moment, beyond the momentary disappointment that every myth busting entails, opened new possibilities. That as humans, we actually observe the world a lot more carefully than the hypothesis assumed. What we see around us is not merely snow (aka white stuff falling from the sky), but we see the color, the texture, the consistency, the rhythm of snow: the language we use is, in fact, custom-tailored for our world.

The new world that is the World Wide Web has its own snow. In the small habitats that are websites, the effort to become descriptive of their functions, and possibilities is constant. Categories and names are created and established, the internet lingua franca (English) is constantly stretched to serve newness.

inuit-village-greenlandBut it seems we are trapped in yet another hoax, which in turn creates a monotone linguistic environment for websites. Take the classic “About Us”. It’s used to signify that if you click here, you will find information “about the people behind the site”. This constitutes a generic message, which prepares the user for specific information, while at the same time trapping the creative team behind the site in the information it’s supposed to be delivering. The descriptive potential of the naming process is numbed, the special features of each creative team underplayed for the benefit of homogeneity that is created by… well… a need to call everything snow.

Embrace sludge, freezing rain, new-fallen snow, yellow snow, glare ice, purple wax snow, snowflakes, blizzards, avalanches, ice crystal, even a type of snow that only you have noticed.

Think beyond snow.

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