How our language got disrupted
As our use of words continues to change and evolve, it also serves as a guide to our changing values
Changing times infuse new importance into some words, while marginalizing or completely transforming others. “Platform” is a good example of this. The word used to refer primarily to — according to Merriam-Webster — ”a flat horizontal surface that is usually higher than the adjoining area.” Not anymore.
Now Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook (now Meta), are called “platforms.” They aren’t alone. Thousands of entrepreneurs have begun calling their companies “platforms.”
That’s right, “platforms” are in, and “companies” are out. It turns out that platforms often are companies that want to dress up — or erase — the perception that they are corporations. But the reality is that behind the vast majority of platforms is a for-profit company.
Many platforms make money by drastically altering the way we work — changing existing products, introducing new ones, or making others more efficient. Cellphones are an example of this type of “disruptive innovation” because they have drastically altered the communication industry and many other “adjacent spaces.” Of course, for every success of this magnitude, there are hundreds of thousands of platforms (based on some alleged or real disruptive innovation) that fail.
Another concept that has become very popular is “disruptive innovation.” This is a term found in just about any presentation that seeks to promote an investment, restructure an organization, adopt a new technology, lay off employees or launch a new product — which nowadays is no longer called that but rather commonly referred to as a “solution.” These solutions are preferably “green” and “sustainable” and operate within a “space” (formerly known as a “market”).
The success of companies that, through a “digital transformation,” seek to boost their competitiveness is commonly explained as the result of “organic” growth. This usually means increased sales or decreased costs that originate from efforts and initiatives that happen within the organization. All of this, of course, occurs thanks to the “team,” the group of people formerly known as “employees.” News about how things are going on the platform — both good and bad — are usually communicated on behalf of the “team.” In some organizations, the role of the team leader is no longer to command but to evangelize, educate, persuade and encourage the team so that its members are “aligned” with the platform.
In fact, there are business executives who have changed the name of their position to “Chief Evangelist.” According to indeed.com, an online company that seeks to connect job-seekers with employers, a Chief Evangelist is “an active ambassador of a business, product or service. They spread a positive message about a brand to advocate for others to use a service or buy a product… While customers can be decent brand evangelists, hiring someone to do the job full-time might bring in more sales. That is why it might be better for brands to hire evangelists that are dedicated to promoting their products.”
All these activities must “generate synergies,” “catalyze change” and “align” the size and culture of the organization to its mission and the financial realities of the platform. It should also foster the “resilience” of the platform and those who work on it. Resilience, of course, is the ability to recover from a misfortune and to adjust to the new situation. Some trees that survive strong gusts of wind are good examples of resilience. They bend, but they don’t break. For some time now, there has been a proliferation in use of resilience to refer to the ability of organizations and human beings to recover from negative events.
The new phraseology is strongly imbued with the cult of change. It follows, then, that the magnitude of change which inspires and justifies this plethora of new words must be unprecedented, or at least is promoted as such. We know, however, that unprecedented changes are rare. Rose Bertin, Queen Marie Antoinette’s seamstress, famously explained in the 1770s that: “There is nothing new except what has been forgotten.”
Our language continues to evolve, as it always has, and this serves to help people express new values with every phrase, sentence and paragraph. This, of course, is nothing new. But today we are seeing how our allergic reaction to authority and hierarchy leads us to hide power relations behind a series of euphemisms that obscure more than they illuminate. And it will continue to be so, until we are saved by some new disruptive platform in the language space, catalyzed by a resilient team that manages to achieve organic synergies!