On Language

The Age of Undoing

Joakim Jansson

Published: September 15, 2009

“What’s done cannot be undone,” moaned Lady Macbeth in her famous sleepwalking scene. If she woke up in the 21st century, she would be pleased to discover that whatever can be done can be undone, too.

Or perhaps it just seems that way in the new social spaces we are carving for ourselves online. On popular Web sites devoted to social networking, innovative verbs have been springing up to describe equally innovative forms of interaction: you can friend someone on Facebook; follow a fellow user on Twitter; or favorite a video on YouTube. Change your mind? You can just as easily unfriend, unfollow or unfavorite with a click of the mouse.

The recent un- trend has also seeped into the world of advertising. KFC is marketing its new Kentucky Grilled Chicken with the tagline “UNthink: Taste the UNfried Side of KFC.” The cellphone company MetroPCS challenges you to “Unlimit Yourself,” while its competitor Boost Mobile wants you to get “UNoverage’D” and “UNcontract’D” (ridding yourself of burdensome overage fees and contracts). Even victims of the financial downturn can seek solace in un-: ABC broadcast a special report in May telling viewers how to get “Un-Broke.”

Where did all of this un- activity come from? Ever since Old English, the un- prefix has come in two basic flavors. It can be used like the word “not” to negate adjectives (unkind, uncertain, unfair) and the occasional noun (unreason, unrest, unemployment). Or it can attach to a verb to indicate the reversal of an action (unbend, unfasten, unmask). Both kinds of un- are ripe for creating new words. The negative variety of the prefix has been particularly fertile for spinning off nouns, at least since 7-Up first branded itself as the “Un-Cola” in the late 1960s. In the business world we now find unconferences and unmarketing, predicated on the notion that we need to rethink traditional models of conferences and marketing. And beware of unnovation, the opposite of innovation.

But it’s the reversible un- that has really been getting a workout lately, even more so than its semantic sibling de- (as in declutter or defragment). Our expectations that any action can be taken back have been primed by a few decades of personal computing, which injected the founding metaphor of “undoing” into the common consciousness. An early glimmer of our Age of Undoing appeared in a prescient 1976 research report by Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas of I.B.M., drably titled “Behavioral Issues in the Use of Interactive Systems.” “It would be quite useful,” Miller and Thomas observe, “to permit users to ‘take back’ at least the immediately preceding command (by issuing some special ‘undo’ command).” Useful indeed!

The undo command would become a crucial feature of text editors and word processors in the PC era, assigned the now-familiar keyboard shortcut of Control-Z by programmers at the research center Xerox PARC. In the software of the ’80s, some undo commands became “multi­level,” allowing users to take back a whole series of actions (called the undo
stack), not just the most recent one. Ad-hoc un- verbs began to emerge for these reversible innovations. In 1984, the software company NewStar introduced the unerase command for its word-processing program NewWord, while I.B.M.’s VisiWord countered with undelete. From there it was a quick step to unbolding, unitalicizing and even un-underlining your errantly formatted text.

The Yale University linguist Laurence R. Horn sees an earlier technological metaphor at work in the flurry of un- verbs. As Horn writes in “Uncovering the Un-Word,” a paper in the journal Sophia Linguistica: “The prevailing sense is that for something to unhappen, the tape of reality must be set to Rewind. That this is a practical impossibility . . . does not make the metaphor any the less attractive.”

Rewinding the tape of reality is an appealing metaphor in science fiction, unsurprisingly. Nancy Etchemendy’s young-adult novel, “The Power of Un,” features a middle-school student who operates a gizmo called “The Unner” to go back in time and undo past events.

Songwriters have also made poetic use of the un- prefix to imagine the reversal of irreversible things, notably falling in and out of love. It’s a useful lyrical trick in such genres as folk rock (Lucinda Williams’s “Unsuffer Me”), R & B (Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart”) and country (Lynn Anderson’s “How Can I Unlove You?”). But as Horn points out, imaginary unloving has been going on for centuries in English literature, from Chaucer to Brontë: Jane Eyre confides, “I had learned to love Mr. Rochester; I could not unlove him now.”

What sets latter-day un- verbs apart from these historical examples is that the “reality rewind” is no longer a flight of counterfactual fancy: it’s built right into the interfaces that we use to make sense of our shared virtual worlds.

Facebook, for instance, allows you to register approval for a posted message in a very concrete way, by clicking a thumbs-up like button. Toggling off the button results in unliking your previously liked item. Note that this is different from disliking something, since unliking simply returns you to a neutral state. This kind of instant reversibility is now an inescapable facet of our digitized life — like it or un-.

Ben Zimmer is executive producer of visualthesaurus.com, an online destination for word lovers. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. William Safire is on hiatus for a few weeks.

A beautiful article about language trends and un in the digital world.

Technology will not replace talent

Social media flattens the playing field for brand engagement in many ways however,technology can never replace talent.

The technology is the new shop window, technology is the new brochure, technology may give opportunity to all but….

….talent will differentiate the winners from the losers.

(And not the technology)

It seems everyone has a different take on where the digital revolution will take us. Here’s another opinion to add to what I’ve recently read from Andrew Keen, Nicholas Carr, and others who have gotten me thinking about the future.

Why Free Creates Long Term Value

The concept of FREE on the web is one which seems to put fear into people…I don’t know why because I believe ‘free actually is the seed for long term profitable growth‘. Free creates the commodity from which premium products can flower from…

Free is a mechanism which has moved the web to the masses….if we had paid for Twitter, Facebook, File Sharing, Skype to Skype etc then the online market would not be as large as it is now. Free for me is about creating the market place.

So free is good news….it is good news for me as I get a huge benefit from all the free services and it also allows me to attract customers, consumers, contact, business relationships….at a cost of time rather than money.


I love free because people follow the crowd then get sick of being one of the crowd!

It always fascinates me how despite being the same species, we have this inner urge to be different or to personalize our lives. But this desire means that when the mass has occurred, when the crowd has formed….the brightest brands then create value by individualizing the experience, the service, by allowing people to personalize their piece of the web.

I say don’t fear free…see free as creating the commodity from which you can build the value model. See free as attracting the market and creating the desire for the premium model.

Yet another take on Free, and this one agrees with Chris Anderson.

The Post iPhone World

by Robert Scoble on September 19, 2009

One fun thing I like asking representatives from Nokia, Microsoft, or Research in Motion is “what does the post iPhone world look like?”

It is my way of sensing whether they’ve done any creative thinking. So far I’ve gotten mostly blank stares.

It’s like Steve Jobs has convinced everyone in the industry that nothing possibly can replace the iPhone on the coolest device shelf.

Me? I’ve seen this play before. Remember Sony’s Walkman?

I like pretending we live in a post iPhone world.

How do we get there?

Well, what would happen if we lived in a Twitter world? One where every light switch, every device, every machine, had a Twitter account?

I asked a Microsoft executive recently why they haven’t released a .NET/Silverlight runtime that Tweets.

His answer surprised me “have you signed our NDA yet?”

That’s code for “we’re working on just that.”

After all, Microsoft probably doesn’t like it that IBM has ruled enterprise marketing with its “Smart Planet” meme.

So, why would Microsoft support a Twitter world? Because if Microsoft helped Twitter build a world where everything has a Twitter API then Microsoft would also get the keys to the post-iPhone world.


Well, let’s assume that Microsoft had .NET runtimes on everything. Right now I’m staring at an IV machine in the hospital room where our next son will be born. Why couldn’t a doctor Tweet that machine? Using a message that looks something like this:

@sequoia_iv_0451 set level to 1 pt per hour

That would change the drip rate on her machine to 1 pint per hour.

That doesn’t seem that important, does it? But now what if EVERY device in the hospital had a runtime like this and could be queried through a Twitter language?

Wouldn’t that open up new application possibilities that don’t exist today? Absolutely!

Wouldn’t that encourage new kinds of devices to be built? Absolutely!

Wouldn’t that mean we’d need a replacement for the iPhone? Absolutely!

Why? Well, let’s put it this way. If you had tons of devices in your world that you wanted to interact with TweetDeck or SimplyTweet just wouldn’t cut it.

Now, what if Microsoft made such a Twitter system more reliable? After all, if a doctor is going to have a device that will talk to all sorts of machines during surgery there can’t be a possibility of a fail whale.

Once Microsoft got .NET runtimes out in enough things they could come in and build a shadow Twitter that’s more reliable than Twitter and that has some cool features.

Then once that’s done Microsoft could ship a post-iPhone world. Why? Because they would be able to build a device that would be optimized for this Twitter world.

Oh, OK, this is all science fiction. After all it’s preposterous to think that the iPhone won’t stay on the coolest device shelf forever.



lululemon central park

Thanks to Seth Godin and New York Magazine, over the weekend I discovered the Lululemon brand of yoga clothing and accessories. It’s a remarkable business that seems to be sweeping the nation and broadening interest in a 2,000-year exercise ritual. One of Lululemon’s main marketing strategies is to host free, public yoga sessions weekly, such as the photo above in New York City’s Bryant Park. It’s a terrific example of Marketing with Meaning, but this case study and Seth’s post suggest to me that the evolution to this new marketing model might favor new brands over the old.

Let me first establish that Lululemon has a killer idea with its free yoga classes. Strategically, there are a few business challenges that make this idea smart. First, the classes help people who are intrigued by the idea of yoga get a feel for the concept in a low-risk way. The classes are free, and because there are many people around you there is less pressure to look good and perform well. Lululemon understands that it needs to get more people engaged in yoga to grow its sales. Give away the class, and people will keep buying the refill clothing.

Second, because the classes are large and in a very public place, they become one giant advertisement for yoga and the Lululemon brand. Actually, it’s almost insulting to call this an “advertisement”—rather, it’s a living, breathing example of how yoga makes a lot of people feel really good and stay in shape. Passersby see that this is a very socially acceptable exercise, which helps break down some people’s concern that yoga is for hippies and gurus.

So it’s confirmed: This is very meaningful marketing. But Godin uses this case study to suggest something more. He says, “I think it’s dangerous and often fatal to put free on top of an existing business model. Things fall apart.” Seth believes that businesses that have been charging for services won’t be able to adapt to the world of giving away value and hoping to be repaid in sales, loyalty, and word of mouth.

I think Seth is getting close to a very big issue but misses the mark a bit. He says that big companies are not used to giving away valuable “stuff” for free. But this is not accurate. After all, one of the most common marketing tactics in the history of commerce is the free sample. By people taking a taste of food or trying a new razor at no cost, many end up buying the product or service either because they like it or they have generated feelings of reciprocity and are compelled to repay the marketer with sales.

But the much bigger picture that Seth is raising is this: Can big companies shift from interruptive advertising to marketing that actually adds value to people’s lives—what we call Marketing with Meaning? Right now, I believe the future might belong to new brands, which rise to strength with a meaning-based approach from the beginning, while large brands might be unable to make the shift in time.

Looking at the hottest new brands in the world, many have risen to power with a more meaning-based approach. Red Bull came out of nowhere with a marketing strategy focused on events. Zappos rose thanks to social-media-powered customer service. Google became the most valuable, most loved brand in the world by continuing to roll out great, free services—and hasn’t run a single TV commercial. These brands show us that a completely new marketing approach, centered on adding value, can win.

Meanwhile, the odds seem staked against big brands despite their big budgets and historic leadership. The best model to pose their challenge is The Innovator’s Dilemma. Put simply, big, leading companies rise to success by getting better and better at one way of doing business. But when the world changes, they just don’t understand how to understand how to shift, and all of their existing processes, people, and incentives support the old way.

Traditional, interruptive, impression-based marketing is one of those existing models that a lot of big brands have gotten very good at mastering. They can tweak that commercial to perfection, squeeze out more efficiency in a media buy, and even find new ways to gauge consumer reaction to an ad (such as brain scanning) and new places to put an ad (airplane trays, anyone?). But those skills are all spent in polishing a model that has decreasing marginal returns—and with the revolution in consumer power and media options, these actions might be leading to decreasing returns, or at least widening opportunity costs from not embracing meaningful marketing.

Lululemon went from zero to a $1 billion market cap thanks to marketing with meaning. But it did so because it had zero to start with. This challenge forced Lululemon to think differently from the start. But big brands have the disadvantage of lots of money and existing equity. This mirrors the evolution of life on earth—the specialties that made plants and animals successful in one era can become weaknesses when the climate shifts.

But hope is not lost! In my new book, The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect with Your Customers by Marketing with Meaning, I share the case studies of four very big brands that have made the shift: Dove, Burger King, Nike, and The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. And, in order to practice some free-sample meaningful marketing myself, you can download the chapter that includes these case studies here.

Time will tell which brands are able to make the leap. I believe thousands of small brands will rise from the chaos, and a good number of big brands that quickly admit the challenges and commit to a new path will make the journey as well.

Book Review: Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click?

I couldn’t pass up Neuro Web Design: What Makes Them Click? by Susan Weinschenk, inasmuch as it combines several of my interests – neuroscience and marketing, specifically Web marketing. In this book, Weinschenk mines some of the same veins I do at Neuromarketing as she applies both neuroscience and behavioral research to specific web design issues.

One of the neuromarketing maxims emphasized by Weinschenk is social proof. We know that we are more likely to buy a product or take some other action if we know that others are doing the same thing. She spends quite a bit of time talking about the best way to implement ratings and reviews. Used correctly, this user-generated content can increase sales by the process of social validation. She cites a 2007 study by DeVries and Pruyn that showed a 20% boost in sales of digital cameras when user recommendations were present, and a boost of 10 – 20% for vacation sales.

While much of the social proof effect occurs unconsciously, Weinschenk thinks that Web marketers can appeal to our logical, conscious side by incorporating elements like detailed statistics (e.g., “77.3% bought this product”) as well as other elements like bar graphs.

Reciprocity is another topic that receives an entire chapter. As I described in Collecting Visitor Info: Reward vs. Reciprocity, giving a visitor something of value to them increases their inclination to do something to reciprocate, e.g., provide you with their email address.

Neuro Web Design is a short book, a mere 147 pages that incorporate many screen shots and other graphic material. The production values in the book are a weak point, with quite a few of the illustrations appearing dark and lacking in contrast. On the plus side, one gets free access to an online version of the book with the purchase of a hard copy.

A lot of what Weinschenk recommends may seem obvious to experienced web marketers. Of course testimonials and reviews help, of course ads that move get your attention… but as with any thoughtful strategic process, if you think about a web site design in the context of Weinschenk’s suggestions, you’ll almost certainly find ways to improve it and make it more effective in garnering clicks and conversions. Any web marketer or designer responsible for creating sites that convert (or fixing sites that aren’t converting) will benefit from Weinschenk’s insights.

Added to the to read list…

What is Google Search, Plus Your World?

Google has been preparing us for this moment, yet somehow it still feels like a surprise. The search giant added an extra dose of social to search today when they announced Search, Plus Your World. Designed to deliver personalized results depending on the information your friends have shared and recommended, Search, Plus Your World delivers query results that are unique only to you.

Users can toggle between regular and personalized results in the upper right corner of their results page and then see how particular pieces of content are directly related to them. Privacy notations mark results with their status as Private, Limited, and Public while other features allow users to add people to Google+ directly from the search results page.
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