"Web 2.0" and the Great Grunge Hoax

by Joey deVilla on November 27, 2006

The Great Grunge Hoax

George and I were DJs at campus pubs and writers at the campus
humor/satire/libel paper at our beloved alma mater during the heyday
of grunge, so we remember the media prank that later got dubbed
“The Great Grunge Hoax”

The hoax was the creation of Sub Pop Records publicist Megan
Jasper, in response to a call from a New York Times
reporter, who asked for a list of “grunge terms”. You must
remember that this was 1992, around the time when Generation X
was both a buzzword and a bestseller, movies for “twentynothings”
like Slacker, Singles and Reality
were all the rage and grunge was the scene's soundtrack.

(We really lived the grunge thing — we were even in a grunge band
named “Volume”. I like to think we weren't half bad.)

Megan knew an opportunity when she saw one, so she simply made up
a list of terms that while completely made up, sounded plausible to
the reporter on the phone. The list was dutifully reproduced in the
New York Times, which led to it being dutifully copied
by many other publications eager to get a Gen X story.

Here's what the Times version looked like:

“Harsh Realm”

The list had a few obvious clunkers that anyone under 30 would've
been able to instantly spot as fake: wack slacks for old ripped jeans,
cob nobbler and lamestain for “loser”, and my favorite,
swinging on the flippity flop for “hanging out”. That last one seemed
to be a challenge by Megan; it's almost as if she was daring the Times
reporter to figure out that it was a hoax.

The list had to be plausible-sounding, so some of Jasper's coinages
could've been actual slang of the time. Fuzz for “sweater”, plats for
“platform shoes” and kickers for heavy Doc marten-style boots were
three of her creations that should have been adopted.

My favourite one of these accidentally good creations
was harsh realm — a term that was supposed to be synonymous
with “bummer”. The term was good enough to be appropriated by a comic book creators
James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette, who used it as a title for their comic about
a virtual reality simulation gone awry. X-Files creator Chris Carter
thought that the title and concept were so good that he lifted both for his ill-fated
Harsh Realm TV series

Your Point Being…?

I think of the term “Web 2.0” as being like Megan Jasper's better
coinages such as “harsh : it may have been originally made-up nonsense, but it
turned out to be good enough to find some real use.

According to Paul Graham's Web 2.0 essay, the term was coined
during a brainstorming session between O'Reilly and Medialive International,
a company in the tradeshow/conference racket. He wrote:

O'Reilly wanted to organize a conference about the web, and they were wondering
what to call it.

I don't think there was any deliberate plan to suggest there was a new version of
the web. They just wanted to make the point that the web mattered again. It was a
kind of semantic deficit spending: they knew new things were coming, and the “2.0”
referred to whatever those might turn out to be.

Simply put, “Web 2.0” is the new “Harsh Realm”.

2006 is the New 1992

It pained me to read the latest entry in Kathy Sierra's otherwise excellent blog,
Creating Passionate Users
. In it, she states that “Web 2.0” is
more than just a buzzword, it's jargon, and there's a difference. I think
that Dare Obasanjo hit the nail on the head when he called her on that statement:

On the one hand Kathy argues that jargon allows us to communicate more efficiently
then in the same breath points out that “Web 2.0” wraps many different and ill-defined
concepts together. That seems pretty contradictory to me. How is it communicating more
efficiently if I say “Web 2.0” to Bob and he thinks AJAX and widgets while Jane thinks
I'm talking about social networking and tagging while I actually meant RSS and open APIs?
We may be communicating with less words but since we are guaranteed to have a
miscommunication, this efficiency in words exchanged is small compared to the amount
of time we waste talking past each other.

I've made my peace with the idea that “Web 2.0” is here to stay and that it
is such a wide umbrella term that it is effectively meaningless other than a catch
all to describe Web trends have become popular over the past two years. However
that doesn't make it worthy of being elevated to “professional jargon” unless your
profession is slinging bullshit to VCs or trying to wade through which bullshit
knockoffs of YouTube and del.icio.us you want to be investing in.

By retrofitting some legitimacy onto the term, Kathy has effectively made
herself the New York Times to Tim O'Reilly's Megan Jasper in this
modern version of the Great Grunge Hoax. Let's hope that we techies and tech businesspeople —
as the Chris Carters in this scenario — have projects that fare better than
Harsh Realm.

Of course, I cannot resist closing this article without my parody of Kathy's graph technique:

With sincerest apologies to Kathy Sierra, with whom I normally agree.


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Anonymous November 27, 2006 at 3:07 pm

Dood. You made my whole week by doing a parody of my graph… that's a first for me. (and it's a good one!)
As for the grunge hoax, you now have me horrified about all the ways in which I think my teenagers have been probably been doing something like this to me. Word.
But I disagree (obviously and strongly) with your comparison between the grunge hoax and my post. People have all sorts of notions about why Tim talks about Web 2.0… but the worst characterizations always seems to be from people who don't actually *know* Tim as a personal friend.
I wonder how many people would feel the same way if they knew and trusted Tim as a human being. That doesn't preclude some of his friends from saying to him, “d00d…the concept is sound, but teh whole version number thing was lame.”
We're all free to judge the phrase as bulls***, but to suggest it's a hoax perpetrated by Tim–a friend–well, I don't know how to respond to that (but I'm sure there's a graphic in there somewhere).
I actually hadn't heard about the grunge hoax and I have to admit it made me smile. So, you're wrong here, but I still love you for being able to disagree with me without claiming I've caused you to lose faith in all of humanity.
: )

2 george scriban November 27, 2006 at 7:11 pm

Joe's totally right in pointing out Dare's totally right — Web 2.0 is carries so much water for so many terms, it's basically meaningless. It's the opposite of what jargon should be. Perhaps it most closely resembles the stuff that crosses over from being jargon and turns into poorly-understood mainstream language that newly-minted MBAs use (think “risk management” or “value add”).
I don't think Joe was trying to imply some sort of O'Reilly-led, Frank Lunz-ian plan to bend language to his commercial needs, however.
While I'm adding no value to this debate, may I also take the time to recommend Hype, easily one of the best movies about the explosion of the Seattle sound/grunge scene? They have a section on the Grunge Hoax, too.

3 Anonymous November 28, 2006 at 6:58 am

“Jargon” assumes that both people in the conversation know what they're talking about. When non-experts use jargon, that's when it moves into bullshit territory.
Also, I am reminded of the Tim Horton's ad where the teen tells his mom that her tea is “steeped”. Whereupon she goes out and starts using the term all over the place. One man's jargon is another's buzzword.

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