Comments on: when language loses all meaning Blog, news, books Fri, 03 Feb 2017 16:59:00 +0000 hourly 1 By: Dan Thu, 31 Jul 2008 22:55:43 +0000 I understand the complaint, Larry. The complaint, that is, is itself meaningful to me. ;-)

I just think that the complaint represents a desire for language to be something other than what it is. The desire is for it to be something approaching well-defined. The reality is that it is a wild thing, and takes on many manifestations in many different contexts. It is, as I said before, irreduceably contextual and cultural.

I don’t think this language is meaningless at all, that is all I’m saying. It may not have the qualifications for meaning that you wish for it, but that is not a fault of the use of language itself but rather a flaw of your expectations for it.

Bottom line: Complaints such as these will not change anything about this sort of use of language, because there is incentive and function in such use, just as there is incentive and function in political speech, which isn’t about to go away in the foreseeable future. It may not adhere to your implicit definition of “meaning” but there are other definitions of meaning that it satisfies just fine, and I don’t know that yours (or those you refer to, I haven’t had a chance to check them all out yet) have any particular priority here.

Top-down linguists have been trying to whip language usage into shape for god knows how long (I’m thinking of Edwin Newman, etc.). But language is a living, breathing animal in its own right, and its usage develops from the bottom up.

In Zittrain’s terminology, human natural language is “generative”… ;-)

The complaint seems to express a desire to tether language to some central control or authority. But all such efforts in the past have failed, and for good reason. “Good reason” in two senses: (1) there is a compelling explanation for this outcome, and (2) I also think the outcome itself is good.

To address the specific instance here (specifically in respo0nse to Steve Baba’s comment referenced above):

If I am running an email list, I am definitely pleased when people join the list and use it productively for its intended purposes, or even join it simply to have the option to use it for its intended purposes (given the fact that usage of such lists generally fits an exponential curve with a short peak and long tail), and one of its valid purposes is simply lurking for many members. I am happy if the lurkers get value from the list even if they do not participate by posting messages themselves. It still is one way the list is intended to work, and it is providing the value I want it to provide.

So yes, as a list operator, I am indeed “pleased” to have every individual member of the list on the list, because it provides value that I am trying to encourage by running the list in the first place, even for members that only lurk.

And as a responsible list operator, I am happy to enable the opt-out when that becomes pertinent, because I don’t want involuntary list members on the list, as it then fails to provide the value I want to provide with the list. And, when designing automatic communications for particular contexts (such as when a subscriber wishes to opt out), I want to design messages that convey my good will and my appreciation for use of my service in the way it was intended. I don’t have to have a human, manual relationship with my list members in order for this message to be meaningful. The list mechanism is not what is pleased. It is the list operator who is pleased. And if the list operator (as a human being or a human organization) is smart, the list operator is genuine in those feelings about list use by its members.

I don’t interpret this as meaningless at all. However, if one approaches this from old mindsets, such as old-school “maximize the audience at any cost” ideas from traditional marketing, then it may not seem to make sense. But the problem here is the expectation of the receiver that any marketer is primarily out to exploit customers for profit, rather than to provide a long-term service to customers in order to enter into a win-win relationship that may involve profit, but not at the expense of value for the customer.

CRM thinking sets traditional marketing on its head, so if you don’t “get” CRM thinking then you won’t “get” the message here. Again, this is not a problem of the message, but rather a problem of interpretation of the message by the receiver.

I grant that this may be meaningless to you, but it is not meaningless to me. The participants in sending and receiving a message are part of its context, of course.

By: lessig Thu, 31 Jul 2008 14:01:34 +0000 @Dan: yes, it is just like political speech, but I wouldn’t think that’s a recommendation for it. I had thought political speech was a perfect example of self-defeating speech — defeated authenticity, etc.

@Internet Law Attorney: better put than I: why write something that sounds “hollow and false” when you can say something that doesn’t: “your interest is appreciated” — that’s a true statement, it is (ala @scientific recruitment consultancy) manners, and it achieves the real purpose of the email — to confirm the unsubscribe.

@Jonathan Perry: true enough, and I’ve got to get over it. pathetically thin skin hangs on my aging body.

@Steve Montini: nicely analyzed, and yes, that was my sense. I was actually primed to this watching the podcast commercial for Boeing on Meet the Press.

@Steve Baba: I agree it is about being polite, sure. That’s exactly why these decent people built the easy opt-out, no doubt. But the question is how to be polite. My criticism of “it has been a pleasure” is not that it is false. It is meaningless. I’m not saying I think having me on the list was not pleasurable. I’m saying “pleasure” had nothing to do with it — and hence, the words have lost their meaning.

But enough. Thanks for the comments. Check out JB White’s, When Words Lose Their Meaning, which runs this concern in contexts where it might really matter.

By: Dan Thu, 31 Jul 2008 07:50:09 +0000 It’s codespeak, just like many other forms of codespeak.

It’s not exactly “natural language” so in that sense I’ll grant you that it doesn’t necessarily have a natural language meaning. It’s a highly stylized form of discourse. It’s not unique in that respect.

But really, Larry, it’s quite common in this sort of context.

Think of it as a sort of contextual jargon.

And, given the times, it’s in fact an interesting comparison with political speech as well.

You might well suggest that political speech has lost all meaning as well. Sometimes it seems to. But in fact political speech is a highly formalized form of discourse as well, and very strategic/tactical.

Meaning in language depends entirely on whether a message is effectively sent between a sender and a receiver. I would contend that exactly such a thing is happening in this case, though perhaps not what it appears to be on the face of it (and perhaps not all receivers will receive the message as intended — for those folks like yourself, perhaps this message has indeed lost its meaning, but not for everyone).

There are some things worth being a curmudgeon about, but I’m not convinced this is one of them.


By: Internet Law Attorney Thu, 31 Jul 2008 05:09:07 +0000 I don’t know that i would be eager to unsubscribe from a Hawaii conferences mailing list, i can think of a lot worse lists to be part of and a lot worse places to attend a conference. In any event, Lessig’s point is well taken as usual, the statement that “it has been a pleasure” rings hollow and false.

By: Jonathan Perry Thu, 31 Jul 2008 01:06:43 +0000 Of all the websites on the Internet, this one seems to have the most ornery bunch of commenters I’ve ever seen. I guess it keeps you honest, Lessig.

I have much respect for your work.

By: Steve Montini Thu, 31 Jul 2008 00:24:36 +0000 If “our” is an anaphoric reference back to “Hawaii International Conferences,” the second sentence taken by itself would be spoken from the voice of an organization (the said one). I think Lessig is saying that an automated organization cannot have human feelings such as pleasure, and the grounds for his argument would be that an unintelligent, non-living entity, cannot “voice” human emotions.

Keep in mind that e-mail is a cultural reappropriation of the traditional postal service and exists as an inexpensive, rapid, non tangible alternative to the old lick-n-seal method, whereby a human was/is behind all correspondences.

More towards what Lessig might be getting at, from an ABC (activity-based costing) approach… In traditional organizations with mailing lists, money spent on an individual would actually be felt by the company (e.g. Stamps, letters, printing costs). Money is an emotional issue for humans, not for computers.

Take someone out to dinner and they better be someone special… not just any old mope off the streets.
Take someone out of your automated mailing list… who cares, right? (emphasis on “who”)

To Lessig: I enjoyed your Free Culture presentations online while they lasted (not that they’re gone). I think that’s the one? They helped me with my efforts to understand the dynamics of the entertainment industry and the future of musicians/music back when I found myself fumbling around with the ridiculous idea of helping “support local music.”

–Steve, Business school dropout/cultural investigator extraordinaire/egomaniac

By: Steve Baba Wed, 30 Jul 2008 09:34:52 +0000 Oh come on. It’s called being polite.
Half the people who say, “Good” after being asked how are you doing are technically lying, but it has been that way for the last 100 years.
Half the time when politicians say, “Thank you for your question” are also technically lying when they would rather duck the question.
As in Sen MaCain/Obama aren’t you too old/young?
Or as in Lessig, besides a fancy law degree, what political experience do you have to be in congress? The truthful answer might be “F. you cynic,” but any politician would say, “thank you for your question,” or “that’s a good question.”

By: lessig Wed, 30 Jul 2008 07:33:30 +0000 @apologists: oh come on. Truth > ƒ(good branding). What this text says is “it has been a pleasure” to have someone on an email list! Whether or not it has been profitable, whether or not being nice in signing off is advantageous, having someone on an email list has not “been a pleasure” unless, as the post asserts, language has lost all meaning.

By: Dan Tue, 29 Jul 2008 22:57:30 +0000 It’s true, as DiscoStu says, this is standard boilerplate for unsubscribe messages these days.

Such language is driven by customer service dynamics. #1 don’t lay a guilt trip on the customer, and the customer is always right. #2 there is always a fair amount of churn on e-lists and other opt-in membership fora, and there are all sorts of legitimate reasons for leaving even when joining made sense previously, therefore it is no offense to leave, prima facie. #3 leave the departing customer with a warm feeling on the way out and they may well decide to come back later if and when conditions are appropriate for a return. (There are many reasons to opt back in, just as there are many reasons to opt out. Things change, life is a process.)

Always thank the customer for their patronage, regardless of circumstances. Service with a smile. It’s good branding, good customer experience.

Bottom line: they really *are* pleased to have had you on the list for some time, and they *are* happy to serve your needs, even in the case of unsubscribing, because they put your empowerment (in opting out, in this case) at the top of their priorities. They put the user/customer first. There’s certainly no sense in trying to get people to stay who don’t belong there, and there’s no sense in letting them leave with a bad taste in their mouth.

This is nothing short of smart customer service in the user-empowered marketplace. Anything less would be self-defeating for the list operator.

It’s not the same as legal language, of course. But then, legal language is a technical language that often seems senseless in less formal contexts, too. French and FORTRAN have different purposes. Customer service language (especially “CRM language”) is a “technical” language in its own right, with very specific goals, forms, and tactics.

Communication is contextual. Read the context, then read the message. It all fits.

By: hellmutbauer Tue, 29 Jul 2008 22:29:02 +0000 Professor Lessig, I am an old aquintance of your dad’s from the Bethlehem Steel days, where we both worked together . I would be very much interested to say hello to your dad if he is still with us in this crazy world of ours. I can be reached via email or by phone : 410-296-4660.
Thank you so much and good luck with your work for our poor country !
Hank Bauer

By: DiscoStu Tue, 29 Jul 2008 22:15:45 +0000 WTF? That’s just a standard unsubscription response…

@ thoughtcounts Z: who knows? Maybe they were completely f-ing thrilled to have him on there. This should be called “When blog posting loses all meaning”.

@ Jeff Carr: yes it does. It means they feel that it has been a pleasure having him on their list. And if he can’t decipher from this response that he has been unsubscribed, then he deserves to live the rest of his life in uncertainty.

By: Jeff Carr Tue, 29 Jul 2008 11:07:45 +0000 @thoughtcounts Z: Yes, and not only does that phrase not really mean anything, but the response doesn’t directly say you have been unsubscribed, which is the only thing that response really needs to convey.

By: thoughtcounts Z Tue, 29 Jul 2008 10:11:02 +0000 @Jared: I think it’s the sentence, “It has been a pleasure having you on our list.” It’s hard to imagine how they could really feel that way, when all they did was send automated announcements to the addresses in a database.

By: Gabriel Tue, 29 Jul 2008 07:39:59 +0000 .tiff doesn’t seem to be Firefox friendly, on Linux at least