What We Can Learn From The Language of Technology

The rate of buzzword creation in technology outstrips that of any other industry. Part of this is a natural outgrowth of needing new ways to describe new, unfamiliar things that have been brought into the world. The other part of this seems to be a need for the technology industry (and by proxy Silicon Valley) to constantly reorganize and relabel it’s creations.

For us that live inside the tech bubble, it seems like new tech terms like “unicorn startup” and “big data” instantly permeate the lexicon and become a part of everyday speech for most people.

But is that really true? How much of the language that comes out of technology actually becomes a permanent part of how we communicate? Are there any patterns to this and can we learn anything from it?

To find out, we did an analysis of the search frequency of key technology and startup terms using Google Trends as a proxy for the usage of terminology over time.

The Change in Tech-Specific Qualifiers

Many terms that posses a technology-specific qualifier (e.g. “e-commerce”, “wireless internet”) demonstrate an overall downturn in relative search interest over time (with the notable exception of the word “email”).  For many of these words, this is most likely due to such broad adoption of technology that either the “otherness” of the word doesn’t work any more (no one ever said “offline commerce”, just “shopping”), or that the qualifier becomes unncessary.

For example, “E-Commerce” has decreased in search interest over time, whereas the phrase “online shopping” has shown growth since 2009 and has remained consistently popular ever since.

“Wireless Network”, “Wireless Internet”, and “Wireless Computing” have each decreased in search interest over the past few years. This could be attributable to the widespread availability of wireless internet in most public and private places. Wireless Internet describes most internet, so the terminology has shifted to simply Internet or Wi-Fi.

“Hyperlinks” has shown a steady decrease in search popularity over time while simply “Link” has sustained public usage. Dropping the “Hyper” prefix suggests that links are a widespread and normalized concept both on the internet and in conversation.

Search interest in “Web Applications” has decreased over time while “Apps” has grown rapidly since 2009, corresponding with the massive growth in smartphone adoption.

Interestingly, the term “Search Engine” has decreased over time whereas “Google Search” has experienced extensive growth. This coincides with Google’s dominance as a search engine.

Startup Language

Startups are typically associated with technology, innovation, and rapid growth, and with the possibility that we’re on the tail end of another major startup bubble, one might expect the terminology in the startup space to show rapid increase in search interest. However, some of the most common startup and startup funding terms are actually showing a decline in public interest over the last 10 years. Even the word “Startup” itself has declined into a relatively flat state.

Funding terms associated with startups, such as Venture Capital, Private Equity, and Angel Investor similarly all show declines in search interest over time.

SaaS (or Software-as-a-service) has also shown surprising patterns of search interest. Though it has increased since the early 2000s, it decreased in 2009 and has stayed relatively flat ever since, despite the replacement of almost every piece of desktop  of new software-driven startups.

Despite its overall decline, the term “Startup Company” has shown a slight upturn since 2013 and has also remains much higher in overall search interest than associated startup terms. Startups are still a strong presence in the public eye, but there isn’t as much buzz around them as one might expect.

One startup term that has demonstrated rapid increase in search popularity is “Unicorn Startup,” which shot up in 2015, several years after the term was coined by Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures in 2013. However, this term is still barely a blip on the radar compared to the overall search interest of “Startup Company.”

Looking specifically at the regional popularity of “Unicorn Startup” in the United States reveals only an increase in search interest in New York and California. A search for “Unicorn” shows top regional interest in California, Washington, New York, and Massachusetts.

So why the decrease in technology specific terms even as the rate of technology innovation increases? It is possible that like tech qualifiers, the novelty of innovation-specific spaces has worn off and many startups or businesses operating online are now seen simply as “businesses.”

Alternatively, outside the tech bubble in Silicon Valley and NYC, the numbers could also reflect the actual could also be a result of the overall slowing rate of entrepreneurship, or that in fact innovation and interest in new technology is not dependent on startup culture.

New Technology Buzzwords

Despite the move away from tech qualifiers and startup terminology, there has been major increase in the search interest around new technologies. Many hyped terms such as “Big Data”, “Mobile Analytics”, “Predictive Analytics”, and “Data Science” continue to grow in interest, and despite perception as potentially being overhyped, are continuing to grow in interest.

Likewise, the phrase “Cloud Computing” rapidly shot up in 2008 and continues to grow – likewise with associated terms like “Cloud Storage” and “The Cloud.”

The language around artificial intelligence is also evolving and demonstrating growth in terms of search interest. Terms like “Machine Learning” and “Deep Learning” have been rapidly increasing in search popularity since 2013.

While the general term “Artificial Intelligence” still dominates these other terms in total search interest, overall it has decreased and leveled out.

Terms related to future technologies also demonstrate rapid growth in search interest. “Smart TV”, “Internet of Things”, and “Autonomous Cars” all show very high rates of growth in search popularity over the past few years.

The Future Language of Tech

Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, stated that “every company is a software company,” and the data suggests that he just might be right. The changing language in the tech space suggests that technology no longer requires distinction from daily activity or “otherness” qualifiers, but rather is quickly becoming an integrated part of daily life.

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