The Rise of the Zuckerverb: The New Language of Facebook


Last week, as he paced around the stage at the f8 Developers Conference, Mark Zuckerberg declared with wide-eyed optimism that Facebook was "helping to define a brand-new language for how people connect." "When we started," Zuckerberg explained, "the vocabulary was really limited. You could only express a small number of things, like who you were friends with. Then last year, when we introduced the Open Graph, we added nouns, so you could like anything that you wanted."

And then he delivered the breathless payoff: "This year, we're adding verbs. We're going to make it so you can connect to anything in any way you want." It was all part of "building this language for how people connect," he said.

Last of all, the authors of the languages formed the verbs, as we observe children expressing nouns and particles but leaving the verbs to be understood.
-- Giambattista Vico, The New Science, 1744

There was something charming about the jittery young fellow announcing his conquest of the verb, as if this part of speech was a newly discovered territory and we were all hearing the report of the explorer's intrepid expedition -- Zuck's Adventures in Verbland. (He was also unwittingly recapitulating an age-old argument about the origins of language: scholars from Aristotle to Vico contended that verbs arrived late in our linguistic evolution, built on a bedrock of nouns.)

By adding verbs to the "brand-new language" of social connectivity, Zuckerberg told the f8 audience that Facebook was going to "make it so people can express an order of magnitude more things than they could before." In his presentation, he used that word, "express," over and over again. But on closer inspection, the new verb-driven language of Facebook is a weirdly limited vehicle for human expression.

Complaints about Facebook's deleterious effect on language are long-standing, of course. In the past, the main gripes have been about how the site has sapped the meaning of the words "friend" and "like." A "friend" has been reduced to any acquaintance you choose to add to your Facebook network -- someone you "friend" (look, a noun becoming a verb!). Meanwhile, "liking" something has become equated with the manual click of a little thumbs-up icon. Crucially, either of these online interactions can be reversed, by "unfriending" and "unliking." No long-term commitment is necessary in this realm of ever-shifting allegiances. The call goes out, whatever happened to authentic friendship? (Facebook's new competitor, Google+, seems to be playing on concerns over the Zuckerbergian degradation of "friendship." For the default "Friends Circle" on Google+, the explanatory text clarifies that it is intended for "your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with.")

Personally, I've felt that the hubbub over the dilution of "friend" and "like" in the Facebook era has been overblown. These are hardy words going back to Old English that are in no need of special protection. As I told a journalist from the Boston Globe reporting on worries over the word "friend," such terms are inherently flexible, accruing multiple meanings over their lifetimes. (Even the verbs "friend" and "unfriend" have been around for centuries.) Traditionalists may sound the alarm about new meanings of old words because of anxieties about the way they think that society is changing, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can serve as easy targets for those who think that our shared language is going to hell in a handbasket. Those traditionalists ignore (or distrust) all the ways that social media can enrich the language, in terms of new vocabulary, new modes of expression, and new pathways for innovations to spread.

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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and He writes the language column for The Wall Street Journal.

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