The Rise of the Zuckerverb: The New Language of Facebook

This is what happens when language is optimized for social data-mining rather than natural communication


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.

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.

But the latest makeover of Facebook goes far beyond adding special connotations to particular words. Instead, language is being recast in a more profound way, turned into a utilitarian tool for "expressing" relationships to objects in the world in a remarkably unexpressive fashion. Verbs are for doing things, things that are then announced in uncomplicated declarations. Sentences become mere instruments for sharing easy-to-digest morsels of personal information. (Ananda Mitra, a professor of communication at Wake Forest University, has dubbed these morsels "narbs," short for "narrative bits.") All of this represents a re-engineering of the very syntax of natural language, and to what aim? Is it designed for "telling one's story," or for satisfying the needs of advertisers looking to collect personal data for targeted marketing?

As Web developers jump on the Open Graph bandwagon to create new social apps, Facebook is saying good-bye to the old days when people simply "liked" things, moving to a much wider verb-space to promote different activities. You'll now be able to announce to the world that you are "watching" (a television show), "listening" (to music), "eating" (a meal), and so forth. And as the verbs shift from present tense to past, all of these activities can then be stitched together with your status updates and photos to create a reverse-chronological autobiography of sorts in your Timeline. The Timeline, Zuckerberg submits, is nothing less than The Story of Your Life.

On seeing the f8 presentation, Alexis Madrigal had immediate qualms about the verb-driven self-narrative that feeds into the Timeline: it's "technically complex but grammatically simple," "multimedia, but not rich," "autobiography without aesthetic effort," "a story without words." All activities in the Open Graph are funneled into the bare-bones syntax of "X (user) Y (verb of action) Z (object of action)." Stitching together these simple declarative statements into an autobiographical timeline creates a pale simulacrum of personal story-telling, no matter how much Facebook presents it as a way to "tell your story."

This is what happens when language is optimized for social data-mining rather than natural communication. "Mark read a book." "Mark listened to a song." "Mark hiked a trail." "Mark reviewed a movie." The sentences flashed on the big screen behind Zuckerberg as he laid out his verb-y vision. Though these sentences are technically in the active voice, they present us with an oddly cramped kind of "activeness," in which we the users engage with a world of commodified objects through verbs of consumption. And to see one's "life story" reduced to a series of such prefab activities in a personal timeline? Some might call that the apotheosis of consumer culture.

This is not intended as more hand-wringing over linguistic degradation, more hell-in-a-handbasket alarmism. I'm fairly confident that this sterile reduction of language will not lead inexorably to the advent of an Orwellian Newspeak, lacking the spark of human creativity. It's easy to imagine that Facebook's simplistic grammar will quickly be subverted in all sorts of mischievous ways. Why, just now, I created a social app that allows the user to "hornswoggle a flibbertigibbet." Language marches on, no matter how engineers might seek to circumscribe it.