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WTF is Internet-Speak and How To Use It Without Being Awk

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“I don’t browse r/WTF at the office anymore, because last time I accidentally opened a really NSFW meme.”

A decade ago, this sentence wouldn’t have made any sense. Now, it’s as commonplace as any watercooler discussion about the weather—thanks to the ubiquity of Internet use among over half the world population.

The good news is, if you feel out of the loop and still don’t know what NSFW stands for, you can now find the definition for this abbreviation in the Merriam-Webster dictionary—which also includes definitions for “meme,” “WTF” and “vocal fry.” If you’re not as big of a word nerd as me, dictionary updates may not seem very exciting. However, these additions illustrate a drastic change in the universal vocabulary: these are words used so often in speech, media coverage, and research papers all over the world that they require a consistent definition and official documentation associated with them.

The latest additions to the Merriam-Webster and Oxford Online dictionaries include a lot of Internet-speak and tech slang, which isn’t surprising if you consider how new words emerge in a language. Someone thinks of a word to describe a frequently shared new experience—for example, taking a self-portrait using a front-facing camera on your smartphone—and it fits the phenomenon so aptly that the one of the biggest authorities on the English language crowns “selfie” 2013’s Word of the Year. And with the invention of new gadgets, actions related to those gadgets, and words to describe it all, it’s no wonder you need a dictionary to decode everything.

“Internet-speak” can refer to any word or expression that originated in a forum or a social network, and then became widely used by people outside of the original source. But Internet-speak is no longer just slang; for many people whose job description includes working online, it’s a familiar language used to describe their livelihoods. For example, new entries to the Oxford Dictionary Online in June 2014 included sentiment analysis, live-tweet, clickbait and tech-savvy. This was a year ago; think of how long before that you started using the phrase “sentiment analysis” to describe your social media marketing efforts to your partners and bosses. Sometimes, we get so caught up in our own Internet-speak that we forget these words may not be common knowledge yet (or, rather, not common enough to justify an O.D.O. entry). To help you avoid accidentally excluding members of your audience in the future, here’s a quick test of 3 questions to ask before using the latest Internet buzzword.

Will my mom and/or people outside of your industry and/or people over 20 understand what I’m talking about?

A new word used out of context or only known to a small group of people can cost you a potential customer. To you and your colleagues, it may be obvious that “listicles are better than clickbait for driving audience engagement,” but your brilliant strategy advice will be lost on an audience that only understands half of that sentence. Whenever you’re talking about an emerging trend or use a new abbreviation, try to approach it from a novice’s perspective. When in doubt, always provide a brief line of explanation, or include a hyperlink to a resource.

Another risk for social media marketers is using a hip new word out of context. It’s important to know your audience and try to get on their level—and, naturally, young people are the trend-setting group often targeted by advertisers, both online and through traditional channels. However, there’s nothing worse than seeming totally uncool to an audience that takes the cool factor very seriously. So whether this means conducting in-depth research into the word’s meaning or avoiding it altogether, give some serious thought before saying your product is “on fleek.”

Is this the best word to describe what I’m trying to say?

Brevity is an important skill for an online marketer, especially on social networks with enforced character and word counts. So, in addition to making your language accessible to a wide audience, you should also be able to convey your message in a pithy, eye-catching way without sacrificing any of its meaning. This is where new dictionary entries come in handy; they officiate the fact that the word is used often enough in everyday speech to assume that most people understand what it means. In that sense, “tech-savvy” fits into a social media message or ad better than “well informed about or proficient in the use of modern technology, especially computers.”

Does Google recognize this word?

If you plug your buzzword of choice into a Google search, and all that comes up is an Urban Dictionary entry, you’re in trouble. If this word hasn’t yet been picked up by other social media users and bloggers, it might not be the best choice for conveying your message. As a social media marketer, your goal is to create shareable content, so making obscure references doesn’t work in your favour—unless, of course, you’re working on the “obscure is the new cool” directive, in which case you may want to check Question #1 again.