The cause behind this hubbub is a major European privacy law that’s been two years in the making. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect on May 25, 2018, ensures certain data privacy rights for individuals within the EU, such as the right to obtain information about how companies process your personal data, the right to request access to this data so that you can transfer it to another service, and the right to object to companies using your data for certain purposes. Companies also have an obligation to clearly articulate their privacy policies in a way that their users can understand—so, no obscuring important privacy info in a sea of legalese.
The law passed two years ago—well before the Cambridge Analytica revelation, or the more recent scrutiny of Facebook’s and Google’s role in Ireland’s abortion referendum (many saw this vote as a test case of how well these companies could prevent foreign parties from targeting key demographics on social media to influence elections). However, the GDPR gave companies two years to comply—a deadline that just passed.
Since many of the companies affected by the law have an international reach that extends beyond the EU, a lot of North Americans have been getting privacy emails too. Some organizations have applied the more stringent EU standards to their North American users as well, while others have established separate data privacy rules for different parts of the world. And now these companies need to clearly inform users of their new policies. Hence, the heap of privacy emails in your inbox.
Words, Words, Words
Unsurprisingly, many of these statements echo the word choice of the EU’s official communications on the GDPR, which the European Commission claims “will strengthen the protection of the individual’s right to personal data protection, reflecting the nature of data protection as a fundamental right for the European Union.” The goal is for people to “have more control over their personal data.”
Pattern One: Choices and Control
Half of the twenty emails emphasized users’ control over their data, and just as many used words like choices and options and highlighted users’ ability to manage their information. The overall message was that each company wants to give you choice, or power over your data—a strong message when many of us feel a bit overwhelmed and powerless where our online personal information is concerned.
Twitter’s word choice was particularly evocative, claiming that they want to empower users, who should have “meaningful control over” their data and its use. “You have the final say about whether and how we process your personal data.”
This last quote, I should note, came right after Twitter said that if you don’t like their data privacy rules, you’re welcome to deactivate your account. So, some of the power and control these companies allegedly give you comes from the option to disengage.
Pattern Two: Totally Transparent
The messages also relied heavily on words like transparency and clarity, with many explicitly stating that their policy updates are merely to help users better understand their existing policies, to provide details and make policies more specific (careful not to imply that their previous data policies may have infringed on users’ rights). This language suggests that these changes are not substantive (whether or not that’s actually true), while also giving off the impression that these companies care that you comprehend exactly what you’re signing up for. Google’s email is a prime example:
“Nothing is changing about your current settings or how your information is processed. Rather, we’ve improved the way we describe our practices and how we explain the options you have to update, manage, export, and delete your data.”
Google was clear that they improved the way they describe their practices, not the practices themselves.
Given that these data privacy changes were prompted by the GDPR, and one of the GDPR’s main goals is increased transparency, it’s interesting that only thirteen of the twenty privacy notices I read mentioned any kind of privacy law as an impetus for their changes (and four of these kept the reference vague, not mentioning the GDPR specifically). Admittedly, these emails are a small and not necessarily representative sample, but Facebook was one of the six that failed to mention any legal reason for their policy changes. (Facebook did, however, emphasize users’ rights and the importance of their control over their choices.)
Pattern Three: Keeping It Personal
The final pattern I noticed is that almost all these messages were super personal—evoking feelings of friendship, trust, or community and using a lot of first- and second-person personal pronouns (we, our, us, you, your). Pronoun usage may not seem that important, but peppering your writing with pronouns that include the reader can help create a personal, conversational tone that inspires trust: Our company cares about you and your data privacy and your choices, and we want you to take control of your data. You can trust us.
Beyond the pronouns, many companies struck a genial tone, using their word choice to establish trust and a sense of community between themselves and you, their user. Twitter thanked users for their “trust” (implying that it had already been given), and Airbnb thanked each user “for being a member of our global community.” Similarly, Uber talked about the “lasting relationship” it has with its customers:
“We understand that protecting your privacy is essential to building a lasting relationship with you, and we’re committed to doing the right thing with the information you’ve entrusted to us.”
Overall, many of these companies implied that their privacy changes have an ethical impetus, not just a legal one. Whether this is just posturing or not, these privacy messages have been crafted to evoke good feelings about the company and its intentions toward you—and and to persuade you to trust that you don’t need to worry about what they’re doing with your data.
Privacy Rights, Privacy Wrongs
With all this talk of data privacy rights and companies’ ethical and legal obligations to respect them, it’s worth asking, what rights should we have when we freely give our data to companies online? A right is “something to which one has a just claim” or “may properly claim as due.” In general, a right connotes something deserved, whether legally or ethically. However, we don’t have clearly defined rights for a lot of what goes on in the internet age.
When I was younger, I remember talking to my dad, who is an accountant, about tax laws governing “tangible personal property” and how many state tax laws hadn’t been updated to explicitly account for digital products like software. (You could theoretically land in a situation where, in certain states, software delivered on a physical disc would be subject to tax as tangible property, while the same software delivered through the internet would not—because the latter wasn’t tangible.) It strikes me that data privacy is another area where the law hasn’t quite caught up to the technology, and where we need to continue to weigh the words we use as new standards take shape. The GDPR is the European Union’s attempt to define a standard for data privacy rights; however, it is limited geographically, and how effective it is remains to be seen. The conversation about data privacy rights and how we define them is just beginning.
On May 5, 2018, Sarah Huckabee Sanders posted a tweet calling any feminist Democrat who did not support Gina Haspel’s CIA nomination a “total hypocrite.” In response, a popular Twitter account quote tweeted Sanders, adding a definition of the word “hypocrite” that was clearly not directed at Democrats.
Now, you may think that was a sick burn or a little out of line, depending on your political affiliations and feelings toward the Trump White House. But regardless of your personal feelings, you’d likely be surprised by the tweeter:
As of late, the popular online dictionary has been branching out beyond definitions, words of the day, and quizzes—to political and social commentary. And they’ve been doing so with a unique lexical twist.
Dictionary.com has mastered the art of the double entendre, passive aggressively quote tweeting politicians and celebrities with dictionary entries that can be read as both a definition of a word and savage commentary on the original tweeter. They’ve mocked everyone from Sarah Sanders to DJ Khaled to Mike Pence to Donald Trump:
And these examples are just from the last week. Internet writers and tweeters have been praising Dictionary.com left and right, with a clear tone of surprise. “Even the Dictionary Is Roasting Trump…” “Even Dictionary.com weighed in with a hot take…”
“Even the dictionary.” These three words convey a lot of assumptions about what dictionaries are and what they typically do. They imply that the dictionary’s involvement in these controversial issues is unusual, atypical, noteworthy. Even the articles that do not employ this phrase make it clear that Dictionary.com’s tweets are out of the norm. For example, after Dictionary.com tweeted that Mike Pence was a “sycophant,” The Washington Post noted that this joke comes “from an unlikely source,” and Bustle claimed that, “If there’s any warning sign for a politician, it’s when the dictionary starts dunking on you.” For its part, Dictionary.com has not shied away from its newfound notoriety, actively embracing it.
So, why does this feel so unusual, and is that a bad thing?
The Dictionary as Authority
Dictionaries exist in an interesting position in American culture: they have the reputation of being objective catalogues of language as it is used, free from bias and politics and linguistic prejudices—after all, they will even include much-abused words likes “irregardless” if they are used frequently enough and documented in print. Dictionaries are also perceived as trusted authorities on language. And very few people think about who writes them. To most, dictionaries just Exist.
Who does write the dictionary? And can dictionaries really be objective authorities? These aren’t questions we typically ask as we search Dictionary.com to learn a ten-cent vocabulary word or settle a spelling dispute by checking the OED. But as technology and reading habits are changing, so are dictionaries. In the age of the internet, dictionaries are shifting online, taking on new roles. So, it’s worth asking, what is the purpose of a dictionary?
A common misconception about dictionaries is that they are gatekeepers of “correct” or “proper” English. Just ask any freshman composition student who begins his or her research paper by referencing Merriam-Webster.
This desire for an objective and decisive authority on English has a long history. Back in the 17th century, popular English authors like Daniel Defoe and John Dryden submitted proposals to establish an Academy of English—an institution that would set clear standards for the English language and regulate usage. In the 19th century, many Americans like John Adams and William S. Cardell followed suit, advocating for and institution that would “settle varying orthography; determine the use of doubtful words and phrases; and … form and maintain, as far as practicable, an English standard of writing and pronunciation, correct, fixed, and uniform, throughout our extensive territory.”
Thankfully, such an academy never came to be, but some of the earliest dictionary writers also hung onto this idea of dictionary as the authority on “right” language. In the preface to his A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson stated his intention that his dictionary would help rein in the unruly English language: “every language has likewise its improprieties and absurdities, which it is the duty of the lexicographer to correct or proscribe.” (The entire preface is fun reading, by the way.)
Despite what Johnson believed about dictionaries, their role has shifted significantly in the intervening centuries. Today, most lexicographers claim that dictionaries do not aim to prescribe language usage at all; rather, their goal is to describe how language is used in real life by real people—even if it’s messy and constantly changing.
As former Merriam-Webster Editor Kory Stamper writes in her recent book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries,
“Many people…believe that the dictionary is some great guardian of the English language…Words that have made it into the dictionary are Official with a capital O, sanctioned, part of Real and Proper English. … This is commonly called ‘prescriptivism,’ and it is unfortunately not how dictionaries work. … We are just observers, and the goal is to describe, as accurately as possible, as much of the language as we can. This approach is ‘descriptivism,’ and it is the philosophical basis for almost all modern dictionaries.” (p. 35)
Many people still see dictionaries as objective authorities, however, somehow set apart from the day-to-day usage of English, recording the language from afar. If you have this mindset, you probably don’t talk back to the dictionary, and it certainly doesn’t talk back to you.
The Internet Age
Yet, times are changing as technology evolves, and the internet has changed the way many people interact with dictionaries:
“People now pay with their eyes, not with their wallets, which means that online dictionary that runs ads need to keep eyeballs on its pages longer. The craft of writing a good definition isn’t as important in the click economy: what is important is being agile enough to do what it takes to get to the top of an Internet search results page.” (Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, p. 259)
The same tactics that worked for the print dictionaries of the past will not work for dictionaries that exist online now. Dictionaries’ ability to stay divorced from the day to day kerfuffles of politics, pop culture, and world events is eroding quickly. They need to stay relevant, stay at the top of people’s news feeds, get more clicks to generate ad revenue. So, it’s not surprising that dictionaries are becoming much more interactive. Stamper notes that “as dictionaries have moved online, lexicographers have developed a direct connection with users that they’ve never had before” (p. 232). Social media spaces are inherently dynamic. People can communicate with the dictionary (or, rather, those on its staff) like never before—and the dictionary’s staff can talk back in real time.
So, is this change a bad thing? Maybe it’s good to move away from a culture where we think of dictionaries as authoritative tomes with no authors and without bias, that simply exist as arbiters of language. Maybe it would be a positive move to think of dictionaries as only one side of an ongoing dialogue about language. A dialogue where the dictionary can comment on current events and people can comment back. Maybe getting involved in the political fray—and being up front about the biases of editors—could do some good. And to Dictionary.com’s credit, they’ve recently posted a video highlighting one of the real people on their staff, entitled “Did You Know Real People Write The Dictionary?”
To adapt to the internet age, many dictionaries have created innovative and useful content—from word quizzes to blog posts on etymology to ESL resources. Maybe this is a sign that dictionaries can use their cultural clout for good purposes: to battle misconceptions about language, to address the unfair assumptions we make about people who use nonstandard dialects, or to make words a little more fun. This may be a pie-in-the-sky best-case scenario, but is the changing status of the dictionary, and the public forum in which we can now talk back to it, a small step in the right direction—a step toward pushing the dictionary off of its cultural pedestal, while still valuing and respecting its usefulness?
Are We Role-ing Over the Line?
Right now, dictionaries exist in a liminal space, where their authority (and bias) isn’t necessarily well-defined. People are starting to notice Dictionary.com’s social commentary, but they’re still surprised by it. It’s easy to laugh at the dictionary’s tweets, because, hey, some of them are really funny. And if you happen to agree with Dictionary.com’s political ideology, you are likely inclined to enjoy their jokes. But what if Dictionary.com’s tweets are not just opinionated, but legitimately misleading, like when they inaccurately described this controversial Bari Weiss article last week? Or what if they make fun of people’s word usage and spelling mistakes, like when they derided Donald Trump’s misuse of “roll” vs. “role”, mocked Ivanka’s unfortunate malapropism, and announced the word of the year was “covfefe” (just kidding, it was “complicit”)?
Calling Donald Trump a traitor or Sarah Sanders a hypocrite is ultimately a matter of opinion, albeit a controversial one. And nearly everyone enjoys chuckling over a good “covfefe” joke. But is there a danger that striving to comment on every trending discussion and hot take will lead to carelessness, at best, or political bias that results in genuinely misleading statements, at worst?
Why does this matter? Because, at the end of the day, people do trust dictionaries. And we (hopefully) don’t want to create a culture where it seems like the record of English language is against people with certain ideologies or speech patterns. Dictionary.com has every right to be opinionated on Twitter, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t thoroughly enjoy their snark. If they want to brand themselves as the activist dictionary, the dictionary that cracks jokes, more power to them. Their tweets are funny. But I think they also risk alienating a lot of people, and I wonder if we are moving toward a space where people not only have their preferred news sources based on political ideology, but also their preferred dictionaries. If more dictionaries follow the example of Dictionary.com, will these reference works begin to skew in one political direction? Will Dictionary.com become the Liberal Dictionary, with others filling in the conservative gap? Or will opening up a two-way dialogue between dictionaries and their readers outweigh any potential downsides?
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you love or hate Dictionary.com’s Twitter? What is the role of a dictionary? Are you excited for that role to change? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll be back in two weeks with another blog post about words.
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