Common vs Expert Jargon

tldr: Jar­gon always has a com­plex­ity cost, but you can put effort into mak­ing a con­cept more ac­cessible, and it’s es­pe­cially valuable to put that effort in for terms that you’d like to be used by layfolk, or that you ex­pect to be used a lot in spaces where you ex­pect lots of layfolk to be read­ing/​par­ti­ci­pat­ing.

I. Les­sons from Game Design

Magic the Gather­ing deals a lot with com­plex­ity. Each year, new abil­ities and rules are added to the game. This gives ex­pe­rienced play­ers the chance to con­stantly dis­cover new things, but it comes with some is­sues.

First, it makes the game harder for new play­ers (the game kept grow­ing more com­plex over time, rais­ing the amount of in­for­ma­tion a new player had to pro­cess at once)

And sec­ond, even for ex­pe­rienced play­ers: each in­stance of com­plex­ity is a cost. Play­ers (both new and old) can only han­dle so much, and some forms of com­plex­ity are less fun than oth­ers. (For ex­am­ple, forc­ing play­ers to do a lot of book-keep­ing, rather than let­ting them make in­ter­est­ing strate­gic de­ci­sions)

Six years ago, their cre­ative di­rec­tor wrote about a new paradigm of Magic de­sign. One of their solu­tions was to pay care­ful at­ten­tion to how they spent com­plex­ity points in ways that af­fected new play­ers.

Three ex­am­ples:

1. Com­mon Cards

In Magic, when you buy a new pack, 11 cards are “com­mon”, 3 are “un­com­mon” and one is “rare”. Ex­pe­rienced play­ers buy lots of cards and can have ac­cess to lots of rares, but new play­ers gen­er­ally just buy a few cards, so most of their cards are com­mon. There­fore, the com­plex­ity of the cards at com­mon de­ter­mines how much com­plex­ity new­com­ers have to deal with.

2. Keywords

One way to re­duce “effec­tive com­plex­ity” is to bun­dle con­cepts to­gether in a key­word. In­stead of say­ing “this crea­ture deals dam­age to each of the crea­tures block­ing it and then deals the re­main­der of its dam­age to the player”, it just says “Tram­ple”. There’s an ini­tial cost of learn­ing what Tram­ple means, but af­ter­wards, ev­ery time you see the word “Tram­ple” on a crea­ture it works the same way.

Tram­ple has some neat things go­ing for it: it sounds evoca­tive, and gets to build off of ex­ist­ing ideas in your brain. You already know what a big an­i­mal looks like. You can imag­ine a small crea­ture get­ting in the way of the elephant, and it slow­ing the elephant down slightly but not re­ally stop­ping it, and the elephant con­tin­u­ing on, tram­pling over it, and then go­ing on to at­tack some big­ger tar­get.

This imagery is helpful for in­tu­it­ing what the rules mean, even if the word­ing is some­what con­fus­ing.

The prob­lem comes when you in­tro­duce too many key­words at once. It gets over­whelming. Which brings to a fi­nal con­cept:

3. Ever­green keywords

Every 3 months, new magic cards are re­leased to keep things fresh. New key­words are in­tro­duced (usu­ally 3-5).

But there are some key­words (like Tram­ple) that are *always* in sea­son. There are about 16 ev­er­green key­words. Many of them are pretty in­tu­itive (such as fly­ing crea­tures only be able to be blocked by other fly­ing crea­tures) so they aren’t hard to learn.

A new player has an im­plicit goal of “learn all the ev­er­green key­words”, which is a man­age­able task.

II. Build­ing a high level conversation

I think some of this ap­plies to the ra­tio­nal­sphere, where a lot of im­por­tant con­cepts have been built up, or, com­bined to­gether from neigh­bor­ing dis­ci­plines. (See Anna Sal­mon’s Sin­gle Con­ver­sa­tional Lo­cus)

Jar­gon is *use­ful*. They let you sum­ma­rize a com­plex con­cept in a sin­gle word, and then have deeper con­ver­sa­tions where each word packs a lot more mean­ing.

I have a lot of thoughts about how to do jar­gon *right*, which are be­yond the scope of this post. But to sum­ma­rize, I think good jar­gon:

  • en­ca­pusu­lates an idea that’s im­por­tant to build off of

  • lets you dis­t­in­guish be­tween *similar* con­cepts that have im­por­tantly-differ­ent-nu­ances. (viral in­fec­tion vs bac­te­rial in­fec­tion)

  • pro­vides some con­text clues that help you learn it (the way Tram­ple does), while...

  • ...not *also* re­sult­ing in peo­ple con­fus­ing what it means (a bad ex­am­ple per­haps be­ing “nega­tive re­in­force­ment”, which is not ac­tu­ally the same thing as “pun­ish­ment”)

Some con­sid­er­a­tions:

1) Some­times you want a 101 space where you’re ei­ther in­tro­duc­ing ideas to a broader au­di­ence. Some­times you want a 201 space where you’re build­ing on those ideas (ei­ther helping some­what-less-new­com­ers build up a more ad­vanced un­der­stand­ing, or liter­ally de­vel­op­ing new con­tent at the cut­ting edge)

2) Differ­ent venues of con­ver­sa­tion can have both differ­ent ex­pec­ta­tions of who-is-par­ti­ci­pat­ing, and differ­ent so­cial norms of what kind of par­ti­ci­pa­tion is en­couraged. (i.e an aca­demic jour­nal, a semi-for­mal in­ter­net fo­rum, a face­book post)

3) Some con­cepts are pretty stan­dalone: layfolk can learn them and use them im­me­di­ately with­out hav­ing to fit them into a big ed­ifice of theory

4) Fur­ther­more, some con­cepts make good “gate­way” ter­minol­ogy. They’re use­ful stan­dalone, but then they open up a world of ideas to you that you can then fur­ther ex­plore.

So my thought is ba­si­cally: if you are de­vel­op­ing jar­gon, pay ex­tra at­ten­tion to whether this is Com­mon or Ex­pert Level jar­gon. There’s not a clear di­vid­ing line be­tween them, but roughly:

Com­mon Jar­gon means you’re ex­pect­ing it to be a use­ful enough idea for layfolk to use reg­u­larly (or, you’d like to be able to have con­ver­sa­tions with layfolk, or write pop­u­lariza­tion ar­ti­cles, that rely on the term already per­co­lat­ing into the main­stream, or, use it as a gate­way term)

Con­se­quently, it’s much more im­por­tant to put a lot of effort into choos­ing a term that:

  • res­onates eas­ily, is mem­o­rable...

  • ...but avoids peo­ple latch­ing onto the wrong as­pect of it and mis­in­ter­pret­ing it

  • doesn’t sound like a weird in­sider term...

  • … but maybe ideally hints at a broader ecosys­tem of ideas

Ex­pert Jar­gon is only re­ally use­ful if you’re buy­ing into a broader ecosys­tem of ideas that build on each other. Ac­cessibil­ity and avoid­ing mi­s­un­der­stand­ing is still im­por­tant if pos­si­ble but be­ing pre­cise and build-on-able is more valuable.

Fur­ther Reading

This post was in­spired by and builds upon:

Com­plex­ity is bad (Zvi Mow­show­itz)
The Pur­ple Sparkly Ball Thing (Mal­colm Ocean)
New World Order (Mark Rose­wa­ter)