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)