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Viewpoint: Is "RIA" a Ploy to Keep Merriam-Webster in Business?

Enough with the new words already...My grandparents do not know what an RIA is, nor do they care

Sean Voisen's Blog

Marketing gurus create new terminology like 'RIA' and 'Web 2.0' in order to force people to engage in new conversations without them dragging along their baggage of ingrained prejudices about what something is or is not. They also do it - I am convinced - to make themselves seem smart. But we should not have to keep inventing new words in order to have these new conversations.

Ethan Eismann has an interesting rumination about the limitations of language when it comes to new technology. More specifically, he’s not a fan of the term “RIA.” (Ethan prefers the term “RIE” for “Rich Interactive Experience.”) Quite honestly, neither am I. I lump “RIA” in the same category of ridiculously contrived “marketing speak” as “Web 2.0,” “next-generation” and “innovative paradigms.” In a nutshell: terms without any substance — Twinkies of the English language.

Still — ever the hypocrite am I — I delivered an entire mini-lecture just the other day during my class at the Art Institute on the architecture of RIAs! The term is so pervasive that I feel like I sometimes have to use it in order for people to understand what the heck I am talking about.

But I probably shouldn’t feel this way.

The problem with language is that it is inherently limiting. As soon as you put a label — a word — on something you must limit it. You must box it in and try to make it conform to the definitions and properties prescribed by the symbol you have given it. But the thing itself is not the word. It is not the symbol. And this is a real problem, especially when trying to communicate the potentiality of things — the future of things that do not yet exist. Surely, when you broaden the definition of the word and you broaden the potentiality, but usually at the sake of clarity. A word like “experience” (as opposed to “application”) is so broad as to contain almost limitless potential, but what it gains in expansiveness it loses in descriptiveness.

Marketing gurus create new terminology like “RIA” and “Web 2.0” in order to force people to engage in new conversations without them dragging along their baggage of ingrained prejudices about what something is or is not. They also do it — I am convinced — to make themselves seem smart. But we should not have to keep inventing new words in order to have these new conversations. And we should not keep inventing new words just to boost our own egos. My grandparents do not know what an RIA is, nor do they care. They use their iMac to open websites on the Internet, and occasionally they use desktop software. Why can’t they call something like Buzzword software? That’s what it is, isn’t it? Why can’t a Flash application, one that is loaded in the browser or on the desktop, one that provides a truly amazing experience, simply be called “software?” Great, amazing, usable, interactive software.

Enough with the new words already.

More Stories By Sean Voisen

Sean Voisen designs and creates new technology. Based in San Diego, CA, he blogs at where he posts about Interaction, Information or Experience Design, Programming in Flash ActionScript or Processing, Computational Art, Software Architecture
Sociology, and the Web & New Media.

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Most Recent Comments
Sean 03/02/08 08:40:04 PM EST

Adam: Very valid points. But I think I should clarify the point and intent of this blog post, because it's not entirely evident (even to me) after reading it again. First, however, I do have to disagree that "RIA" and "Web 2.0" are "tech terms." SQL is a tech term. HTTP is a tech term. AJAX is a tech term. RIA is clearly a marketing term (disputably) coined by some clever marketing folk at Macromedia. Web 2.0 was supposedly coined by O'Reilly. When I build a web app (I am a Rails and Flex developer), neither of these terms helps me clarify what the heck I am intending to build. Only drawings do that. Or mock-ups. Or focused discussions of particular features. Throwing in a term like RIA is just verbal hand-waving.

I say all this, but these are unimportant arguments. RIA and Web 2.0 aren't going anywhere at this point, so it would be silly of me to call for their permanent banishment. And I'm not. What I am saying is that we all should think deeper about how language affects our point of view and our ways of thinking about technology. Why invent new terms all the time? Why can't we have new conversations about old terms instead of new conversations about new terms? When transistors replaced vacuum tubes, did people invent a new word for the computer? No, we still call them computers.

The point being that new language is socially expensive. Every time we invent some silly new term to describe what is (in essence) just a technological progression of something that already exists (i.e. the web application), we spend a lot of time and energy educating people about it. You say RIA is not a "public" word, which may be true, but I say that whenever we can avoid isolating ourselves from the public by coming up with our own internal language, we should. I may be in the minority here, but I think it's elitist. Whether my grandparents understand or not is not a moot point - it IS the point :)

In the end, rich experiences should be the de facto standard by now. If we're trying to build technology that everyone will love and enjoy and want to use, then obviously we want to design and create the best experience possible. We don't need new language to make this happen. We just need creativity, imagination and the ability to re-think what already is.

Adam 03/02/08 09:47:03 AM EST

These ARE valid terms because definitions such as RIA or Web 2.0 help people who build these things to communicate what's required. These are not "public" words. They are tech terms that overarch a wide variety of solutions. Broad terms yes. Whether your grandparents understand what these phrases mean or not is a moot point. Do your grandparents know what a SQL database is? Should we rename it to "software" too?

As far as marketing goes, if the term RIA or Web 2.0 is used when pitching to a client then it _is_ useful because of how the approaches that underpin what these phrases stand for differ from traditional web sites. So you want Web 2.0? If you mean more user interaction, comments, gradings etc... then beware that users can comment negatively as well as positively - what will that mean to your brand if this occurs? Plus it'll cost you more because of x, y, and z.

Architecting an application is very different to architecting a web site. It is something that front-end developers are being more and more tasked to do, but have little experience in planning. One example being that with Ajax you need to build contingencies for when the content you're calling and exposing to the user fails. This is something that Information Architects have little experience in handling as well in my experience. Also DHTML/Ajax, say drag and drop functionality - how does that degrade gracefully for those with disabilities, or users without JavaScript enabled (banks/financial houses etc...)?

Surely these are useful terms because they alert developers and clients to the change in methodology required?