The rise and fall of the Internet cliche

I thought I would try out Edward Tufte’s sparklines idea as a way of presenting some research I have been doing into how the mainstream media has been covering technology over the last decade or two. I went through Factiva (part-owned by Dow Jones, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, and my paymaster), noting down the number of references each term got in a year (not as swift an exercise as one might hope. There must be an easier way of doing this.) Some of the results are in a column due out tomorrow in the Asian and online WSJs (Friday).

Anyway, here’s some material there wasn’t room for, along with a stab at a sparkline or two:

Who calls the Internet ‘the information superhighway’ anymore? Sadly, some still do – mentions have been static the past four years at about 1,000 per annum – but that’s a distinct improvement over 1994, when it was cited on Factiva a record 16,447 times. Since then editors must have started issuing edicts, because usage more or less halved in subsequent years. ‘Electronic mail’ started getting mentions as early as 1972 but took a quarter century to fall out of editors’ favor for the snappier sounding ‘e-mail’. From a high of 13,637 mentions in 1996 it has been falling steadily: Last year it was mentioned only 4,552 times against 1,577,582 for e-mail. Some terms, unfortunately, are more resilient. ‘Cyberspace’, for example, took longer than ‘information superhighway’ to hit the mainstream (in 1994 it received a third the number of mentions) but continued to enjoy journalistic approval right up to 2000, when a staggering 26,226 editors failed to spot its cringe-making quality and allowed it to enter copy. Since then, it’s gradually fallen from grace, but not fast or far enough: Last year it popped up nearly 9,000 times. Ugh.

Then here’s the same data in sparklines format (thanks to Mathew Lodge’s excellent Adobe Photoshop script for making it possible for a design doofus for me to be able to get something like this out. My fault it’s not a very good example of the genre. Suggestions very welcome for making better ones). Still, I think it shows up some interesting features of how, at least in the case of the first two, one cliche has given way to another over the past decade.

Mentions in Factiva, 1986–2004:

Sparkline for SuperhighwayInformation Superhighway
Sparkline for Cyberspace3Cyberspace 
Sparkline for Electronic mailElectronic Mail

What the data doesn’t show is that this was the first reference to ‘electronic mail’, back in January 1972:

Pres Nixon proposes development and demonstration of electronic mail system…
21 January 1972, New York Times Abstracts – Pres Nixon proposes development and demonstration of electronic mail system to provide routine overnight mail delivery between stations and 1-hr priority delivery

Whatever happened to that?

3 thoughts on “The rise and fall of the Internet cliche

  1. Interesting to *see* how these things change over time. Personally I hope the term ‘blogosphere’ dies a very quick death, although I think that’s wishful thinking. I never liked the term blog anyhow, but if it’s got to be used how about Blogdom. Sounds way better to my ear. As for ‘citizen journalists’. Self explanatory – yes – but where’s the style, the pazzazz. I keep thinking of Citizen Smith, power to the people and all that. Silly. Hope that one dies too.

  2. Couldn’t agree more on blogosphere. Saw one guy was talking about ‘blogland’ recently. And citizen journalists definitely should be canned. We need a list of unacceptable terms and acceptable alternatives….

  3. A list would be a start. May the culling commence with your right hand column;) Just don’t call it blogzone. Blogland or blogdom work for me.

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