Living the beta life

April 13, 2012

When Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion this week, a piece of trivia blazed across social networks: The purchase price for Instagram, a two-year-old, 12-person photo-sharing company, outshone the valuation for the 1,300-person, 161-year-old New York Times — by about $50 million.

There’s a lot of financial nuance lost in the comparison, but to the ink-stained wretches in the newsroom, it felt like another tap on the shoulder by the Print Reaper (similar to his cousin Grim, only he wields a pen, which is, of course, sharper than a scythe).

It’s a confusing time for the media world, but we’re not stumbling blindly into the digital divide alone. It’s confusing for almost anyone hoping to make sense of the Instagrams, the Twitters, the apps, the sites, the viruses, the spheres, the strategies, the privacy concerns and the question of identities.

As someone in the business of words, I see the confusion of the digital space on a linguistic level. Terms in technology are invented (often without vowels), or we take a commonly used word and slap on an entirely new definition. A case in point: When sending a package to my parents from the office, I put the name of my digital team on the return address label. My mother — ever hopeful that her unmarried daughter will settle down — called me as soon as she saw the word “Engagement” on the package. I had trouble explaining to her that it meant engaging readers on our Web site — not an elaborate proposal announcement from her wayward child.

The language of the Web is shifting as I type, as is everything about the Web. That’s what makes it fascinating. In written language, change comes slowly, diffusing slang into Oxford Dictionary-approved terms over time. Online, those changes happen in a cartoonishly high speed thanks to the experience of millions of people riffing off one another, a giant jazz song played out across social media sites, blogs and mobile apps.

A word that’s mutating online seems to encapsulate our existence online best: beta. “Being in beta,” is Internetese, for the final stages before a technology product launches into the world. But it has alsogrown to describe the state of constant change online — the only constant online. Instagram is a photosharing site today — possibly consumed by Facebook tomorrow — which may fade into Internet history in a few years. There’s a fluidity to our existence in virtual space. We’re always in beta.

This will be my last Web Insites column, as I’m taking on a new role with The Post’s Web site, working on our blogging strategy. I will miss lingering over our online life together each week. Thank you for allowing me this space and for all the questions and comments you contributed. It’s been fun practicing my jazz with you.

Beginning next week, Monica Hesse will take over writing this column. Join her each Wednesday at 2 p.m. for her Web Hostess live discussion at washingtonpost.com/conversations.

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