Confused about big data and cloud? So's everyone.

If you think “big data” and “cloud” are confusing terms, you are not alone.

A new analytical study from an Austin, Texas research firm puts those terms on its 2012 list of “Most confusing technology buzzwords of the decade.”

The Global Language Monitor compiled the most recent list of popular yet fuzzy tech terms for a period spanning 2010, 2011 and 2012. The company releases an annual update on the list each spring.

Global Language uses a proprietary algorithm to track the frequency of English language tech words and phrases on global media, the Internet and in proprietary databases. The weighted index also factors in long-term trends, short-term changes, momentum and velocity.

To measure confusion, the algorithm looks at how many different ways a word is defined, how many questions are raised about it, and how many different words are used to explain it, Paul Payack, president of Global Language, told Federal Computer Week in an interview on March 30.

“What we do is try to find the words that have the most questions with them,” Payack said. “You can see pretty easily that these are confusing to people.” Another key metric is how many words are needed to define the term: The bigger the data set, the more confusing, he said.

For example, “big data” heads the 2012 list as the most confusing buzzword of the decade so far. Its meaning has become more diffuse as it has grown in popularity, Payack said. “People have said big data will save us by increasing productivity, but what does that mean?” Payack said. “Once it becomes a marketing term, then it is bent in so many ways.”

In second place on the 2012 list is “the cloud,” which also ranked in first place on the “most confusing” list in 2008.

“It has been on the list for a few years, with so many interpretations and so many definitions,” Payack said. “Over time, it has seemed to degenerate.”

“Cloud just keeps morphing and gets new definitions and that is because as it gets bigger and bigger, it gets bent by the different marketing and strategic pulls,” Payack added. “It is a hot button right now. If you are doing business, someone will definitely ask, ‘how does that work in the cloud?’”

Other terms that made the 2012 list, including “Web 2.0/Web 3.0” (in fourth place) and “3G/4G/5G” (in tenth place), along with confusing acronyms such as “SOA,” tend to generate multiple definitions over time, Payack said.

“When we first looked at SOA [service-oriented architecture], there were 200 books on it. Now there are 40,000 books,” Payack said. “If you look at SOA and cloud, you can see that there is no set definition.”

Payack noted that federal executives and vendors, as well as foreign IT executives, are very interested in his research and try to hone in on precise meanings for the terms. At the same, many are relieved to find that others consider the terms to be poorly understood.

“They are happy to see that others are confused as well,” Payack said.

Payack, who has been studying technology terms since 2003, said some terms, such as virtualization, might appear to be new, but actually have been around for decades.

“Virtualization is still not understood,” Payack said. The term was in use with computer innovators in the 1970s, and then became popular with “cyberpunk” writers. “Now, 15 years later, people are still saying ‘this is the first use of virtual,’” Payack said.

Rounding out Global Language Monitor’s 2012 list of most confusing terms are “The Next Big Thing,” “social discovery,” “solid state,” “CERN,” “solar max,” “de-dupe,” and “SoLoMo.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.


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