Describe the pattern of usage

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A few things came together in my mind on the way to work this morning. If you haven’t read Christopher Alexander’s A Timeless Way of Building, I strongly encourage you to go pick up a copy. It’s a book that’s nominally on architecture, but provides concepts that go far beyond how to build stuff. One of the concepts is the idea of a pattern language, the idea that how we use something defines it.

This got me thinking about how we use language patterns long after the literal pattern is gone:

  • Dial a number. When was the last time you used a rotary phone? If you’re under the age of 30, do you even know what a rotary phone is?
  • Rewind/fast forward. Originally from the reel to reel player. You see these buttons on digital media players like flash applets and iPods, but the tape they originally applied to is long gone.
  • DVD. The DVD is still around, but more often than not, DVD refers to a certain length of video and a certain level of quality.
  • HD. Another term that’s used far beyond its original scope.
  • Taping a performance. When was the last time you used a magnetic tape cassette to record audio?

This of course brought me back to podcasting. Podcast is a portmanteau, a neologism that combines two words. To people who don’t know what a podcast is, you have to explain it, and that can, as any podcaster knows, be a convoluted process. What I do is describe podcasting as internet radio that you download. Yes, there’s RSS and all that stuff, but the super fast elevator pitch is internet radio that you download.

In there is the word radio. Radio doesn’t just describe a delivery mechanism or a device – radio describes a behavioral pattern, just like dial a number. Radio describes a way in which you enjoy audio delivered to you, and it describes the way you’d use that audio. TV describes a way of enjoying video content. You sit down in front of a video display device in your living room with a drink and a snack, and sit back and watch something on the device. Whether that device is a television set, a plasma display, or an iMac, TV is the general term for the behavioral pattern.

If you have a difficult concept to explain, what behavioral patterns can you leverage to make it easier for someone to instantly grasp at least the rough idea?


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