Metaphors are used every day. We are all familiar with them and what they are. They help us understand conceptual ideas, convey complex notions and have a shared understanding so that we can talk to each other using verbal shorthand. Take electronic mail, otherwise known as email as an example. Email seems so much like regular mail, except that there is no paper, no ink, no envelope, no postage stamp, and no postal carrier. There is, however, something familiar about composing a message and sending it to someone else.
What about the wildly popular Tivo’s metaphor? I applaud the decision to use a well-known comparison to explain what the product does: the video cassette recorder. Tivo does replicate many of the VCR’s abilities… and yet it offers so much more! We’re so overjoyed to be able to pause live TV that we overlook the fact that Tivo won’t play your video cassette tapes, let you transfer recorded shows from one machine to another, and it requires a monthly fee.
Metaphors help us grasp new things, but they don’t necessarily account for all aspects of that idea. VCRs couldn’t pause live TV; regular postal mail couldn’t arrive at its destination 3.2 seconds after it had been sent. The main characteristics of the original metaphor allow us to understand the basics of the new; the rest we learn over time. Moreover, the original metaphor helps us easily understand why a product might be useful or necessary, which means we’re more likely to adopt it into our daily lives.
Adoption metaphors have a lifecycle. They begin by introducing a new concept. They help us map something new to something we already understand and give us a framework in which to understand the new thing. After a while, the concept isn’t new any more, and people usually understand it pretty well without needing the original metaphor. The internet is a perfect example. Remember the term “Information Superhighway”? It was such a buzzword back in the 1990s. Although the internet had been around for a while, its introduction as an information superhighway helped frame the whole idea so that others could understand it. They could understand it because it was framed in terms of their daily lives. Do we still use the term “information superhighway”? Not much. Does this mean that we don’t use the internet any more? Is it gone from our minds the same way the term has gone away? Hardly! The internet is such a pervasive part of our culture now. It is everyday. It is mundane. It’s the exception rather than the rule to have no internet connection available to you. We are offered connections at work, at home, in coffee shops, through cell phones and in most public libraries.
The concept of the internet has been so well adapted into our culture, that it is now being used as a metaphor itself for other things. The language of the net pervades our everyday lives. For example, last week I was interviewing a woman who talked about a meeting she had with her supervisor because she needed to get up to speed on a project. Two years ago, she might have said that he informed her, he briefed her, he told her everything he could about what he knew on that particular topic. However, she said, “he downloaded it to me”. There was no computer in the room. No internet connection was involved. It was a verbal transaction, yet she invoked a metaphor that is widely recognized as being synonymous with online activity (the act of collecting or retrieving an electronic file from a remote location). Instead of an electronic file, it was ideas or thoughts. Instead of being retrieved from a remote server, it was retrieved from the supervisor’s brain. Instead of being received onto a computer, it was received into the person’s collection of thoughts. Instead of a file being “pulled” from a server and collected on one’s own computer, the information was “pushed” from one person and collected by another. As you can see, not all aspects of the metaphor fit precisely, but when she said “he downloaded that information to me,” I had no doubt what had happened between the supervisor and the direct report during the lifespan of that meeting.
With this example, you can see the lifecycle of an adoption metaphor, from its introduction, when it is a novel concept first being introduced to the public, to acceptance, when our understanding moves beyond the initial adoption metaphor and fully embraces the concept itself on its own merits. At that point, the metaphor has outlived its usefulness and is either discarded (information superhighway) or becomes mundane (download). You know the adoption metaphor has reached the pinnacle of success when the metaphor itself is used as a metaphor for other things (“where can I get “TiVo” for my radio?”). We don’t bother to refer to cars as “horseless carriages”, but we often use cars as metaphors for other things. Three quotes from recent articles: “Cops drive home seatbelt safety [in a 3-day game event aimed at high-schoolers] ” “Congress Revs Its Engine.” “Fitness Beginners learn how to go from zero to sixty with these workout tips.”
Metaphors accompany every new technological leap. They help with the core concepts such as a blog (originally “web log”) to the interface itself in iconic button choices. When introducing something new into the marketplace, how do you choose the right adoption metaphor? How can you tell if it will work? Is it luck? Do you go with your gut and then “wait and see”?
Happily, there are ways to analyze what metaphors people use to think about things. Systematic analysis at the beginning of a project can better ensure that you’ve got the right metaphor for your new product or service. In part 2 of this series, I will outline ways to analyze effectiveness of current metaphor use as well as ways to identify new or more impactful metaphors.
The following books and articles offer more information on conceptual metaphors:
- DesCamp, Mary Therese, and Eve E. Sweetser. “Metaphors for God: Why and How Do Our Choices Matter for Humans? The Application of Contemporary Cognitive Linguistics Research to the Debate on God and Metaphor” Pastoral Psychology. 50.3 (2005): 207-238.
- Fauconnier, Gilles, and Mark Turner. The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
- Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
- Rohrer, Tim. “Conceptual Blending on the Information Highway: How Metaphorical Inferences Work.” 1995.