Literally Desperate

There’s something I have to metaphorically get off my chest. You literally don’t have a clue what “literally” actually means.

Literal is defined as: actual; absolute. Literally is defined as: in the explicit meaning of the word; without embellishment or exaggeration; not as an idiom or metaphor.

I’m not the first person to plead this case, and I doubt I’ll be the last. Complaints of the misuse of the word are rampant. But despite the growing reeducation and the obvious satire, the abuse seems to be spreading more aggressively than ever.

And I think I’ve figured out why.

We are in an era of virtualization — our work, our leisure, our relationships and education all being served and maintained via intangible technologies — and at this stage in our transformation, people have started to crave the physical.

When our lives are largely lived out in the ether, we struggle to give emphasis to our intentions, our desires, and our goals. We struggle to give emphasis to just about anything, due entirely to the constraints of our communication vehicles: email, text message, IM, Twitter, phone, Skype. Their affordances for emphasis are severely limited. WE WANT YOU TO KNOW HOW WE REALLY FEEL. Did that do the job?

I’m in pain. I’m happy. I’m scared. I’m excited. I’m in trouble. I’m in love. And I’m much, much more than pixels on a screen.

To say you’re “literally dying” about the news you just heard, or are “literally falling off my chair” from the video you just watched, or are “literally over the moon” in love with the man you just met is just your way of expressing that you really, really mean it. But you aren’t actually dying, or falling, or flying in outer space. You just feel like you are. And you’re desperate for everyone else to understand.

We are more disconnected than ever before. The more we learn about each other second-hand (in status messages and blog posts and tagged photos), the less we feel the need to ask and the harder it is to tell. The less we literally connect eyes and hands, the less we figuratively connect our minds.

I try not to be a language Nazi (see what I did there?), but this is one case in which I think it’s crucial that we start paying attention. When we fall back on the incorrect usage of a word, we’re implying that we haven’t found a better way to express ourselves.

I don’t think it’s poor word choice. I think our virtualization is eroding our ability to intonate. Perhaps our ever-growing modes of communication are so devoid of pitch and tonality that we’re losing our grasp of them in meatspace.

What can I, as a user experience designer, do to reverse this trend? What can we all, as contributors to and creators of technology, do to imbue our input devices with the subtleties of tone and allow for the necessary expression of emphasis? Or is the pollution of language an omnipresent and unavoidable reality of evolution?

I can’t wait to hear your thoughts, so please share in the comments. I’m literally on the edge of my seat.

[Update: Thanks to @devintrix for this appropriate cartoon]

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  1. says

    I agree with this feeling so much and often think about how we can design for real human connection & living.

    It has lead me to this: Choosing what to do in our day-to-day work is far less important than choosing the problems that we apply ourselves to on a grand scale. In other words, our choice in the projects or jobs we take is the most important thing. Work on projects that you believe in.

    Designing a website, more often than not, is designing for solitude. Every moment a user spends on a website, in the ether, is a moment they don’t spend in “meatspace”. (There are examples, like Meetup, that break this mold. But they are not the norm).

    Design for social and physical. Design for real life!

  2. Eric says

    In my opinion you are bang on about how disconnected people seem to be from each other. The use of ‘literally’ is just one example, you can see it in the extremes people go to be noticed above din produced from our digital lives/environment.

    During the first era of the web it seems there was a huge drive to pull in the users to experience a manufactured reality… It was new, unexplored, we were pushing boundaries and limits. in a way we left our physical selves behind.

    Now we’ve come back from full immersion in that virtual world… we’re seeing and feeling the side effect of being “hooked up”. As a UX designer I feel it’s our role to craft experiences that tie into and support our physical experience. Help move a user through an interaction as thoughtfully as possible, minimizing the time they need to spend focused on the machine… And by machine I mean a distinct object apart from nature.

  3. says

    I heard that the original use of “literal” meant the opposite of what it means today. “Literal” meant “as in literature” or “as in fiction.”

    So originally if you said something literally happened, you were originally describing a figurative (or fictional) instance.

    Times change quick, though. UXers have to stay on top of the current best practices, including language. Misuse of “literally” is a big pet peeve of mine as well. I guess that’s what I get for having been an English major.

  4. says

    I think you’re ascribing a bit too rich a motive for the public’s new favorite hyperbole.

    Ten years ago people said “seriously.” Ten years before that they said “totally.” Ten years before that they said “super.”

    I’m making the chronology up, but you get the point. Old words get stale from overuse, and get replaced with new ones. We get older and we start sounding antiquated and then the kids are on our lawn ;)

  5. says


    Seems to me as an interesting interpretation.

    I think that today notions are changing along with objects. In the communication field this move is a lot faster (for instance, what is a phone today?). In this framework, universal references (like “I’ll call you”) tend to be weaker and weaker, as the identities of objects keep being destabilized/transformed.

    I can’t see what a designer could do to stop that, as changing the identity of objects is her/his work…

  6. says

    I think a lot of it stems from the fact that when you eliminate visual and aural cues from a conversation, and are left to communicate solely with text, a lot gets lost in the exchange. Things that didn’t have to be articulated in detail now do. The misuse of the word “literally” is not intentional, but I think it has been adopted because it is effective. It would be absurd to describe the details of your facial expression in order to imbue your words with additional meaning or context (I just squinted and cocked my head slightly to the side, trying to decide if that made sense…).

    When someone says “literally” I don’t think that they want the person to mistake their words for a true statement of events, but what they DO want the other person to do is to conjure that image in their head. You are telling that person, “seriously picture that my butt is barely on this chair, and I am going to fall off in a second.” The visual imagery of this communicates much more than the words alone can.
    So yes, people are still using the word incorrectly, but I think that as user experience designers understanding how to reproduce the effect of visual or aural cues is key. Or giving people ways to visualize and share their feelings without having to rely so heavily on the written word. Many people aren’t great at writing, so communication is a struggle. A good example would be emoticons…people rely on emoticons to express tone and sentiment in their messages. Hospitals rely on pain rating charts, when you point to a face that most accurately describes your level of pain or discomfort. I think from a UX perspective, these are good starting places for investigation. Oh God, I literally just wrote a book here instead of a comment…sorry!

  7. says

    I think this is part of why platforms like Tumblr and Instagram are gaining so much traction – the ability to share in ways beyond just words. This in turn points to the increasing importance of user experience design in the coming years.

  8. Drew Shapter says

    I think you have clearly discovered the difference that exists between online and offline communication. Whether it be texting, emailing, IMing it’s impossible to know the intentions of the communicator because of the inability to hear and see the way they speak. For me the rise of online communication has followed on from the rise of the written word, all of which stem from storytelling, the passing down of stories by word of mouth. Ultimately this is the way humans are meant to communicate, books etc are all tools to aid this, but they cannot and will not replace it, because they do not allow for the full range of human based communications to be transferred. It is the recognition of this that will become part of our evolution, the ability to realise that online conversations are not the same as offline face-to-face ones.

  9. says

    excellent blog post as always ! even if i’m more of an habitual pessimist-half-glass-empty-kind-of-a-guy, i’m going to share how i went from virtual to “meatspace” using our disconnected tools. I was in SF last week and Toronto this week and both times got to see friends face to face thanks to status sharing. I wouldn’t have run into them because they were also transient to SF and Toronto. My 2 cents: use the virtual as much as possible to provoke face to face meetings.

  10. Régis Kuckaertz says

    To many degrees, the Wikipedia entry for ’emoticon’ is really fascinating. Did you know that using a language as spartan as Morse, people eventually found a way to express very complex things, like love?

    I am a native french speaker and I cringe at misused french words, grammatical forms or punctuations. Yet I can’t help but think there is something beautiful in observing how people distort things and break the rules in order to find new forms of communication, new ways to express emotions, rythm, drama, tension, …

    Sometimes it can give birth to great inventions. I think the smiley is one of them. How would you write this in words: :-)

    Even if you could, I’m not sure it would carry the same emotional weight. (Looking at the comments, others agree with me.)

    It’s true that sometimes it can just go too far. But it’s a trial and error process. That reminds me how we work as designers: by pushing the boundaries. So why should we try to “reverse this trend”? Poets have been abusing words and word combinations for centuries to such a great effect.

    Landscape planners use the term ‘desire path’ to denote the unpaved routes people take to go from A to B. It is very similar to what we are witnessing.

    I will finish by saying that even if it’s wrong, it works ………………………… did you unconsciously wait for a second before reading this?

    What do you think, Whitney? I’d love to hear your feedback.

  11. Kristine says

    I find lately that when I use the term “literally,” I always caveat that I’m actually NOT exaggerating.

    Some of it (society) stems from just being limelight-hungry: woe is me, look at me, I’m shouting the loudest or I am saying the most outrageous thing just to get your attention.

  12. says

    What a wonderful post (better read late than never!)
    It brought to mind this wonderful presentation by Michael Wesch from UX Week 2010, about mediated culture – how communication is changing because of the media we use to communicate through:

    In spoken Hebrew (and in Facebook/Twitter statuses) a similar process is taking place. It seems like only extreme adjectives are used to describe anything. “It was AMAZING, INCREDIBLE”, and so on. Nothing is ever just “good”, because “good” is just not good enough anymore. Part of the reason for it is what Kristine mentioned here, if you’re not loud enough you can’t be heard. Too much noise demands people to shout. I wonder how deep this rabbit hole will go…

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