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Alphabet Built An Urban Dictionary For Tech Jargon

“Technology is only useful if people understand it.”

Alphabet Built An Urban Dictionary For Tech Jargon

When a cyber attack shut down Twitter, SoundCloud, and Spotify in late October, media outlets struggled to clearly explain the series of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks that caused it. The New York Daily News, the Telegraph, and Wired all ran full-page explainers. The Guardian reported that the “cause of the outage was a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack, in which a network of computers infected with special malware, known as a ‘botnet,’ are coordinated into bombarding a server with traffic until it collapses under the strain.”

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Compare that to a top-ranking definition for DDoS attack on Sideways, a new website that clearly defines complex technology terms, created by Alphabet’s Jigsaw in collaboration with the Washington Post:

A DDoS attack is like someone anonymously placing a press ad including your phone number and offering an Aston Martin for sale at $200. You’re bombarded by calls, your life is misery, the callers aren’t aware you’re part of a trick, and your attacker is almost impossible to trace.

Much simpler, right? Other definitions found on Sideways are equally compelling: Two-factor authentication is compared to Cinderella’s slipper. Doxing is like a 500-piece jigsaw of you naked that had previously been scattered all over the internet, but is now being pieced back together by someone with a whole lot of time.

Jigsaw, which launched in 2016 from the think tank Google Ideas, is the company’s internal tech incubator that focuses on geopolitical challenges related to technology–from shielding people from digital attacks to fighting online extremism. With Sideways, it’s giving the public an accessible dictionary for terms that are often difficult to describe, even for experts.

These descriptions were all commissioned by Jigsaw or created internally before Sideways launched, but today they are available for anyone to use or add to. By using analogies to explain complex technological ideas, Sideways addresses a challenge that can be nearly as difficult as creating new technology itself: developing the language to describe it to the public.

“Technology is only useful if people understand it,” says Alfred Malmros, Jigsaw’s head of marketing. When Malmros joined the team in 2014, he often asked engineers to explain things to him in analogies, cutting out the technological jargon neither he, nor likely many outside of the web developer world, would understand. Later, Jigsaw began adapting that same method when meeting with journalists or human rights activists to talk about the new security tools they were launching.

“We found that people understood that they needed better security devices and tools online but didn’t have a reference for what it is,” says Malmros. For very basic security, they would describe tools like a seatbelt, while the most secure would be analogous to an armored vehicle. “We realized the power of analogies and relating these complex topics to their world,” he says.

Last year, Jigsaw started working with the Washington Post to scale the idea of technology analogies to a creative platform. They built the site on mobile first, to make it as simple as possible. “We wanted only a second or two between you and information,” says Malmros. “That’s the challenge in a dictionary—it can be a long journey.” The home page turns up a list of technology terms—right now there are about 70—that you can click on to get a list of analogies. A button below prompts users to add their own analogy, and anyone can up-vote or down-vote terms so the most populate ones will rise to the top.

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A Chrome extension launching with the website will highlight words that can be defined by Sideways in blue, displaying the analogy in a scroll-over. The tool will behave the same way with any terms that come up in articles in the Post, which owns the product.

Right now, most of the analogies are written by the U.K. design writer Nick Asbury—a lover of wordplay—as well as some by the internet pioneer Vint Cerf. Today the website opens up so that anyone can log on and add to it. A team at the Post will monitor the entries, but Malmros says the only real protocol is that the analogy is clear. “There isn’t a perfect analogy,” he says. What relates to a concept can vary based on cultural or political context; another DDoS analogy, for example, was a street protest clogging up traffic as a demonstration of disagreement.

What’s most important for the site is that there are many analogies, and that they vary widely, so that people with many different experiences can understand a particular term as clear as day.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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