Hey, y’all. Good morning.

I real­ly real­ly love it when a con­fer­ence has a one-word theme, because that’s right in my wheel­house as a dic­tio­nary edi­tor. I feel very com­fort­able with a sin­gle word at a time. I can work with this. Did any­one else read the logo as rebel lion?” I was like, That is an awe­some name for a band.”

Obviously lex­i­cog­ra­phers are the first peo­ple you think of when you think of rebels, right? Dictionary edi­tors. You can see that we’re always the first on the bar­ri­cades when the time comes. And of course this is what we think of when we think of rebel­lion. Guns, shout­ing, fire in the streets. But in my pro­fes­sion­al opin­ion, I think that we can broad­en the def­i­n­i­tion of rebel­lion. Really, rebel­lion is just try­ing to make the world match your under­stand­ing of it. You believe things should be one way, the world believes things should be anoth­er way, and you’re going to change the world to match your under­stand­ing. Why force some­thing that does­n’t fit? Why not just make a square hole?


So if we think that the rebel­lion changes the world, does it real­ly mat­ter what the time scale is? It does­n’t have to be an overnight over­throw. It can be the steady remak­ing of the world through pure force of con­vic­tion, like water wear­ing away stone. We have slow food, we have slow fash­ion, why can’t we have slow rebel­lion? Many things that we think of as being rev­o­lu­tions, like sci­en­tif­ic rev­o­lu­tions, were not the kind of sud­den overthrow/lots of shout­ing rebellions.

This is what Max Planck said very famous­ly about sci­en­tif­ic revolutions: 

A new sci­en­tif­ic truth does not tri­umph by con­vinc­ing its oppo­nents and mak­ing them see the light, but rather because its oppo­nents even­tu­al­ly die, and a new gen­er­a­tion grows up that is famil­iar with it.
Max Planck

They don’t tri­umph. You just have to out­live the bastards.

So espe­cial­ly when you’re think­ing about the rev­o­lu­tion, the rebel­lion, that comes with a new idea, some­times a slow rebel­lion is the way to go. And of course when you want to change the world, it helps that the way that I’ve want­ed to change the world affects one very very small part of the world. I want­ed to change how dic­tio­nar­ies were made. This is how peo­ple real­ly think dic­tio­nar­ies are made:

Illustration of a hand-cranked meat grinder

You take the lan­guage, you grind it up, and then you have this kind of con­sis­tent sludge of dic­tio­nary. That’s not very enter­tain­ing to me, and I don’t think it’s very help­ful to peo­ple, so here’s the way that I think the dic­tio­nary should be made. They should rep­re­sent every sin­gle word in the lan­guage, no mat­ter what. And that usage is what deter­mines mean­ing; mean­ing is deter­mined by how peo­ple use a word. And that yes, that means every word, even the ones you don’t like. If you want to argue with this, I’m real­ly hap­py to argue with you at the par­ty tonight, but I should warn you that I don’t drink, and if when we argue about this you’re drunk and I’m sober, I’m going to win. But it’s okay because if you’re drunk enough you won’t remem­ber los­ing. So that’ll be fine.

If you were here at PopTech in 2008, you might be hav­ing a moment of déjà vu right now because I was right here on this stage when we announced word​nik​.com, which is the dic­tio­nary that I have been mak­ing. And I should prob­a­bly make some kind of Inception joke right here. I thought about wear­ing that dress again. But I decid­ed to just show you our throw­back logo.

You can hard­ly tell that it was done in a style I like to call half-assed Illustrator.” 

Wordnik has been going on for six years, since 2008. The peo­ple at Poptech were the first peo­ple to see our alpha ver­sion, the first peo­ple to get to try it out. I think that if one human year is like sev­en dog years, then six human years is like forty-two Internet years, right? Six years on the Internet is a real­ly long time. The advan­tage of a slow rebel­lion is that it gives you time to learn things while you’re chang­ing the world. If you have a sud­den over­throw rebel­lion, there’s not real­ly time to reflect. But six years is a long time to reflect.

I try to learn some­thing every day, not mat­ter how dumb, and I like to tweet it. TILT” means Thing I Learned Today, and this is some­thing I learned back in August that I have not yet had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to put into practice:


So I try and learn some­thing every day, but I think that the most valu­able kind of knowl­edge is that which you acquire through noe­ge­n­e­sis. Noegenesis is a fan­tas­tic word, and it means The acqui­si­tion of new knowl­edge from obser­va­tion and expe­ri­ence, and from infer­ring rela­tion­ships between known things.” So with six years of Wordnik on the Internet, a lot of what we’ve learned, what I’ve learned, are some assump­tions that got validated.

My favorite thing that we’ve learned is the assump­tion we went with going in is that mean­ing of a word equals usage of a word, and you can infer mean­ing from usage. So STEAM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math.” You read that sen­tence, you know what STEAM means, you don’t need a tra­di­tion­al dic­tio­nary def­i­n­i­tion. You’re good. You can move on with your life. I want to point out the cita­tion for sec­ond exam­ple. John Maeda was say­ing, Oh, you need the A for Art to turn STEM (which is Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) to STEAM.”

Another thing I’ve learned that made me real­ly hap­py is that peo­ple real­ly do love words. Sometimes when you real­ly love some­thing you just extrap­o­late and believe that the uni­verse real­ly loves some­thing. But it turns out lots of peo­ple love words. There have been 158-some odd thou­sand words that have been marked as a favorite on word​nik​.com. That’s rough­ly three new favorite words an hour for six years, which is pret­ty cool.

And peo­ple like to col­lect words. People have made more than 48,000 lists on Wordnik, and those lists com­prise 1.7 mil­lion words. 1.7 mil­lion words were con­sid­ered impor­tant enough for peo­ple to put them on a per­son­al list.

We also found out that peo­ple need to add words to oth­er things. So the Wordnik API has been called [1,805,761,975] times. In fact, just back­stage I was talk­ing with Brent, who helps run this thing, and he’s actu­al­ly made some­thing with the Wordnik API. He has this lit­tle cool tool that puts his word of the day on his own blog. Learning all this was great, and learn­ing all this was grat­i­fy­ing, but there were a lot of things that we did­n’t know going in. 

One of the things we did­n’t know is what things were going to be easy and what things were going to be hard. Larry Wall, the inven­tor of the pro­gram­ming lan­guage Perl, which is the first pro­gram­ming I did any kind of pro­fes­sion­al non-school cod­ing in, and I should real­ly embroi­der this on a sampler:

Easy things should be easy, and hard things should be possible.
Larry Wall

Another famous Perlism is that there’s more than one way to do it,” which I think is also a great mantra for slow rebels, right? If at first you don’t suc­ceed, try, try again. He also said some­thing that I used to have on a sign above my desk that I had pho­to­copied from one of the Perl pro­gram­ming books that said, We want you to acquire the three chief virtues of a pro­gram­mer, which are: lazi­ness, impa­tience, and hubris.”

So, we found that a lot of things that we thought would be easy were easy, we found that a lot of things we thought would be hard were in fact pos­si­ble. But the hard­est thing, the thing that I was the most uncer­tain of when we first start­ed Wordnik was this Quora ques­tion: How does Wordnik make mon­ey? Because when you have a start­up, that’s one of the things that you’re try­ing to find out. What’s the busi­ness mod­el. This is answer I post­ed to this question: 

A whiteboard showing a plan in three phases, phase 1 is "WORDS," phase 2 is "?", phrase 3 is "profit"

I don’t know how many of you are South Park fans, but they had an episode where there were these under­pants gnomes, and this was their busi­ness mod­el. This is my most upvot­ed answer on Quora, by the way. Only two of those peo­ple who upvot­ed were actu­al Wordnik employ­ees at the time. But it turns out our the­sis was that if you knew a lot about a lot of words, that that data would be valu­able. And it turns out with Reverb Technologies (we’ve made the Reverb iPad and iPhone read­er app) that you can use a word graph to build a con­tent dis­cov­ery plat­form that helps you dis­cov­er arti­cles based on your inter­ests rather than your demo­graph­ics. It’s been down­loaded near­ly half a mil­lion times, and peo­ple use it to read about five to eight times longer than they do in com­pet­ing apps.

So when you know all the words, you know a lot about about­ness, and you can help peo­ple find what they’re real­ly inter­est­ed in. So yay, busi­ness mod­el, right? This works great. So I like to say that when we start­ed Wordnik, we were try­ing to make pan­ning for gold, find­ing out infor­ma­tion about words, more effi­cient and more scal­able. And we thought that that data would be gold, that it would be very valuable. 

And we were right. But it turned out to be even big­ger than we thought. So we scaled up pan­ning for gold. That was great. But in the process what we basi­cal­ly got was hydro­elec­tric pow­er. It was­n’t so much the gold that was impor­tant, but the process. The process of ingest­ing and analysing and build­ing a word graph out of bil­lions of words was very powerful. 

So that’s great, right? Rebellion accom­plished, indus­try dis­rupt­ed, prod­uct mar­ket fit, busi­ness mod­el found, cus­tomers hap­py. Well… When this slide came up yes­ter­day, did any­body else kind of feel like this was a mes­sage to them personally?

Photo of a text slide reading "If you want to find your greatest love. Look inside the hardest thing you do. That's where it will be."

It was like, Yay, the uni­verse! It’s try­ing to tell us some­thing.” So I’m very hap­py with Reverb Technologies. I’m real­ly proud of what we’ve built. We built a fan­tas­tic tech­nol­o­gy that helps pub­lish­ers reach mil­lions of peo­ple with rel­e­vant, use­ful con­tent. It makes read­ers hap­py. It makes writ­ers hap­py. But that actu­al­ly turned out to be eas­i­er than I expect­ed, so it’s not the hard­est thing. The hard­est thing for me is how can I make a 120,000 Wordniks hap­py? And how could I make that num­ber ten times bigger?

Because real­ly, the English lan­guage belongs to every­body. The English lan­guage is some­thing that we all share togeth­er. The only rea­son it exists is because we all agree to under­stand each oth­er when we speak it. That’s what the English lan­guage is. So today I’m hap­py to announce that in order to fur­ther our mis­sion of mak­ing as much infor­ma­tion as pos­si­ble about as many words as pos­si­ble avail­able to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble, that Wordnik is going to become a not-for-profit corporation.

And this feels hard and scary, but I’m so hap­py about it because it means that I can ask for help. I can ask peo­ple who love and want to be part of the English lan­guage to join me to make that infor­ma­tion avail­able to every­one. This URL is live right now. I thought peo­ple love words, there are so many favorite words on Wordnik. Wouldn’t it be nice to let peo­ple adopt a word, just like you can adopt a high­way? And when you adopt a word we can help spruce it up a lit­tle bit. The charis­mat­ic words like serendip­i­ty” and cal­lipy­gian” will help sup­port the words that nobody likes, like impact.”

This is an alpha alpha alpha. Once again PopTechers are going to be the first peo­ple to get to try out some­thing new with Wordnik. That’s live and you can reserve your word today. John [Maeda] already grabbed design,” so sor­ry, folks. And let me know what your ideas are. What you’re inter­est­ed in, what you’d like us to do, because again the English lan­guage belongs to everyone. 

And by mak­ing Wordnik open, non-profit, we can do all the things for which there real­ly is no busi­ness mod­el. If any­body knows an excel­lent busi­ness mod­el for writ­ing ety­molo­gies, please let me know. Everybody loves them, nobody wants to pay for them. 

So I hope to be back at PopTech in 2020 in anoth­er few years to give you anoth­er update. Thank you so much for your kind atten­tion. I also want to thank Joey specif­i­cal­ly for all his work with Creative Commons, because all of these images were Creative Commons-licensed from Flickr. This pre­sen­ta­tion itself is Creative Commons-licensed, so if you’d like to use all these same slides to give a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent talk, please let me know. I will make them avail­able to you.

Thank you so much.