When you think about it, a lot of the English language is really about ratios within a finite set. So you can say "most Americans" and that's meaningful, because the number of Americans is approximately known and relatively static. Likewise for "few" or "many"--these words are implicitly ratios, and they assume some common agreement on what the denominator is.
The world we grew up in was full of bounded sets--relatively well known and static populations that we could compare. But now we're entering a world of unbounded sets, and it's messing up our language habits. What is the number of "writers" in the world in an age of blogs, the number of "photographers" in an age of Flickr and cameraphone or "videographers" in the age of YouTube? Today there are perhaps a trillion pages on the Web; tomorrow it will be a quintillion. How many "publications" are there in the age of Twitter?
From a semantic perspective, all these unbound populations are examples of denominators in fractions that no longer make any sense. And that means that the words we use that are based on such ratios are themselves becoming meaningless. So while "most Americans" has meaning, "most bloggers" does not (what's a blogger? How many are there? How do they define themselves? Who's counting?).
This was at the core of the confusion over the definition of the Long Tail (absolute numbers are still meaningful in marketplaces where the number of products grows by orders of magnitude overnight, but percentages are not) and it continues to come up in conversation every day. People want to generalize--"most Wikipedia pages are wrong"; "most YouTube videos are crap"--but the first rule of open systems is that you can't generalize about open systems.
So here are five words that I would suggest are usually meaningless in a world where the populations we're talking about are limitless in size and diversity and doubling overnight (just add the word "blogs" after any of them and you'll see what I mean):
And here are eight more words that are not quite meaningless but tend to obscure more than they reveal:
- "Majority" (Is this really measurable?)
- "Minority" (ditto)
- "Many" (What does that mean?)
- "Few" (ditto)
- "Leading" (In what domain? When? To whom?)
- "Top" (ditto)
- Almost any declarative about a class, such as "is" or "are" (as in "open source software is..." or "Wikipedia editors are...")
- Implicit ratios such as "Virtually all..." or "Practically no..."
My advice: try to avoid these words when talking about open systems. Generalizations are always dangerous, but never more so than today. And yes, I know that is itself a generalization. See, it can happen to anyone!