Despite the internet’s best efforts, Boaty McBoatface has sunk — or rather, the name Boaty McBoatface has sunk. The moniker, which overwhelmingly won an online poll hosted by the UK’s science ministry to choose a name for a polar research vessel, has been passed over in favor of christening the ship the RRS Sir David Attenborough, after the beloved nature-loving broadcaster. The title Boaty McBoatface will instead be set aside for a remotely operated underwater research vessel.
In other words, this boat that truly looks like a Boaty McBoatface…
…will be named after Attenborough. While this…
…will take on the much more jaunty-sounding Boaty McBoatface label instead.
We might, at this juncture, pause to ask how things went so terribly wrong. But the truth is most of us are old hats at this internet business by now: We know exactly how the Boaty McBoatface saga got out of hand.
Once again, the creators of an online naming poll failed to anticipate the mass appeal of the whimsical naming option that captured the internet’s fancy and, when faced with the viral results of their endeavor, backed away rather instead of ponying up and respecting the views of the voting public.
Naming things on the internet has a set of very predictable outcomes
It is essentially a law of the web — let’s call it the Law of Boaty McBoatface — that when presented with an open naming poll, there is a certain subset of internet users who will hijack the vote in favor of an awesome, if possibly embarrassing, option the poll makers didn’t anticipate. (The exception to this rule seems to be the naming of objects in space, probably because it’s the one time when the “serious” names the poll makers suggest are most likely to reference sci-fi, mythology, and a host of other cool stuff that geeks and others who participate in online naming polls seem to love.)
We’ve seen it happen again and again. Nothing better illustrates the principle that “what’s right isn’t always easy” than watching people who’ve tried to crowdsource a name on the internet struggle to reconcile the result.
Essentially, the Law of Boaty McBoatface produces one of three eventual outcomes:
- The poll makers decide to go ahead and use the whimsical crowdsourced name, and do so enthusiastically because they agree it’s a cool name.
- The poll makers decide to use the whimsical crowdsourced name, but do so in a way that allows for another option as well — as the UK’s science ministry did when it decided to offload “Boaty” onto a side-sub rather than let it stand as the name of its honored research vessel.
- The poll makers flatly reject the whimsical crowdsourced name altogether in favor of something else. In some such cases, a common corollary move is to backpedal and close the voting altogether once they see where things are headed.
It’s easy to see how such a setup can lead to chaos. Let’s take a look at a few famous internet naming decisions, and how they’ve shaken out.
Fully accepted names:
Perhaps one of the best-known internet naming success stories, Mr. Splashypants is the name that was bestowed upon an oblivious humpback whale in 2007 as part of a successful Greenpeace naming campaign. Though much was made of the web “hijacking” the proceedings, Greenpeace thoroughly embraced not only that name but the top seven other names chosen from the poll. Subsequent campaigning urged, “You named him, now save him.”
Lesson learned: Greenpeace knew that making the most out of all that sudden viral attention meant embracing the ideas of its newfound fans. Hopefully, it managed to save some whales in the process.
In 2009, Kraft had the bright idea to crowdsource the name of its new flavor of Vegemite. Nearly 50,000 people participated in the original naming process — but the result was hardly a victory: The name that received the most votes, and the one that subsequently rolled out to millions of perplexed Australians, was “iSnack 2.0.” Yes, seriously.
Ultimately, so many enraged cheese spread eaters protested this branding disaster that Kraft held a second crowdsourced naming contest to fix its mistake. The ultimate winner, after 30,000 votes, was Cheesybite.
Lesson learned: Writing about the backlash, Ad Age noted, “Even when they’re being asked for input or sourced for ideas, consumers want brands to be able execute some level of judgment, filtering out awful ideas at minimum.” In other words, voters were so horrified at Kraft’s poor decision-making that they took the contest more seriously when given a second chance.
Partially accepted names:
The Colbert Treadmill
A select few public figures have the ability to marshal internet mobs on command, and one of them is Stephen Colbert, who in 2009 directed his followers to vote “Colbert” in an online NASA poll. The poll was intended to choose the name of a “node,” or wing, of the International Space Station. But when “Colbert” came out on top, NASA cheekily responded by instead naming a treadmill after Colbert, in anagram form — the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill.
Lesson learned: If you’re in the position of offloading a crowdsourced name, it’s always good to make the alternate option even quirkier than the original.
“Hitler did nothing wrong”
Mountain Dew’s 2012 “Dub the Dew” Contest was a total disaster. The write-in, unmoderated naming allowed for a litany of 9/11 jokes, garbage sexual innuendos about your grandmother, and Holocaust jokes to climb to the top of the list. The company ultimately shut down the entire contest.
Lesson learned: When you primarily market your product to overcaffeinated juveniles, you shouldn’t be surprised when the results of your crowdsourced poll are clearly generated by overcaffeinated juveniles.
Voters knew what they were getting into with this one. “Unfortunately internet I know better than to trust you. [My wife and I] will ultimately be making the final decision,” wrote web developer Stephen McLaughlin when he decided to crowdsource the name of his daughter. Voters piled on, suggesting everything from “Beetlejuice” to “Stratford Upon-Avon.”
Ultimately, however, a name born of yearnings from the deep arose to conquer all: Cthulhu, in reference to the gigantic, unspeakably hideous Arctic tentacle monster of classic Lovecraftian horror lore. (Middle name: All-Spark, after a fictional power-giving cube from the Transformers franchise, because when you’re asking the internet to crowdsource a baby name, the tendency is to go full geek.) McLaughlin and his wife ultimately went with the second-place choice: Amelia.
Lesson learned: Go into the fray with your eyes wide open, and make your expectations clear upfront.
Harry Baals is the real name of a longtime mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, but the city’s populace wasn’t doing its civic duty when it overwhelmingly voted his name onto a local government building in 2011. The mayor’s office, convinced the name would make Fort Wayne a laughingstock, opted instead to name the building Citizens Square.
Lesson learned: Never leave anything up to Indiana voters.
What to do if you really want to name something by crowdsourcing suggestions on the internet
In the wake of the business world’s penchant for seeking help from the internet, a number of sites have sprung up that make the process easier. Websites like Naming Force, Namestation, and Squadhelp crowdsource ideas by paying contributors who suggest winning names for businesses and projects.
Squadhelp founder Darpan Munjal told Vox that his company “self-curates” by rewarding voters who respond thoughtfully. Users whose naming choices get upvoted receive points — but if they spam the site with inappropriate or thoughtless names, they get downvoted, which ultimately results in them losing the ability to participate in future naming contests. This approach results in a very respectful naming process and dedicated users, some of whom have won tens of thousands of dollars by suggesting winning names.
Munjal believes that people who contribute to such contests do so not just for the money but for “something deeper,” a challenge as well as a creative outlet. He told Vox that ongoing feedback is crucial to the art of hosting a crowdsourcing campaign.
“It is important to give direction to those who are submitting ideas, and let them know whether or not they are on right track,” he said. In other words, launching a random contest will merely yield a bunch of random ideas. The best contests are not only focused but give the host company or organization the opportunity to interact with the people on the other side of the naming poll.
With enough attention and effort, host companies might even get people to take their naming campaign seriously.