Is nothing sacred? 2016 was the year that answered the question with a resounding “Nope.” Boundaries were crossed, news was faked, the solemn was mocked, the unutterable was spoken (then shared and re-shared). Around the world, “what-if” scenarios were replaced by “what now?”
We might not have realized it at the time, but we had a little preview of what was to come back in March, in the form of a name:
In case you missed it — or in case the frantic pace of the year’s news wiped it from your memory — here’s the story.
In March, the British Government’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) prepared to start construction on a major new research vessel. The £200 millon ship was expected to transform critical research efforts in polar regions. The NERC saw the moment as an opportunity to raise awareness of the vessel and of their important overall mission, and they came up with a publicity idea. They invited the public to suggest names for the ship via social media, and to vote on them using the hashtag #NameOurShip.
One man jokingly nominated the name Boaty McBoatface. The suggestion went viral, and that name was the runaway winner of the popular vote.
The NERC was not amused. They announced that the vessel would bear the more respectful name RRS Sir David Attenborough, and consigned the name Boaty to one of the ship’s small remotely operated submarines. The internet wasn’t happy about the grownups stepping in and breaking up its fun. A short-lived online campaign called for Sir David Attenborough himself to change his name to Sir Boaty McBoatface. The whole process made the polar research vessel the most talked-about ship in the world.
In Britain, the affair led to some serious soul-searching. Scientists were even summoned to Parliament to discuss the ramifications of the naming fiasco. The viral vote was called a shameful trivialization by some, while others hailed it as a public relations coup that attracted vast attention to the research enterprise. Similarly, some were outraged that the NERC quashed democracy by overruling the public’s choice of name, while others saw the Boaty prank itself as a perversion of the democratic process.
Perhaps, in fact, it was all of the above. As The Atlantic wrote, “(I)s the Boaty McBoatface Affair really a perversion of democracy? What if it’s actually a manifestation of how democracy tends to work in practice?”
The crowd doesn’t always show wisdom. It’s swayed by self-interest, by bias, by laziness, by novelty, by the allure of shiny objects. The crowd will choose immediate gratification over long-term benefits, just as individuals do.
BabyNameWizard.com reader jwanders nominated Boaty McBoatface as Name of the Year with this in mind, describing the name as an emblem of “a large number of people making a choice without enough consideration of the consequences.” Reader PJ expanded on the theme:
“Be careful what you ask for, crowd sourcing, what is and is not a ‘legitimate’ process or name, an underdog that’s not taken seriously for good reasons that surprisingly wins, and the element of ridiculous absurdidity that becomes part of public discourse. Sounds like a name to represent 2016 to me.”
In the months since the boat dust-up, other public naming initiatives have carefully limited the crowd’s control over the final selection. When Canada chose a national bird last month, they balanced an online vote with expert advice. An official defended the decision to avoid a pure popularity contest, explaining “That’s how you end up with Boaty McBoatface.” Boaty had become the official symbol of public naming peril. (Baby-naming parents might also take it as a caveat about asking the anonymous internet to vote on Baby McBabyface’s name.)
The boat-naming campaign was hardly the first social media vote to be hijacked for humor. When a 2012 Walmart promotion promised a live performance by the rapper Pitbull at whichever of their stores received the most Facebook “likes,” a viral campaign exiled the star to the most remote Walmart possible, in Kodiak Alaska. The whims of crowdsourcing even predate the Internet. A 1970s Bronx elementary student vote on the name of their new school explains why P.S. 160 is called Walt Disney Elementary.
What’s notable in this case is the growing willingness to be outrageous even about serious topics. There’s a current of nihilism flowing beneath the humor, perhaps the same current that leads dissatisfied voters to say “to heck with it, let’s just blow it all up.”
Even viral nihilism needs a hook, though. In this case that hook was a catchy and cleverly formed name. Boaty McBoatface! The pairing of a familiar human name template with absurdly juvenile vocabulary makes for an instant classic. The name also functions as a snowclone, an adaptable meme form that can be endlessly recycled with different content. The homages came quickly. In May, Google released an open-source natural language parser under the name Parsey McParseface. And it got weirder.
In September, many news outlets reported on a new baby gorilla born at China’s Jinhua Zoo. The zoo reportedly announced the birth on social media and invited the public to vote on the gorilla’s name. The winning name, by a landslide, was Harambe McHarambeface — boaty-fying the ubiquitous name of the dead gorilla Harambe.
Then those news outlets had to retract the gorilla story. It had been a hoax, spread via an elaborate and convincing fake news site.
If that’s not 2016 in a nutshell, and in a name, I don’t know what is.
Wishing you a safe and sane 2017,
Read More: 5 Names that Mattered in 2016