On the Launch of RRS Boaty McBoatface: Why Not Have Silly Names?


Silly names stand out and create engagement, but it can backfire.

RRS Boaty McBoatface was launched on Saturday, the button pressed by Sir David Attenborough, whose name is painted on the bow and stern, but everyone knows what it will always be called. The head of the British Antarctic survey says, “This is a serious science ship that required the name of a serious scientist,” but admits in the Guardian that the debate over the name made a difference. “It’s given our mission a more human face.”

And why is this on TreeHugger? We have been covering the saga of Boaty McBoatface since it started, as part of our continuing discussion about silly names. We had our own Mr. Splashypants debacle, where TreeHugger Bonnie objected to a silly name chosen for a whale in a similar kind of contest. We wrote earlier:

Bonnie considered the winning name undignified. Readers were indignant, calling it "Splashygate" and pointed out (like they have about Boaty McBoatface) that "Silliness is GREAT for generating engagement." After all, why does TreeHugger have such a silly name? Totally to be ironic and a bit silly, to generate engagement.

But having a silly name has consequences. A decade ago, I was at a lecture by Paul Steiger, who was launching ProPublica at the time. I went up after and introduced myself, suggesting that perhaps TreeHugger could work with them on environmental news. He looked at me like I was nuts and said, “Why would I want to have anything to do with a site named TreeHugger?” We are also often not referenced as a source for stories on other sites, even though I am certain that we are the source, often I think because of our silly name.

On the other hand, when there was so much competition and blogs were the future of journalism, Graham Hill chose a name that stood out. Like Boaty McBoatface, it was an attention grabber. And we are still here, although I suspect that has more to do with our parents at the Narrative Content Group than our silly name.

evening standard

© Bonnie Alter/ the day David Attenborough sunk Boaty McBoatface

From TreeHugger to Mr. Splashypants to Boaty McBoatface, the lesson is, as our commenter noted, that "Silliness is GREAT for generating engagement." But sometimes you want to be taken seriously. That’s why I think I agree with David Mitchell of the Guardian, who explained Why Boaty McBoatface had to be torpedoed:

As the Boaty McBoatface saga shows, you can’t always bow to a snapshot of popular opinion. Who knows why people voted as they did, in what spirit of lashing out against the establishment, of tweaking the nose of the ruling class, without having fully thought through, or been properly informed of, the long-term implications. Sometimes someone has to step in to stop something crazy happening – something terrible that does lasting damage. But only if it’s a really important issue, like a boat being given a silly name.