This week I would like to present a cautionary tale. It is a story of the internet, as a community, and what can happen when one overestimates its dependability and trustworthiness. I present to you the tale of Boaty McBoatface:
This story begins with the purest of intentions, and an optimistic view of the human race in general. A British government agency decided to allow the internet to name its $287 million polar research ship. It was to be an exercise in democracy and public spirit; a way for the people to take part in a project aimed toward the public good. It was, in short, a way to prove how far we’ve come as a society since the Dark Ages. Proof that we are capable of evolving as a culture.
And yet if there is anything history has taught us about the human race, it is that we cannot be trusted with anything—ever. The historical record will back me up on this. Remember when Mountain Dew made the ill-fated decision to name its new “green apple” flavored soda?
If you remember those dark days, if your subconscious has not repressed the memories of what happened, you will recall that the top three contenders were, in order, “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong,” followed closely by “Gushing Granny” and “Diabeetus.”
Notably, Mountain Dew did not go with any of these.
According to the Time Magazine article that covered the story, “In addition to simply bombarding the poll with hilariously unusable names, the pranksters even went so far as to hack into the site, adding a banner that read ‘Mtn Dew salutes the Israeli Mossad for demolishing 3 towers on 9/11!’ and a pop-up message that resulted in an unwanted Rickrolling.”
And so history repeats itself.
The contest is scheduled to continue until April 16. As of now, the top-rated name is “Boaty McBoatface.” It may fall short of “Hitler Did Nothing Wrong,” but it is probably far afield of what the organizers had in mind. This is because, as all of us pay attention to these things know, the internet is the dark subconscious of Western civilization. It is the id of the human race.
Perhaps someday, many years into the future, anthropologists will look back to the 21st century and try to make sense of things. There will be the usual cultural artifacts to examine—our museums, monuments, public art, literature and music (i.e., the stuff we WANT them to remember).
Then there will be the rest of it, which will, let’s be honest, be culled almost exclusively from an unsavory blend of YouTube comments, memes, image macros, online avatars and discussion forum threads. This may be our ultimate legacy as a culture for posterity; Boaty McBoatface may be the legacy we leave behind for future generations.
According to Allison Robinson, a spokesperson for the research council in charge of the online campaign to name the ship, “We’ve had thousands of suggestions made on the website since we officially launched; many of them reflect the importance of the ship’s scientific role by celebrating great British explorers and scientists…We are pleased that people are embracing the idea in a spirit of fun.”
Of course you are, Ms. Robinson. Of course you are.