From potluck to potlatch
Truthiness in tech names
What we name the things we build matters.
Last week a new version of Potluck, the social news product from Branch, launched with “snack” link card decks. I work as a journalist, so I want all of us to read broadly and deeply, subvert homophily, and generally be people of letters and links. I also make an indie food magazine, so I think a lot about how the ways we eat bring us together. All to say: the recent trend for naming non-food tech products after foodstuffs and related activities is weirding me out.
It’s a little less weird to think about how we are what we consume. Often misquoted as, ‘Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are,’ the Brillat-Savarin aphorism: ‘Tell me what you eat and I will you what you are’ is, as it turns out, more about group classification than personal identity. In her superlative translation of The Physiology of Taste, M.F.K. Fisher glosses this Brillat-Savarin line as, “Tell me how you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” She connects the aphorism with a later section of the text about domestic digestion habits, pointing the reader to The Professor’s observation that couples who find pleasure in eating together at their kitchen table carry that bliss in the bedroom.
That bliss is the difference between the glutton and the gourmand for Brillat-Savarin and Fisher, and it’s all in the approach. We access nuance in our palate by taking care to appreciate everything we are served. If we were able to isolate how we experience delight with food, we might find the joy of cooking (and eating) lives in the shared exploration of taste.
Since this is a week when most of us who live in the U.S. will be seated next to kinfolk and strangers at longer tables than usual, eyeing gravy boats and telling stories, this is a nice moment to think about—well, gluttony and gourmandism, perhaps, but really how we pass the good stuff around the table. This is a national holiday that begins with shiny parades and a panoply of side dishes and ends in deeply discounted time with those we hold dear as we spend down precious vacation hours. Let’s say what we mean and mean what we name.
Biting Their Style
Tech product and version names have been borrowing cups of sugar for years—looking at you, Android KitKat-JellyBean-IceCreamSandwich-Gingerbread-Froyo-Eclair-Donut-Cupcake. As product names go, totes adorbs! But aren’t we more than Instagasming creampuffs? The moniker of the new photo-sharing service Lifecake sweetly suggests perhaps we aren’t. Or at least that new founders, like new parents, feel the need to coat functionality as a service lollipops its way into the world. We’re treating ourselves, all right. Like kindergarteners.
Product names can help us immediately understand what a product does. At a certain critical mass, names turn into naming conventions, illustrating the relationship (like surnames do) between an object and a group, and that’s why the Augustus Gloopiness trend worries me more than a little. Beyond the dessert tray, it may lead to strange tech lands with widespread vegetal name conscription like Carrot, the sentient alarm clock, or in the more remote realms, dystopian food product substitutes. Plus, co-opting food terminology for your unrelated-to-food app adds needless ambiguity in an online marketplace increasingly crowded with new products in, um, foodtech.
To be fair, naming trends for food apps are not without their own issues, as ballers hustle their delivery service to a very specific demographic and [petite yawn] most products in this field right now tone down the spiciness of what could be rollicking product conceits. Foodtech could stand to up the interestingness, and probably will in the next few years. In the meantime, there are plenty of crews rolling out new food sites and services that need relevant names. You’re building a digital menu system to replace paper? Yes, I’d like that experience to be smooth like butter. Carry on.
Rise of the R-Colored Vowel
A few years ago, we all suffered through the Great Vowel Shortage in tech names. It’s funny because it’s true that just like in the Great Vowel Shift these new product words were pronounced in a different, higher part of our mouths. Lately, for example, we swap (as we swipe) a chevron ‘v’ for a ‘u’ (e.g. Svpply, Plovgh) in product names, but in those bubbly days of rounded edges we dropped out the ‘e’ entirely, or just appended an ‘r’ to the final consonant of the original word. In linguistic terms, we rhotacized those Web 2.0 names even though the ‘e’ was disappeared because to make the unstressed ‘r’ sound — more technically, ‘ɚ’ — you have to back your tongue up a bit. (Say ‘butter’ like A Tribe Called Quest or Linda Richman, and then as Siri does, and you’ll notice the difference.)
More interesting is what naming trends from that moment reveal — many are variations on verbs indicating what the particular service might do in some lighter-weight way than before, and some even aspire to a scientific effect. The beloved Dopplr service made upcoming travel plans visible to our friends, turning up the frequency of waves around an imminent geographical meeting point like the effect named after the Austrian physicist. And part of your product’s credibility then was offering ways for the created data to play nicely elsewhere. And oh, we played. We made mistakes, the stakes felt lower. We all miss the web we lost. Back to the names!
Before and during when we dropped vowels out, there were also products and services mixing it up with blended word and phrase names, and with periods like tiny mic drops on subdomains. We didn’t always hang our hats on url ends (still don’t on Tumblr) and while it was tricky to find del.icio.us the first time, we caught on and found our way back again and again. We could see what others had bookmarked there and navigate by tags, but so importantly we could also search — exploring each other’s taste together inside and outside the service. As a product name, Delicious is an adjective *twinkly audio cue goes here* and a sensory word. Meaning, the name may not tell me what the thing does, but it sure tells me how the founders want me to feel. If delight is the golden metric of design, can we make with the enticing names already?
Here is a thing I know from attending and hosting many potlucks: they are not, in my experience, an analog equivalent to “a house party on the Internet.” A few centuries ago (four or five, say) a pot-luck was about providing hospitality in the form of food to randoms that showed up on your doorstep. So that’s closer to a house party,and it is about the host’s pot (i.e. cooking vessel, stay with me). Most of the potlucks I have attended lean heavily on the luck side of the word, with the organizing principle of the covered casserole dishes and salad bowls being that there isn’t one. Bring something. Anything. No need to coordinate with the host or other guests. A few years back, my ex’s mother whimsically decided that Thanksgiving at our apartment might be a potluck and arrived with her own turkey. There were two giant birds on the table. Awk.ward.
So if not that, then what? I continue to be intrigued by a practice so alarming it was banned in Canada and the U.S. at the end of the nineteenth century. Indigenous peoples of First Nations gave potlatches during festivals; you increased your honor and status in the community by distributing away your wealth. In the gift economy model, your tribe had your back. Resources would return to you at the next potlatch. I wonder if we can name what it feels like to give it all away, cult of less writ large. She who dies with the fewest toys wins. I wonder what we might build if we were looking to redistribute rather than collect. Tell me how you give and I shall tell you what you are.
Or, you know, we could keep versioning macarons and cronuts and cakepops. Our choice.