Can You Really Crowdsource Baby Naming?

Oct 4th 2012

This week's hot baby name news was Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer crowdsourcing a name for her newborn son. In this case, "crowdsourcing" was probably a misnomer. By all reports, Mayer simply wrote "suggestions welcome!" on a birth announcement email to family and friends. But true crowdsourcing -- turning over a job, in part or whole, to an unspecified, distributed public -- is unquestionably on the rise in the baby name world. As name anxiety rises, more and more parents are seeking guidance from the faceless masses.

Does it work? Can the crowd lead you to the perfect name, saving you hours of list making and research, not to mention testy debates with your partner?

Unfortunately, the nature of most name decisions just doesn't fit crowdsourcing's strengths. To explain why, I'm going to to break down the possible crowd contributions into the two phases of name choice: ideas and decisions.

Crowdsourcing Ideas
The anonymous internet can offer a bonanza when you're looking for fresh ideas. Let's say you're making dinner, and you're in a rut. You've made that same lemon chicken a dozen times; isn't there something new you can do with the ingredients in the fridge? Voila! The crowd gives you fresh options, and you say goodbye to the rut. Why wouldn't it work the same for baby names?

A couple of reasons. The first is that, to put it in food terms, we don't know the "ingredients" we want in our baby names.

While we all have strong opinions on names, we're not very good at identifying what makes particular names appeal to us. No matter whether you named your daughter Ryleigh or Eleanor, you'd probably describe your choice as "strong" and "distinctive." Asking for suggestions of "strong" names is about as precise as searching for a recipe that's "tasty."

There's an even more fundamental difference between the search for meal ideas and name ideas. Unlike frazzled home cooks, baby namers generally aren't in a rut. ("I've already named three sons Joshua, I'm ready to try something new!") For the vast majority of parents, the problem isn't too few name ideas; it's too many.

I discussed this at length in my post, "Why Your Baby Name Choice Is Making You Miserable." (If you haven't read it, may I humbly suggest that it's worth a click?) Parents today are experiencing an epidemic of name anxiety, decision paralysis and regret, spurred in large part by an overabundance of options. Asking the whole world for ideas, then, is likely to make your name choice harder rather than easier.

Crowdsourcing Decisions
Suppose you already have your list of ideas, and you're having trouble with the final choice. Couldn't the crowd help with that? Their collective wisdom should point you toward the name that's most broadly liked and likeable.

If that's your thinking, I can save you some time. Here's a ranking of the 1,000 most popular names for boys and girls, and what direction they're heading in. National popularity stats, the ultimate "crowdsourced" opinion data! Just choose whichever name ranks higher.

Let me guess: that isn't what you're looking for. You'd prefer a name that's a little more uncommon, not just one of many. Well then, forget crowdsourcing your decision. What the crowd offers is consensus, not distinctiveness. It finds the common denominators, much as the popularity charts do.

A truly unusual, distinctive name won't appeal to everybody. That means it will never win a poll of a thousand random strangers from across the country. In fact, the most likely result of that poll is to expose you to rude negative comments, bruising your feelings and souring you on all of your choices.

So What IS Crowdsourcing Good for In Nameland?
I think the crowd's best contribution to baby naming is something that happens every day here in the Baby Name Wizard forums: taking advantage of the different life experiences and knowledge bases of a million users.

That can mean finding a particular kind of expertise:
"Does anybody know whether the name Graziella sounds old-fashioned in Italy?"

Or seeking solutions to highly specific dilemmas:

"My husband wants a 'cowboy name,' my family insists on a saint's name! Can you think of any names that are BOTH?"

Or getting a reality check:
"I'm Irish and considering the name Dáithí. Could you Americans tell me how YOU would pronounce that?"

In other words, turn to the crowd for its breadth of knowledge. But stick to voices you know and trust when it comes to taste.


October 4, 2012 8:55 PM

Re taking advantage of specifix expertise by crowd sourcing a name--

The better part of two decades ago, one of the members of the Anglo-Saxonists' listserv asked for the help of his fellow listmembers in coming up with a name for his fifth child that would in some way be related to Anglo-Saxon England.  His four older children were named E@dwe@rd, R@edwald, H3r3beorht. and Emma.  After many suggestions and much thought, his new daughter was named R0wena.  I myself was plumping for Aethelflaed, after Aethelflaed Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great, but alas that didn't make the cut.  Neither did Aethelfrith (Audrey), Fritheswithe (patron saint of Oxford), Eadgyth (Edith) or Godgifu (Godiva).  So many great choices....

October 4, 2012 10:55 PM

Now I can't stop trying to think of cowboy saint names.  Zacharias seems good, or maybe Augustus called Gus?  

October 5, 2012 5:47 AM

Great post!

I've always wondered why people have asked for 'bulk' opinion on baby names on places like facebook. It seems certain to only throw up too many options and people barracking for the most popular names. Laura has eloquently explained why that happens in her post.

I do find that posting on the forums here is great for getting ideas and opinions on names...... but you do have to frame your questions well and ask for specific advice. I personally can't imagine conducting a baby name search on facebook or twitter. I know I'd end up with pretty much the polar opposite of what I actually want. 

October 8, 2012 9:40 AM

My husband and I did a version of "crowdsourcing" in our decision-making process for my second child.  We held veto power, but actually ended up agreeing with the crowd.  (It helped that my favorite name won.) It was a March Madness tournament-style process, using a survey website.  I think one reason it worked was because the "crowd" we sourced primarily consisted of people who are pretty similar to us: family members, close friends on Facebook, and members of two like-minded mommy forums.  It also included a few others who showed interest in our naming process.  

First we each made a master list of every name we liked. We ended up with about 55 names. We then independently rated every name on a scale from 1 to 5. Combining those ratings, we then ranked the names.  I added a few I kinda liked but knew I'd never actually use to the end of the list, for a total of 64 names.  I then used the rankings to assign each name a seed, so lowest ranked names were pitted against highest ranked names in each round.  

Each round was a survey comprised of questions formatted in this way:
1.  Name1 or Name64
a. Which do you like better?
b. What nicknames would you use?
c. Do you have a spelling preference?
d. What middle name would you use?  
e. Can you think of any negatives with either name, such as mean nicknames or bad connotations?  

Beyond being helpful by identifying issues I hadn't thought of (e.g. the biblical story of Delilah) it was fascinating to see others' baby naming thoughts and to try to figure out who had responded in which ways. I kinda want to adopt some pets just to get to do it again.  

It wasn't perfect, though.  The worst nicknames people thought of for "Evie" were "Heavy Evie" (not a problem because of our chosen pronunciation) and "Skeevy Evie" (I figured "skeevy" is a flash-in-the-pan word that kids of her generation probably won't use.)  Then my husband called to make her first pediatrician's appointment and didn't enunciate.  We showed up at the appointment, sat down, and waited.  A nurse eventually came out calling, "Easy?  Easy [Lastname]?" Perhaps I should have polled a wider range of people.  


October 9, 2012 1:03 PM

James always makes me think of cowboys; I suspect it's just the denim-y appeal of James Dean, though there are a lot of "Jimmy"s in the history books.

There are about a million St Williams, and "Billy" or "Bill" is a good cowboy name - both Wild Bill Hickock, the outlaw Billy the Kid and for many cowboy actors:

And of course John -- as in Wayne -- is a saint's name!

October 9, 2012 1:10 PM

(Oh, it's possible that "Sweet Baby James" is the reason I think of cowboys! Ha.)

October 9, 2012 1:40 PM

We did a version for our daughter (only with "strangers" on the internet) for her middle name as I was trying to prove to my husband that a 4 syllable middle name with a 4 syllable first name was *not* okay. ;-)  It worked.

October 9, 2012 2:32 PM

Taking the cowboys'/saints' names challenge:

Zack or Zach / various saints - Zackary, Zacharias, Zacchaeus

Zeb / Zebinus

Ike / Isaac

Silas / Silas

Hank / Henry

Cy / Cyrus, Cyprian

Mo or Mose / Moses

Cash / Cassius, Cassian

Jem / Jeremy, Jerome

Lou / Louis

Sly / Sylvester

Amos / Amos

Jake / Jacob

Clem / Clement

Abe / Abraham, Abel, actually a lot of saints begin with Ab-

Bryce / Brice

Linus / Linus

Zeke / Ezekiel

Ace / Asaph

Bo / Boadin, Benno


OK, OK, back to work!


October 30, 2012 11:54 PM

My sister actually has that: Her name is Victoria Elizabeth. Pretty? Yes. Way too long? Also yes. Add to that our 3 syllable last name and you've got one oversized mouthful of name. 

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