Baby Hashtag, and the Frenzy Over Internet Names

Nov 29th 2012

This week's viral name sensation has been a baby girl allegedly named "Hashtag." I have to admit, I didn't pay the story much attention at first. It seemed a highly implausible trifle, based on a single stray Facebook photo. Consider the coverage in the UK's Guardian newspaper, which opens with words you don't expect to see leading a news feature: "It may be a joke or a hoax but..."

The public reaction to this dubious story, though, has been interesting indeed. Maybe-baby Hashtag triggered a media wave that has become so predictable that it deserves a name of its own: Internet Name Frenzy.

Accounts of the Hashtag story in news outlets around the world site the same two precedents, both from 2011 in the Middle East. An Israeli baby was named Like, inspired by the the Facebook Like button, and an Egyptian baby was named Facebook, inspired by the powerful role of social media in the Arab Spring movement. Both name stories inspired their own rounds of Frenzy. But the reporters who keep recycling those same two examples from other stories (rather than, ahem, reporting) are missing a bigger picture.

Back in January, 2005 I wrote about the Frenzy surrounding another fake Internet name, a baby supposedly named Yahoo. Later that year, a real baby was given the middle name Google, to similar response. There's been a slow but steady drumbeat of these dotcom names in the news, each provoking a storm of outrage, even for a mere middle name.

I find this response a bit curious. I'm not suggesting that I consider Facebook an attractive baby name, or that parents should turn to virtual places for fresh updates to names like Dakota and Paris. I just think the Frenzy over Internet-inspired names is out of proportion, given how many word names and brand names are given to babies every day. What is it about Yahoo, Like and their ilk that strikes a nerve?

It's not about the commercialism. What's one baby Google compared to thousands -- yes, thousands -- of American girls named Lexus and Nautica?

It's not about sticking to tradition, or to romantic associations. Name sources like video game villains and deadly weapons are rising fast.

It's not about outlandishness in general. A look at some of the surprising names given to dozens of American babies should make baby Like look positively modest.

It seems that the Internet association itself is a key factor in the Frenzied response to these names. That may just reflect the nature of viral stories: the internet loves to talk about itself. Yet I can't help thinking that there's more to it. That despite the integral role that the online world plays in our daily lives, we still rely powerfully on the division between the virtual and the real. A physical place where you met or dated your partner makes a romantic baby name inspiration. (Even a commercial place; there are quite a few baby Disneys.) But a virtual place where you chatted and flirted for months before meeting in person is too insubstantial, and somehow trivializes the act of naming.

What do you think?

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