The public are typically fools and ask them to name anything via the internet is an absolute recipe for disaster as the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) found out when it asked the public to name its new $400 million research vessel. In this guest post, acclaimed Aussie writer John Birmingham attempts to make sense of the debacle…
Usually when things go wrong with corporate social media experiments, it’s a disaster for the company. They grab mindshare all right. They corner the attention economy. They win the whole damned internet, but only because the internet is laughing at them. Sometimes though, you can still get it right, even when it’s all gone wrong. Put your hands in the air for Boaty McBoatface.
For Britain’s Natural Environment Research Centre (NERC), it all turned to custard last week when they launched an online poll to name a £200 million ($A400 million) research vessel. People were asked to submit suggestions to NERC’s website – not normally a crowded, heaving disco of hot, sweaty web traffic – and people started flooding in to have their say. Or at least they did after one irreverent punter, James Hand, suggested naming the ship Boaty McBoatface. The site crashed under the sudden rush of 27 000 like-minded funsters, all intent on sending Her Majesty’s newest research vessel down to the cruel seas with a name like a minor character from Thomas the Tank Engine.
A surprised and somewhat shame-faced Mr Hand apologised to NERC via Twitter, but they were smart enough to wave him off. They were, in fact, loving it. Acting associate director of communications and engagement for NERC, Julia Maddock, said, “We wanted people to talk about our ship and get involved. We are delighted.”
Of course, it remains to be seen whether Boaty McBoatface can survive the tempest, or whether the name of some dull and worthy runner up is chosen from a long list of dead explorers, but the Natural Environment Research Centre have grabbed the right sort global attention with their wry, indulgent response to the silliness. Being a publicly-funded science-nerds, NERC are unlikely to rush into a merchandising deal with a big toy company, or Kickstart a Saturday morning cartoon following the adventures of gallant little Boaty. But maybe they should think about it.
The obvious lesson of Boaty McBoatface is, “Don’t ask the internet anything”. And “Beware of hashtag hijackers.” But look a little beyond that you can see how a NERC turned what could have been a minor PR disaster into an opportunity.
They cornered the mindshare market for a couple of days and could, with just a little resolve and a sense of humour, lock in those gains for years. Millions of school children are more likely to follow the adventures of Boaty McBoatface than the altogether less amusing Royal Research Ship Henry Worsley. (Sir Henry was a hapless explorer who snuck into the top ten list by virtue of having died attempting to make the first unassisted crossing of the Antarctic. The anti-fun police have thrown their support behind him).
Just as many grown up fans of the as yet unnamed research vessel could be lured into a relationship with the Research Centre, all for the price of a little self-deprecating humour. Boaty might not get his own ship, after all, but he could at least get a lot of subscribers to his new new mailing list.
Come on, NERC. Vote Boaty.