The popularity of nicknames and political correctness

It is a rite of passage in an institution such as IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) that a first year student be given a potentially embarrassing nickname following “interaction” with senior students. The profundity of these nicknames varies significantly, with some people simply being given names that correspond to body parts in different languages, which others have more involved names.

Based on a conversation yesterday, the hypothesis is that more profound nicknames which are embarrassing only in a particular context are more likely to propagate, and thus stick, while the more crass names are likely to die out more easily.

The logic is simple – the crass names (a few examples being “lund”, “condom” and “dildo” – there is at least one person with each of these names in every hostel of every batch at IIT Madras) are potentially embarrassing for an “outsider” to use, and to be used in public. So when the bearer of such a name graduates and moves on to a new setting, the new people he encounters make a prudent choice to not use the embarrassing word, and the nickname dies a quick death.

When the nickname is embarrassing or derogatory for more contextual reasons, though, the name quickly loses its context and becomes incredibly simple for people to use. Take my own name “Wimpy”, for example – not too many people know it has an embarrassing origin, and it is a perfectly respectable word to shout out in public, or even in an office setting. And so it has propagated – in at least two offices I worked in, everyone called me “Wimpy”.

It is similar for lots of other “benign” names. But it is unlikely that a name like “condom” or “dildo” will propagate, and it is in fact more likely that even the people who bestowed such names upon the unsuspecting will stop using them once everyone graduates and moves on to a more formal environment.

There are exceptions, of course, a notable one being “Baada“. It is a cuss-word representing a body part, except that it is in a non-standard (though not small by any means) language, but everyone I know calls Baada Baada. He used to be my colleague, and people at work also called him Baada. It is unlikely that his nickname would’ve propagated, though, had it been the synonym in English or Hindi.

Thanks to Katpadi Katsa for discussions leading up to this post. In a future post, I’ll talk about models for propagation of nicknames across institutions.



The Trouble with Orkut

Some of you might have noticed that I haven’t been replying to your messages on orkut any more. I still exist there, but am not “active” by any stretch of imagination. I check my account once in a long while, when I’m feeling really bored. And make a conscious decision not to reply to scraps there, since doing so will invite more scraps, which I don’t want. I haven’t deleted my account since I’m told that doing so will remove from my GTalk friends list those people who’ve been added because of Orkut.

Speaking to other people, I find similar stories. Most people have either deleted their orkut accounts, or just let them go dormant. Of course this doesn’t include people who occasionally scrap me over there. Oh, and btw, most people are still around on facebook. I  know one guy (POTA) who deleted his facebook account but apart from that, most people are still around. So what exactly went wrong with orkut?

1. Fransips: Orkut allowed you to send messages/scraps to whoever you wanted to, irrespective of whether they knew you or not. In the initial stage, when people were rediscovering themselves and their networks, this was a fantastic facility. But once that got completed, it was used by random fransip-seekers, which drove most women away from orkut. And once the women went away, the “good guys” followed them out.

2. Random names: Orkut allowed people to change their display names very easily, and this turned out to be a huge problem. Some day, you’d get a scrap from someone with first name “going to” and second name “california” (with lots of periods and exclamations punctuating the name) and it would take a huge effort to figure out who had messaged you. It is easy dealing with standard nicknames but when people start naming themselves after something that doesn’t make any sense, and hten proceed to change their names every few days, it does get disconcerting.

3. There was nothing to do: Once the initial network-rediscovering face was done, there was nothing one could “do” on orkut. Yeah, about a year back they introduced the concept of applications and stuff, but that was more in response to facebook after the latter had drawn away most of Orkut’s users. Orkut allowed you to write scraps on friends. It allowed you to write rediff-level comments on discussion boards. It allowed you to find random women and seek franship. But that was that. Nothing to do on a sustainable basis.

4.Lack of privacy There was absolutely no privacy on orkut. Everyone could see what you did, who you talked to, what photos you put, where you had been, and in essesnce your entire life history. This, combined with the fransip seekers meant that people “shut down” on orkut. Away went the interesting pictures. Scraps would get deleted. Everyone suddenly became “committed”. People basically started lying, and hiding information. There was no way a forum that encouraged this could help sustain “keeping in touch”.

5. Spam Orkut stupidly allowed some stupid scripts to be run, and so on new year’s day 2008, i had a hundred messages on my scrapbook, all of them having been generated by some stupid script. Orkut had ceased to be personal. You could write a script which would write “hello world” on all your friends’ scrapbooks.

Once the balance had tipped towards facebook, there was no looking back towards Orkut. Orkut tried some themes, which ended up making people’s pages very gaudy indeed. The photo tagging tool was added, but navigation was tough. They tried to introduce a friend feed, but most of the feed was taken up by random thrid party apps. Over the course of the last one year, orkut has kept getting progressively worse.

If you look at it, some of hte features of orkut that enabled it to fail recently were what made it so popular in the early days (2004-07). In that golden age for orkut, people were busy reconnecting. Finding lost friends and relatives. You would crawl through entire friends’ lists in order to find that special friend who you had lost touch with. And you found dozens of them every day. It was incredible. People who you hardly talked to in school suddenly became close “orkut friends”. New relationships were built. New bonds were made. And then you realized that you had gotten back in touch with practically everyone you’ve known. Orkut was of no use to you any more.

I think there is a business school case study waiting to be written over here – about what made and broke Orkut. And it can be used in that session in corporate strategy class where they teach that your greatest strengths can turn into your greatest weaknesses.