Let’s Revisit Boaty McBoatface
Welcome to part 11 of our Internet Nostalgia series, which looks back at phenomena that captured the internet’s imagination and attention for a fleeting moment and then vanished as everyone moved on to something else. This series looks back at those olden times and what they told us about the internet and ourselves. If you have a suggested topic, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Last week, we looked at the Ice Bucket Challenge. This week: Boaty McBoatface.
Date: March 2016.
The story: The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is a perfectly normal, rather boring U.K. organization that funds scientific endeavors and provides educational services in the field of environmental studies. They’re good people. And they do good things. But in March 2016, they made a mistake: They diddled with the internet.
NERC opened a poll asking the public to provide them with a name for a 423-foot research vessel. The organization made it clear that its team would pick their own name and that the poll was just for input. But a radio DJ joked that they should name it the undeniably hilarious name “Boaty McBoatface.” And boy, did it catch on. The poll went global, and millions of people around the world, people who don’t know or care about NERC or the U.K. or even boats, flooded the poll. Boaty McBoatface became a cause. NERC, wanting to have fun with it but not actually wanting to name its big boat Boaty McBoatface went with the RRS David Attenborough, named after the famed naturalist and broadcaster.
This made the internet demand that Attenborough change his name, personally, to Boaty McBoatface.
Pop culture crossover: Something about the naming convention of Boaty McBoatface has stuck. The state of Minnesota has named one of its plows Plowy McPlowface. There’s a SpaceX terminal named Dishy McFlatface. An Australian ferry was named Ferry McFerryface. I’m honestly tempted to title this blog post Blogpost McBlogpostface.
What we’ve learned: The RSS David Attenborough was officially christened as such in February 2019, with Prince William and Kate in attendance, as well as Attenborough himself. It was a moment that must have blown away Attenborough: The Prince of England was there to name a boat after him.
And people hated it. Because they won their poll fair and square. NERC, as a consolation prize, named one of its little remote-controlled submersibles Boaty McBoatface instead. This is a much more logical boat to have the name: It’s small, cute, and yellow. NERC even gave it a little cartoon version of itself.
It’s even pretty useful.
And you know what? In 100 years, that little boat is going to still be there. I’ll be gone; you’ll be gone; David Attenborough will be gone. There will just be a little yellow submarine with the name Boaty McBoatface, and no one will know why. Everything that starts out as an ironic joke ends up losing the irony and becoming real. Sorry, not irony: Irony McIronyface.
Will Leitch writes multiple pieces a week for Medium. Make sure to follow him right here. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his family and is the author of five books, including the upcoming novel How Lucky, released by Harper in May 2021. He also writes a free weekly newsletter that you might enjoy.