Christopher Johnson, a.k.a.The Name Inspector, is a Seattle-based “verbal branding consultant” – that is, one who gets paid to help companies come up with names for themselves and new products. He’s also been a blogger since 2007, an author (of the new book Microstyle:The Art of Writing Little), and the owner of a Ph.D. in linguistics from UC-Berkeley. I’ll devote a separate post down the road to the book Microstyle, but Johnson’s definition of that term captures the essence of his blog as well.
Microstyle is really about language at play – even when it’s used at work.You use it when you come up with a business name – or a baby name – that “has a nice ring to it.” You use it when you try to make a head line or title sound “catchy.” You even use it when you think of something clever and funny to say at a party. And, of course, you use it on Twitter if you’re part of that world. Microstyle is the natural expression of verbal art and playfulness. It’s what makes every one of us a poet.
That passage is a fine example of the Name Inspector’s own prose style – clear and clever and insightful. A fine entry point to the blog is his June 15 post on “The Hard Truths of a Naming,” a little primer for companies on what to expect from a name. I wish Kaze and I had had access to this when we stumbled upon 317am as our own blog’s name.
I also really like the Name Inspector’s breakdown of the competition between the two naming metaphors of early Internet Browsers – Mosaic and Netscape Navigator.
Mosaic likened the web, and perhaps the individual web page, to a familiar kind of picture made out of little pieces.
Netscape Navigator treated the web as a vast physical space to explore.
While the metaphor behind Mosaic has already been forgotten, the one behind Netscape Navigator has proved indispensable. It is, of course, the metaphor we all use now to think and talk about the web. It gives meaning to the names of two other currently popular browsers, Internet Explorer and Safari.
The contrast between these metaphors illustrates two important things to keep in mind about metaphor in general.
First, a metaphor that invites you to imagine you’re participating in an activity is better than one that makes a static comparison. Mosaic treated the web experience as a still picture. All the name really conveyed was that you would look at a complex whole composed of numerous parts. It suggested no imagined activity, purpose, or emotional engagement. Netscape Navigator, on the other hand, hinted at all these things. It suggested that the user was moving, in control, possibly headed somewhere important, and definitely in for an adventure.
The second important lesson is that it’s hard to come up with a new metaphor that’s as powerful as one that already exists. The metaphor of the internet as a physical space was established before Netscape Navigator came on the scene. People already used William Gibson’s term cyberspace to refer to the internet, and used the phrase “surf the internet”. That way of thinking and talking about the internet was, in fact, based on a metaphor that’s deeply engrained in our culture and our minds, and that may be universal: one that treats any purposeful activity as movement through a landscape. Metaphors like this run deep because they’re rooted in experiences that begin in early childhood. (Incidentally, before The Name Inspector was The Name Inspector, he was something of an expert on this topic.)
Nice. This meets the wish-I’d-written-that test and seems worthy of the man who had a hand in naming Pentium, PowerBook, BlackBerry, and the immortal Swiffer.