If you caught my talk in Seattle last week, I talked about names, versions, and SVN.

Jeff Atwood: There are two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

One of the things I touched on with names was their problematic nature. And believe me, I know about that. You see, I’m a Cleveland Indians fan.

And yes, I think the name (and the logo) are racist.

You can’t rename things, but you can rebrand

When I said this, I meant that you can’t rename a plugin slug. Yoast SEO will forever have the URL of wordpress-seo because we do not have a way to rename the slug and properly redirect everyone. We just don’t. And even if we did, the old URL would need to remain in perpetuity in order for everyone who upgraded super late to still get the new code.

Names are really important. Your name is (often) your brand, and your brand is how people know you and how to find you. When you consider a name like the Cleveland Indians, today we can see the problems with it. Racism. But in 1914, we were a little simpler, a little more naive…. A little stupider. Okay a lot stupider.

The problems that Cleveland faces with renaming are related to the problems you would face in renaming your product.

Rebranding has a cost, and it could be everything

The crux of all issues with renaming is that if people don’t like the new name, or can’t find you because of it, they will walk away. If you’re a small company with a few sales, and people can’t find your name anymore, you could go bankrupt. For Cleveland, it would be worse. If the baseball team went belly up, it would translate to thousands of people going out of work.

This is not to say the renaming or rebranding isn’t important. Cleveland’s reasons are obvious. Yours may be less so. You may be asked to rebrand to prevent a potential legal issue. Or you may decide that Mailpoet is a better name than Wysija Newsletters. But the rebranding can come at a cost.

Losing history can loose users

In baseball, one of the rationales for not renaming a team is the team history. A team is known by it’s name and its mascot (and logo). The logos of most team are fairly mutable over time, you can see the growth and development when you look at it historically. There’s a reason most redesigns are actually not dramatic, but careful and planned. That can not be said of the names, which rarely (if ever) change unless a team moves.

The same goes for your name. If Cleveland renames their baseball team to, say, the Lancers or the Blues, how do you handle the change? You have to make sure everyone knows (this is easier for baseball than the rest of us) and you have to make sure they know why.

Warner Bros' 'we were racist' disclaimer

When a similar warning was put up before Tom & Jerry cartoons, the Internet lost their shit. Go figure. And yet that’s the problem here. People react in unpredictable ways to being told “A thing you liked and empathized with is bad” because they think it means they were bad. Generally no, they weren’t.

That’s a much bigger issue for baseball than for your code though. Unless you decided to name your theme Mien Kampf, or decided to present your plugin as ‘The Final Solution.’ That’s because a name is not isolated. You are not isolated. You live in a world where the implications and uses of a word and a logo can have far reaching effects. People who, for whatever reason, connect with your plugin name can feel left out when you rebrand.

No matter how deep your pockets are, you will pay

Thankfully you are way luckier than baseball (or football, hello). You have the opportunity to know the world you’re in. Today we are more aware of the implications of our words, but also we now listen to other cultures and viewpoints about how our words and actions are perceived.

The cost of renaming yourself is high, but the ultimate question is not to ask how much the cost is of the renaming. The question is which cost is higher: The loss that stems from renaming, or the loss that stems from defending a name. If you’re being sued by Microsoft for copyright infringement over a name, and yes it happens, it doesn’t matter what your intentions were. What matters is you’re probably going to lose.

If you’re baseball, you generally have a lot more money than the average joe. You might be able to win a lawsuit. But your reputation will be tarnished, and that too will impact your bottom line.

If you know what to do and you don’t do it, there you bloody well are, aren’t you.

— Lord Buckley

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. The Webshark guys know all about being forced to rename. Let’s hope the BIll Haley legacy doesn’t go after them next …

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