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The Melting Pot

A digital, cultural conversation

It’s the undermining of gauging popularity online

The name: just another piece of identity snatched away from us

Muammar (or is it Moammar?) Gaddafi – uh, Qaddafi – nope, Kadafi (Gadhafi?) is dead.

And, clearly, no one knows how to spell his name.

I can only imagine the tribulations of newspaper editors, scrolling through lists to see just how the Associated Press suggests they do it (Gadhafi) and what The New York Times is doing (Qaddafi), to finally settle on some combination of letters thereof to result in yet another spelling option for the deceased leader of Libya. The leader’s name’s spelling is blurred by the unclear Arabic translation to English when inserting it with vowels and consonants of our language. We’ve seen it for years with his name, and we’ve come to accept it. But think about it in the most basic terms – your name. Let’s say a girl – whose name is more commonly spelled “Rebecca” – decides to opt for the spelling with a ‘k’ (“Rebekah”). And on her first day of kindergarten, her teacher spells it incorrectly. The five-year-old, knowing nothing about the world of AP Style or consistency or Internet conundrums, will have her teacher correct her spelling.

In our world today, with identities sometimes blurred on the Internet, a name is the only thing we have that is 100% ours; it’s the one thing we associate with ourselves. The simple innocence of the name is what makes it so uniquely ours, and a factor that determines a core piece of our identity.

Yes, news organizations want to have a credible way to spell the leader’s name to both set a standard and give respect to the identification of the name. The audience needs the truth, and the news has prided itself on keeping consistent with ideas throughout time.

Up until now, when looking at deaths of prominent people in our society, we could see the top Tweets about a subject – and gauge its relative popularity in our society – by searching for its Twitter hashtag. Steve Jobs’ related Tweets exploded, as did those of Osama bin Laden in May.

No longer will that tactic work.

The hashtag system is getting undermined by the influx of varied tweets on the subject of the deceased dictator; is it Gaddafi or Qaddafi or Gadhafi? No one knows, and the hits are suffering from the lack of consistency. The whole idea of the mentioning system – one of the most powerful on the Internet today – fails when a community cannot unite on a simple spelling of the name.

Even searches become skewed. Larger websites have enough of an algorithm programmed in that even if you spell the name with the wrong letter, the correct spelling of the respective organization fills the top hits. But try searching outside the mainstream media for an article on the leader. If you don’t guess the right name spelling, you could be in the dark.

Did we ever think they could fail? Surely, the Internet is invincible! But the honest simplicity of its perpetrators have the potential to take down the popularity chart of the Internet – an altogether frightening concept.

Maybe the Internet isn’t as strong as we all thought it was; its power is based in precision and specificity. A few letters’ deviation from the subject could cause chaos and a failure to find what we’re looking for, which results in the failure of the Internet itself. It’s a sign that human error could massively skew the outcome. And it’s a sign that no matter how strong the Internet seems, mistakes within it can be deadly.

But the fact that however-you-spell-his-name’s name was so inconsistent over time makes me fear, above all, for the future of our identity online. If such a large figure’s name spelling went unnoticed, what does that mean for the not-famous, for the everyday Joes (or should I say “Johs” or “Jos”)?

The name is one of the only pieces that’s uniquely us that we have left, but little hiccups on the Internet are starting to threaten that.

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