This week, my old website BabyNameWizard.com was shut down by its new owners. I’d like to take this moment to remember the site, what it accomplished, and what it meant in my life.
It was November 2004. My new book The Baby Name Wizard was just months from publication, and I had built a simple website with a blog to promote the book. My husband Martin helped me brainstorm apps we could build for the site to help bring some attention to the book release. We experimented with different ways to present name popularity data and settled on something we thought was fun. It was a stacked graph of historical popularity, with a twist. As you typed letters of a name, the graph updated in real time. So in addition to a graph of, say, the name Krista, you could see the surge of all Kr- names in the 1970s.
This was cool stuff back then. Name popularity graphs weren’t yet common, and most that existed charted popularity rankings (a huge mistake). But it was the animation and the ability to explore past trends that made this new app irresistible. Martin did a lot of clever and subtle things to help the ever-changing graph render smoothly, even with the limitations of browsers and bandwidth of the time. I loved it.
We named the app the “NameVoyager” and launched it on BabyNameWizard.com the day my book was published, February 8 2005. Within two months, a million people had used it. No advertising, no Twitter or Instagram. Just people discovering the fascination of name trends, and telling their friends or writing articles about it. And, happily, getting curious about the Baby Name Wizard book.
As it happened, the book needed the visibility. Back in 2005, Barnes & Noble was the 800-pound gorilla of the book world. Not only could the chain’s purchasing decisions make or break book sales, but it had taken to issuing its own titles and cutting out publishers. After my publisher circulated the first blurb about the upcoming Baby Name Wizard, Barnes & Noble came out with a baby name book of its own. A book with a blurb and tagline oddly reminiscent of mine, with the exact same dimensions and cover price. B&N then put in a bare minimum order for The Baby Name Wizard, which could have spelled doom.
But when the flood of NameVoyager users showed interest in the book, Barnes & Noble turned around and put in a big order. The NameVoyager saved the book, and once parents started reading the book it developed its own momentum. Three revised versions later, over 300,000 copies have been sold.
The popularity of the NameVoyager also drew people to my weekly blog on names. A community of name enthusiasts grew in the comment section of my posts, with discussions sometimes extending to hundreds of comments. I came to recognize frequent posters and look forward to their insights and distinctive voices.
The success of the NameVoyager and blog planted the seed of a more ambitious vision. I joined forces with Jennie Baird, a friend and talented new-media executive, and we set out to build the ultimate baby name site. We designed more tools, like a “Name Matchmaker” recommendation engine and an interactive popularity map. We launched a forum and invited some of the wonderful name enthusiasts from the blog discussions to be moderators. And at the heart of the site was a broad, limitless name reference, the Namipedia.
We wanted users who looked up a name at BNW to learn about it from all angles. Where did the name come from? How popular was it, now and in the past, near and far? What did people who heard the name think of it? What other names did parents who chose this name like? What were the the experiences of people who bore the name? And how about nicknames, and pronunciations, and variants, and famous examples? Every name tells a story, and we wanted the entries in our Namipedia to capture those complete stories.
We started with a database of about 6,000 names with some basic expert-sourced information. Then we invited the world in to add names, knowledge and perspectives.
We knew it was risky. Spam, offensive content and all-around mischief were inevitable. We quickly learned that no blocklist of “bad words” could compete with the imagination of young troublemakers who came up with inventions like the name Cheeseface. One day I laughed at a particularly clever bit of mischief: a submission of the baby name “Smurf” with the commentary “I have synesthesia, so this name sounds blue to me.” I mentioned it over dinner that evening, and my 10-year-old daughter admitted that she and her best friend were the secret Smurf authors.
For all of the risk and all of the monitoring it necessitated, the openness of the Namipedia was a triumph. Contributions from users around the world grew the database to tens of thousands of names with a wealth of insights. Some frequent submitters focused on their specific areas of expertise, like names from medieval literature or from indigenous languages of Mexico. Every batch of new names I reviewed taught me something new.
At its peak, BabyNameWizard.com regularly drew 2 million users a month. Just as important to me, it was, I truly believe, the single best information source about baby names that has ever been. BNW was even named one of Time Magazine’s 50 Best Websites of 2009, along with the likes of Twitter and Amazon.
On a personal level, the site gave me a platform to talk about names in a way I seldom saw elsewhere. I believe that names are an essential window on our changing culture, values and dreams. I appreciated that BNW readers listened, and that some—from xkcd author Randall Monroe to New York Times columnist David Brooks—wrote about and amplified my message. I also had the chance to correspond with many parents about their own naming experiences, and even to connect outside the site with some of the wonderful volunteer moderators, who became a community of their own.
But as the site grew the internet was changing, technologically, socially and economically. By 2014 BNW needed to be rebuilt with newer technology, and to join forces with a larger network for economies of scale. Jennie and I decided to sell our business to the parenting network CafeMom.
I joined CafeMom to continue managing BNW content, while the company pursued grand plans for a redesign. Sadly, the redesign never happened. CafeMom ran into struggles of its own, and ultimately sold its network of websites to a company called RockYou. Suffice it to say that I have had nothing to do with BabyNameWizard.com for a few years now. Meanwhile the site that I sold in 2014 because it was already overdue for an overhaul remained frozen in time, slowly decaying.
Until this week. Whoever now owns BNW has officially pulled the plug. It’s a bittersweet moment. After years without staffing or updates, the site had become a fossil. It was time for it to go; I’m only sorry that so much valuable content from so many voices was lost with it.
RIP, BabyNameWizard.com, and thank you. And for those of you who may miss the BNW community: welcome to Namerology.