Is Trainy McTrainface really off the rails?

An express train running between two major cities in Sweden will be named ‘Trainy McTrainface’, following a public naming vote. Railway company MTR Express, in conjunction with Swedish newspaper Metro, opened up a poll to name four new trains running between the capital Stockholm and Gothenburg on the country’s west coast.

The name Trainy McTrainface was the standout, receiving 49 per cent of the vote. The name is said to be inspired by Boaty McBoatface — another publicly-voted name, chosen for a British research vessel, which was eventually ousted in favour of RRS Sir David Attenborough. Two other trains will be named Estelle —  after the 5-year-old princess of Sweden, and Glenn — a popular name in Gothenburg. The fourth is to named by a member of the MTR Express staff. The trains will be named at official celebrations in Gothenburg and Stockholm.

Unlike the United Kingdom’s Natural Environment Research Council, who seemingly regretted opening their naming poll to the public, MTR Express is sticking with the people’s choice, saying that Trainy McTrainface will be, “received with joy by many, not only with Sweden.” To add salt to the wounds, the Swedish have suggested the name was in fact chosen as ‘revenge for Boaty McBoatface’.

Trainy McTrainface will be “received with joy by many, not only with Sweden.”

The rise of Trainy McTrainface and Boaty McBoatface are just the latest in a long list of online public polls that have gone awry. In 2012, Mountain Dew opened a naming poll for a new apple-flavoured drink, which resulted in highly offensive suggestions such as “Hitler did nothing wrong”. Mountain Dew later closed the poll. In 2007, Greenpeace held a competition to name a pod of humpback whales and the name Mister Splashy Pants won an astounding 78 per cent of the vote.

So should we just be leaving these tasks to the experts?

The “wisdom of the crowd” suggests not. Ask a large enough number of people to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar, the average answer is likely to be very close to the correct amount. Occasionally, someone may guess closer to the actual number, however, if you repeat the experiment, the same person is never closer every time – the crowd is smarter than any single expert.

Experts tend to be and think alike, and thus do not reflect maximum diversity of opinions. They also tend to be overconfident, and in a group setting they tend to decide by authority (group-think), which can result in conformity and bias rather than challenge. Public opinion is a powerful force and the British and Swedish naming votes are good examples of the phenomenon of the wisdom of crowds or arguably the “fallacy of crowds”.

Behavioural economists and sociologists suggest that to best capture ‘collective’ wisdom, there needs to be true diversity of opinions, independence of opinion, decentralisation of experience, and suitable means of aggregation. People also need to have something meaningful to do in order to participate in the crowd.

Independence of judgement is essential, but difficult to achieve. 

Given our constant connection to the digital world and the rapid fire of tweets and the viral nature of YouTube videos – both outlets are driven by opinion: the more people who watch a video or the more influential people in a network who tweet or retweet, the more likely others will follow suit.

Independence of judgement is essential, but difficult to achieve. As humans, we tend to herd and are therefore influenced by what we observe from others. It’s much safer to follow a strategy that seems rational rather than one that is rational.

While names like Boaty McBoatface and Trainy McTrainface may seem irrational and a little off the rails (had to get a rail-oriented pun in there), the fact they have aroused significant public interest, engagement and enthusiasm can’t be refuted. Neither can the public’s desire to be heard.

 

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