What’s in a Name-Drop?

"Name-dropping" is a meta-linguistic term describing an instance of the use of a name--usually for an individual person, though occasionally a place or thing--in which that use is thought to be discontinuous with some desirable norm of name-use in communication.  That discontinuity is rationalized by an observer, typically, as the speaker's desire to align him or herself with the name and some set of attributes associated with it.  Roughly speaking, a "name-drop" occurs when the connotation of a name is foregrounded over its denotation.  But, while the term "name-drop" describes a bit of language use, it is also a language ideology and deserves some unpacking of its own. [Note that, by "language ideology," I don't mean to imply an idea that is incorrect or misguided.  I just mean that it is an idea about language that has a social circulation we can track over time and space.]

In this post, blogger and social media personality Geoff Livingston promises to "deconstruct" name-dropping, and, in so doing, provides a nice bit of data on how this native linguistic ideology appears in the wild.  Let's take it paragraph by paragraph:

Tell me someone on the social web who doesn’t name drop. The whole currency of the social web lies in referencing and mentioning people by name. Name dropping builds perceived value and equity. It’s at the heart of today’s influence measures right or wrong (see write up of Klout), and drives “weblebrity.” So we should look at it.

Is simply associating yourself with someone — even if it’s a fly by — an accurate measure of ability? I think even posing this question is absurd, but it seems to be the way of things right now. People go to conferences, tag each other and check-in with posts, mention casual lunches, and even business deals. Some do it with sincerity (happy to see you!), and some do it in an effort to gain street cred. (I just checked in at Facebook HQ!).

Let's ignore for the sake of this post that all of human social life--thus, including 'the social web'--depends on our ability to use language to refer to and mention other people by name.  Livingston proceeds to lay out some of the cornerstones of this native theory of name-dropping. [all emphases mine]

  • "Name dropping builds perceived value and equity"
  • Is simply associating yourself with accurate measure of ability?

First, note the distinction between perceived and actual "value and equity." Next, the author imputes to some class of members of the social web the belief that name-dropping (i.e. simply associating yourself with someone) is an index of ability.   He couples this with his own commonplace appeal to a time in the past when 'things' were more authentic: It's "the way of things right now."  Livingston goes on to provide a model for two different ways a name can be used: It can be done either with 'sincerity' or 'in an effort to gain street cred.'  "Happy to see you!" is an example of sincerity, whereas checking in at Facebook HQ is considered an 'effort to gain street cred.'  (In the first example, I think we're supposed to assume that a Twitter handle is appended to the phrase.  In the latter, "Facebook HQ" is the name being 'dropped' here.)

Let’s be clear, just because you see someone associated with another via a tag or a reference, doesn’t mean there’s a relationship. Nor does it mean that the person who does it should receive credibility. Just because a post is retweeted 20 times doesn’t mean it’s been read or that the ideas are valid (I can back this with data).

When I was on a vacation a year and a half ago, a Twitter follower spotted me at JFK airport between legs of a flight. A brief, pleasant interchange occurred. The tweet was up in five minutes. My wife was mortified!

Again, Livingston attributes a set of beliefs about the associative power of names to some class of web users (which includes "you," by the way!), namely that if someone uses a name, he or she has absorbed some of that name's positive attributes, one of which might be 'credibility.'   He then relates an instance in which an over-eager, and hence presumably insincere, fan tweeted about an interaction with the author.  Though he doesn't make it explicit, I believe we are to conclude that a "brief, pleasant interchange" was not a sufficiently intimate acquaintance to warrant the use of the author's name and thus constituted a wife-mortifying 'name-drop.'

Anyone who has attended SxSW knows this event takes name dropping to epic proportions. I personally dread seeing my name come across the Twitter stream. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a real famous person like Mark Zuckerberg at such an event. Really, SxSW embodies all that is wrong with the social web culture, from frat boy parties to vanity contests for the most name drops. At the same time, it is such a powerful networking opportunity, one would be a fool not to go and talk to people in person.

Here the name-drop is a mark of 'vanity' but a necessary hazard for those who are doing the more substantive work, one would guess, of "networking."

To me there’s no way to resolve the name dropping issue. It’s so hardwired into everything we do online. Perhaps, in parallel to old school name dropping, to not ever tag anyone would simply mean to live in an online hermitage.

At the same time, I think personally we should devalue name references as a valid measure of influence and stance. At the minimum, I hope after reading this post we’ll take conference tweets and casual mentions with a lot less excitement. And casually mention people with a lot less frequency.

A user of the social web can be forgiven for being confused by these proscriptions.  How is one to know what constitutes a 'casual' rather than a substantive mention?  That's another way of asking, "What is the point of such an ideology?"  One plausible interpretation is that high-status individuals in a given sphere--those who independently control and can wield the other extra-linguistic (or at least extra-interactional) indices of that status--circulate an ideology like this to induce anxiety among lower status individuals.  That anxiety helps to preserve their status because when you already independently exhibit the ideologically specified status markers, you can go ahead and safely assert your sincerity, intimacy, and a studied disinterest in all matters of street cred. These are the classic mechanisms of class- and status-maintenance in our culture now, in our past, and in every culture I've ever experienced or seen described.

Livingston adds, in a clever postscript, a nod to the tensions this ideology creates:

P.S. To be clear, the JFK incident was a rare one. When I walk around in my home town of Alexandria, Virgina — a very blue blooded city — I am sure almost no one wonders who that nerdherder living on the wrong side of the tracks is. They are much more interested to see if the Ragin’ Cajun is in town for a real celebrity citing.

Name-dropping Alexandria and the nom de comedie of James Carville!  The reference to the latter, in the context of this bit of humility (viz. 'nerdherder'), as a 'real' celebrity actually imposes on us a re-reading of the JFK incident that wasn't apparent to me in the first pass.   It was not merely an infelicitous Twitter mention by a passing acquaintance but an instance in which the author was treated as a celebrity, however wrongly the conventions of modesty require him to protest.  James Carville, we have to assume, is out there, somewhere, squirming.