Boaty McBoatface, Primaries, and the Illusion of Democratic Legitimacy

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The internet seems to bring out the extreme tendencies of human groups. It can connect us over the greatest of distances and provide for the rapid spread of information — whether in the form of revolutionary tweets or cat pictures. At the same time, the anonymity provided by certain social media platforms coupled with mass social movements can end up having some wonky effects.

One such recent sensation was the saga of Boaty McBoatface. As detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) recently ran a contest to determine the name of a new $300-million research vessel. The new ship would explore the remotest waters, its side emblazoned with a name chosen by “the people” of the internet. Or such was the idea.

As Atlantic writer Uri Friedman put it:

The NERC had expressed a preference for an “inspirational,” environmental science-y choice. Your “Shackleton.” Your “Endeavour.” And so on.

Of course, internet users jumped on such an opportunity to “participate” in such scientific endeavors. Before long, the leading entry for the name of the new ship was “RRS Boaty McBoatface,” a name which soon became an internet sensation. As links to the contest were shared, the name continued to gain steam, ending with 124,000 votes — over three times the votes of the runner-up entry.

BOATY

The boat that will NOT be named Boaty McBoatface

Yet the captain (er, Science Minister) Jo Johnson leaned hard on the tiller and, along with the hardy crew (the NERC), decided to bring her about, ignoring the prevailing winds of internet opinion. Such a name just wouldn’t be proper!

This raises the obvious question: if the NERC wanted to maintain creative control over the naming of the ship, why hold the contest at all? Had they never asked the amorphous mob of “the internet” to participate, they could have just named it whatever boring name they wanted. But had the done so, they never would have got people interested. After all, wasn’t the purpose of the marketing ploy precisely to raise awareness for science and give people the feeling that they were somehow participating in the process?

Here we see something pertinent to the study of adversarial institutions: sometimes a contest can be used to give validation or legitimacy to an idea. The logic is generally this: the majority will have little reason to complain about the outcome, since they themselves chose it. Such a notion may appear extremely obvious — after all, we are used to it in its political form: majoritarianism.

Yet the story of “Boaty McBoatface” shows that while a body might set up a such a structured contest to give their actions legitimacy, that same body of organizers might find themselves still wanting control over the outcome. In an alternate scenario, the  NERC could have the people choose between several tried-and-true-and-boring options. But is a choice among options you didn’t pick really a valid choice for the purposes of legitimacy?

The example of Boaty McBoatface seems especially relevant in a U.S. primary season where both major parties have seen strong challenges from candidates considered to be outsiders. On the right, there has been talk of Donald Trump being blocked at the Republican convention by the party establishment; on the left, superdelegates have proved to be a hot-button issue in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Like the NERC, both parties seem to want to have their cake and eat it too: they want to let the people (generally, or of their party) appear to have some input, but they also want to maintain some control over the process.

If there’s one thing that both the saga of Boaty McBoatface and this U.S. primary season will achieve, it will be the raised awareness among citizens and internet-basement-dwellers that sometimes the way that contests are structured matters immensely. Is it enough to have a choice, or is directly choosing the options also required for democratic legitimacy? Needless to say, deciding the scope and limits of democratic legitimacy is and will continue to be a slippery business.

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