Here's a case of smart people who came up with a good idea that fills a need and is cleverly executed. The only weakness is the name. (Well, the visual identity is clearly dopey—see image, left—but design isn't my forte, so I'll give it a pass for now.)
I first learned about Herdict on Twitter, where the 140-character limit precluded much context. As I recall, the tweet said nothing more than, "Have you checked out Herdict?" So I played a guessing game with myself. I'm familiar with BlogHer, EngageHer, and HerRoom,¹ so I reasoned that Herdict must be a service or product for her—for women.
As for -dict, my first association—not the most obvious one, granted, but not wholly improbable—was "indict." So I thought the name was pronounced "her-dite," and had something to do with ... women criminals?
Well, no. Right after I saw that tweet, I read a blog post by Dave Weinberger, who was attending a lunch sponsored by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, which turns out to be the brains behind Herdict. (As I said: smart people.) Herdict, Dave wrote, "tries to enlist people at large to answer the question 'What’s going on with the Net?'"
As the Herdict website says (in clear, friendly language; can't find fault there):
Let's say you find a site inaccessible...normally, you might call or e-mail your friends and ask them if they're experiencing the same thing. With Herdict Web, you can see - in real time - if others are reporting the same phenomenon, giving you a better sense of potential reasons of why the site is inaccessible.
And the name?
In just a minute, I'll tell you some of the reasons a portmanteau of "herd" and "verdict" is so problematic. But first I want to share the responses I got when I asked my own Twitter followers what "Herdict" suggested to them:
- "Verdicts for women, or it's a misspelling and there's supposed to be a 'k' on the end."
- "I read 'herdict' as 'heretic." (Two votes for that interpretation.)
- "I thought 'her dick.'"
- "Transsexuals?" (Two votes.)
- "A site for female lawyers--'her verdict'?"
- "Something about a herd ... and an addict?"
Interestingly, the only person who got "herd" from "Herdict" is not a native English speaker.
Here's my own analysis. Most of the problems with "Herdict" are liabilities of all portmanteau words. Portmanteaus are fun to construct, and they're usually the first strategy novice namers attempt. Take a word or a word part, smash it into another word or word part, and voilà: a newly coined word that's somewhat likelier than average to have an available domain. But not all words blend as seamlessly as famous portmanteaus like chortle or slithy (both coined by Lewis Carroll). Many word-blends result in what The Name Inspector calls awkwordplay, words in which the stress is ambiguous or syllabic transitions are difficult or unpleasant. Herdict suffers from the latter fault: it's hard to tell where we're supposed to break up the word. Her? Or herd?
But that's just the beginning:
- "Herd," a collective noun used with animals, especially cattle, is an unflattering way to refer to one's audience, public, or users. It suggests unthinking animal instinct, not human judgment.
- Jonathan Zittrain, Herdict's creator, makes a stumbling attempt to justify his zoology: "To many, the sheep is considered to be an unintelligent species content to simply run with the flock. On the contrary, sheep tend not to follow the herd when no natural predator is present." With all due respect, Dr. Zittrain, I don't think you've spent enough time outdoors.
- The collective noun for sheep isn't "herd," it's "flock."
- "Verdict" suggests judgment; we often associate it with "guilty." But Herdict doesn't pass judgment; it simply reports.
- Then there are the problems with the sound of the name. Is it -dict or -dick? It isn't always easy to hear the difference. (Try saying "I use Herdict" quickly a few times and you'll catch my drift.)
- Speaking of hearing, is it Herd- or Heard-? If you meet a new acquaintance and say you work for Herdict, will the other person hear "heard it"?
Successful names need to pass many tests: sight (what does its spelling suggest?), sound (is it pronounceable and unambiguous?), meaning, and appropriateness, among others. (Trademark is the biggest "other.")
But here's my main complaint: The name conveys no benefit. Nothing about "Herdict" suggests that the program exists to prevent web censorship and enhance web accessibility. The name doesn't communicate openness, fairness, or access. It suggests bovine compliance coupled with judgment. Or genitalia.
I hope Herdict succeeds as a business; I really do. Not only because I think it provides a worthwhile service, but because success may bring an infusion of funds large enough to finance a complete rebranding—verbal and visual. I wouldn't mind being part of it.
¹Another good business with a dreadful name. Herroom.com sells lingerie, for Pete's sake, but its name sounds like phlegmy throat-clearing.