WASHINGTON – There’s little doubt that Mei Xiang is a thoroughly modern mother, what with the fertility treatments and 24/7 video baby monitor and all. But if you need one more piece of evidence that the giant panda of the National Zoo in Washington is perfectly on trend, consider the process for naming her new cub: The anonymous masses of the Internet will decide.
On the National Zoo’s website, people cast ballots for one of five names for the young panda, who is growing fuzzier every day. Voting closed Friday Nov. 22 — according to the zoo, around 100,000 people have weighed in — and the cub’s name will be announced on Dec. 1., when she is 100 days old.
But it’s not just panda names. Expectant human parents, too, no longer only consult with close friends and family members about potential names anymore — in fact, they may deliberately cut those folks out of the conversation to avoid undue influence and judgment. Instead, they ask the people of the Internet. And the people of the Internet know everything. About everything.
They know that Ava is overrated, but also classic and beautiful. And that any name that rhymes with “maiden’ — think Jayden, Cayden, Brayden — is totally passe. Except for Aiden, which is still acceptable, though probably too popular.
“With the development of social media, it doesn’t seem like anything stays private anymore,” says Lucie Wisco, editor of Belly Ballot, a site that allows parents to create virtual voting booths to help them choose a new baby’s name.
“I think this is a very natural next step,” Wisco says. “Why do people read Yelp? Because they want to hear the opinion of other people. And if you’re indecisive and you can’t agree with your husband about one particular name, it’s nice to have more people stand in your line.”
Wisco says the site, which launched in July 2012, attracts 150,000 unique visitors a month. Some parents-to-be invite only people they know to vote, while others post links on Facebook and Twitter or open it up to the whole viewing public. Some even give strangers the option of suggesting names not on the ballot.
“At the end of the day, it’s really you who chooses the name,” Wisco says. “But it helps you to make the decision.”
Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer and her husband famously sent out a mass email asking for suggestions on what to name their son after he was born last year. (The ultimate choice: Macallister.)
Because, of course, it’s a momentous decision and one nobody wants to screw up. Like pretty much every other issue related to your offspring.
As an expectant first-time mom, I hope Mei Xiang hasn’t tripped down too many cyberspace rabbit holes of parenting advice. I know how overwhelming this alternative universe can be. Google one question and you’ll find a thousand answers, which leads to a thousand more questions, which leads to the fetal position — for you, not your baby.
There is nothing the people of the Internet don’t know. Though often what they know is entirely contradictory — Go ahead, supplement with formula. Formula is the devil’s poison, use it and your child will sprout horns! — and occasionally mean-spirited, condescending or judgmental.
But that’s the price you have to pay for the hard-won, instantly available, cumulative insights of the World Wide Web. The discussion forums on DC Urban Moms and Dads have been populated with more than 259,000 topics that parents have been eager to weigh in on with more than 4 million messages since its launch in 2002. How many pairs of shoes should a 5-year-old have? What kind of laundry detergent is best for newborns? Should we have a third kid and should I become a stay-at-home mom and is my 4-year-old normal or is he a brat?
And how about this couple, whose formerly restful 6½-month-old has been fussing during the night after a recent illness. Will picking the baby up develop bad habits? Should they make her cry it out?
“Personally, I could not stand it,” chimed in one. “They are little only once.”
But most of the advice is more measured, thoughtful and empathetic. And the real benefit of crowdsourcing parenting advice is that you can quickly access someone who’s been in your exact position, which may not be true of the folks within your close social circle.
“The nature of the audience is that they don’t have a lot of local family,” says Jeff Steele, who runs the Washington site with his wife, Maria Sokurashvili. “We’re a perfect example. My family is in Illinois, my wife’s family is in Europe. So the people you’d normally turn to for questions — like your mom — you can’t do that easily. So you turn to online communities.”
Steele says that having kids — confounding little creatures that they are — can be the great equalizer. “We have a lot of parents who have very important roles in life, but they have as much trouble getting their 1-year-old to sleep as parents with less-impressive jobs,” he says. “People just have a need to communicate about something. And in our environment, you are able to do it with some security — knowing you can do it anonymously. So you can feel free to say something stupid or ask a stupid question.”
Unless that question is, “Should I name my baby Brayden?” In which case the Internet will slap you down before you’ve finished typing “a-y-d-e-n.”
“Beyond horrible. Should be illegal. Blech. Eeeyoooore,” one commenter posted on the site Behind the Name. Luckily for Mei Xiang, that name is not on the ballot.
The zoo’s newest panda will either be Ling Hua, a name that means “delicate flower”; Mulan, the title character of a Disney movie based on the adventures of a fifth-century Chinese warrior; Bao Bao, which translates to “precious”; Zhen Bao, which means “treasure”; or Long Yun, representing a Chinese dragon and meant to symbolize luck for cooperative U.S.-China panda relations.
Whatever moniker the adorable cub winds up with will inevitably be deemed horrible and perfect and exactly right and all wrong.
Here’s hoping the zoo’s WiFi doesn’t work that day, so Mei Xiang can tune it all out.