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June 6, 2006 » 11:26 am

The Story of Glormf: Lessons on Language and Naming

Jack Park recently asked about Link As You Think on the Blue Oxen Collaboration Collaboratory. I’ve written several blog posts on the matter, but there’s not much else out there. This was a great excuse for me to tell a few vignettes about Shared Language and the importance of names.    (KMO)

Glormf    (KMP)

This is Glormf, courtesy of the uber-talented cartoonist, Brian Narelle.    (KMQ)


Fen Labalme coined the term (originally spelled “glormph”) at an Identity Commons retreat in July 2003. We were strategizing about next steps, and we found that we were all struggling to describe what it was that we were all working on. Although we all had different views of the proverbial elephant, we were also convinced that we were talking about the same thing. In an inspired moment of clarity, Fen exclaimed, “It’s Glormf!” Much to our delight, Brian was listening to the conversation and drew Glormf for all of us to see.    (KMS)

Glormf’s birth lifted a huge burden off our shoulders. Even though Glormf was mucky, it was also real. We knew this, because it had a name and even a picture, and we could point to it and talk about it with ease. The name itself had no biases towards any particular view, which enabled all of us to use it comfortably. Each of us still had a hard time describing exactly what Glormf was, but if anyone challenged Glormf’s existence, any one of us could point to Glormf and say, “There it is.”    (KMT)

We had created Shared Language, although we hadn’t rigorously defined or agreed on what the term meant. And that was okay, because the mere existence of Shared Language allowed us to move the conversation forward.    (KMU)

Ingy’s Rule and Community Marks (KMV)

Ingy dot Net‘s first rule of starting a successful Open Source project is to come up with a cool name. I like to say that a startup isn’t real until it has a T-shirt.    (KMW)

Heather Newbold once told a wonderful story about how Matt Gonzalez’s mayoral campaign buttons galvanized the progressive community in San Francisco and almost won him the election. As people started wearing the green campaign buttons, she described the startling revelation that progressives in San Francisco had: There are others out there like me. A lot of them. I was amazed to hear her speak of the impact of this recognition, coming from a city that has traditionally been a hotbed of activism.    (KMX)

There’s a pattern in all of these rules and stories. I struggled to come up with a name for this pattern, and the best I could do for a long time was Stone Soup (courtesy of the participants in my 2004 Chili PLoP workshop). I loved the story associated with this name, the parable of how transformational self-awareness can be. But, it wasn’t quite concrete enough for my taste.    (KMY)

I think Chris Messina‘s term, “Community Mark“, is much better. Chris has actually fleshed out the legal implications of a Community Mark, which I recommend that folks read. Whether or not you agree with him on the details, the essence of Community Marks is indisputable: Effective communities have Community Marks. Community Marks make communities real, just as the term “Glormf” made a concept real. That’s the power of Shared Language.    (KMZ)

Pattern Languages and Wikis    (KN0)

Pattern Languages are all about Shared Language. Much of Christopher Alexander‘s classic, The Timeless Way of Building, is about the importance of names. In his book, Alexander devotes an entire chapter to describing this objective quality that all great buildings have. As you can imagine, his description is not entirely concrete, but he does manage to give it a name: “Quality Without A Name.” Call it a copout if you’d like, but if you use the term (or its acronym, “QWAN”) with anyone in the Pattern Language community, they will know what you’re talking about. Shared Language.    (KN1)

Ward Cunningham was one of the pioneers who brought Alexander’s work to the software engineering community. He created Wikis as a way for people to author and share patterns. Not surprisingly, an important principle underlying Wikis is the importance of names. Regardless of what you think about WikiWords, they have important affordances in this regard. They encourage you to think of word pairs to describe things, which encourages more precise names. They discourage long phrases, which also encourages precision as well as memorability. The more memorable a term, the more likely people will use it.    (KN2)

Ward often tells a story in his Wiki talks about using Class-Responsibility-Collaboration Cards to do software design. One of the things he noticed was that people would put blank cards somewhere on the table and talk about them as if there was something written there. The card and its placement made the concept real, and so the team could effectively discuss it, even though it didn’t have a name or description. (Ward has since formalized leaving CRC cards blank as long as possible as a best practice.) This observation helped him recognize the need and importance of Link As You Think, even if the concept (or Wiki page) did not already exist.    (KNG)

Open Source: Propagating Names    (KN3)

One of Blue Oxen‘s advisors, Christine Peterson, coined the term, “Open Source.” In February 1998, after Netscape had announced its plans to open source its browser, a few folks — Chris, Eric Raymond, Michael Tiemann, Ka-Ping Yee, and others — gathered at the Foresight Institute to strategize. At the meeting, Todd Anderson complained that the term, “Free Software,” was an impediment to wide-scale adoption. After the meeting, Christine called up Todd and suggested the term, “Open Source.” They both loved it. But, they didn’t know how to sell it.    (KN4)

So, they didn’t. At the followup meeting a few days later, Todd casually used the term without explanation. And others in the room naturally picked up on the term, to the point where they were all using it. At that point, they realized they had a good name, and they started evangelizing it to the rest of the community.    (KN5)

Names change the way we think about concepts, and so propagating names widely can shift the way people think about things. This is what happened with “Open Source.” This is what George Lakoff writes about in Moral Politics.    (KN6)

The mark of a good name is that people naturally start using it. A name can come from the top down, but it can’t generally be forced onto people.    (KN7)

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