Why I Love the Humor of the Web

Let's Not Lose Digital's Playfulness

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Mat Zucker
Mat Zucker
I love the sense of humor and personality of digital. It's that precocious, rebellious adolescent who hits just the right chord in the culture. A lot of the playful spirit comes from software, where names of applications (e.g., Safari) have tended to be colorful and telegraph what they do (e.g., DropBox). The name draws you in, tempts trial (important in software where you try before you buy), describes the benefit, and encourages bragging and sharing of it when you love it.

As digital matures -- and we all agree it is maturing -- I hope it doesn't turn sour and stuffy, like direct marketing traditionally has been ("customer relationship management," "test-and-learn"), or haughty ("Manifesto"), ephemeral ("Whassup?") and delayed, like advertising. Sure, those two follow and reflect the culture, but digital seems to be faster, more nuanced and just plain more accessible for real people. In fact, here are examples of where digital's sense of humor and personality have created great services for customers, quickly gotten our attention and put smiles on our faces:

Blog names paved the way with intriguing names such as Engadget and Jalopnik and later served mass fetishes like Gawker, Curbed, Crave, Eater and LifeHacker, plus timely ones such as EconoWiner. Even the WSJ has loosened up with Speakeasy and The NY Times with Bats, Bits, Bitten and Paper Cuts.

Sharing services are famously friendly -- Del.icio.us, Popurls, Reddit, Digg, Posterous, You thought we wouldn't notice, SlideShare, Cute as Hell (for pet photos, of course). They co-opt and adapt familiar words or phrases from the culture and create something new and urgent to use.

Texts From Last Night -- This site and its app showcase mostly NSFW texts people have sent that maybe they don't want to remember or that highlight a state of mind that looks different in the morning. One of the few PG-rated ones: "my goal in life is to wake up with my underwear on." I wish it could grab texts anonymously from people, but they're user-submitted, so it's about bragging your or your friend's wit or idiocy.

Fonolo -- Hate those corporate phone trees? Copywriter Lisa Charbelois told me about this service, which goes on hold for you. Just put in the number you're calling, and it will go through the phone-tree hell for you. Then you can talk to a real human being.

SmartyPig -- This savings bank encourages you to set specific goals (e.g., Paris vacation) and regularly save toward them. This type of name wouldn't work for a bricks-and-mortar location, but especially as financial institutions have lost so much credibility, it seems more accessible for more people than ever before.

Dunkin Run -- Here's a site and branded app that drives store traffic. Inspired by a real behavioral insight, it helps people pile on orders for whoever goes to the store for a midday coffee run.

Exit Strategy NYC -- This app (on iPhone, Android, BlackBerry and Kindle) tells you where to stand in your subway car to get off nearest your exit. Bryan Fuhr got me using this one, and it makes me feel like an experienced, tried-and-true New Yorker every time I do (or like Holly Hunter in a D.C. taxi in "Broadcast News").

Craiglook -- A re-skin of Craigslist with image thumbnails and a cleaner interface. It's still kinda ugly, but it works better than the regular listings experience. Good example of digital as restless, building on top of itself, seeking improvement to the world around it, flattering and working with what works.

Newer additions are to the language, such as on Twitter, where "Follow Friday" (#FF) is how to give props to people who inspired your week. There's pride the first time you get #FF'd and a bit of glee the first time you list others.

Contrast all this successful whimsy with useful yet humorless NeverLost -- the GPS system with miserable usability and utter lack of focus despite the name. I recently got lost using it in Chicago -- pathetic for both them and me.

Got some other good examples of digital services with great names or behaviors that make you smile? Please share. You'll definitely make my #FF list.

Mat Zucker is executive creative director at OgilvyOne, where he's working on scaling the direct model in a digital world. He previously held senior creative positions at Agency.com and R/GA.
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