Remembering Aaron Swartz (and Infogami)

« previous post | next post »

There have been many online remembrances of Aaron Swartz, the brilliant young programmer and Internet activist who killed himself on Friday at the age of 26. (See, for instance, Caleb Crain's piece for The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog and the many tributes linked therein.) It's typically noted that in 2005 Swartz founded the startup Infogami, which then merged with Reddit shortly thereafter. (In obituaries, Swartz has often been identified as a co-founder of Reddit — some dispute that characterization, but it's true that the Infogami wiki platform was a key to Reddit's early success.) I don't have any first-hand reminiscences to share, but with Infogami back in the news I thought it would be a good time to look back on something I wrote in 2006 about the company's name.

On April 11, 2006, I followed up on something Mike Pope wrote for his Evolving English II blog with a Language Log post, "Unfolding Infogami." I was chiefly interested in how the -gami part, derived from origami, was supposed to be interpreted. I was also curious about the pronunciation: for those who grokked its basis in origami, a pronunciation of [ˌɪnfoˈgɑmi] (after [ˌɔrəˈgɑmi]) would make sense, but others might be tempted to pronounce it as [ɪnˈfɑgəmi] on the model of words ending in -gamy like monogamy [məˈnɑgəmi]. To show that this was a bit confusing from the beginning, I quoted a post by Swartz on the origins of the startup:

'When would you have the first prototype done?' 'Well, we'd hope to work on it over the next term so we'd have it ready over the summer.' 'Oh, wonderful, wonderful.' he says. 'What about this name? Infogami? You're going to always have to spell it out.' Paul [Graham] says. 'Isn't it just origami with info at the beginning?' 4 of 4 asks. 'Well, it's confusing,' Paul says. 'In-FAH-gomee,' Trevor [Blackwell] chimes in. 'All the names with blog in it are probably taken,' 4 of 4 says. 'No, you don't want blog in it,' Paul says. 'You want something bigger, something that can face the world. You're not wedded to the name, are you?' 'No, we just picked it so we could stop discussing the name and move on,' I said. 'Oh, good,' Paul says, and moves on.

I also quoted Paul Graham, in a post about startup names from Mar. 14, 2006, indicating that he had warmed up to the sound of "Infogami" after his initial reluctance:

Infogami is a pretty decent name too. Aaron already had that when we first met him. It can't conveniently be used as a verb, but it looks and sounds good, and has the advantage that it can naturally expand to cover whatever this software evolves into.

(Graham's post is an interesting attempt to quantify the factors going into a successful startup name, using seven criteria: Evocativity, Brevity, Greppability, Googlability, Pronounceability, Spellability, and Verbability. He didn't think much of "Reddit" at first either.)

After writing the Language Log post, I received an email from Sean B. Palmer, an early collaborator of Swartz, providing some further insight into the source of the Infogami coinage:

Regarding your post about the name "infogami" on Language Log, I'm not even sure if Aaron remembers this himself but please note that the name was actually coined by a friend, Steve Ivy, way back in the murky mists of time. [...] Apparently the term was coined on 2002-03-07, but I don't have my logs for that date to hand, so the seminal moment may be lost to the bit bucket. Perhaps Aaron remembers more?

Swartz was cc'ed on the email but never followed up with additional information. The origins of Infogami have, however, come up again on Swhack!, an IRC channel that Swartz and Palmer created in 2001. Here is a chat log from Nov. 5, 2012, in which Palmer talks with David P. Kendal about the pronunciation of the name and how it was borrowed from Steve Ivy:

13:16:21 <dpk> how do you pronounce 'infogami'? I (mentally) pronounced it like "polygamy' with 'in-fog' instead of 'polyg' but talking to you about it once, i realised the connection to 'origami'
13:17:10 <sbp> yeah, it's a straight portmaneau of information and origami. we didn't come up with it, Steve Ivy came up with it—nickname redmonk on Swhack. it was just something he came out with on Swhack at some point and we asked whether we could use it
13:17:27 <sbp> so I say "in-fo" + "gar-me"

(The pronunciation spelling of /gɑ/ as "gar" is a tell that Palmer speaks a non-rhotic British dialect. For more on such spellings, see "Pinker's almer mater.")

Though I don't see anything about Infogami on the Swhack! log for Mar. 7, 2002 (the date given by Palmer for Ivy's coinage), it does show up in logs later that month (Mar. 18, Mar. 25, Mar. 29). Swartz is front and center in these conversations… at the tender age of 15.



9 Comments

  1. David L said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 1:40 pm

    I'd never heard of Infogami until reading about Swartz (never heard of him either, for that matter), but my first instinct on seeing the word was that it was a portmanteau of information and origami, and pronounced accordingly.

    InFOGamy, on the monogamy model, seems like an infelicitous choice — fog wrapped in infamy doesn't exactly have positive connotations, business-wise.

  2. Dave K said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

    I also hadn't heard of Swartz or Infogami until reading stories about him over the past couple of days, and I, too, assumed that it was pronounced like origami, with the stress on the "ga". It never occurred to me until reading this post that it might be pronounced "in-FAH-gomee".

  3. Dw said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

    The pronunciation spelling of /gɑ/ as "gar" is a tell that Palmer speaks a non-rhotic British dialect.

    Equally, the spelling In-FAH-gomee is reveals that the speaker has a North American accent with the father-bother merger.

  4. Chris Waters said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

    Interesting. I do have the father-bother merger, but I use a quite different vowel sound for the final 'o' in "info". If I try to say "infogami" as if it were related to origami, I pronounce it the way I pronounce "info", but if I say it as if it were related to "monogamy", I instinctively switch to "ah" for the 'o'.

  5. Theodore said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 4:28 pm

    I'm surprised that "verbability" is considered a desirable trait. I would think that leads more readily to genericization of trademarks.

  6. Rubrick said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 7:20 pm

    A great strength of brand names which relate in no obvious way to their products, e.g. Google or Apple, is that they're relatively age-proof. Names which are too descriptive have a way of becoming quaintly anachronistic down the road: see American Telephone & Telegraph. A remarkable exception, though, is IBM, whose primary concern continues to be international business machines some 87 years after adopting its current name.

  7. Ethan said,

    January 14, 2013 @ 9:11 pm

    Not that it matters from the perspective of connotations carried along in English by the word "origami", but I find it a bit ironic that the "-gami" part of origami means paper, implying that "infogami" might mean a paper with information on it. But information on paper is presumably exactly what infogami/Reddit was trying to get away from.

  8. mollymooly said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    @Dw:

    Equally, the spelling In-FAH-gomee is reveals that the speaker has a North American accent with the father-bother merger.

    No, it tells us that about the transcriber (Aaron Swartz), not the speaker (Trevor Blackwell).

  9. Staplovich said,

    January 16, 2013 @ 11:22 am

    I was only vaguely aware of Swartz before reading this. Interestingly, I had no idea how to pronounce "Infogami" at first and, in my head, rendered it like "info gamey", with the stress on the first syllable. I didn't pick up on -gami as related to origami at all. I'm still not sure which syllable one would normally stress; in-FAH-gami sounds, to my ear, like one is trying to mock a high-born English accent: "Will you take tea, mum?" "Yes, of course! But do give me a minute, I simply MUST check for updates on Infogami!" (I'm picturing the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey, by the way.)

RSS feed for comments on this post