Why Flickr dropped the 'e' and started a trend

When it comes to naming a company, dropping vowels to stand out from the crowd is all the rage with today's trendy tech startups but soon this heuristic approach shall becomes the norm, writes Crawford Hollingworth, founder of Behavioural Architects.

It’s amazing how very small contextual cues and cognitive biases can affect our perception and decision-making. Heuristics are one example of this.

Tumblr say their argument for dropping their ‘e’ was because "Tumbler.com looks....stupid

They can be described as quick shortcuts that allow for fast, cognitively efficient and satisfactory solutions to complex problems.

Simple examples of these rules of thumb and simple decision-making shortcuts  might be:

• Use or buy what you recognise and have heard of – we often buy the brand we have heard of as a shortcut for quality, reliability and reputation

• Choose the middle option – we tend not to like extremes and often pick the middle priced option

• "Mum knows best" – I’m sure you’ve found yourself cooking how she cooked.

But new, context-specific shortcuts develop all the time, and what we have begun to call the missing ‘e’ heuristic is a great example of this...

So what is the missing ‘e’ heuristic? You might have noticed that many tech start-ups adopt odd spellings these days. One of the first was flickr – the photo sharing website – founded in 2004, who say they only dropped the ‘e’ because they could not obtain the domain name for ‘flicker’:

"We wanted Flicker, but the guy who had it wouldn’t sell," says co-Founder Caterina Fake. "So I suggested to the team, ‘Let’s remove this "e" thing.’ They all said, ‘That’s too weird,’ but I finally ground everyone down. Then of course, it became THE thing and everyone started removing vowels right and left."

No E in trendy


Since then many others have followed suit: Grindr, Blendr, Pixlr, Readr and of course the blogging site Tumblr. 

Being ‘e’ free distinguishes you from the run-of-the-mill, vowel-infested world.

But the ‘missing e’ has also become a trademark of trendy new companies and acts as a way of making a new company stand out and be associated with other companies users are familiar with and like. Essentially, it’s become a shortcut for identifying a ‘trendy new tech company’.

Tumblr say their argument for dropping their ‘e’ was because "Tumbler.com looks....stupid.". But maybe there was some subconscious heuristic reasoning going on?

"Being ‘e’ free distinguishes you from the run-of-the-mill, vowel-infested world." says Esther Dyson, an early investor in flickr and leading angel investor.

This is a great example of using a principle from the behavioural sciences to help consumers navigate an emerging new sector. And the potential to give consumers new heuristics is endless. So go on, stand out from the crowd, drop an ‘e’. But only until it becomes the norm.

Missing vowels (Sqrrl and Srsly), spelling words backwards (Xobni), adding numbers instead of letters and even punctuation marks are now all being adopted too!


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