The Power of Labeling

“And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.”
— Genesis 2:19

A storytelling trope: a child finds a derelict, perhaps injured, animal and starts caring for it. An adult then advises: “Don’t give it a name.” The adult knows what happens next: The act of naming the animal will mark a change in the relationship. Suddenly, this is not just a random dog; now it’s Skippy. In granting the dog this label — which sets him apart from the other dogs in the world — the child has taken more responsibility for Skippy. A strong bond is established.

Naming things is a superpower all humans share. We see something novel, and need to discuss it. Long descriptions won’t work. “The dog we found yesterday in the alley” is too long and awkward. We need a label we can use to stand in for the thing. Not just any dog; Skippy. If we’re learning a language, we may ask someone else: “what do you call this?” They may say, “We call it pamplemousse.” The label pamplemousse gives you new abilities. Now you can get juice, for example. In some cases, there will be no existing label; we need to produce one. “Let’s call it Large Hadron Collider.” Bam! Now you can ask for funding.

When you’re considering a new project, naming it is a key step towards making it real. Before you’ve named the project, it’s just a vague set of ideas in your mind. But once it has a label, you can make a folder in your computer, start a notebook, email people about it. The label makes the project a more concrete thing. You can think and talk about it in more precise terms. The label establishes boundaries around the project; it concretizes it as a set. It also gives you a way of operating on that set. You can kick off the project, work on it with other people, transfer it, archive it, etc. Think of a hot frying pan; you can manipulate the pan because it has a handle. A label is a sort of handle that lets you manipulate ideas.

But labels do more than that. They also frame things in particular ways. Imagine you name a project “Tahoe Vacation 2018.” That label establishes several frames. For example, it’s clearly not a work project. (Unless you work as a travel agent.) It’s implied that this vacation applies to the year 2018; perhaps you only take one vacation per year, or you go to Tahoe every year and this particular project applies to the one in 2018. In any case, time is now part of the framing. It’s also implied that you’ll be going to Tahoe; by giving it this particular label, you’ve ruled out lots of other destinations.

We give our children labels. My name is Jorge, just like my dad. This frames our relationship — and my relationship to the world – in a particular way. It sets expectations on all sides. Naming firstborn male and female children after their father and mother is a common practice in some parts of the world. My wife and I decided not to follow this practice; our son’s name is not Jorge.

Most often, we don’t give as much forethought to labeling as when we name our children. We label things all the time, sometimes casually. But either way, the names we give things (and people) has great import. It affects how we think about them and sometimes (as in the case of children) what they think about themselves.

Labeling is central to information architecture. The essence of IA is establishing distinctions between things and naming them in ways that allow people to understand those distinctions. The job requires that we exert this superpower — that we give names to things — on a daily basis. As with all superpowers, we must wield it responsibly.