I remember when the Sears Tower was completed in 1974. I remember my grandfather giving me a cardstock kit that I folded with care and assembled into a little model of it, which I then managed to flatten through overly exuberant play. I remember noticing when the rooftop masts were first extended with taller antennae, and being drawn into an Abbott-and-Costello-style repartee with my Uncle David when I commented, “they’re a different height” (than they were before) and he replied, “no, they’re the same height” (as each other). “No, they’re different!” “They look the same to me.” Et cetera. (Hey, I was maybe ten years old; it was funny at the time.)
So yeah, the Sears Tower has long been a memorable fixture in my life. And when it was announced in early 2009 that new tenants had bought the naming rights, I was aghast, appalled, disappointed. “They can’t do that!” I said.
But of course they can. And in the bigger scheme of Chicago history, perhaps it’s appropriate that they do. After all, Sears abandoned their own namesake tower to move out to the suburbs. It is, in the final analysis, nothing more than a corporate name. These things change. Just ask Alvah Roebuck.
Renaming a building as iconic, as symbolic of Chicago, as the Sears Tower is—a building that stood for decades as the tallest in the world—is somewhere on a par with renaming, say, the Chrysler Building in New York, or the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco. Unfortunate, sure. Inappropriate, perhaps. Fair game? Absolutely.
Nevertheless, I still call the Aon Center by its original name, the Standard Oil Building. Because that’s what it was called when I first visited it as a kid. That’s what it was called when I took a picture of it at age nine, with a Quaker-Oats-can pinhole camera that I made myself at the Art Institute. Besides, I like calling it by its nickname, “Big Stan.” Of course, this archaism means I always have to correct myself when speaking to anyone new to Chicago (“new” as in arriving any time within the past twenty-plus years) who only know it as the Aon Center, or perhaps remember it as the Amoco Building.
Anyway, this is supposed to be about the Sears Tower and its new name, Willis Tower, of which I am not a fan. I know I have a lot of company with this sentiment. (On the other hand, although I don’t care for its new name, I have to admit to enjoying the nickname that is already gaining traction: “Big Willie.” But I suppose a lot of Americans are oblivious to the British naughtiness of this.)
Nowhere is the controversy and distress of this change more apparent than on Wikipedia. The day the name change was announced, editors immediately began to jump the gun and put the name in place throughout the site. These were routinely reverted with the admonition: “the name change hasn’t happened yet.” Which meant, of course, that when July 16 rolled around and the new signage was unveiled during a mid-morning ceremony, editors fell over each other in trying to be the first to make the change. Even then, the page move was premature: it went from Sears Tower to Willis Tower on July 15 at 16:07 UTC, a full day early.
Then came the reverters, as well as the confusers. Some were opposed to the name change, and tried to move it back to Sears. Others were overenthusiastic about it and changed all references throughout Wikipedia from Sears to Willis, at the cost of rampant anachronisms. For example, it’s accurate to say “the Standard Oil Building was surpassed by the Sears Tower as the tallest in Chicago,” because it happened in 1974. It would be incorrect to use the Aon Center and Willis Tower names in the previous statement, but it is apropos to say “the Aon Center is third tallest in Chicago, after Willis Tower and Trump Tower,” since that is a statement of current fact. This distinction is lost on many editors.
A full week after the page move, on Wednesday, July 22, a newbie editor (having created his account just one day earlier) started a campaign to return the Willis Tower page to Sears Tower. Being inexperienced, he bypassed standard page-move protocol with a cut-and-paste job (cut the content from Willis, paste it in Sears, and change all the names in both pages); being an inappropriate edit, this was quickly reverted with a comment that Wikipedia’s “Requested Moves” process was the correct method to use.
The editor began that process that same day, and now two days later the discussion has just about run its course, with interesting results.
The nominating editor cited the “Common Names” guideline as such: “[it] is emphatically clear: ‘Title an article using the most common English language name of a person or thing that is the subject of the article.'” He used various Google news searches, as well as the usual editorials and news blurbs that discussed peoples’ natural resistance to the change, to infer that Sears remains the “common name” of the building.
His supporters jumped on with more of the same: it’s an icon, it’s like changing the name of the Brooklyn Bridge, etc. Meanwhile, those opposed (i.e. in favour of keeping it at Willis) responded with variations on “the name has changed, Wikipedia must change too.”
I jumped in with the contention that the “Common Names” guideline is not the one in play:
As far as guidelines go, WP:COMMONNAME is not specific, but WP:Naming conflict#How to make a choice among controversial names is: “Is it the official current name of the subject?” (emphasis added) In fact, WP:COMMONNAME appears to defer to this guideline when it says, “Except where other accepted Wikipedia naming conventions give a different indication”. […]
Many—including myself—consider this to be an asinine, money-grubbing decision by building management to change the name of an icon; but change it they have, and it’s not our place as Wikipedians to argue against that change. That said, I’ll call it Sears Tower until the day I die, just as I do with the Standard Oil Building—but I won’t feign confusion if a tourist asks me how to get to Willis Tower or the Aon Center.
He quickly responded with:
Well the policy you cite above refers specifically to naming article [sic] to avoid POV; there isn’t really an NPOV problem here.
To which I replied:
I disagree. Nothing personal, but the passion with which some people are resisting this change strikes me as very POV.
My position was soon seconded:
The statements by Forsyth [et al.] clearly state the primary flaw in this nomination, which is the claim that a move from Willis Tower to Sears Tower is supported by a guideline phrase where “WP:COMMONNAMES is emphatically clear” about this issue. Pulling a single sentence from the lead when that sentence has paragraphs of explanation following which cover multiple scenarios can be misleading, which I think has been the result here. In continuing to staunchly support the move, the nominator has also used arguments which have been repeatedly and effectively rebutted. [One] sees similar arguments listed as arguments to avoid in deletion discussions, including reliance on Google hits to determine what title to use, and comparing this article’s title to those of other articles in an illogical way which is akin to the What about X? line of reasoning that is discouraged as well.
One might think this would begin to settle things, but then an administrator threw a wrench into the proceedings — eight days after the original move—by reverting the move as having been done “without consensus.” He was soon overruled by another administrator who said it should “remain at this title pending close of move request.” Clearly, even the upper echelons of Wikipedia lack consensus on what precedent should be set, and the discussion raged on.
The discussion then turned absurd. An editor opposed moving back to Sears by citing—WP:COMMONNAME!
Most of the articles I find in Google News that came after the renaming call it the Willis Tower and mention that it used to be called the Sears Tower. This Chicago Tribune article calls it the Willis Tower without even bothering to mention that it was the Sears Tower [link]. No one can seriously believe news sources are going to keep calling it the Sears Tower even though that is no longer its name; that’s just wishful thinking by people who don’t like the change.
Despite these cogent remarks, both refuting the use of “Common Names” and using it in opposition of the original argument, editors continue to push for Sears under the premise of that guideline—mostly with variations on “it’s what people call it!” At the 48-hour mark, the discussion still lacked consensus, but was trending 5-to-3 in favour of Willis:
Sears Tower (supported) (9)
Willis Tower (opposed) (15)
Quite frankly, this will play out in one way and one way only: the page will keep the name Willis Tower, at least as long as the building does; people will attempt to revert and rename for just as long, if not longer; and much more editorial energy will be spent in cleaning up those recurring changes than in making genuine improvements and updates to the Willis Tower page.
And, if not—if the page returns to the title of Sears Tower—my first action will be to use the Request Moves process to nominate a move from Aon Center (Chicago) to Standard Oil Building. I won’t need to use spurious comparisons to Myanmar, or Muhammad Ali, or Menara Kuala Lumpur. I will simply cite an evident and utterly equivalent precedent: the Sears Tower. Current Google results: “Standard Oil Building” 19,200; “Aon Center (Chicago)” 15,200. My path is clear.