Future Tense

There’s Got to Be a Better Nickname for the Big Tech Companies Than “Frightful Five”

Which is which?


A great villain needs a great villain name: Cruella de Vil, Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, Nurse Ratched, and, hey, can’t forget Adolf Hitler. I raise this notion because I’m having trouble getting on board with the concept that in 2017, evil, thy name is … the “Frightful Five.”

“Frightful five” is the New York Times’ name for Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Alphabet (aka Google), the five most valuable public companies in the world. I have no quibble with giving this group a fear-inducing moniker: These companies wield way too much power (except maybe Microsoft, which is probably just happy to be mentioned in the same breath as the rest of these guys), and we all needs to reckon with that. What I do have a problem with, however, is the name “Frightful Five.”

In terms of catchy slogans, “Frightful Five” is right up there with “Trumped-up, trickle-down economics,” Hillary Clinton’s dud from the 2016 campaign trail. There’s something about the word frightful that sounds exactly the opposite, really only appropriate for spooky stories intended for children or Halloween-ifying your Twitter name. While writing this piece, I decided to see what came up when I searched “frightful” and “five” together on Twitter, and I think this tweet encapsulates the problem well:

Yes, that’s a picture of pizza with toppings arranged to look like a monster’s face and a link to an article called “Five Frightful Facts About Cheese.” Where cheese can be “frightful,” big tech is legitimately scary.

New York Times columnist (and former Slate writer) Farhad Manjoo coined the term “Frightful Five” in a January 2016 column, but he has really leaned into it lately, publishing another column using it in May, and twice in headlines in October, promising more to come. He even went on Fresh Air to condemn the “Frightful Five” in audio form. And everything he’s saying is totally on point, I might add. It’s just that horrible name. It might be a reference to the superheroes the Fantastic Four’s foil, the Frightful Four, and though this kind of thing is to be expected from an industry that brought us “Holy mashed potatoes, Batman!,” that doesn’t mean our current vernacular should incorporate it. Maybe Manjoo thinks the nickname will gain traction as the perception of big tech continues to shift in the wake of revelations about Facebook’s role in the 2016 presidential election and other tech companies’ sexism and sexual misconduct scandals. It’s not really working, though. A Google Trends search reveals that, while interest in the term has never been very high, it’s enjoyed a small spike in 2017.

As Mean Girls might put it (if you can suspend your disbelief for a moment to imagine a tech world dominated by women), stop trying to make “Frightful Five” happen. If we want to talk about how dangerous these companies are, we can’t use such a wimpy phrase.

And now, the hard part: coming up with some suggestions that would be better than “Frightful Five.” I want to preface this by saying I think “big tech” actually works just fine and maybe we don’t need a special name. There are plenty of evil tech companies that aren’t even part of the top five, and “big tech” would encompass them as well. That said, here we go:

The Fascist Five
The Fatal Five
The Fetid Five
The Fearsome Five
The Feudal Five
The Fibrous Five
The Flawed Five
The Foul Five
The Formidable Five
The Foreboding Five
The Fraudulent Five
The Frustrating Five
The Funereal Five
The Funguslike Five
The Fustbucket Five
The Five Horsemen
The High Five
The Sigh Five
The Fivehead
The Five-and-Way-More-Than-Dimes
The Never-Give-You Five
The Five-Alarm Fire
The Plead the Fifths
The Five-Oh
The Five-Point-Oh
The Fajillionaire Five
The Furious Five
5 Fast 5 Furious
The Filthy Rich Five
The Fiduciary Five
The Financially-Too-Powerful Five
The Oh-Fuck-Them Five

Yes, as I was saying, “big tech” works just fine.