Gas, a new social media platform for high schoolers, exploded onto the scene last year, growing to over a million users between its launch in August and its acquisition in January by another social media company, Discord. In October, it even surpassed TikTok to become the number one download in the Apple App Store—this despite not being available to Android users and rolling out in only a handful of states.
What’s fueling this engine? Compliments. Or, as the youngs say, gas.
A quick explainer for readers over 20: The name of the app refers to gassing someone up—Gen Z-speak for saying nice things about people and helping them feel good about themselves. When your self-esteem begins to droop, you can count on your friends to reinflate it with a little gas.
Clearly, a social media app that offers teenagers affirmation rather than bullying or distorted reality is a welcome relief. Every hour, Gas loads new polls about four of their classmates for users to vote on, anonymously: Which one is most likely to be famous? Has the best smile? Makes your heart skip a beat? Winners are notified by flame emoji. So far, users have sent more than a billion compliments on the app.
The polls are fun, funny, and usually framed in positive terms. Teenagers who use the app say it makes them feel good. And, since Gas doesn’t allow DMs, the chance of online predation is minimal. Still, there are concerns: Gas requires access to users’ contacts and asks for more personal information than some might be comfortable with. And for every poll winner, there are three students who don’t get the compliment. High school being what it is, some students could wind up collecting dozens of flames while others end up with few or none.
The beauty of Gas is in the eye of the beholder. Like sick and dope a few years ago, the word’s positive connotation is known only to insiders. Everyone else is out in the cold, wondering why an app for finding gas stations is so popular with the kids. The name is a test: If you get it, you’re probably the right age to become a user. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter—this app wasn’t meant for you anyway.
The olds might find the name confusing, but even for Gen Zers, the word gas without its preposition can sound an ominous note. There’s the association with gasoline—smelly, caustic, and a primary driver of Gen Z’s most catastrophic inheritance: climate change. And then there’s the problem of using gas as a verb, the holy grail of app naming (to google, to uber, to netflix and chill). Without up, gas as a verb becomes very dark: “He gassed them” evokes concentration camps, not compliments. It’s a tough spot, though, since Gas Up sounds even more like a tool for motorists than just Gas.
Then there’s the flatulence issue. Like the petroleum product, methane gas is smelly and caustic. It’s also funny. (Or not. Full disclosure: parts of this article were written in the miasma created by a very gassy dog.) No disrespect to fart jokes, but they’re probably not the association the makers of an uplifting social media platform are hoping users will make.
Finally, gassing someone up is not an unqualified affirmation. Some Gen Zers see a secondary meaning in the phrase: hyping someone in order to pressure them to do something or make them look foolish. (“Look at Ethan—he actually believed me when I said he’s fun to be around!”) In this sense, gassing someone up bears more than a passing resemblance to gaslighting, or making someone doubt their sanity. Given concerns about asking teenagers to vote on their peers, the platform’s name could prove a little too on the nose.
None of this is to say that gas and gassing someone up have only negative connotations. Petroleum and methane aside, gasses are light, ethereal, buoyant. They make things rise and float. They heat our homes. They’re the reason outer space is beautiful and interesting. In the olden days, when things were fun and exciting we said, “What a gas!” Before that, when things started to go right we grinned and told each other, “Now we’re cooking with gas.”
Another positive for this name is the Chinese expression 加油 (“add oil” or “add fuel”), which is used to encourage or motivate someone to keep going (“Go for it!” or “You can do it!”).** If the founders plan to expand internationally—and why wouldn’t they?—this connection will be a huge plus.
Gas also has simplicity on its side. The word is short and punchy, emerging from the back of the throat with a satisfying “gah” and ending in an onomatopoeiatic hiss. It’s easy to remember, easy to spell, and easy to say, even for an international audience.
Most importantly, Gas’s target customers know what it means. And they know that only they know. They get it; the olds do not. This is, in its way, as affirming as any compliment they’re likely to receive when they use the app: You’re on the inside. You belong here. We are people who know things.
A product name that performs the action of the product before you even open it is about as meta (a fave mode of Gen Z and Millennials) as you can get and rates as high octane brand naming.
*For readers over 40: “If you know you know”
**Big tip of the hat to Andy Chuang of Good Characters for reminding us of this expression and its aptness here.