From Social Patterns
The original cargo cults were people overawed by more advanced technology (in this case World War II era aviation artifacts) who began imitating the forms of what they saw (wooden radio towers, torch-lit runways, counterfeit uniforms) in hopes of bringing the benefit ("cargo") that they had witnessed flowing from these same rituals and objects in the past.
In their worse misapplication, design patterns can lapse into a sort of cargo cult, in which past structures and layouts and flows are imitated and reproduced with no real understanding of how or why they worked in their original context.
A superficial but ubiquitous example of this is the proliferation of startups whose domain names featured a common word with a schwa vowel dropped from the final syllable, as if it was the spelling of Flickr that made it so successful.
caption: Flickr still has its original slogan (or something rather close), while Zooomr has dropped its very similar one.
caption: Zooomr imitated the way Flickr dropped the schwa vowel from the end of its source word. Its tagline was once also very close to the Flickr tagline and much of the source markup was remarkably similar as well. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, they say, but it helps if you understand what you're imitating and why.
- Wikipedia entry on Cargo Cult Programming
- Jargon File entry on Cargo Cult Programming
- Cargo Cult Software Engineering