Alexa devaluation, cutting room floor edition

Joe Pinsker at the Atlantic has written, “Amazon Ruined the Name Alexa,” that develops the story of the name, which I started tracking with a pick drop in 2017, writing: “You have to feel for people who named their daughters Alexa, and the Alexas themselves, before Amazon sullied their names. Did they not think of the consequences for these people? Another bad year for Alexa. After a 21.3% drop in 2016, another 19.5% last year.”

Pinsker concludes:

Amazon did not exactly ruin the life of every Alexa, but the consequences of its decision seven years ago are far-reaching—roughly 127,000 American baby girls were named Alexa in the past 50 years, and more than 75,000 of them are younger than 18. Amazon didn’t take their perfectly good name out of malice, but regardless, it’s not giving it back.

From the peak year of 2015, when there were 6,050 Alexas born in the US, the number fell 79% to 1272 in 2020, the biggest drop among names with at least 1000 girls born in 2015. Here’s that list:

Pinsker got Amazon on the record not commenting on the problem they created for actual humans named Alexa, who he reports are being bullied in school — they are not only named after a robot, but a subservient female one, so no surprise. Amazon said only, “Bullying of any kind is unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

Cutting room floor

I am only quoted in the story saying, “We don’t usually think about the individuals who are already born when this happens, but the impact on their lives is real as well.” No complaint about that, of course. But since my interview with Pinsker was over email, I can share my other nuggets of insight here, with his questions:

I saw that you first blogged about this in 2018 (when you were remarking on the 2017 name data). Did you just happen to stumble upon Alexa’s declining popularity yourself, or did someone else point it out to you?

I wrote a program that identifies that names with biggest changes, and Alexa jumped out. One interesting thing about naming patterns is that dramatic changes are quite rare. Names rise and fall over time, but they rarely show giant leaps or collapse as dramatically as Alexa did after 2015.

When you look at what has happened to the name Alexa since Amazon’s Alexa was released in late 2014, how much of the name’s declining popularity do you attribute to Amazon? (Is it common for names to plummet in popularity as quickly as Alexa has since 2014?)

The Social Security national name data is a mile wide and an inch deep. We have a tremendous amount of name data, but it is all just counts of babies born — we have no direct information about who is using what names, or why. So any attribution of causal processes is speculative unless we do other research. That said, because dramatic changes are so rare, it’s usually pretty easy to explain them. For example, some classic 1970s hits apparently sparked name trends: Brandy (Looking Glass, 1972), Maggie (Rod Stewart, 1971), and of course Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac, 1975). I defy you to find someone named Rhiannon, born in the US, who was born before 1975. We can also observe dramatic changes even among uncommon names, such as a doubling of girls named Malia in 2009 (the Obamas’ daughter’s name).

At one point, you mentioned on your blog that Hillary was another name that became less popular after becoming culturally ubiquitous. Are there any other examples you’re aware of, where a name’s cultural ubiquity tanks its popularity?

On the other hand, there are disaster stories, like Alexa. Hillary was rising in popularity before 1992, and then tanked. Monica declined dramatically after 1998 (after the Clinton sex scandal). Ellen became much less common suddenly the year after Ellen DeGeneres came out as gay in 1997. And Forrest, which had been on the rise before 1994, plummeted after Forrest Gump came out and virtually disappeared.

We don’t usually think about the individuals who are already born when this happens, but the impacts on their lives is real as well. The name trends tell us something about the social value of a name (and unlike other commodities, in the US at least there is no limit to the number of people who can have a name). People who were named Adolph before Hitler, Forrest before Forrest Gump, or Alexa before Amazon live with the experience of a devalued name. Many of them end up changing their names or using nicknames — or just getting used to people making jokes about their name every time they meet someone new, have attendance called, or go to the department of motor vehicles.

If I’m reading the SSA data correctly, there were 1,272 Alexas born last year in the U.S. I know this is speculative, but would you guess that most of these parents aren’t aware of the name of Amazon’s device? Or is it that they’re aware, and just don’t care?

Some don’t know, some don’t care, some probably think it’s cool. For some it may be a family name. I am fascinated to see that Alexis and Alexia have also seen five-year declines of more than 60% in name frequency. I wonder if that is because of concern over Alexa devices mishearing those names — certainly a reasonable concern — or maybe just association with the product making those names seem derivative or tacky. It’s hard to say.


See all the posts about names under the tag.

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