Is the Internet Changing Our Perception of Names?

Jan 31st 2013

For years, I've talked about how the Internet has affected the process of choosing a baby name. It has helped shift our baseline for assessing popularity and "uniqueness" from internal ("How does this name strike me? Have I met a lot of people with that name?") to external ("How many Google results does this name return?")

A baby name choice, though, is just the starting point of the lifelong name experience. The more we live online, the more the first impressions we make are via our names. And given the reality of online life, that means that search results can shape the impressions we make on strangers...even if the results have nothing to do with us as individuals.

A new study demonstrates one pernicious example of this. Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard Professor of Government and Technology, discovered that web searches for her name frequently yielded advertising results with texts like "Latanya Sweeney, Arrested?" and "Check Latanya Sweeney's Arrests." As Dr. Sweeney had no arrest history, it seemed likely that the advertisers were keying on her name itself -- and perhaps on her distinctly African-American given name.

Dr. Sweeney generated lists of characteristically white and characteristically black first-last name pairs. She then ran searches on these names, and found that the "black" names were significantly more likely to generate ads suggestive of an arrest than the "white" names. The arrest-focused ads appeared regardless of whether the background-search firm presenting the ad actually had any arrest records for that name. (Edited for clarity per communication from Dr. Sweeney.)

It's important to note that this discriminatory effect does not necessarily imply a discriminatory intent on the advertisers' part. It's an unfortunate reality that African-Americans are arrested at a disproportionately high rate. An algorithm based off of actual searches for arrest records, or even name distributions in an arrest record database, could yield such an imbalance in ad presentations. But regardless of intent, the effect could have serious consequences for African-Americans. As Dr. Sweeney writes:

"Perhaps you are in competition for an award, an appointment, a promotion or a new job...perhaps you are completing a rental application, selling goods, applying for a loan, making new friends, dating, or engaged in any one of hundreds of circumstances for which an online searcher seeks to learn more about you. Appearing alongside your list of accomplishments is an advertisement implying you may have a criminal record, whether you actually have one or not. Worse, the ads don't appear for your competitors."

I'd suggest that this advertising result is just the tip of the iceberg of internet name search effects. I believe that global searches for names will tend to reinforce stereotypes, and even create new stereotypes where none previously existed. The reason is that they present us with instant aggregate impressions of people bearing a particular name.

Whereas one-on-one experience with individuals tends to break down stereotypes, an aggregate presentation can tend to encourage them, as the most sensational and negative examples catch our attention. Even a small number of such examples can be perceived as a trend. Worse yet, it's in the nature of web search results, particularly image searches, to overrepresent sensational extremes such as arrest mug shots and pornography. So any name-by-name differences in those arenas will be further exaggerated.

As a demonstration, I decided to look within a name demographic. (Like "male vs. female," "black vs. white" is just a broad starting point in analyzing names. Two names can have similar racial distributions but very different associations in terms of age, culture, socioeconomic status and more.) I ran image searches for 20 names from a "blackest names" list that are borne mostly by young women, paired with each of the five most common surnames in America. I then looked at the top 20 image results for each name pair.

Each set was a mix of imagery: graduation portraits, sports action photos, beauty queens, formal career headshots, teenagers smiling goofily into their cell cameras, highly sexualized photos, mug shots. The mix, though, varied dramatically from name to name. The mug-shot percentage ranged from near zero for names like Nia and Jada, to 20% for names like Tiara and Tierra.

There's nothing objectionable about any of these names. They're all borne by thousands of fine women, and I suspect that few employers, loan officers or rental agents would start off with much prejudgment of a woman named, say, Tierra. Yet if they ran image searches hoping to find a picture of an applicant, could they completely shake the impression made by a mug shot-laden result? Could you?

Below are the top chunks of image results for two of the names I just mentioned, paired with the same common surname.

A.

B.

Imagine typing in the name of a job applicant and getting one of these two results. How would the result affect your feelings toward the résumé in your hands? It's not a purely hypothetical question; this happens countless times every day. More than ever before, the people we share our names with will influence the impression we make on the world...and one bad apple may well harm the whole name bunch. 

Comments

1
January 31, 2013 5:01 PM

Thanks for a very thought-provoking post. This makes me happy that my taste in names runs to the fuddy duddy--my kids' names are quite popular and even a mass murderer with one of their names would not make much of an impression in how the name was perceived.

2
January 31, 2013 8:45 PM

I agree with Elizabeth T..  The older I get, the more I love my terribly common name.  I'm a little surprised so many parents want to give their kids unique names.  If your behavior is unique enough, you can make a name for yourself.

Or frankly, you can nick-name yourself into fame.  I know of Snooki and Jwoww, but if they used their real names (whatever they may be) and applied to me for a job, I would never connect the two.  Seems to me the unique nickname, ordinary/dull name is the easy way to go.

3
By PJ
February 1, 2013 1:56 AM

Hmm, I wonder if the adult entertainment industry and the names of those who participate have a similar impression.

 

Are young women named Jenna going to face increased discrimination based on all the scantly clad results that name insprires?

 

4
February 1, 2013 6:43 PM

I doubt it, and the main reason I doubt it is, frankly, racism.

"Jenna" is a mostly-white name, and white people largely don't get treated like stand-ins for their entire race in the same way non-white people do.  It's one of the insidious ways that racism messes with the lives of people who are just trying to go about their business.

5
February 3, 2013 8:25 PM

Can I be frank?

I am a longtime fan of BNW, and I've often advised parents to think of a name's image.

But, I have to ask what we gain from this post.

The internet all too often enforces already existing prejudices, and I'm not sure that a photo collage of African American women named Tierra who have been arrested is doing much more than that.

 

 

6
February 3, 2013 9:45 PM

Is the message avoid the "blackest" names?  That says a great deal of not very good things about this country.

7
February 5, 2013 10:29 AM

JnHsmom wrote:

"I have to ask what we gain from this post."

Always a fair question of any post! My objective was to show how a behavior that has become routine for millions of Americans -- Googling the name of a new correspondent, job applicant, etc. -- can color our perceptions of the individual, even if the results don't represent that individual.

I think that's a significant issue, and a real change from past generations. It essentially puts all of us in a position similar to people who share names with celebrities: losing control of the image we project with our own names.

Making the point effectively required a concrete example. I chose example names that seemed roughly comparable, but made dramatically different impressions in search results. (Please note, though, that I purposely did NOT identify the specific names behind those images. I was trying to point out a problem, not contribute to it.)

8
February 5, 2013 10:43 AM

The Artist Form wrote:

"Is the message avoid the "blackest" names?  That says a great deal of not very good things about this country."

That certainly wasn't the message I was trying to convey! That's why I illustrated the idea with two names that have similar racial distributions but very different search results.

Frankly, it was rather difficult to illustrate the full extent of the search effect (on all races) without displaying sexually explicit images. For examples, see the Sha*a names described in this past post:

http://www.babynamewizard.com/archives/2012/7/the-name-most-likely-to

9
February 6, 2013 11:51 PM

As to the question of whether such info means "stay away from 'black' names," well, my own answer is no on principle, a principle that was sorely trolled by the Freakonomics guys, with whom I have many statistical and research beefs. In their review of studies on how children responded to "black" and "white" names when asked with whom they would want to be friends and looking at data on responses to resumes submitted with either a "black" or "white," the biases revealed had them ernestly (and ignorantly) wondering "Why would anyone ever give their child a 'black' name?" It was so offensive that they couldn't think that parents would want to stand up to such stereotypes or that the desire to give their child a name reflecting their heritage would be more important than avoiding the slings and arrows of racists from mild to militant.

This post offered up the Internet reality that a search engine could produce images and ads that reinforce such biases--which include income, class, and SES as well as race. That's the key behind the differences for names that are equally "black" like Nia & Jada vs. Tiara & Tierra. The upper-middle class, highly educated African-American mother who was a school principal on "Dance Moms" named her daughter Nia. I imagine the average income, age, and educational level of Tiaras' mothers to be lower than those of the Nias.

10
March 22, 2013 3:14 AM

Gone are days when we make decision based on our own personal beliefs and ideals. The internet has greatly affected even our own perception, simply because of the fact that we allow it to interfer our decision. Another thing is that, we are more cautious about what others may say and think about us, and giving name to our babies is not an exception to the story.

11
April 6, 2014 5:12 AM

Appearing alongside your list of accomplishments is an advertisement implying you may have a criminal record, whether you actually have one or not. Worse, the ads don't appear for your competitors.

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April 6, 2014 5:54 AM

An algorithm based off of actual searches for arrest records, or even name distributions in an arrest record database, could yield such an imbalance in ad presentations. But regardless of intent, the effect could have serious consequences for African-Americans. 

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April 6, 2014 5:30 PM

African-Americans are arrested at a disproportionately high rate. 

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April 7, 2014 8:16 AM

Dr. Sweeney generated lists of characteristically white and characteristically black first-last name pairs. She then ran searches on these names, and found that the "black" names were significantly more likely to generate ads suggestive of an arrest than the "white" names.

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Two names can have similar racial distributions but very different associations in terms of age, culture, socioeconomic status and more.) I ran image searches for 20 names from a "blackest names" list that are borne mostly by young women, paired with each of the five most common surnames in America. I then looked at the top 20 image results for each name pair.

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