How We Got All This Great Data on American Baby Name Popularity

All thanks to SSA employee Michael Shackleford who was determined to avoid giving his child a common name
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Every year, the Social Security Administration releases its annual list of the most popular names in America. They've become a valuable source of data for researchers, as Ruth Graham brilliantly laid out in the Boston Globe this weekend.

The best thing about name data is that it is the perfect model system for researching how the mechanics of trends work. No one is marketing names or running advertising campaigns for Olivia. And yet, slowly, things change. Individual decisions made by individual families add up to large-scale shifts in what we call each other. And what I learned writing about baby names back in 2009 is this: you can't escape your demographic, so just pick a name you like without trying to game the popularity system. 

"What's hard for parents is that what feels like your own personal taste, it's everybody's taste," Laura Wattenberg, who built The Baby Name Wizard told me back then. "It's a no-win situation - if you pick a name you like, probably everybody else will like it too."

In any case, we can have these debates based on real data because the Social Security Administration cranks out these lists of popular names. And it turns out, Graham discovered, that this is the case because of one curious dad. This is an awesome anecdote.

Names research suddenly became much, much easier because of one curious dad. In 1997, Michael Shackleford was an employee of the Office of the Actuary at the Social Security Administration's headquarters in Baltimore; his wife was pregnant and he was determined to avoid giving the child a common name like his own. With his access to Social Security card data, he wrote a simple program to sort the information by year of birth, gender, and first name. Suddenly he could see every Janet born in 1960. He could see that the number one names in 1990 were Michael and Jessica. He realized this could be important. "I knew that my eyeballs were seeing this list of the most popular baby names nationwide for the first time," he recalled recently. "It was too good to keep to myself."

If you really want to dive deep on this topic, check out Harvard sociology professor Stanley Lieberson's book, A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashion, and Culture Change. The key mechanism Lieberson proposes is the "ratchet effect," wherein things become popular because they are similar but not identical to other very popular things. We like things that are "different, but not too different," as Cleveland Evans, an expert in onomastics (the study of naming) at Bellevue University in Nebraska, told me for that 2009 article.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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