The Wedding Data: What Marriage Notices Say About Social Change

A new website transforms the unions of the social elite into interactive datasets. 


So, the wedding announcements of The New York Times. Call them what you will -- "matrimonial moneyball," "sports pages for women," a social strain of a "mergers and acquisitions" report -- because their official name is misleading: Those little paragraphs offer much more than simple announcements of weddings. They offer, in the aggregate, documentation of a changing society. As women's liberation came along, as society shifted toward a more career-based notion of success, as same-sex relationships gained more and more mass-cultural recognition, the wedding announcements have been there to record all the shifts. The Times, as it were, has been ON IT.

There's a longstanding tradition, among the media and across Sunday morning brunch tables, of making fun of the announcements, what with their "a daughter ofs" and their "was graduated froms" and their Muffies and Buffies and many, many mentions of Harvard. But the very thing that makes the blurbs fodder for mockery -- the formulaic social coding they engage in -- is also the thing that gives them their documentary power. The announcements offer little notes from The New York Times to its readers that say, effectively and fairly explicitly: This is what we value. This is why your marriage is news. This is what makes you matter. The announcements announce, but more to the point they insinuate. They tell you how to succeed in society. Love them or hate them -- or, like many readers, hate-love them, or love-hate them -- those weekly little blurbs function as a de facto index of social transformation.

Which is another way of saying that The New York Times's wedding announcements are also data sets. And the information they contain reveals the assumptions embedded in contemporary notions about love and partnership and social success -- assumptions about who exactly constitutes, as David Brooks famously put it, the nation's "cognitive elite."

I mention all that because this week the engineering team over at Rap Genius, the lyric-annotation service, released, a searchable database of nearly 60,000 Times wedding announcements published between 1981 and 2013. Think Google's Ngram Viewer, but for marriages. As Rap Genius explains it: "WeddingCrunchers lets you measure the frequency of specific words and phrases in these announcements. When you search for a phrase (technically called an n-gram), you get back a graph displaying how usage of that phrase fluctuated over time."

Wedding announcements and data-mining: a perfect union. The project does exactly what Google's version does for books, transforming prose into data that can, in turn, offer its own kind of insights. So a key-worded search on WeddingCrunchers suggests, for example, the major shifts in marriage age that occurred between the early 1980s and today:

Which is also to say, in gif form:

Another search suggests the transformation David Brooks saw in the wedding announcements -- a shift that finds the write-ups decreasing their emphasis on "birth and breeding," and increasing their emphasis on "education and career."

And another suggests the broadened demographics of the people whose unions the Times deemed fit to announce:

It documents the rise of Teach For America:

And a slight decline in mentions of divorce:

It documents the moment that the Times first saw fit to mention a woman not taking her husband's name:

And the moment when the paper, long before the Supreme Court, began recognizing the validity of same-sex unions:

WeddingCrunchers' graphs, it should be noted, aren't necessarily fully scientific. Though the WeddingCrunchers corpus works precisely because the Times's announcements are so formulaic, there are always exceptions. This is journalism, ultimately; and journalists tend to find ways to challenge formulas. So the above search for "divorce" may paint a revealing picture of how Americans have seen fit to talk about the dissolution of marriage between 1981 and today; that doesn't mean, however, that the Times has used that specific keyword in all its announcements. WeddingCrunchers deals with key words, not concepts. So caveat datalector, etc.

That said, though, the corpus here is ripe for playing with, and wonderfully instructive about the changes of a dynamic society. And it makes, regardless, a much more fulfilling game than this one.