Bob is a generic name for a generic, non-descript guy. Bob is likely to be male, white, older than 35 and we know almost nothing else about him. Selecting him from a crowd is a challenge.
But we’ve known Bob for a long time. He’s been in commercials for nearly every company as an example of an everyman we’re all supposed to identify with or project upon. For the last 20 years Bob has been synonymous with everyone and no one in particular. Bob even became a meme himself in 20092, signaling peak saturation.
But Bob is fading. I’ve been seeing him less and less over the last handful of years. In its place, another familiar name has started to rise.
This phenomenon gradually came to my attention as friends, snickering, would send me article after article at an increasing frequency. “You don’t know me Jeff”3, “why do women keep sleeping with Jeff”4, “Jeff has a lot of nukes”5. There are countless other examples6. Odds are, you’ve seen them too.
Over the months, I’ve come to realize something chilling: Jeff is the new Bob.
I’m not the only one who has noticed, especially among those of us named Jeff. And to be clear, I’m not upset by it at all. I think it’s pretty funny. But it also raised my curiosity as to what could be driving my humble first name to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.
We’ve seen this with traditionally female names as well. Just ask the Karens8 and Felicias9 of the world. Though with those two examples, there seem to be points of cultural reference (movies, TV, etc) that started the memification of those names. Emily is another extremely common name that gets used a generic reference too.
In the case of Jeff – and before him, Bob – I haven’t found such an origin story. It seems to have just arisen randomly from the hivemind. This is the name we’re using to drag the everyman until we get bored with it.
I’ve searched for anywhere this phenomenon might be described, why names themselves become memes and what constitutes a generic call-out name? Is it the name’s commoness or popularity?
There are some data to answer that question. It comes from the Social Security Adminstration and U.S. Census Bureau, and snapshots Minnesota as a microcosm, which has proven to be broadly indicitive of national trends. And the stats show Jeffrey has not become a more common name by any means, and in fact has crashed significantly10 in popularity since its peak in the late 1960s.
So it’s not a matter of the name’s popularity. In fact, when looking at Robert, it’s possible that both Jeff and Bob are being picked on because they’re increasingly unpopular names. The number of males born and named Robert each year shows a similar downward rollercoaster trendline that peaked in the 1930s11. Basically, what’s happened to Jeff happened to Bob a generation earlier.
Note: looking up the shortened versions of the names in question (Robert = Bob, Jeffrey = Jeff), doesn’t produce nearly as many datapoints.
So my imperfect, unscientific theorum based on data and personal experience (and not much else), is this: Jeff is the new Bob because it has vague resonance with young adults as the name of someone they could know, but don’t.
Here’s an explanation: both corporate marketing and meme sharing are targeted at and among Millennials, who comprise the coveted 18-to-35-year-old demographic that advertisers spend their waking moments figuring out how to manipulate into spending their money.
There was a time when that age bracket was comprised of Generation X, who were largely born in the late 1960s through the 1970s. Jeff was a super popular name among GenX guys. Mostly every other Jeff I meet is GenX. When working at the University of Minnesota or Minnesota Daily in college, I was pretty unique in the Jeff category. Working at my real-world job, my workplace is now lousy with Jeffs. I’m the only Millennial I’ve encountered whose parents named him Jeffrey. I know there are more, but we’re comparatively rare and becoming rarer. So for Millennials, there are a lot of Jeffs out there – just few-to-none who they personally know. To today’s young adults, it seems like a really common name for someone else. You know, those other people that various things happen to that never actually happen to you.
Among GenX, when they were the golden young adult demographic, Bob would have been that guy, someone among their parents’ or grandparents’ generation whom didn’t usually exist in their immediate friend circle. There were a lot of Bobs, but the hip generation of the moment didn’t hang out with them so much.
This is maybe why Bob, and now Jeff, have become fair game for memification. It’s common enough in general to resonate but not personally specific enough among young adults to be offensive.
What this idea doesn’t answer is why Bob? Why Jeff? Yes, they were common names at one point, but why not other common names? I can’t throw a rock without hitting a Boomer guy named some variation of James. Does it hit too close to home as someone’s dad? Why isn’t Katie or Ashley being picked on?
So my conclusion could be completely wrong, but it’s what I’ve sussed out so far. I’m interested to hear other thoughts for sure, and to see if Olivia and Henry12 someday become the Bobs and Jeffs for the next generation.
It made its first big splash with its break of the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the second term of the Clinton administration. Since then, it’s been not only a darling among rightwing news consumers, but a page to watch among mediaites across the country.
While Drudge has since broken very few big stories itself and does very little original reporting, the site is an extremely useful link aggregator. The site not only links to new stories from a huge variety of different outlets, but Drudge himself provides his own voice to the daily news cycle, shaping the dialogue by writing his own headlines that highlight – and some would argue sometimes distort – aspects of news stories that are important to him.
Drudge Report was literally the first thing I ever saw on the Internet, on the very same night Princess Diana died. It was how my family, newly-connected online via a noisy 36k modem, learned about this tragic event. It would since become a primary information source for my parents throughout my childhood and adolence. To this day, I still read it daily, just to catch a glimpse at how a subsection of American culture is framing the day’s events.
The site’s look, feel and functionality have famously not changed significantly since the 1990s, its brutalist simplicity a favorite among minimalist designers everywhere. It’s not even mobile responsive. It has no real official social media presence, outside of Drudge’s engimatic personal Twitter account.
As of July 23, 2017, Drudge was ranked 719 on Alexa3 and often tops over 1 billion pageviews per month4. The site is so integrated into Internet culture and history, that getting “Drudge rushed” is a well-known phenemonon for sites fortunate – or unfortunate – enough to get linked on its front and only page.
The Drudge Conundrum
Feelings across the media landscape about the impact of Drudge are mixed. On the one hand, the site is a convenient aggregator that puts a lot of good journalism in front of people who otherwise might not seek it.
On the other hand, its priorities are strongly slanted towards not just the general rightwing, but Matt Drudge’s personal brand of right-leaning politics. News stories are sometimes misrepresented, and sometimes dubious sources like independent blogs and conspiratorial screed farms like InfoWars get prominent placement if they feed a particular narrative Drudge is trying to drive home. Drudge also tumbles down conspiratorial rabbit holes that don’t pan out, like his apparent obsession with Bill Clinton’s allegedy illegimate son5, a John Kerry intern scandal that didn’t exist6 and lots of Birther nonsense concerning Barack Obama’s heritage. He also very obviously promoted positive stories about then-candidate Donald Trump in an effort to help get him elected president.
And that’s not to say that other sites, publications and news sources don’t have slants. They do. But they are more often influenced by time, place, history, external and internal cultural forces and editorial mission, rather than the whims of a single person. In newspapers and other traditional media forms, news and opinion tend to be more clearly labeled (though people still get confused). On Drudge, it’s hard to tell where news ends and opinion begins when it comes to his presentation of story links.
Despite all of this, a refrain I often hear from friends and family is this: “I don’t get my news from the mainstream media, I get it from Drudge!”
First, Drudge IS the mainstream media when it attracts billions of views and helps set the tone for national conversations about global events and issues. It’s also definitely integrated into the rest of the mainstream media when its primary sources are major news organizations like The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Daily Mail, FOX News and CNN.
However, those aren’t the only sources on Drudge, as he also tends to elevate InfoWars, Breitbart, The Sun, The National Enquirer, The Daily Caller, The Gateway Pundit and other disreputable, tabloid-y or simply hyperpartisan news publications. So while the legacy news media is featured prominently on Drudge, so is the insurgent online rightwing media and other sources that get equal placement on the site.
Institutional voices are made to compete with alternative ones for people’s attention, usually without obvious attribution as to where any particular linked headline comes from. And to make things even more complicated, Drudge has also shown an aversion to linking directly to the original source of a story and will opt for wire versions or reblogs on other websites, whenever possible.
Turning Drudge into Data
So this begs some questions: what’s the typical composition of the news content aggregated on Drudge Report? How has it changed over time? Are there other patterns to be found in Drudge’s choices of headlines and information sourcing?
I decided to crunch some data to find out.
Drudge itself doesn’t keep any archives of its historical homepages or headlines. This is where Drudge Report Archive – an independently-run website that snapshots the website several times per day – becomes invaluable.
For this, using a specially-crafted Python scraper, I ripped down the headlines from morning snapshots for every available day of every year from January 2002 to October 2017. I could have gone longer or deeper, but it didn’t seem necessary to scrape everything in order to get a sizeable, representative sample. In the end, after eliminating duplicate links across days, ads and references in the huge directory at the bottom of the page, I ended up with about 200,000 story URLs spanning 16 years.
The scraper stored all of the links on the Drudge homepage frome every targeted snapshot in time, breaking out their URLs (information source) and text (headline) and timestamped each entry.
Using a bunch of Excel magic, I eliminated any duplicates (sometimes the same links last for days on Drudge) and any links that weren’t news headlines, such as ads and the long list of blogs and news orgs at bottom of the page.
Pivoting on multiple metrics, I produced a number of summary tables breaking multiple trends found in the data, by year, headline, link source and more. Charts were created using C3.js.
Drudge’s favorite sources
Drudge takes in a vast variety of different news sources – more than 5,000 distinct web domains appear in the data.
But there are some clear favorites. Overwhelmingly, Drudge relies on wire services with some rightwing commentary and analysis from sites like Brietbart and InfoWars thrown in.
Nearly 20 percent of the links in the data sample come through wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters, and wire-heavy news sites like Yahoo! News.
About 6 percent of the links came from Breitbart News – slightly more than The New York Times and The Washington Post combined (though they also rate relatively highly compared to other sources).
While Drudge certainly does give voice to lots of smaller rightwing blogs and columnists, the bulk of its content is a selection from the mainstream reporting provided by the same newswires that help power the reporting of major news organizations.
This also shows that Drudge – while often self-referential and instantly springing upon any story mentioning the website – doesn’t often link internally to its own domain, which makes sense since, as previously mentioned, the site is not a source of much original reporting. The “Drudge exclusive” is a rare thing indeed. However, Drudge did link to the stored pages on Drudge Report Archives about 4,000 times from 2002 through 2017.
Determining Drudge’s tilt
Analyzing just the news websites that comprise 1 percent or more of a 200,000-link Drudge dataset shows the site favors center, center-right and rightwing sources over left-leaning or leftwing sources.
Basically, Drudge has a center-right slant with some alt-right occassionally thrown in.
For a deeper, more detailed analysis of media bias and political alignment, check out my lookup tool.
Hot Drudge topics
Drudge headlines are very often written by staff, or even by Matt Drudge himself, instead of using the story titles provided by news agencies. Just as they select the stories featured on Drudge, they craft the headlines describing the linked content.
Any frequent reader of Drudge knows about the site’s preoccupation with various recurring topics, such as robots, sex, sex robots, AI, demonic possession, apocalypses, general news of the weird and Hollywood buzz. The site is also traditionally LGBT-friendly, has little patience for overtly Christian politicians and doesn’t embrace traditional religious conservatism.
But more than anything, Drudge has been primarily obsessed with covering the lives, words and policies of U.S. presidents. This is understandable, as the site rose to fame breaking Bill Clinton’s scandals. And it’s yet another respect where Drudge reflects the mainstream media it draws information from, since presidential administrations get a lot of coverage – even more so these days under the Trump administration.
Though, the angle from which Drudge describes these stories might differ, as to even a casual observer it’s decidely more anti-Clinton and anti-Obama and much more pro-Trump.
And Drudge has had a particular obsession with covering Obama.
Running a textual analysis of Drudge headlines (and discarding those words with very low frequency) reveals the name “Obama” appearing nearly 9,000 times over about a decade.
By comparison, over the 16-year time period, “Bush” appeared about 2,700 times, “Clinton” 2,155 times, “Trump” about 2,000 times and “Hillary” nearly 1,800 times. For non-presidential context, the word “sex” appeared about 2,500 times.
The bottom line is this: The Drudge Report could not exist without the mainstream media. There wouldn’t be any content. First, the bulk of Drudge links that come from wire services would vanish, as would its reliance on news broadcasters, The New York Times and The Washington Post. And since most of the blogs and alternative news sites Drudge links to also draw heavily upon those sources for information, spin and reaction, those sites would also diminish.
And it bears repeating that Drudge IS the mainstream media in terms of sources, traffic and media, with some non-mainstream links and right-biased snark thrown in to give its content cocktail a distinctly rightwing flavor that makes news more palatable to a more conservative audience who feel like western journalism isn’t serving their interests.
There are still questions I can’t find answers to within this dataset: how can we quantify what important stories Drudge doesn’t feature at all? Does page placement of a link affect readership? How many only read the headlines versus actually clicking through on a story link? How often does Drudge purposely link to websites that only echo original reporting instead to a story’s actual source? These seem like questions only those living withing the core of the Drudge world would know, or would require a much more massive research lift to understand.
At the end of the day, this is simply a means of demonstrating with data what we already knew anectdotally: that Drudge Report is a useful news aggregation tool with a distinct rightwing tilt with content drawn from and therefore reflecting its favorite mainstream and non-mainstream information sources.
What I imagine Batman’s Fitbit stats look like on a slow night.
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