Perspective | People named Alexa are changing their names because of Amazon’s assistant
When Erim Corado gave birth to her first child, she wanted a name to honor her boyfriend Alexis Morales Jr., who died of a gunshot wound a few months before their daughter arrived in 1993.
So Corado chose Alexa Jade Morales, hoping to give her daughter a piece of the father she would never know.
Alexa Morales wore her name proudly. But after Amazon launched its voice service, also called Alexa, in November 2014, people began speaking to Morales differently. She said they made jokes about her name, giving her commands or asking her questions in a robotic tone.
“When I hear my name now, it’s not good thoughts, it’s like, tensing,” said Morales, 28, a pharmacy technician and student in Bridgeport, Conn.
Nearly 130,000 people in the United States have the name Alexa. It gained popularity after singer Billy Joel and model Christie Brinkley named their daughter Alexa in 1985. In 2015, more than 6,000 baby girls in the United States were named Alexa, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration data.
After Amazon chose Alexa as the wake word of its voice service, the name’s popularity plummeted. In 2020, only about 1,300 babies were given the name. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) When I asked one of the three Alexa devices owned by Morales’s mother, which she has set to different names, about the reason for the decline, it suggested it was “perhaps as a result of its connection to Amazon Echo devices.”
I interviewed more than 25 women and girls named Alexa and several parents of Alexas to see how the voice assistant’s rapid takeover of workplaces and homes had altered their feelings about their name and identity. The Alexas I interviewed ranged in age from 5 to 55, and they live throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada and Europe.
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A few were indifferent to the connection or amused by it. But the majority were tired of interruptions from the bot and by jokes at their expense. In virtual classes, business meetings and at auditions, Alexas said they have been instructed to avoid saying their name or arbitrarily assigned new names.
One Alexa said the teasing and jokes escalated to sexual harassment.
For me, this was highly personal. My mother named me Alexa after falling in love with the name long before I was born in 1994. I’ve also experienced uncomfortable encounters after Amazon made the name a wake word, including being given commands as if I were the bot. Almost two years ago, I started introducing myself outside of work and family by my middle name, Juliana, because it connects me to the Mexican American side of my family. My grandfather died in 2018. His sister’s name was Julia, so in some ways it feels like a piece of him.
So I could relate to Alexa Morales.
Corado and Alexis Morales were high school sweethearts in Bridgeport, Conn. Corado was 15 and a sophomore in high school when she became pregnant; Morales was 17 and a junior. On Oct. 1, 1992, 3½ months before their daughter was born, Morales was found dead with a single gunshot to the head on an embankment near Interstate 95 in Bridgeport, according to the Associated Press, which said police were investigating.
Their daughter, Alexa Morales, continued to be the target of Alexa jokes and commands even after sharing the story behind her name.
She found it frustrating when she began encountering the Amazon devices everywhere, including in relatives’ homes and the nursing units of the hospital where she worked.
“It was like, you guys have so much money and so many people working for you and not one person thought to be like, ‘Listen, Alexa is a name that people use,’” Morales said.
By 2018, Morales began to go by Lex. She stopped buying from Amazon, too, partly because of the device name and partly because of what she has heard about the working conditions inside the company’s warehouses.
“I can’t even look at Amazon stuff anymore without wanting to kick the package over,” she said.
Corado understands her daughter’s decision to go by Lex but said it “feels like another connection lost” to her daughter’s father. “He deserved to have his name honored, not to turn it into something belittling to the daughter he never got to hold,” Corado said.
“I’ve heard all the jokes at this point. Someone decided it was funny at work to just call me Siri.”
Alexa Smith, Director of Major Gifts for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
‘They just appropriated our name’
Amazon chose the name Alexa because it “was inspired by the Library of Alexandria and is reflective of Alexa’s depth of knowledge,” Lauren Raemhild, a public relations specialist for Amazon, said in a statement, referring to the late-pharaonic-era institution in Egypt. “When choosing a wake word, we considered both technical characteristics from a speech recognition perspective and customer feedback.”
When asked about women who said they were told not to say their name and that they felt dehumanized by the device’s wake word, Raemhild did not respond directly to the question.
Phillip Hunter, the head of user experience for Amazon Alexa Skills from September 2016 to March 2018, said he now recognizes the unintended consequences.
“They were hoping to sort of humanize it, but at the cost of other humans’ feelings,” Hunter said in an interview. “If your product is causing people difficulty, you should figure that out first and reconsider.”
He thinks the wake word should avoid a human name and be changed to “something more utilitarian.”
Other tech companies cast their artificial-intelligence assistants as female. Apple’s Siri was first, in 2011. Microsoft’s Cortana followed. Google’s Assistant initially defaulted to a woman’s voice.
Alexa Hagerty, an AI ethicist and associate fellow at the University of Cambridge, said female voices are perceived as cooperative, polite and subservient and male voices as authoritative.
“We are reinforcing and naturalizing very problematic gender stereotypes and very problematic ways of speaking to a female voice assistant,” said Hagerty, who is also the co-founder of Dovetail Labs, which applies social science to develop more socially responsible AI systems.
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The name became a punchline in Amazon’s 2020 Super Bowl ad, “Before Alexa.” In the spot, people with names like Alex, Alexi and Al responded to commands throughout different historical eras.
A brand identity theorist and professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Americus Reed, said that although some brands turn mistakes into opportunity, “I don’t think Amazon’s done much of that.”
Amazon declined to provide someone to be interviewed but offered this statement that the company gave to the BBC in July for a story about the bullying and harassment of children named Alexa:
“Bullying of any kind is unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms. We designed our voice assistant to reflect qualities we value in people — being smart, considerate, empathetic, and inclusive. As an alternative to Alexa, we offer several other wake words customers can choose from, including Echo, Computer, Amazon and Ziggy.”
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Although Amazon offers alternative wake words, not all of the company’s smart devices, including the Echo Auto and Echo Buds, allow for a change. Hundreds more products from outside companies that have Alexa technology built in do not allow a switch of wake word from Alexa.
Alexa W., who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she fears the release of personal information online if her last name is made public, runs a Twitter account about the name Alexa’s impact. She said that when she realized the wake word on her sister’s Sonos speaker could not be changed, she compiled a list of at least 700 other items with “Alexa built in.”
Amazon confirmed that hundreds of products allow only the use of the wake word Alexa. “We are currently looking into ways to expand wake word options on Alexa built-in devices,” Amazon wrote in a statement.
Facebook Portal and Toyota vehicles are among the products that have Amazon’s Alexa built in. When asked whether alternative wake words would be desirable, Facebook Portal referred The Post’s inquiry to Amazon. A Toyota spokesperson wrote in an email, “Because the in-car Alexa feature is a third party service, we’re obligated to abide by the contractual agreement.”
The wake word can be changed on Amazon Echo speakers and Echo Show devices through its settings or by verbally instructing the device to change its wake word to Amazon, computer, Echo or Ziggy. For example, a user could say, “Alexa, change your name to computer.” On Amazon Fire tablets it can only be changed to Amazon.
“It makes me feel dehumanized. … Everyone else is being called by their name or nickname, and I’m over here being called ‘She Who Shall Not Be Named.’”
Alexa La Bruyere, Florida college student
‘It makes me cringe’
But many users aren’t aware that they can change the wake word on some of their devices.
When Alexa García’s courses in Puebla, Mexico, went virtual because of the pandemic, she discovered that her politics professor had a device with Amazon’s Alexa in his home. During the 2021 summer semester, whenever her name was called, the device interrupted with a response, drawing unwanted attention to García and laughter from classmates.
She said the professor appeared annoyed by the interruptions. He unilaterally decided to call her Alex, but that still caused interruptions. (Amazon’s Alexa also can be triggered by similar sounding names, including Alexis, Alexia and Alyssa).
So he started calling her Alé, a nickname that she hates, or by her last name.
“I don’t like it when they change my name. … I don’t feel respected,” García said.
She tried to avoid participating so her name wouldn’t be called.
The name Alexa has “always been a big part of me, and now I cringe, I am uncomfortable every time someone mentions it or every time [the device] responds,” she said.
At least seven women named Alexa told me similar stories about people finding it easier to rename them to avoid triggering smart devices. And at least 10 Alexas and several parents of Alexas told me stories of family members, friends and colleagues who leave their devices set to the default wake word even when alternatives are available.
“It’s a flaw that, well, soon as [someone named] Alexa shows up, we have a complicated situation,” said Ahmed Bouzid, who headed Alexa’s Smart Home Product at Amazon from January 2015 to February 2016. He now advises the advocacy group I Am Alexa Alliance, LLC, which is asking Amazon to remove Alexa as a wake word.
Like Hunter, he said that virtual assistants should not be given human names and that Amazon should stop marketing it as Alexa.
“Google, for instance, uses the name of its company for the assistant,” Bouzid said in an email. “Amazon has just launched a new robot that answers to the name “Astro.” It would not be a bad idea to rebrand “Alexa” to “Astro.”
While researching an assignment for her politics class, García saw the BBC article about a family whose daughter Alexa experienced severe bullying because of the wake word — to the point of telling her mother that she wanted to kill herself. The article led García to the “Alexa is a human” Facebook group and a petition campaign started by Lauren Johnson, the mother of a 10-year-old Alexa.
“That, I think, has helped me realize that my name is something important and that I must defend it,” García said. “It’s something very important because I feel like it dehumanizes people.”
“[My boss] started to say, ‘Oh, let’s not use Alexa’s name because it’ll set off the Alexa.’ … I was really starting to think, maybe I should change my name?”
Alexa Weber Morales, Grammy-winning musician and technology journalist
Alexa commands become explicit
While browsing on Amazon in 2020, Alexa S. saw a car decal from a third-party seller on Amazon with the sexually explicit command, “Alexa, give me a b—job.” Amazon declined to comment about products on its site with pejorative statements about Alexa.
“That’s something I heard, but people said it, and then they would like laugh,” said Alexa S., a 19-year-old university student in Toronto who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used because of privacy concerns. “The fact that they sell bumper stickers that say those things, it’s just really disgusting.”
Alexa S. was 16 years old in 2018 when she was asked five different times for sexual favors by teenage boys at a summer camp. “They would say, ‘Alexa, send me nudes,’ ‘Alexa, give me a h—job,’ ‘Alexa, give me a b—job,’” she said in an interview.
One message on a WhatsApp group chat asked about playing a “fun game” that the sender said was called: “Hey Alexa preform [sic] sexual favours.”
Alexa S. reported the comments anonymously to a camp leader. The camp leader talked to the boys, and they apologized, but the comments still hurt Alexa S.’s self-esteem, she said.
Alexa S. also joined the Alexa is a human Facebook group last year.
“Bullying doesn’t live in a vacuum,” Alexa S. said. “It usually stems from something else. It’s what you see, what you hear, what you experience, what you see is okay from your peers.”
“When I got eliminated, one of the top tweets on The Bachelor was like, ‘Well thank God Alexa went home so my Amazon Echo can chill out.’”
Alexa Rae Caves, Esthetician who appeared on season 24 of ‘The Bachelor’
Can’t call her ‘Alexa’ in public
When 8-year-old Alexa Newey looked for her name on a keychain at a souvenir shop in Blackpool, England, last July, she was saddened to see magnets with her name used as a command.
“Alexa, order me a takeaway” and “Alexa, feed my child,” the magnets read.
The same kinds of phrases were used to make fun of her at school, she said.
“Because my name’s Alexa, I feel like people are going to always hate me,” said Alexa, who has ADHD and is tall for her age.
Her mother, Angela Newey, has become used to calling her daughter nicknames such as “kiddo” in public to avoid comments and stares, including, “What’s your daughter’s name?” and “Oh, that’s a bit unfortunate,” she said. Other parents do the same, some using Lex or Lexi for Alexa.
A number of other parents expressed concern about the self-esteem of their children named Alexa. Some parents said they’ve tried to teach their daughters strategies for responding to negative remarks, including making a joke in turn or telling the person making the comment how it makes them feel.
“They’re sort of growing up with the communication that their name is associated with a servant role,” Christopher Kearney, a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, said in an interview. “If a teacher is saying something derogatory, even if it’s just as a joke, or it’s to change their name, or … allows other kids to participate in that, it can create a lot of psychological damage.”
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Alexa Hepburn, a research professor of communication at Rutgers University who has published widely on school bullying, said the long-term impacts could include depression, anxiety and low self-esteem.
As Alexa Newey, now 9 years old, started middle school in Britain, where most of the children were new to her, she decided to go by Alex. That’s what most children call her now, so the taunting about her name has become less of a problem, her mother wrote in an email.
“I feel like Amazon took the option of naming my daughter Alexa away from me. I was worried about my daughter being bullied in school if I named her Alexa.”
Alexa Santiago, Service desk associate at Home Depot
Formerly known as Alexa
As a 16-year-old auditioning for TV shows and short films, Alexa Brooks was often nervous. But casting directors added to the pressure by telling her not to say her first name to avoid triggering the Amazon smart speaker in the room. They told her they would introduce her by her last name instead.
“It kind of feels like … you’re more of a problem than, like, you’re going to be their solution,” Brooks said.
She said she felt she couldn’t be herself. She wanted to be known for her performance, not as “The girl with the Amazon name.”
She found the perfect opportunity to change her name when she moved from the small town of Healdsburg, Calif., to Los Angeles for her junior year of high school.
She wasn’t alone. I interviewed three sets of parents of Alexas who legally changed their daughters’ names. At least 10 other Alexas, children and adults, started going by nicknames or their middle names.
Brooks’s mother, Melissa Kester, suggested her new name, Harlow, which comes from a line in the song “Bette Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes.
She was granted a legal name change last year, a process that costs a few hundred dollars in the United States. But she said she really liked the name Alexa and wouldn’t have changed it if it wasn’t for the Amazon connection.
“I think there’s something really misogynistic and dehumanizing about it all,” she said.
She’s now in her sophomore year at the University of Southern California and studying film production. Some of her peers know about her name change, and some have questioned it, telling her: “You just changed it because Amazon? That’s kind of stupid.”
But, for the most part, people accept that she’s now Harlow, she said.
Back home in Healdsburg, she’s still known as Alexa, and she has kept it as her middle name. But the now 20-year-old Brooks said there were times that she doubted her decision, until I contacted her for the story.
“It actually brought me a great sense of validation that I’m not crazy, and other people are going through this exact same thing,” Brooks said.
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https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/interactive/2021/people-named-alexa-name-change-amazon/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_business Perspective | People named Alexa are changing their names because of Amazon’s assistant