News & Politics

Why You’re Seeing So Many "Random Generators" on News Sites

OK, what’s your Secret Service code name? Are you Blitzle, or Omanyte, or Poochyena, or maybe Dusknoir?

After CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked Republican candidates Wednesday night how they’d like the Secret Service to refer to them if elected, Philip Bump, a writer for the Washington Post political blog The Fix, sprang into action, creating a code-name generator that, according to the tracking service SharedCount, was shared about 5,000 times on Twitter and Facebook.

This type of article is not new to the Post. In April, the organization helped readers create their own Hillary Clinton slogans using her official campaign typeface. In January, you could spit out random Joe Biden-style compliments with the click of button. In April 2014, you could help name Chelsea Clinton’s baby by answering some introductory probing questions—an idea recycled from a July 2013 post about the royal baby.

And the Post is hardly the only news organization to embrace these generators. In March 2014, then Slate editor David Plotz noted unenthusiastically that the publication’s most popular story in history was its John Travolta name generator, which was posted following the actor’s epic pronunciation blunder. And remember its Carlos Danger name generator? Or its Joe Flacco one? Or its Rick Perry-Ronald Raven one? In July, Mother Jones and Time both unveiled Donald Trump insult generators. The New Republic followed with a Trump compliment generator the next day.

Bump, who also helped create both the Hillary Clinton slogan maker and the Joe Biden compliment creator, likes these interactive stories for a few reasons. For one thing, he says, they’re easy to make; Bump, a self-taught coder for two decades and a former designer for Adobe, says the piece only took a total of three hours to build.

But more important, they also help turn otherwise dry, political stories into something interactive.

“I see part of my mandate as making political news and data accessible or putting politics into a broader context,” Bump writes in an email to The Washingtonian. “There were a lot of ways to go with the code name aspect of the debate, but this seemed like one that would actually get people to take interest.”

In other words, these generator posts get readers clicking on stories that might otherwise briefly fascinate only political journalists on Twitter.

Bump didn’t know what kind of traffic the story got, and the Post wouldn’t say. “My primary gauge for these things is how often they pop up in my Twitter feed, and that’s happening with some regularity,” Bump says. He was “pleasantly surprised with how it did. I thought that people would not be interested in a tie-in to a brief moment in the third hour of a presidential primary debate.”