Why I Still Fill Out Online Surveys
Every couple of weeks or so I get an email from YouGov, a market research company with subsidiaries around the world gathering data on all sorts of topics. They send questionnaires asking things like “Do you enjoy being by yourself or spending time with friends?” (now is a fine time to ask that question), “Do you like or dislike this actor?” (followed by a picture of Robert Downey Jr.), and “If there were an election tomorrow, which way would you vote?”
I have mixed feelings about giving away all of this data. “We use the data that you share with us,” YouGov says, “to provide useful research for our clients.” That sounds innocuous enough, but the word “research” hides a multitude of sins. In a post-Cambridge Analytica, Brexit, Donald Trump world, I find myself suspicious of what might be happening with the answers I give. YouGov mentions in passing that “our clients may ask to combine your survey responses with their own data to obtain even greater insights.” Are shady political organizations identifying specific introverts who like Robert Downey Jr. and finding ways to persuade them to vote for right-wing policies?
It’s not just the information I give to YouGov that I need to worry about. YouGov enriches the data by using the “personal data you have shared with us to derive additional information from other sources.” By this they mean they’ll look me up on Experian (the credit checking agency, which holds details of my credit cards, mortgages, and bank accounts), and check with a series of other organizations that sound like fronts for cartoonish villains: Acxiom, Personicx, Mosaic. One company they get data from, CACI, has the slogan “ever vigilant,” and lists customers including the United States federal government, homeland security, and the NSA. And even if you haven’t signed up to join YouGov’s panel, it doesn’t mean they won’t find your details and contact you. According to the company website, “You may still receive invitations to participate in our research activities if you have not joined YouGov.”
Right now, most of the questions YouGov asks are about coronavirus: Have I heard the government advice, do I think they’re doing a good job, am I staying indoors, do I think I’ve had it? Answers that will be looked at not just by medical doctors, but also by spin doctors.
Does having all of this data about what people think allow us as a species to make better decisions?
On the YouGov about page, the company claims it has “the best panel” (aww, shucks, you guys!) and it offers bold stats about the number of surveys completed and participants. But beyond being willing to sign up and answer questions, there aren’t any requirements for participants. A marketing page explains that “it is free to join!” as if that might not be the case. I guess you have to grudgingly applaud the gall of that. “Get your opinion featured in the news,” YouGov says, as a slightly more compelling offer and “express your opinions about interesting topics.” I suspect for many participants, the real draw is the promise of earning money for answering questions. Participants are awarded 10 to 50 points per 20-minute questionnaire, and after they have amassed 5,000 points are given £50 (about $62) in cash or Amazon vouchers. By my calculation, this works out at an even worse hourly rate than the underpaid Amazon warehouse workers who will be shipping the products the participants end up ordering. But if you’re answering survey questions, at least you are allowed to take a break to go to the loo.
YouGov was founded in 2000 by two British Conservatives, and it gradually expanded around the world through a process of acquiring other U.K. polling companies: Polimetrix, Clear Horizons, and Definitive Insights, as well as the Harrison Group in America, Zapera in Scandinavia, Psychonomics in Germany, and Siraj in Dubai, among others. Now YouGov is an international market research hub, providing data to governments, newspapers, universities, and private companies about everything from election results to consumer buying habits. The “Gov” in its name gives it a spurious air of officialdom, as if it’s a government polling firm or state-sponsored charity. But it is neither. It is a for-profit, public limited company (PLC), traded on the London Stock Exchange and it makes money by collating and selling data.
Despite my qualms, I find myself idly filling in the surveys from time to time, partially out of sheer bloody-minded determination to get the fabled Amazon voucher. I can’t remember when I joined or even why, but I must have been working toward this now for the better part of a decade; I am Ahab, that voucher is my white whale. At other times, I convince myself that my answers are having a bigger influence on society than voting in elections. As YouGov says, its polls and surveys are regularly reported on the news in the U.K., and large companies use them to make decisions about products and strategy. Although YouGov claims to have 8 million panel members across the world, individual questions only get a few thousand answers. A monthly question about how Brits feel about technology manufacturers, for example, is answered by, on average, fewer than 2,000 people each time. With around 50 million adults living in the U.K., when I respond to that question I am speaking for 25,000 people.
Between the time invested and the data given away, the economics just don’t add up.
And I’m not convinced that the data collected paints the most accurate picture. Take one recent question: “Do you feel generally optimistic or pessimistic about the influence the internet is having on society?” The options are “Very optimistic,” “Somewhat optimistic,” “Neither optimistic nor pessimistic,” “Somewhat pessimistic,” “Very pessimistic,” and “Don’t know.” The question seems to demand an essay response, not a simple checkbox of mutually exclusive answers. There are bits of the internet that have been worse for society (incels, doxing, deepfakes, fake news, Gamergate, pizzagate, revenge porn, 4chan, theredpill, and many other weird modern fake words that stand for horrible things) and there are other parts that have been hugely positive (Wikipedia, Stack Overflow, GitHub, the open source movement, increasing access to culture and news, economic and social participation for groups that have been excluded, increased freedom and autonomy). And there are gray areas like Facebook and Amazon, companies that contain multitudes. There is no checkbox for this thought.
“Don’t know” seems like a cop-out, even though that is probably the right answer for most people (as it turns out, only 5% of people check this option — people do not like to admit they don’t know. Or perhaps they feel, like me, this is a cheat answer and they should have a view). “Neither optimistic nor pessimistic” feels like the conclusion to a high school essay about the internet: “in conclusion, on one hand there are some good things about the internet and on the other hand there are some bad things.” Maybe it is right, but without the context, it feels misleading. Still, it is the most common answer — one in three people pick this option.
I realize as I stare at these six choices that I am overthinking the question. I am putting in effort that YouGov didn’t intend me to, will never know about, and wouldn’t want me to if it did know about it. It is not possible to encode all of these thoughts into one of the neat checkboxes. I have taken a discursive approach, but they want quantitative data — something that can be put in a database and plotted on a graph. YouGov doesn’t want this sort of answer, because ultimately it provides this data to companies — perhaps the very internet companies the question asks about — who can use it to measure how effective their PR campaigns are going. You can’t have a pie chart where the segments are yes, no, maybe, and a 2,000-word essay about the positive and negative effects of the internet on society.
In the end, I check “Somewhat optimistic” and go about my day. But the question haunts me later as I sit watching Netflix on an internet-connected TV. Am I “somewhat optimistic” about all of this?
YouGov is itself one of the things on the internet that has an influence on society. It exists through online surveys—gathering data in a way they never could by knocking on doors and asking questions from a clipboard. Is this a net positive? Does having all of this data about what people think allow us as a species to make better decisions? Or does it just allow companies to get better at selling things? And are the surveys actually telling us anything about what people really think? I may have wasted too much time pondering the success or failures of the internet, but I breezed through other much more significant questions with barely a thought, firing out views on the economy, health care, political policy. Yeah, I thought, tapping an option, that seems about right. For all the data we gather, I can’t help thinking it has a broad brush feel to it, giving a sense of what society at large sort of feels: diluted and standardized, rather than really capturing any richness of thoughts.
I am still thousands of points away from the mythic Amazon voucher. And I’m not the only one. “I have been completing YouGov surveys for what feels like years,” a participant says in a letter to the Guardian. Despite what money-saving tip sites say, “the reality is that you have to fill out an awful lot of surveys to make any money.” Between the time invested and the data given away, the economics just don’t add up — if, like Ishmael, you have little or no money in your purse, don’t expect completing YouGov surveys to fill it up. And yet, the lure of those vouchers result in millions of people signing up and thousands of people answering each question. For me, these surveys have become a slightly unexamined eccentricity. Filling them in is another of my bad habits, like watching TV in bed or not giving my eyes a break every hour when working at a computer. At times, I can’t help thinking, rather than being Ahab and the voucher being my white whale, perhaps YouGov is Moby-Dick the book. And I am the comedian, who, when asked what he would do differently if he could live his life again, replied simply: “I wouldn’t read Moby-Dick.”