Thursday, April 1, 2010

Silly Surveys

The Pew Research Center has released a survey that they say measures how likely a person is to be in a "Millenial age group" (which currently means 18-29 years old). For some perverse reason I took the survey, and it found that -- surprise! -- I'm not a Millenial.

This got me thinking about silly surveys in general, like the ones on Facebook that purport to determine which famous writer or movie star or musician or political figure you "are." Why, I asked myself, did I need a survey to tell me I'm twice as old as your average millenial? And could I even begin to imagine why a survey of several questions that tells me I'm Ashton Kutcher or Judi Dench would tickle my vanity, when I am clearly, permanently, and thankfully (especially in the former case) neither of these individuals? I'm me, for better or worse, richer or poorer, all that.

Having taken the Millenial survey I also took the time to game it. I'll break that down a bit.

By "game" I mean that I took the survey twice and gave different answers, to see what would happen. I didn't change my answers to questions that ask about a social, religious, or political positions because then the answers really wouldn't be about me; and I didn't pretend to have a tattoo because that sort of dodges the whole indelible point of tattoos. I did change my answers to the first five questions in the 14-question survey, which struck me as the most trivial, geared to eliciting facts about superficial aspects or adornments of 21st century techno-kulture.

Here are the questions, with my true answers:

  1. In the past 24 hours, did you watch more than an hour of television programming, or not? Answer: No
  2. In the past 24 hours, did you read a daily newspaper, or not? Answer: Yes
  3. In the past 24 hours, did you play video games, or not? Answer: No
  4. Thinking about your telephone use, do you have (a) Only a landline phone in your home; (b) Only a cell phone; (c) Both a landline and cell phone? Answer: (a) Only a landline
  5. In the past 24 hours, about how many text messages, if any, did you send or receive on your cell phone? (a) none; (b) 1-9; (c) 10-49; (d) >=50? Answer: none

These answers are true for me in just about any 24-hour period.

In my faked answers, I flipped the first three binary answers; answered that I have both a cell and a landline in response to #4;and claimed 1-9 text messages for #5.

In the first case, the Pew survey software chewed up my answers and suggested there's a better than 50% chance I'm a member of Generation X. I guess I survey young for a fellow born toward the end of the Baby Boom.

When I changed up my responses, I scored in a range that matched the middle 50% of Millenials.

Both my true and gamed answers to the survey put me outside the middle-50% of respondents of my actual generation, but to be fair I was born in the last quarter of the Boomer years.

The accuracy of the survey is less interesting to me than what different results due to a few fudged answers suggests about this survey's relationship to any reasonably "real" world. I'm thinking that in any given generation there are people who watch TV and who don't. There are people who read newspapers and don't. There are people who play video games, and people who shun them. (On the other hand, the New York Times reported in October that as a cell phone refusenik I'm in a cohort of only 15% of the U.S. adult population. Some of my best friends call me a Luddite, but at least none of them can text their taunts my way.)

But let's get to the heart of the matter.

Can these limited bits of trivial information -- engagement with TV, newspapers, video games, phones & text messages -- really characterize individuals in a meaningful way? In any way that justifies the time it takes to answer 14 questions? (Let's leave aside questions about the time it takes to write a blog post. People do the strangest things...)

And is the whole setup -- all these on-line surveys that flippantly tell us who we are -- a vast centrist conspiracy to induce people to strive for the boring middle?

I'm thinking it makes just about zero sense to use this sort of survey to illuminate my sense of self. And what's more, I insist that no matter what a Facebook survey tells me, I'm not James Joyce or Nora Roberts. Let alone Mick Jagger or Joni Mitchell. And there's something kind of seamy about using vehicles like this -- "instruments" in the jargon of survey-wielding social scientists -- to pretend otherwise. Onanistic, even, not that I'd recommend anybody be struck dead for answering a few dumb questions.

What do you think? Are surveys like these silly, corrosive, or just a harmless pastime?

1 comment:

  1. Prior to reading your blog, I knew nothing of surveys that claim to place you in a certain generation based on how much TV you watch, your cell phone usage, and the amount of text messages you send. Now, after reading your blog, I’m not sure I’m happy to be lifted up from my pit of ignorance.

    The issue, it seems to me, is why would anyone care what generational group they belonged to. What would it change in your life if you discovered you were a Millennial or a Baby Boomer? If you watch twenty hours of TV a day, send hundreds of text messages an hour, and have a cell phone that brushes your teeth for you as well as gives you instantaneous internet access while taking your picture, you wouldn’t have any time to wonder if you belonged to a group that did stuff just like you.

    The survey you describe seems trivial, as in “Who Cares!”. I certainly don’t.