Online polls have generally existed as a pretty shady corner of the internet. They are the ultimate “more noise than signal” version of polling, as they pretty much just measure the pre-ordained conceptions of people who want to make their stance clear. If I see a poll that says “Should the President be impeached for not being an American???” I’m not going to click on it, because it is pointless, but the people that do believe that will click on it, and then you’ll have someone pointing to it as a kind of national mood indicator. But no one takes it seriously. It’s the intellectual equivalent of reading a flyer handed to you on the street by the guy in a tinfoil shirt, and you later realize it was written entirely with mustard.
(This works with any political issue, so if you must, just replace my example with something you find obnoxious and frivolous.)
That said, the idea of online polls is changing with the explosion in mobile apps. They are less about capturing some kind of mood as identifying behavior and likes, and they can be more targeted than the virus-laden and spammy “click here if you already agree with this” kind of pop-up polls that used to plague the internet. Polls can be used to determine anything from which of your friends like a band to how many of your followers plan to vote, and we are beginning to learn how to use targeted microdata to form a kind of whole. Doing so reveals both how the information age unites and fractures us, often at the same time.
Polar Polls and Google
The growing importance of online polling was demonstrated last week when Mountain View’s Google announced that they had purchased Polar Polls, one of the leading developers of online polls. According to Polar, one out of every 499 people on the internet had given their opinion on a poll designed by them. Those are huge numbers, and it is easy to see why Google would want to tap into that.
Polar Polls will not be part of Google proper, but will be used on Google Plus, the much maligned social network of Google. While it doesn’t have a great reputation, Google Plus is still used by millions as a second or third network, and has become a vital, if rarely remarked upon, aspect of networking. People want to have a presence on it, if only to have another venue.
But what makes Google Plus special is that users are able to segment their contacts into smaller groups. This is important for the ways that Google potentially intends to use Polar Polls. Google Plus is important for the information giant to get data about its users, and this is a great way to really focus that data.
If you have a Circle in Google Plus that is only for the people with whom you play fantasy sports, you can devise a poll that asks something like “In fantasy baseball, is WAR more important than Batting Average to you?” This is a fairly esoteric question that if asked on, say, Facebook, would probably be mostly ignored, or answered by people who don’t know much but who like clicking on polls. For the people in your fantasy sports circle, though, this is a hotter and more relevant issue, and one they are more inclined to think about, and so the data derived from that will be more meaningful.
Now multiply that by tens of thousands of users, a significant portion of people who play fantasy baseball. If Google wants to expand its fantasy apps, they might be able to tap into the market of people who want to use advanced baseball stats (or who don’t). They have the ability to get a quick, easy look at the likes of potential users. This kind of data can be gleaned about nearly anything.
Popularity and the diversity on the internet
One of the great contradictions of the internet age is that it both rewards the esoteric and reinforces popularity. On user-generated sites like Reddit, items that get the most upvotes move to the top. It’s great when something truly weird and original moves up, but being at the top also means that people naturally gravitate toward it, and its status gets cemented. Over time, similarity of theme and voice and content gets consistently rewarded. After all, if a top Vine is just someone yelling something, why shouldn’t I do that with mine?
Polling has the possibility of both subverting and upholding this trend. It can uphold by coalescing group opinion. If a poll says people like stories about apples instead of oranges, content will shift to reward apples, even if oranges are more interesting (which they objectively are, of course) and there are a lot of great things to do with oranges. It won’t really matter, because people will focus on apples – there is market research to prove they work – and a kind of numb acceptance sets in.
Polar Polls and Trends
But polling can also change this. It can test the waters without wasting resources. “Do you want to hear more stories about oranges?” People can have a chance to state their opinion without the self-reinforcing cycle of upvotes.
The internet is still a weird and wooly and beautiful place. There are places for people to turn to have conversations they might never have had. Popular apps like Geeking allow people to jump in on conversations with people interested in anime and cosplay, who might not have found each other anyway. Apps like these celebrate diversity, and show the promise of the internet. With polling, they can be able to gauge that, “Well, 15% of our users love my Angel-themed stories, so let’s do that.” Without polls, that 15% might slip to the bottom, but knowing how a minority feels and really seeing their numbers can change the way things are promoted.
Polls aren’t perfect. There are only so many choices, and they don’t always reflect the multitude of opinions, or the variance even among people who agree. But if we use them correctly, and try to understand that there is a huge population who might be under-represented, and see that the most upvotes isn’t always the highest mark of quality, we might be able to fulfill the promise of the Information Age – that is, to keep everything accessible, without prejudice. I’d vote for that.