For the past several months I have noticed a proliferation of quizzes on social media and pop culture websites. There is something about a headline that reads “Find out which Disney princess you are!” that overcomes my inner curmudgeon and makes me want to participate, even though I’m not a fan of Disney and I don’t really care which princess I am. The internet quiz is possessed of an uncanny ability to draw in even the wary, because what could possibly be the harm in finding out which Walking Dead character you are or what your profession should actually be or what mythological beast is your totem animal? It turns out, more harm than I realized.
Even as I was giving in to the siren call of the quiz I found myself questioning why its allure was so strong. I was answering quizzes dealing with topics I knew nothing about – things like which character I am on a TV show I don’t even watch. I told myself that it was ok because I mostly kept my participation hidden from others. I ran across most quizzes on Facebook on the feeds of friends who had taken them. I almost never posted my results, although I would sometimes leave them as a comment for the person who originally posted the quiz. I was slightly embarrassed by how quickly the quizzes would suck me in, and I figured if I didn’t pass them on then I was at least not contributing to their proliferation. As usual, there was an element of “I’m better than this” to my refusal to share my participation; I didn’t want to admit that I was indulging in such a petty use of my time.
I thought my slight embarrassment was the worst consequence of taking these silly quizzes until I ran across an article that revealed information I immediately realized I should already have known: the quizzes are a back door way for marketers to track consumer data. OF COURSE THEY ARE. My literal headslap after reading the article paled in comparison to the anger I felt at myself for being so easily duped. If you are not familiar with these quizzes, they ask seemingly innocent questions in an effort to peg you as, for example, a fictional character or famous author or classic movie. Many of the questions have answers that hint at certain results, so if you are just dying to be identified as Allison from The Breakfast Club, you’ll select the picture of the sandwich made with Cap’n Crunch and Pixie Sticks as your lunch of choice. This all just seems so harmless and fun! But in reality, it is telling the purveyor of the quiz very specific details about you. What is your favorite color? Favorite animal? Favorite breakfast cereal? What bands do you like? Where is your dream vacation destination? What decade do you identify with? How do you dress? What do you read, watch, eat, do for fun? All these questions are things I have encountered on these quizzes, and I can’t believe I didn’t realize on my own that they aren’t harmless at all.
There are plenty of people who think this sort of thing is no big deal, and I suppose to some degree that’s true, but I will not concede that it is without harm. It is manipulation, pure and simple. It’s worse than subliminal because it not only sends a message out to the consumer, it gathers a response that can be used to craft even more manipulative messaging. It absolutely depends on the notion that people don’t realize what they are giving away when they participate. If this was really just about selling us stuff, I’d still be upset by it, but ultimately I think it’s much more than that. Our willing participation in the online world means unwitting participation as harvested data. We all need to bear in mind that on the internet, nothing is truly free. The adage of marketing holds true: if you’re not paying for a product, you are the product. So the next time a quiz pops up, remember: you are giving yourself away for free.