For a whole lot of reasons that I won’t go into online privacy suddenly is front and center, not just in the research industry, but in the popular press as well. The central message is that people are “concerned,” but about what exactly and by how much, well the answers there are all over the map. One of the few clear things about this whole debate, if that’s what it is, is the ongoing misuse of online surveys to describe what is going on.
I am hard pressed to think of anything sillier than using online surveys to help us understand attitudes about online privacy. Think about it. You have a sample of people who have signed up to share their personal behavior, attitudes, and beliefs in online surveys. What in God’s name could possibly make us think that these online extroverts, this sliver of the population, could possibly represent the range of attitudes about online privacy among “consumers” as generally alleged? If ever there was an example of an issue where online is not fit to purpose, this is it. Yet these surveys are churned out weekly, generally to serve the commercial interests of whoever commissioned them, and often widely cited as some version of the truth.
To quote H. L. Mencken, “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.” Sometimes it feels like online surveys serve a similar purpose.