Let's hear it for Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf!
The unlikely leader in People magazine's Most Beautiful People poll has exposed online surveys for what they are -- junk mail for the brain. And in the process, ol' Hank has provided more than a few laughs for Webheads around the world.
If you haven't heard about this flap, it's a wonderful tale from the World Wide Theater of the Absurd. It started, of course, with the People Web site (www.people.com), which asked its surfers to vote in an online poll for Most Beautiful Person. The winner was to be featured on the cover of the real magazine.
The official ballot included the usual suspects -- Leonardo DiCaprio, Mariah Carey, Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Demi Moore, Julia Roberts and dozens of other BPs.
But in a moment of wanton egalitarianism, People left a blank form for write-in candidates. This came to the attention of radio shock-jock Howard Stern, who, as usual, couldn't pass up the opportunity for mischief.
Stern suggested that his fans cast write-in ballots for Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf, a member of Stern's on-air entourage who is usually angry, sometimes drunk and decidedly short. He is certainly not beautiful -- at least by People's standards.
Stern might as well have waved a red flag in front of a herd of bulls. His fans stormed the site to champion Hank's cause. What's more, they enlisted their friends via e-mail, and those friends enlisted more friends, many of whom had never heard of Hank but loved the absurdity of the whole thing. Before long, every closet anarchist on the Web (I'm guilty, too) was voting the Hank ticket.
Thinking they were under attack from an insidious Web robot, the folks at People briefly took the poll site down, but eventually they realized they couldn't fight public opinion. They even put Hank's name on the ballot so voters wouldn't have to write it in.
When I last checked, in the closing hours of the poll, Hank had collected almost 229,000 votes, which was 15 times as many as DiCaprio, the Titanic heartthrob. In fact, DiCaprio was running an embarrassing third behind yet another write-in candidate, pro wrestling idol Ric "Nature Boy" Flair, whose fans organized late but voted often.
Hank still isn't likely to get his face on the cover of People, which has a sense of humor but now says the outcome of the poll will have no influence when it decides who is the fairest of them all.
But Hank's good fortune shows that the more popular and visible these polls are, the more bizarre the results are likely to be. That's because they're not real surveys -- they're just entertainment.
In a real poll, you try to gauge public opinion (or preferences in candy bars, or sex habits, or whatever) by asking questions of a random sample of the population. The theory is that a relatively small sample -- 1,500 does nicely for the country -- will give you pretty much the same results as if you'd asked everybody.
Pollsters such as Gallup, Mason-Dixon, Roper and other big-time outfits do their work by dialing random phone numbers. Theoretically, this assures that everyone has an equal (if very small) chance of being called. These kinds of polls are almost impossible to manipulate.
Mail-in or call-in surveys may be fun, but they don't hold up statistically because their populations are self-selecting. They tend to attract the the extremes, people who are interested enough -- or feel strongly enough -- to respond. And they tend to draw a skewed population. For example, a mail-in sex survey of Cosmopolitan readers is likely to get very different results than the same poll in Modern Maturity.
The Internet adds a whole new element -- manipulation. As Stern & Co. proved, it doesn't take much to whip people up into a frenzy of clicking. More evidence? Check out Time magazine's online poll to pick the 100 most important people of the century. Thanks to heavy organizing by the Turkish lobby, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is virtually tied with Winston Churchill in the "Leaders and Revolutionaries" category, and both are way ahead of FDR and JFK. Meanwhile, French votes have put singer Charles Aznavour comfortably ahead of Elvis Presley among entertainers.
Of course, you can argue that the Web opens these surveys to a far broader spectrum of international opinion than other media. But it doesn't change the fact that online polls tell you more about who's organizing responses than what people really think.
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