Digg Reader Survey And Our Flawed Understanding of Online Behavior

I recently took a readership survey on the Digg site and realized there were some fundamental flaws in the way we are trying to understand online behavior.  And this is by no means solely a problem at Digg, it speaks to a deep seated bias we have when trying to probe media behavior.

Some examples from the Digg survey:

Question: How often would you say you go online?  Many times a day, daily, weekly, etc.

Between my home computer that I never turn off, my work computer I turn off once a week, my cellphone and my Ipod Touch, I don’t think I am never NOT online.

At some point the distinction between online and offline blurred to such a degree that there is now no meaningful demarcation.   I can certainly ‘disconnect’ myself, and do.  But even then, I am conscious that my online presence still ‘exsits’ and perpetuates itself without my direct involvement.

In this sense, the more important measure is how integrated my ‘online’ and ‘offline’ lives are, not how often I switch between the two.

Question:  Which of the following do you visit at least once a month?  <list of websites>

What exactly is a ‘visit’?  I have a iGoogle home page that streams 10 different RSS feeds, am I ‘visiting’ each of those sites every time I read the feed?  Do I have to click through to them for it to count?  What about my RSS reader where I look at the BBC news, is each article a visit?  What about the CNN Breaking News emails I get?  Are those ‘visits’?  If I never turn off Twhirl, how many visits is that a day to Twitter feeds?

Again, ‘visit’ is a remnant of an earlier online experience and one with roots in TV and radio – where the only way to get to the information was to physically change the channel.

We need to think about ‘consumption’ not ‘visitation’ when thinking about online media.

Question: Rank these reasons for spending time online – entertain, research, manage my life, etc.

Why do I go online?  What’s most important?  This question loses all meaning when you think of your online life as an extension of your offline one.  ‘Online’ is not a destination with a cause and reason to visit, it’s a fluid extension of real needs/wants/desires.

‘Needs’ is the real issue here – what needs does your online life fulfill?

The survey continued in the same vein with subsequent questions.  Websites were treated as destinations and ‘visits’ and the online experience had reason and purpose.

I think it’s time to rethink a lot of how we measure ‘online behavior’.  Rather than assuming individuals online are ‘destination’ seekers, we need to think about how individuals aggregate and move between the nodes of the network they create.  It doesn’t mean destination seekers don’t exist, it just doesn’t adequately explain the complexity of their online world.

Bottom line, why measure online behavior like we used to measure offline behavior?  A mouse isn’t simply a different way to navigate, it’s a paradigm shift in your relationship to information.

I thought Digg, of all companies, would have understood that.

2 Responses to “Digg Reader Survey And Our Flawed Understanding of Online Behavior”

  1. September 24, 2009 at 9:44 am #

    Personally, I am encountering the same online behaviors as yourself. The offline and online are continuing to blur for me. It makes sense to me to think of the internet in terms of consumption rather than visiting. However, when I look at less technical users, I think the old model of viewing the internet still works. For example, my wife doesn’t use RSS (even with much prompting). She physically visits every blog she reads. If you asked what sites she visits multiple times in a month, she could give you a list. Also, she isn’t nearly as connected to the internet as I am. In between my iPhone, Laptop, Work Computer, and Home Computer, I am basically always connect. However, my wife has set times when she is online. She is online for 15-30 when she wakes up. She is online for small intervals during work. Then she is online for a bit when she gets home. Her online activity is very much disconnected from her offline activity.

    From my wife’s perspective, this digg form would make a lot of sense. I guess the real question is if the form was designed for people like my wife or me and yourself.

  2. Paul Soldera
    September 24, 2009 at 10:44 am #

    I couldn’t agree more Eldila. I think your wife and my wife sound very similar :).

    It’s definitely not a light-switch change. We’re in-between meanings in a way. You and I on one side, our wives on another.

    But for a company like Digg, I would imagine their users skew more towards us than our wives. So it should be food for thought for them.

    Thanks for the comment.