Today, the scientific part of my brain was in control at the exact time necessary to help me put my finger on what it is I hate most about the Washington Post website’s idiotic, intermittent survey: it collects terrible data.

I use many computers in the course of a week. I have a half-dozen machines in my apartment, another one at Shannon’s, one on my desk at the hospital, and two on my desk at the magazine for which I do occasional work. There are also a dozen computers on every floor of the hospital, and a dozen more computers at my outpatient clinic. Add to that the two computers at my parents’ home, the one at my brother’s apartment, and the one at my sister’s, and of course, don’t forget the umpteen public terminals out there — at libraries, airports, Internet cafes, conference centers, and hotels — that I’ve used on occasion. We’re talking about a lot of machines here, and I’m reasonably certain that the Washington Post has counted me as a 29 year-old New York City male on each and every one of them. According to their database, there are dozens of keyboard-happy Manhattan twentysomething men banging down their virtual door; their automated ad generator spends countless cycles of processor time dreaming up sales pitches for bagels with schmears, spacesaving hardware projects, and Chinese take-out. And given my penchant for reinstalling operating systems (or, at the very least, clearing out my web browser cache and cookies) every now and then, the WP site counts me again and again and again.

I used to think that the best answer was to give them false information — once an octagenarian woman from Burkina Faso, the next time a months-old baby boy from the French island department of Reunion. The survey attempts to assuage those of us who hate filling out the form over and over by promising that the survey will help them better know their readers, improve the website, and serve better ads; it became fun to try to figure out what their marketing drones were going to choose as the best products to push to 110 year-old Micronesians. It eventually became easier to just enter my real information, though, but today I came to the realization that repeatedly doing so may be the best way of all to poison their database.


The thing is, while it seems horribly stupid and certain to get completely flawed data to us (I’m a woman born in 1909 in Afghanistan, myself), most of their users would probably be afraid they would get in trouble somehow if they lied. Remember, the person who used that library terminal before you called over a librarian for help because “your computer is broadcasting your IP address!!1!”

• Posted by: Phil Ringnalda on Feb 11, 2003, 1:41 AM

You can’t be a 110 year old Micronesian. Their form doesn’t accept any birth dates before 1900.

I’m a 103 year old woman from ZIP code 12345. Personally, I think we should all agree on one fake persona for the WaPo and give them one hell of a spike. After all, lying consistently would poison the db as well as giving the truth repeatedly, and it would be more fun.

• Posted by: ralph on Feb 11, 2003, 11:21 AM

I’m in the same boat as you, Jason: I used computers all over the place. After a while, I started to get INTERESTED in what they might want to seel to the real me! -g

• Posted by: Jeff on Feb 11, 2003, 1:55 PM

That’s “sell to the real me!” Sorry.

• Posted by: Jeff on Feb 11, 2003, 1:57 PM

The Washington Post’s survey discriminates against people who are born before 1900! We should probably organize a boycott.

• Posted by: Sam Greenfield on Feb 11, 2003, 4:27 PM

You might also be interested in the New York Times Random registration generator.

• Posted by: Withheld on Feb 12, 2003, 7:45 PM
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