Clickbait professionalism at the American Anthropological Association

My disciplinary association (the AAA) is conducting a survey.

It doesn’t really matter to me what the survey is about. The survey has two fatal flaws:

  1. It uses clickbait marketing tactics to try to reach me.
  2. It purports to compensate me by offering me a chance to win a gift card.

Both of these strategies are insulting and, inasmuch as “professionalism” means anything whatsoever, unprofessional.

Literature review: Clickbait is just a bunch of clichés, normally used in titles, that seek to generate phony desires to become a reader of some online article. The standard emotional logic is about generating a feeling of missing out or an epistemic lack — “XYZ happened, you’ll never guess what happened next!”

Here, then, are some phrases used in the survey messages that I consider clickbait: “Don’t miss your chance to take part,” “We have not heard from you yet!”, “AAA needs your help!”, “Please watch your inbox”…

It’s as if they want me to believe that there was an actual personal relationship here and not just the nth request to provide data to an organization that gouges its members on fees and rents its journal portfolio to Wiley-Blackwell… Not to mention that instead of just sending me one email about this survey, they sent me three.

This takes us right into spam territory. Listen, if I’d wanted to participate, I would have. Show some respect for my time and attention.

The question of respect brings me to the atrocious gift card lottery that is supposed to incentivize/compensate for my participation.

Look, we’re (ostensibly) professional social scientists here. That makes us experts in how to compensate people fairly for participation in research. If a student of mine proposed to compensate their research participants by giving each of them a lottery ticket, I would explain that that was ridiculous. But giving out a chance to win a gift card — which is exactly the same thing as giving me a lottery ticket, from my perspective as the recipient — is somehow considered appropriate in many university and scholarly contexts.

Back when I was in grad school, for instance, this was how the student health services people tried to get me to click on their survey link:

As an expression of our appreciation for your time and input, all students who complete the survey will be entered into a random drawing with a chance to win one of the following prizes:
1st prize – (1) iPad mini, 64GB tablet with Retina display (mfsr $599)
2nd prize – (1) Kindle Paperwhite 6″ reader (mfsr $139)
3rd prize – (10) $25 gift certificates at the University Bookstore

My disciplinary association, by contrast, is considerably more frugal:

In appreciation for your time, you will have the opportunity to enter a drawing for a chance to win one of ten $25 Gift Cards.

Let’s suppose there are 10,000 members (source) — $250 total in gift cards divided by 10,000 comes out to $0.025 per member.

So basically we are getting a little message here about what our time and attention is worth: 2.5 cents is considered is a fair average rate for survey-completion services.

Now they also mention that the survey should take five minutes to complete. From this, we can calculate the hourly rate that the AAA considers fair compensation for survey participation.

$0.025/5min = $0.005/min
$0.005/min * 60 min/hr = $0.30/hr

So here you have it, everybody: for our professional time and energy in contributing to the statistical data banks of our disciplinary association, we are being compensated at thirty cents per hour. That’s just slightly more than 4% of the current U.S. federal minimum wage ($7.25/hr).

At this point, it would be less insulting just to ask the research participants to participate gratis.

But this brings me to my real thought about this. Governance by survey is not a satisfactory form of participatory democracy. And it’s not fair to force a group of increasingly precarious professionals to pay a large annual tax to a disciplinary association that fundamentally has no form of participatory governance.

The word for what they do is rent-seeking.

And it is precisely because my disciplinary association is a large, opaque and self-interested entity, seeking primarily to reproduce itself as an organization rather than to help its members, that it resorts to this sort of casino-consumerist substitute for participatory input. It’s bad social science and it’s bad democracy. The irony, however, is lost on the organizers.