How one teen’s TikTok created a crisis for the paid survey industry

She fears she may have girlbossed a little too close to the sun.

by Douglas Greenwood
|
27 September 2021, 2:44pm

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There’s something about being a broke teenager with the internet at your fingertips that momentarily convinces you that you can become a business mogul before you’re legally allowed a Paypal account. Maybe you too spent hours as a kid, jobless but wanting to buy stuff, endlessly searching the internet to find ways to make money. Surveys that paid pennies seemed to be the most fruitful option in 2009, and it seems not much has changed in the decade or so since then. This summer, Florida high school graduate Sarah Frank posted a “side hustles” recommendation video on TikTok that went viral, pointing viewers in the direction of a site called Prolific.co, where users could take surveys in exchange for money. Little did she know this harmless shoutout would derail the research process of scientists across America.

Prolific, through which Sarah claimed she was making up to £15 a day, caters to clients like the University of Oxford and Cancer Research UK, promising them a diverse pool of survey takers. But Sarah’s video, which racked up over 4 million views in less than a month and over 700,000 likes to date, skewed the demographic to, well, those who found Sarah’s video on their For You page: mostly teenage girls.

At the time, Prolific had nothing in place to screen participants in surveys, so while naturally diverse groups of people may have joined the site to partake in those surveys in the past, now most were representing the opinions of a group of people with niche interests. Scientists and data analysts, obviously not aware that Sarah’s video was driving so much traffic to the site, were confused.

Young women were making up the vast majority of respondents through Prolific surveys, and it started to piss off those looking for legitimate statistics from the site. Prolific’s co-founder Phelim Bradley said that an estimated 4,600 surveys were affected by the spike, but most of the results were salvageable. At its highest point, 75% of those taking Prolific surveys were women.

Speaking to The Verge, Sarah pointed out that, since her TikTok went viral, “Less studies have been available for me and everyone else,” adding: “I’ve received some really mean comments accusing me of single-handedly ruining the site and being selfish — even though I received no compensation for that video.” She said that, in her opinion, as the video’s popularity dies down, so too will the surge in teenage girls completing the surveys.

But there are also long-term benefits to Sarah’s accidental co-opting of Prolific. For one, it’s prompted the site to figure out their own ways of filtering the right users to the right surveys. It’s also provided the site with a new generation of users interested in providing data relevant to their lifestyles.

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