You’ve probably never heard of Bronies, or if you have, it’s been in a news report about a weird group of men who share a strange addiction to an animated TV program targeted at young girls. The reality is both stranger and (excuse the term) more magical.
The term Brony is a portmanteau of “brother” and “pony.” It refers specifically to fans of the recent reboot of the My Little Pony franchise, “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.“ Those of you who grew up watching previous generations of My Little Pony (or endured having a sister change the channel to watch it when you wanted to watch “Transformers”) probably remember the show as a bland collection of pastel ponies prancing around, and have no idea why grown men are so enamored with the series.
Well, to paraphrase an Oldsmobile tag line, this isn’t your sister’s My Little Pony.
The Brony Obsession, Explained
When Hasbro created The Hub, a cable network designed to showcase a new generation of cartoons featuring their toy lines, they looked for fresh talent to revitalize the properties. In the case of My Little Pony, they brought in animation veteran Lauren Faust, one of the forces behind The Powerpuff Girls, to act as show-runner.
Faust assembled a cadre of veteran writers, well-known voice actors, and a talented musical team to help her revive the series. During the first season of the show, it became apparent that the show was reaching outside the planned demographic, as reports started to surface that growing numbers of adults were becoming faithful watchers, even adults who didn’t have a child in sight.
The trickle of fans quickly snowballed into a movement, with hundreds of thousands of Bronies watching the show, creating works of music and art, and even mobilizing the power of the “herd” to raise money for charity or get Stephen Colbert to give Bronies a shout-out on his show.
What truly sets the Bronies apart from most media fandoms is their attitude, which tends to place love and tolerance as primary virtues, and largely tries to avoid the kind of vicious infighting that troubles many fan groups.
Bronies Meet Monkey
So what does any of this have to do with SurveyMonkey? From my first encounter with the show in the fall of 2011, it didn’t take long before I was hooked and becoming involved in the Brony community. Facing my 50th birthday, I wondered if there were other older Bronies around. Who was the typical Brony? I decided the best way to find out was to run a census, as it were, of the herd.
We had used the SurveyMonkey APIs to testbed integrating survey software into some embedded products at my day job, so it was an easy choice to use Survey Monkey as the platform to take the census. I quickly whipped up a 10-question survey in my free account. Once I had it to my liking, I spread the word among the herd.
I’ve been asked how I managed to get over 9,000 respondents in under a week. The answer, again, lies with the power of the herd. A few strategic notices on fan sites such as Equestria Daily were enough to get the word spread, and it quickly went viral. At the peak, hundreds of responses an hour were coming in (a testament to SurveyMonkey’s scalability.) As soon as it became clear that I would blow past the 100-response limit on the basic account, I ponied (sorry!) up the money to upgrade to a gold account.
So what did the survey reveal? Well, a typical Brony is a single male in the 16-30 age range, either in high school or college, lives in the United States, and thinks that “adorkable,” study-obsessed pony Twilight Sparkle is their favorite. But like all averages, it hides the richness of the overall community. Canada, the UK, Australia and Germany also have significant Brony communities, and around 15% of Bronies are female. The survey also turned up 58 Bronies with PhDs, and several hundred with Master’s degrees.
Probably the most interesting nugget the census reveals, to me at least, was the relationship between age and favorite pony. The two most favorite characters (Twilight Sparkle and animal-loving, timid Fluttershy) run pretty much neck and neck in most countries (only one vote separated them in the United States), but their relative strength varies dramatically depending on age, as this chart demonstrates:
It’s fascinating to speculate why younger fans would like the more traditionally “feminine” character better, while older fans gravitate toward the studious Sparkle. It’s a question I plan to investigate in next year’s census.
There were definitely some lessons learned during this first effort, mostly regarding question design. For one, it’s tempting to use the canned SurveyMonkey questions for topics such as age or location, but make sure that they really fit your needs.
I’m kicking myself that I used “binned” age categories, rather than asking for a scalar age value, because it both prevented the calculation of a precise mean age figure. It also made it difficult to compute, which reduced the power of any correlations I would have attempted to calculate. Remember, you can always put a precise value into a bucket, but you can’t go the other way!
I also made a decision early on to simplify the location list while reducing the granularity of locations inside the US and Canada, where I knew most fans live. The result was that I broke out US states and Canadian provinces, but only offered choices such as Europe and Asia for the rest of theBronies. As you might guess, this made a lot of Bronies very cross, as they felt their national identity was being ignored.
My Survey-Making Advice To You
- Spend the time to define your objective before you start. Once you have a thousand responses, changing things is hard or impossible, and makes it difficult to work with the entire data set.
- If you don’t have experience with statistical methods, get advice from someone who does. The way you word your questions and record responses can drastically affect the types of correlations and other analysis you can draw from the data.
- If you’re surveying a large and active community, make sure your SurveyMonkey account can handle the influx of responses.
- Be sensitive in your question design, but don’t go so far catering to minority populations that you water down or invalidate the power of the response set. This is especially true when constructing sex, gender or orientation questions.
- Making your analysis fun and colorful makes it a lot more approachable. Nothing sends ponies to sleep faster than a dozen densely populated graphs with no pictures.
I’m already looking forward to next year! Gathering and crunching the data was a lot of work, but it was also a blast! I’m planning to offer the survey in a number of different languages to provide better accessibility to non-English speaking Bronies and to gather a lot more data about the personality mix of the herd.
Until then, I remain
Herd Demographer by Appointment to the Court of Princess Celestia