This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
In 2006, AOL released on the Internet a single compressed text file containing twenty million search keywords for over 650,000 of their users. The purpose was to generously contribute to the scientific community for research purposes. While the user ID had been changed to a random number, the data contained many other personal identifying marks which enabled people to link the search queries back to real names. While AOL quickly recognised its mistake pulling the data file after only three days, many had copied the file and republished it on numerous sites. This turned into a publicity nightmare for the company as it was labelled one of the biggest and most egregious violations of user privacy. Two employees were fired over the incident and the Chief Technology Officer resigned. (CNET – Aug 21/2006) CNN Money labelled it number 57 on their list of 101 Dumbest Moments in Business for 2006. (An on-line searchable version of this data is available at the web site AOL Stalker)
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, something good always comes out of something bad. Beyond the violation of user privacy was the opportunity to see unfiltered what people were searching for on the Internet. This was a chance to see, truly see, what people were interested in. Think about it. Anything we say is governed by what we think others may approve of or criticise. Consequently anything we do is very much affected by our environment. But with this data, you had people typing search keywords in the (mistaken) impression no one was watching; that it was totally anonymous. So let’s ask the question. If you sit down at a computer to search for anything anonymously – yes, nobody will ever know – just what are you going to look at? This is it; nobody will ever know. Type in anything your little heart desires.
A new book entitled “A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire” by the authors Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam delves into this AOL data and apparently other similar information to investigate just what we are interested in, truly interested in when it comes to sex.
Released on May 5, 2011 in hardcover, the book seems to be generating a lot of buzz and controversy. Anything which is about sex gives rise to buzz but the controversy comes from those who question the authors’ methodology, their assumptions in interpreting the material and their conclusions. I’m sure the pundits will be at it for some time to come sorting out the veracity and the value of the study but for the rest of us, curiosity dictates finding out just what the heck we’re doing when we’re sitting at our computers. Considering the headlines about sex addiction and a supposed skyrocketing increase in the use of porn, will this study confirm our worst fears or discount the sky-is-falling doomsayers?
Numerous media outlets have poured over the contents of the book and several have interviewed the authors which gives us all a fairly comprehensive look at our Billion Wicked Thoughts.
The Top Five Interests
While the authors found an instance of just about anything and everything, they discovered there are 20 sexual interests which account for 80% of all porn. The top five searches are youth, gay, sexy mothers, breasts and cheating wives.
In studying the web site PornHub.com, they found out the most popular search term is the word Mom. While the overall popularity of older women surprised them – women in their 40s, 50s and 60s – they did conclude that the older, aggressive, seductive woman remains a source of arousal for men, although men seemingly still prefer young women the most.
The authors explained why cheating wives would be one of the top interests around the world. While men are jealous, they can also be aroused in what biologists call the sperm competition cue. Across the animal kingdom, a male tends to become aroused if he sees other males mating. The idea is that to compete with other males, he must produce more sperm. Applied to humans, if a man sees a woman – even his own partner – with another man, he becomes aroused.
Men are visual, women are cerebral
Ogas and Gaddam concluded as others have that men tend to respond to visual clues, hence their predilection for porn movies, while women prefer stories. Their study found women more likely to be accessing online erotica, fan fiction or romance novels. They saw that men would go after a 60-second porn clip while women were after a 2,000 word story or a 250-page novel.
They explained the difference between the sexes as the male brain responds to any single sexual stimulus while the female brain requires multiple stimuli or in quick succession. This goes back to biology and evolution where men are looking to cast their seed far and wide while women are being cautious, looking for the right partner for their children.
The researchers went on to point out how in fan fiction the main point is to explore the emotions and character of the hero. The emotional process of revealing true character is what’s so appealing to women.
Lesbians and Gay Romance
Why do men go for lesbians? It’s doubling up on visual cues. And one psychological cue for arousal in men is female sexual pleasure.
Why do some women enjoy watching gay porn? They describe an appreciation of the raw, powerful sexual desire displayed by men. Male desire is a strong sexual cue for women. And some just say that two hot guys is better than one. As an aside, there is book genre called Male Gay Romance which is usually written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women. Once again, we have the two main popular ingredients of women’s erotica: the revealing of a man’s true character and his raw, powerful sexual desire.
With any activity, it would be logical to assume that a certain percent would have a problem with it. After all, we have alcoholics, drug addicts, and problem gamblers, but what constitutes a true problem as opposed to a normal percentage of those with an addictive personality?
World Health Organisation: Global Status Report on Alcohol – 2004
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are about 2 billion people worldwide who consume alcoholic beverages and 76.3 million with diagnosable alcohol use disorders.
The current total world population (2010) is 6.8 billion but in 2004 it was around 6.4 billion. So, in 2004, 31% of all people consumed alcohol. 4% of the drinkers had a problem or 1% of the total. It stands to reason that some people who watch pornography would have a problem but I return to the idea of nobody is proposing to outlaw alcohol.
A recent interview in Time Magazine with the author Ogi Ogas had a reporter asking the question, “Did you find evidence that porn is addictive?”
We looked at individual search histories for half a million people using an AOL data set [which does not identify the users]. It seems to be less than 2% of people, among the people who search for porn, who have a significantly elevated number of searches.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 4% of all drinkers have a problem. Dr. Ogas concludes that less than 2% of the users in their AOL study demonstrated a significantly elevated number of searches suggesting a possible problem such as addictive behaviour. In my posting Pornography: My conclusions, I wrote about those proposing the prohibition of sexual materials with the idea: no porn, no problem.
Alcoholics go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Drug addicts go to Narcotics Anonymous. Compulsive gamblers go to Gamblers Anonymous. Is everybody who takes a drink an alcoholic? No. Is everybody who takes a toke a drug addict? No. Is anybody who lays down a bet a compulsive gambler? No. I think you can see where I’m going with this. Anecdotal cases of men wrapped up in Internet porn and ignoring their wives is indicative of men who have a problem, a personal problem. Let’s not bring back prohibition to deal with one man’s problem.
If 4% of the world drinkers are alcoholics, less than 2% of the users in the AOL study would clearly indicate that this supposed sky-is-falling epidemic of porn addiction is not in the least bit true. If I may quote Marty Klein, Ph.D. (who got this elsewhere): The plural of anecdote is not data. Just because we all read a headline of some high-profile person like actor David Duchovny checking into rehab because of a supposed addiction to pornography does not mean that pornography is so dangerous anybody who looks at it is going to turn into some sort of ravenous maniac. After all, if 4% of all drinkers are alcoholics that means 96% of all drinkers are not. One of my favourite reads, Shameless by Pamela Madsen, has the author explaining on page 97: When we were feeling adventuresome, Gavin and I picked out porn movies together, got turned on, and made love.
Psychology Today Blog
The authors have offered up in “A Billion Wicked Thoughts” blog supplemental articles exploring some of the points they cover in their book.
In one article, they discuss the biological urges of male primates who expose themselves to females to indicate sexual interest. While all of us have been laughing at some of the recent headlines detailing the escapades of Congressman Anthony Weiner tweeting naked photos of himself, the authors rattle off some numbers indicating the percentage of images of a penis posted by men on several adult networking sites. It would seem this type of action is more primordial than perverted.
In the article “What do shemale porn and slash fiction have in common?“, we have a chance to see a bit of the unusual uncovered by Ogas and Gaddam. As odd as it may sound, men have a strong interest in transsexuals, or what is commonly referred to a shemales: feminine bodies equipped with a penis. The authors explain this as combining the sexual cues of a woman with the desire to check out an erect penis. This doesn’t mean the man who’s watching is gay; it is part of a man’s built-in detection of all things sexual.
This same article goes on to discuss the female side of the coin in slash fiction. The term “slash” here doesn’t mean anything violent, it refers to the fictionalized sexual coming together of two male figures. Probably the first such literary works came from the original Star Trek where fans wrote stories of Kirk / Spock (Kirk slash Spock) having a relationship. While sex is an element of slash fiction, the main focus is on the emotional side: how two males share their tender side.
In an article discussing various web sites, the authors make some interesting points which emphasize the differences between men and women.
Here is the raw, unfiltered record of one man’s sexual proclivities—his private search history from America Online:
* college cheerleaders
* cheerleaders in Hawaii
* pics of bikinis and girls
* pretty girls in bikinis
* girls suntanning in bikinis
* college cheerleader pics in bikinis
* christian advice on lust
And one woman’s:
* orlando bloom as vampire fanfiction
* 321 sex chat
* kingdom of heaven fanfiction
* cinderella wedding dresses
* gossip on orlando bloom
* legolas erotica
* legolas heterosexual erotica
* evil orlando bloom dark fanfiction
The two search histories above are a fair representation of what each sex tends to do online. Men seek out visuals and go straight for orgasm. Women prefer stories and often favor conversation over culmination. The five most popular adult sites for men are all within the top 100 most popular sites on the entire Internet. All are webcam or video sites featuring anonymous graphic sex, such as PornHub, the most popular adult YouTube clone, which draws about 13.9 million visitors a month. In contrast, the most popular adult video site for women, For The Girls, draws a meager 100,000 a month (and up to half of those visitors are gay men). All across the planet, with women free to access any erotic content they wish, they mostly seek out character-driven stories of sexual relationships: romance novels, erotic romance (sometimes called EroRom or Romantica®), fan fiction, slash fiction, gay romance novels, and erotic stories.
The most popular “erotic” site for women is fanfiction.net, featuring more than 1.5 million visitors a month and more than two million stories, about half of which are tagged as “romance.” The second most popular story site dominated by female visitors is adultfanfiction.net, featuring 150,000 erotic stories rated NC-17. Many sites dedicated to romance books and romance authors, such as StephenieMyers.com and eHarlequin.com, are more popular than all of the porn sites targeting women.
I have stated elsewhere that we all are very much a product of our environment. That is, our family, our friends, our colleagues, all influence are behaviour to the point where the laws of the land, moral codes, even being ostracized from our peer group will force us to conduct ourselves in a way which is not representative of our true inner self. That isn’t to say that conforming is always a bad thing but it makes it next to impossible to analyse what is truly going on.
The authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts had unprecedented access to unfiltered, anonymous search data which allowed them to analyse what people were looking at on the Internet. People searched for whatever they wanted without any constraints: no laws, no morals, no shunning from their peer group. This provides a unique opportunity to find out just what’s what in our brains. What are we really interested in? What are we really thinking about? It’s odd when you think about it that anybody who does a survey, let’s say in the street, must consider that the answers given by anybody could be tainted by what the person feels constrained to say. Can you really get the truth? And when it comes to anything relating to sex, one of the biggest taboos in North American society, is anybody going to tell the truth? These two authors managed to do just that: find out the truth.
Wikipedia: AOL search data scandal
On August 4, 2006, AOL Research, headed by Dr. Abdur Chowdhury, released a compressed text file on one of its websites containing twenty million search keywords for over 650,000 users over a 3-month period, intended for research purposes. AOL pulled the file from public access by the 7th, but not before it had been mirrored and distributed on the Internet.
AOL themselves did not identify users in the report, however; personally identifiable information was present in many of the queries, and as the queries were attributed by AOL to particular user accounts, identified numerically, an individual could be identified and matched to their account and search history by such information. The New York Times was able to locate an individual from the released and anonymized search records by cross referencing them with phonebook listings. Consequently, the ethical implications of using this data for research are under debate.
AOL acknowledged it was a mistake and removed the data, although the files can still be downloaded from mirror sites.
Wikipedia: AOL: controversies
On August 4, 2006, AOL released a compressed text file on one of its websites containing twenty million search keywords for over 650,000 users over a 3-month period between March 1, 2006 and May 31, intended for research purposes. AOL pulled the file from public access by August 7, but not before its wide distribution on the Internet by others. Derivative research, titled A Picture of Search was published by authors Pass, Chowdhury and Torgeson for The First International Conference on Scalable Information Systems.
The data were used by Web sites such as AOLstalker for entertainment purposes, where users of AOLstalker are encouraged to judge AOL clients based on the humorousness of personal details revealed by search behavior.
Tech Crunch – Aug 6/2006
AOL Proudly Releases Massive Amounts of Private Data by Michael Arrington
The utter stupidity of this is staggering. AOL has released very private data about its users without their permission. While the AOL username has been changed to a random ID number, the abilitiy to analyze all searches by a single user will often lead people to easily determine who the user is, and what they are up to. The data includes personal names, addresses, social security numbers and everything else someone might type into a search box.
The most serious problem is the fact that many people often search on their own name, or those of their friends and family, to see what information is available about them on the net. Combine these ego searches with porn queries and you have a serious embarrassment. Combine them with “buy ecstasy” and you have evidence of a crime. Combine it with an address, social security number, etc., and you have an identity theft waiting to happen. The possibilities are endless.
The New York Times – Aug 9/2006
A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749 by Michael Barbaro and Tom Zeller Jr.
Buried in a list of 20 million Web search queries collected by AOL and recently released on the Internet is user No. 4417749. The number was assigned by the company to protect the searcher’s anonymity, but it was not much of a shield.
AOLStalker.com contains data from the AOL search data scandal – where AOL on purpose released a massive amount of private data for all the internet to see. On this website you, the normal user can search this data (just as all the hackers already can). We created AOLStalker.com to make the public aware, not to pry on peoples privacy. If you find anything in this data collection you want removed, please use the report function or contact us with the user id – we will remove it.
Wikipedia: Ogi Ogas
Dr. Ogi Jonathan Ogas (born ca. 1971 in Annapolis, Maryland) is a cognitive neuroscientist, science book author, and game show contestant.
A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire
[Hardcover] by Ogi Ogas (Author), Sai Gaddam (Author)
Dutton Adult (May 5, 2011), 416 pages (hardcover)
Two maverick neuroscientists use the world’s largest psychology experiment-the Internet-to study the private activities of millions of men and women around the world, unveiling a revolutionary and shocking new vision of human desire that overturns conventional thinking.
For his groundbreaking sexual research, Alfred Kinsey and his team interviewed 18,000 people, relying on them to honestly report their most intimate experiences. Using the Internet, the neuroscientists Ogas and Gaddam quietly observed the raw sexual behaviors of half a billion people. By combining their observations with neuroscience and animal research, these two young neuroscientists finally answer the long-disputed question: what do people really like? Ogas and Gaddam’s findings are transforming the way scientists and therapists think about sexual desire.
In their startling book, Ogas and Gaddam analyze a “billion wicked thoughts” on the Internet: a billion Web searches, a million individual search histories, a million erotic stories, a half-million erotic videos, a million Web sites, millions of online personal ads, and many other enormous sources of sexual data in order to understand the true differences between male and female desires
official web site: A Billion Wicked Thoughts
What really turns people on? Men and women haven’t been honest—with themselves or each other. What they say they like is often quite different from what they look for when nobody is watching. But how can we learn the truth?
Excerpt: Chapter 1: What do we really like?
Psychology Today – blog
A Billion Wicked Thoughts
[This “blog” contains a number of articles written by the authors on various topics found in their book.
The Globe and Mail – May 12/2011
Sex and the Web: What your search history says about your desires by Zosia Bielski
Time Healthland – May 19/2011
Mind Reading: The Researchers Who Analyzed All the Porn on the Internet By Maia Szalavitz
Freakonomics – May 17/2011
The Neuroscience Behind Sexual Desire: Authors of A Billion Wicked Thoughts Answer Your Questions by Matthew Philips
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