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Do You Use Google, Yahoo or AOL? You're Part of the World's Largest Sex Survey

The new book A Billion Wicked Thoughts uses Internet data from billions of Google (GOOG) searches, online ads, and other material to shed light on the sex lives of average men and women. We've been unknowingly participating in it with every Web search we make. It's a reminder that Internet users have been leaving a public footprint well before Facebook's privacy concerns -- and that social scientists will be mining our online behavior for decades to come. Pay attention.

The gist
Boston Ph.D. student Ogi Ogas and co-author Sai Gaddam say they have found what makes male and female sexuality tick. Here's their synopsis, via the Museum Of Sex's Sarah Forbes:

Ogas and Gaddam analyzed a billion web searches, a million Web sites, a million erotic videos, a million erotic stories, millions of personal ads, and tens of thousands of digitized romance novels. By combining online behavioral data with cutting edge neuroscience, Ogas and Gaddam have uncovered startling truths. Men prefer overweight women to underweight women. Women enjoy reading about two heterosexual men having sex. Men often seek erotic videos featuring women in their 50s and 60s. Other than preferring males, gay men have almost identical sexual desires as straight men.

Alrighty, then! There are dozens of interesting arguments to be had about the results, but the point here is that the conclusions were found strictly using Internet data. We are finally at a point where there's enough information on ourselves online to be analyzed, dissected, and discussed by scientists.

Anonymity is key
As far as I know, there's never been a scientific study of Internet behavior done on this massive scale. But how valid are the results? Well, it is limited to people with Internet access (about a third of the world's population) who are uncensored by their government.

However, there's still some serious power here for one reason: Anonymity. The scientists argue that our behavior online can be more natural than our behavior in the real world -- staring at a monitor, it's easy to believe that no one else is watching.

For instance, in A Billion Wicked Thoughts, the authors discuss the search habits of 657,426 AOL users in 2006. One anonymous user had the following search history:

  • college cheerleaders
  • cheerleaders in Hawaii
  • pics of bikinis and girls
  • the sin of masturbation
  • pretty girls in bikinis
  • girls suntanning in bikinis
  • college cheerleader pics in bikinis
  • noooooooo
  • christian advice on lust
How else would his or her preferences or, for that matter, issues be revealed? That's the challenge social scientists have that other scientists do not. As Ogas and Gaddam write, "Radio waves may be invisible, but they don't try to deceive curious physicists and they're incapable of self-deception. Humans are guilty of both."

As I discuss in my book Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture, the Internet allows us to explore our sexuality and avoid the judgment associated with dirty public theaters or shady porn shops. I suspect the same revolution happened in the prostitution industry with websites like Craigslist Adult Services. It is the ability to participate in sexual behavior with a lower risk of public fallout. In this sense, the Internet is the perfect tool to observe our curiosities and interests.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts has already gotten great reviews, so we can expect more pop culture scientists digging into our Internet behavior -- for better or for worse.

Photo courtesy of Fried Dough // CC 2.0

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