World’s largest experiment on human behavior – book review

A Billion Wicked Thoughts by Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam might not be the first book to come to mind of an analyst preparing reading list for fellow learners.  The book, concerned with the mystery of human desire–and with porn-searching habits of Internet users–seems more suitable for broadly understood humanities graduates.  This might be indicated not only by authors’ constant references to pop-cultural tropes, stand-up comedians, but also by almost absolute lack of statistics (which occur, in simplified form, only in notes collected at the back of the book).  Yet, there is one aspect of the book which can be of much interest to analysis enthusiast: the data.

The major problem with writing about porn habits of Internet users is the danger of repeating the wide array of cliché views which already surround this phenomenon.  I would not say that the authors entirely avoided this pitfall, but they succeeded in bringing into discussion information which, while readily available, often is overlooked by scholars: search engine queries.  One large set of these used by the authors is the famous release of users’ query data by America Online, which, while withdrawn by the company within short time, is still available to the Internet users.  The other major source of search queries was scraped by the authors from the Dogpile search engine between July 2009 and July 2010 and contained 400 million entries.  Another interesting source of data used by the authors are posts on the popular transaction site Craigslist.

The large sets of query data investigated by the researchers by itself could serve as the base of a compelling study.  But Ogas and Gaddam did not limit themselves to these sets of data.  They refer widely to both scientific and popular publications concerned with development and trends in porn industry, and even consider writing techniques of romantic novels, performing analysis of pronoun density, and comparing them with popular fanfiction literature.  The diversity of sources considered by the authors is certainly interesting, but I cannot but feel somewhat disappointed by limited range of their analysis of any single one of these.  This is perhaps to be expected from a work not meant as an academic study, but as a popular publication.

The limited insight into the background of performed analysis provided by the authors might also be taken as an interesting window of opportunity.  Since some of the data is widely available, it is quite tempting to cross-check some of the authors’ claims.

The interesting sources of data aside, the book itself is quite interesting read.  While I have no competence to judge authors’ conclusions, the general impression left by their analysis is rather positive.  I was surprised, though, with limited attention the authors gave to the subject of sexual deviation–those interested in reading the book because of the title could be disappointed.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts is certainly a worthy read for both data analysts and students in humanities, as it shows an often overlooked way to approach freely available data.  The authors did not do anything that was not done before, yet the combination of sources and simplicity of analysis make it an interesting example of how research could be performed.

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