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Jennifer Ketcham

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.XXX versus .com? W.W.D.A.D. (What Would Dan Ariely Do)?

Posted: 09/13/11 11:03 AM ET

As the world moves into the .XXX era, I feel like a red light district of the internet could be beneficial to all. "Win, win, win," as the BBC News quoted. While there are groans and protests from the adult business and Free Speech Coalition, and I am not arguing against free speech here, there will certainly be cheers and parades from the conservative and religious right. One side is upset that they are being "censored," or that ICM Registry is providing the foundational space for censorship, and the other side is pleased that there is movement toward parental blocking power and segregation of all things adult from all things interweb.

I'm not sure that's what the fuss or celebration is really about though, and I find myself thinking of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and professor at MIT. His book, Predictably Irrational, focuses on our inherent lack of control when it comes to making decisions, and I wonder what he would think about this whole .XXX district, and the fight surrounding it. I think he would say that the industry and the Right, while both posing reasonable complaints, are not asking themselves, or one another, the right questions.

The adult industry has been a long time proponent of our right to Free Speech, and from the days of Bill Burroughs and his Naked Lunch, to the more recent battle over required condom use, Americans have been trying to define what is pornographically acceptable for years. Pornography is fluid though, and ever-changing, just like freedom of speech. So, I don't think the real question is whether the .XXX district of the web is a foundational space for censorship. I believe the underlying question fueling the entire debate is, "Will this change also create a change in my pocketbook." And the answer is yes, for multiple reasons, and they all come back to Dan Ariely.

Dan argued in a TED talk that organ donation, and a country's willingness to participate in the organ donation program had little to do with the people and everything to do with the way the option was proposed. If, at the DMV, the statement read, "Check box if you would like to be an organ donor," people would not check the box, and would not participate. However, if the statement read, "Check the box if you would NOT like to be an organ donor," then people would not check the box and would automatically participate.

The same thing happened for quite some time with adult websites. At the bottom of the site, when a potential member was forking over credit card information, it used to say, "Check the box if you do NOT want to be re-billed," or something along those lines. Like Ariely argues, people do not check the box and adult sites made millions re-billing customers. Of course, this is shady business and for the most part is no longer practiced. I hope.

Next, Ariely argues about complicated choices, and the more complex the choice, the more likely we are to become paralyzed in our decision-making abilities. Ariely uses an example of an offer from The Economist, saying that, "We actually don't know our preferences that well, and because we don't know our preferences that well, we are susceptible to all of these influences from the external forces, the defaults, the options that are presented to us and so on." So perhaps the issue of the .XXX boom isn't Free Speech at all, but the phrase "free speech" is simply the best way to conceptualize what Ariely is trying to explain. If we already have so many choices, as we do when it comes to viewing internet pornography, will the addition of .XXX paralyze the potential member and because that potential member, "Doesn't know [his] preferences that well," will he begin making different and seemingly irrational decisions when it comes to his or her pornographic choices? Will porn purchasers begin purchasing elsewhere, where the choices are less complex?

We should ask new questions of the conservative religious right too, because the matter is not merely about segregating adult content from the rest of the web, nor is it about creating more parental power. Shoot, it isn't even about what is morally right and wrong, because those issues, like Freedom of Speech and pornography, are also fluid and changing. It is about Dan Ariely's argument on being influenced by external forces, the defaults and options. Coupled with another behavioral economist, Daniel Kahneman, and yet another TED talk to figure out what is really going on, we can see which questions we should ask.

Kahneman asserts that we have two selves, the experiencing self and the remembering self. "It's about being happy in your life, and being happy about your life," two very separate things, Kahneman argues. And while his talk is much more in-depth than I will be, it comes down to the way we experience our life and how that is not the same as the way we remember experiencing it: memory is reconstructive and subjective, and experiences are in the moment and always occurring. Now, I wonder what an anti-porn crusader would feel accidentally opening a naughty link. How would that feeling change over time as reconstructive memory and religious beliefs begin to conflict with and inflate that authentic, split second experience? Would they remember the incident differently if there had been a .XXX address? There is nothing worse than surfing the web and accidentally opening a link to a chick covered in *ahem,* man juice. But if that accident is the last thing remembered, we are more likely to remember the experience poorly because in the beginning, there was excitement about a new link and in the end, anger about where it led. If we see the link ending in .XXX and open it anyway, and the beginning of the experience is not that different from the end, are we are more likely to remember the experience well? Would we even sign up for a membership?

Furthermore, using the .XXX will have the opposite effect and simplify things for anti-porn folk. Where there were once a million options with porn sites living in .com land, which Ariely might argue confuses and paralyzes, if the entire adult business were to move to a .XXX ending, there would be only two options: the "Good" .com and the "bad" .XXX. I could even take his argument about checking the box to the next level and say that it will require more effort to type in .XXX than .com, just like it requires more effort to check the box. We have to make a complex decision when we type in .XXX (I am going to type in .XXX and masturbate), and we have to make an equally complex decision to opt into the organ donation program, (I am going to check this box and when I die, they can use my organs).

I see both sides of the .XXX debate, and I think it's a great idea to create a .XXX red light district but I don't know that we are talking about the real meat and potatoes of this issue. And I'm hungry for something more.

 

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