Hoffman and Novak's Critique of the TIME article

This document is a part of a He Says / She Says set of debates over the TIME cover story "Cyberporn" and the Rimm study upon which it was based. It is has been modified only to add links to related parts of other statements in the ongoing debate. The original version of this text can be found here.

A Detailed Critique of the TIME Article:
"On a Screen Near You: Cyberporn (DeWitt, 7/3/95)"

July 1, 1995 (version 1.01)

Donna L. Hoffman & Thomas P. Novak
Associate Professors of Management

Permisson to repost is granted. Copyright (c) 1995 retained by Hoffman and Novak.

Time magazine published an exclusive story reported on the cover on Marty Rimm's published, yet not peer-reviewed, &undergraduate research project & concerning descriptions of images on adult BBSs in the United States &. Given the vast array of conceptual, logical, and methodological flaws in the Rimm study, (documented in Hoffman & Novak's " A Detailed Analysis of the Conceptual, Logical, and Methodological Flaws in the Article 'Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway'")&, at least some of which Time magazine was aware of prior to publication), Time magazine behaved irresponsibly in accepting statements made by Rimm in his manuscript at face value.& At the least, Time magazine should have sought the detailed opinions of objective experts as to the validity of the study.& Time further compounded this error by making other erroneous statements about the nature of pornography in "cyberspace," and in some cases, even misinterpreted Rimm's results. Below we detail the numerous errors in the Time magazine article.

p. 38, 3rd graf
The Rimm study is not "an exhaustive study of online porn - what's available, who is downloading it, what turns them on..."$& The Rimm study is instead an unsophisticated analysis of descriptions of& pornographic images on selected adult BBSs in the United States.& The study findings cannot be generalized beyond this narrow domain.&

p. 38, 4th graf
TIME says the study "tells us about what's happening on the computer networks, [and] also what it tells us about ourselves."$ This statement is misleading, because the study tells us only what happens on selected private adult BBSs in the United States and can only generalize to those networks and those individuals using those networks.&

p. 38, 4th graf
TIME quotes Rimm as saying, "We now know what the consumers of computer pornography really look at in the privacy of their own homes," ... "And we're finding a fundamental shift in the kinds of images they demand."$* However, the study does not reveal what consumers look at in their own homes (or anywhere else). The study& did not examine consumer behavior, but aggregate download counts of descriptive listings of images available on adult BBSs. Although& download patterns would be expected to correlate with viewing, we do not know the extent to which individuals actually *looked* at the images (or, indeed, whether they looked *at all*). Additionally, the study provides absolutely no evidence for the statement that there is a "fundamental shift" in demand for certain types of images.&

p. 38, 5th graf
TIME says, "There's an awful lot of porn online."$ But in fact, Rimm's own figures suggest that the amount of pornography on Usenet and the World Wide Web represents an extremely small percentage of the total information available on the Internet. TIME further neglects to clarify this by noting that the vast bulk of Rimm's study concerns files that reside exclusively on adult BBSs, which is a very minor portion of "online," and which does not include the Internet.&

TIME then supports this quote by saying that "917,410 sexually explicit pictures, descriptions, short stories and film clips" were "surveyed."$ However, the 917,410 files do not represent porn online, as all of these 917,410 images came from "adult" BBSs.& None of these 917,410 files came from Usenet or the Internet.& Rimm states that of the 917,410 "descriptive listings," 450,620 with complete download information came from 68 different "adult" BBSs, 75,000 with partial download information came from 6 different "adult" BBSs, and 391,790 with no download information came from 27 different "adult" BBSs.

Further, of the 917,410 files, all text and audio files were deleted& from analysis, only a very small number of images were actually examined&, and the actual number of descriptions of images retained for the content analysis on which the study's conclusions are based was 292,114.

In comparison with the 917,410 pornographic files located on the adult BBSs, how many pornographic images did Rimm locate on the Usenet? Rimm states: "Between April and July of 1994, the research team downloaded all available images (3254)...the team encountered technical difficulties with 13% of these images, which were incorrectly encoded or incorrectly uploaded by the poster. This left a total of 2830 images for analysis." Thus, while 917,410 pornographic files were found on adult BBSs, only 2830 pornographic images were found on the Usenet!& In addition, out of 11,576 World Wide Web sites in December 1994, Rimm found only nine Web sites, which is only eight one-hundreths of one percent, contained R or X-rated Adult Visual Material. Time's statement that "there is an awful lot of porn online" is thus blatantly misleading and irresponsible.&

p. 38, 5th graf
TIME says that 83.5% of images in Usenet binaries groups are pornographic;$ however, this number is simply incorrect. What Rimm actually wrote (p 1867) was "Among the pornographic newsgroups, 4206 image posts were counted, or 83.5% of the total posts."& This is based upon 17 alt.binaries groups that Rimm considered "pornographic" and 15 alt.binaries groups that Rimm considered "non-pornographic." However, Rimm does not provide a listing of the names of these groups, so there is no objective evidence of whether these groups are, in fact, "pornographic." Also, no information is provided on the degree to which these 32 groups comprise the complete universe of Usenet imagery.& Further, as the methodology for counting the number of images is not specified,& it is likely that even given Rimm's definitions and selection of 32 groups, the percentage is inflated due to the inclusion of non-pornographic text comments and multi-part images in the counts.&

To make matters worse, Rimm overgeneralizes his results in his summary (p 1914): "83.5% of all images posted on the Usenet are pornographic." This is a particularly misleading misinterpretation.&

p. 38,40, 6th graf
TIME says that '[t]rading in sexually explicit imagery, according to the report, is now 'one of the largest (if not the largest) recreational applications of users of computer networks.'"$ But there is no evidence for this statement as Rimm's study does not examine "trading behavior" on Usenet news groups, only aggregate *postings*.&

p. 40,first full graf
TIME says that the "great majority (71%) of the sexual newsgroups surveyed originate from adult" BBSs, "whose operators are trying to lure customers" to those boards.$ This percentage is unsubstantiated as Rimm provides *absolutely no support* for it.& Further, no evidence is presented that operators are engaged in luring customers to the adult BBSs via Usenet newsgroups. &

p. 40, third full graf
TIME says that "there is some evidence that ... the 1.1% ... women [on BBSs] are paid to hang out on the 'chat' rooms and bulletin boards to make the patrons feel more comfortable."$ But in fact, Rimm provides *no* evidence for this supposition (nor any credible evidence that there are 1.1% women and 98.9% men).&

p. 40, fourth full graf
TIME says that demand in the adult BBS market is driven by images that "can't be found in the average magazine rack."$ Yet, Rimm did not study the existence, availability or extent of "analog" pornography, so no such conclusion is warranted, nor possible. Further, Rimm's study, due to methodological flaws,& does not demonstrate the demand for such images (over and above other types of images) on adult BBSs.&

p. 40, first column, last graf
TIME says that this material appears on a "public network accessible to men, women and children"$ globally, yet as stated above, there is no evidence that material from private, restricted- access adult BBSs ever makes its way to public networks like the Internet.& In this case, Rimm casually discusses the method, but not the data the method is supposed to have generated.

p. 40, second column, first full graf
TIME reports that "only about 3% of all the messages on the Usenet newsgroups [represent pornographic images], while the Usenet itself represents 11.5% of the traffic on the Internet."$* But TIME neglects to take the interpretation to its logical conclusion, which is that less than 1/2 of 1% (3% of 11%) of the messages on the Internet are associated with newsgroups that contain pornographic imagery. Further, of this half percent, an unknown but even smaller percentage of messages in newsgroups that are "associated with pornographic imagery" actually contain pornographic material. Much of the material that is in these newsgroups is simply text files containing comments by Usenet readers. &

p. 40, second column, 3rd full graf
TIME speculates that pornography is "different" on computer networks,$ and although the Rimm study suggests this, as well, absolutely no evidence is presented to support this hypothesis.

p. 42, third column, second full graf
TIME wonders "[h]ow the Carnegie Mellon report will affect...the cyberporn debate" and notes that "[c]onservatives...will find plenty" of "ammunition."$ Yet TIME fails to note that the "Carnegie Mellon report" is in fact a sole-authored study by an undergraduate student in Electrical Engineering that was not subjected to the usual rigors of peer-review and revision that are common for this type of research. &

p. 42, third column, fourth full graf
TIME notes that "1 million or 2 million people who download pictures from the Internet represent a self-selected group with an interest in erotica."$ Yet, this 1 to 2 million number is completely fictitious and unsubstantiated because it is not known *and it is not possible to know* how many people download pictures from the Internet. Time provides no reference for this figure, and the figure itself is not mentioned in the Rimm report.

p. 42, third column, last graf
TIME suggests that Rimm's study will be a "gold mine for psychologists, social scientists, computer marketers and anybody with an interest in human sexual behavior."$ Yet TIME fails to note that it is highly unlikely (at least without a cover story by Time) that an unsophisticated, poorly executed, weakly documented study& conducted by an undergraduate in electrical engineering that was& not published in a rigorously peer-reviewed scholarly behavioral science journal would be ever be perceived as a "gold mine" by experts in these areas.&

Curiously, Rimm has been surprisingly uninterested in making the study available to such experts.& The study was embargoed for at least six months prior to publication in the Georgetown Law Journal. Scholarly researchers who requested a copy of the manuscript from Rimm were refused access to the manuscript prior to publication.

p. 43, top graf
TIME says that the "more sophisticated operators were able to adjust their inventory and their descriptions to match consumer demand,"$ yet the Rimm study provides very little evidence that this is actually occuring except in isolated incidents.&