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Event: SurveyFail 2009, also "BrainFail", "ResearchFail"
Participants: "Fan Fiction Survey - The Cognitive Neuroscience of Fan Fiction"
Date(s): August/September 2009
Type: research, shitstorm
Fandom: lj-based panfandom
URL: linkspam master post at Dreamwidth; screencaps at mediafire
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.
banner ad used to advertise Ogi Ogas fan fiction survey

The Survey

In late August 2009, two researchers -- Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam -- instigated a survey about women's desire and fandom, with an eye toward publishing a book called Rule 34: What Netporn Teaches Us About The Brain. In their communications they implied they were officially affiliated with Boston University[1] and said they had previously consulted with a few fans over the summer, including shaggirl and mecurtin.[2]

The following comes from the survey's "About" page (no longer online):

The structure and activity of our subcortical circuits are shaped by neurohormones such as testosterone, estrogen, oxytocin, progesterone, and vasopressin; these circuits function differently in men and women. As cognitive neuroscientists, we draw upon a wide variety of empirical data sources to model these circuits, including brain imaging studies, primate research, cognitive science experiments, machine learning algorithms--and behavioral data. The Internet offers large, unprecedented sources of data on human activity: one of these data sets is fan fiction.

We're deeply interested in broad-based behavioral data that involves romantic or erotic cognition and evinces a clear distinction between men and women. Fan fiction matches this criteria perfectly.[3]

The Survey Itself

See the entire survey at Ogi Ogas Survey on The Cognitive Neuroscience of Fan Fiction.

The survey was 70 questions long and had a mix of multiple choice, select-all-that-apply, and open-answer questions. The survey asks questions like, "Do you ever watch gay male porn or read graphic erotica authored by gay males, like the stories on (i.e., not slash)?" and, "In real life, what is your attitude towards monogamy in a long-term relationship?" The latter is followed up with "Do you think there's a big difference between the kind of sexual relationships you like to read about and what you'd like to experience in real life?"

Question 37 ("If you read slash, do you identify with the characters while you're reading?") implies that all slash pairings have a dominant and a submissive, referring probably not to BDSM roles but instead to penetration as the last option on the multiple choice question is, "I tend to identify with a specific character I like, in any position."

Fandom Questions the Survey

Word quickly spread within media fandom that the survey was ethically and methodologically questionable. eruthros wrote:

The people who wrote that survey pm'ed me, as one of the mods of Kink Bingo, while I was out of the country. In their pm, they (unintentionally) made it quite clear that their intent in their project is to talk about human universals -- to use our fannish experience, our erotics and our desires, to reinforce ideas of universal, hard-wired, biological desire.

They are outsiders to fandom. They are outsiders to fanfiction. They are outsiders to slash. And they haven't tried to learn, or to understand, or to think about fannish communities. Instead, they have made assumptions about who we are, about what we read, about what we find hot; they plan to use those to explain what makes women tick, what our brains make us do. [4]

While some fans at that time noticed a similarity to the work of Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons,[5] there was no indication within fandom that Ogas and Gaddam were already connected with both authors. Salmon wrote the foreword for the book they eventually produced and Symons wrote a blurb for the publisher.

Fan tablesaw argued that the survey, the academics' handling of the situation, and their interaction with fans and critics has been "both stupid and offensive," adding:

There are, essentially, two lines of outrage in this whole thing. There's the political outrage at the horribly sexist, heteronormative, transphobic attitudes of Ogas and Gaddam in their survey and their interactions. And there's the outrage about the horribly bad science—the lack of clear methodology, patently biased questions, an ignorance of previous research in the area, etc.[6]

Fans began pushing back, questioning the survey and demanding accountability from the researchers, as well as unleashing considerable snark. (In one representative post, Pandarus called the survey "ignorant, casually homophobic, patronising, misogynistic, profoundly privileged claptrap."[7]) Fans articulated concerns that the survey was unethical[8] and that the researchers don't listen well to critique.[9].

Fans further lambasted the researchers for not realizing that fanfiction comes in all varieties of length, for changing the questions of the survey in response to participants' criticisms after they'd already begun collecting data, and ultimately for locking down their journals and removing the survey altogether. In a widely-linked post called "Ten Steps to a Perfect Fanstorm," Lauredhel wrote:

5. Survey starts badly, with a binary gender question, moves on to fave-fandom and sparkly-glitter questions like “which fictional character do you think could be your ideal mate?”, before moving onto questions about drug use, real-life sexual behaviour, personal kinks, masturbation habits, and rape fantasies.

6. G.E/C.R unleashes hastily-written, poorly-thought-out survey on fanfic community, including communities frequented by minors.

Fanfic community says “Dude, this isn’t just stupid, it’s stupid and creepy.”[10]

Here's how Jonquil outlined the way the situation unfolded:

People tried -- with surprising patience, at first -- to explain why their assumptions about culture and innateness were incorrect, why their descriptions of sexual possibilities didn't map on to the real world, why their gender essentialism was fogging their approach to sexuality, why their beliefs about the uses and nature of slash had very little relationship to the concept as known to the community, and why you had to phrase survey questions very carefully to avoid biasing the results. Dr. Ogas replied with condescension when he chose to reply at all -- praising people for being, variously, published authors, scholars, and academics, and then carefully explaining topics that had nothing to do with their questions with handwavy references to "culture" and the "lizard brain" and the dreaded evolutionary psychology. He finally threw out a deliberate slur...and disappeared in a cloud of f-lock.[11]

In a post which accuses Gaddam and Ogas of being phrenologists (in other words, drawing on pseudoscience to support unverifiable claims), neededalj unpacks reasons why the science in this project is implausible and unverifiable, concluding, "Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam are attemping to profit off of bad science by cloaking it in complicated terminology and cutting edge technology. We shouldn't let them."[12]

One of Ogi Ogas' Responses

One of Ogas' responses to a fan on his Livejournal, since deleted, posted on August 31, 2009:

Zillah: Thank you so much for your intelligent and entirely reasonable questions. We certainly understand your skepticism, and are grateful for the opportunity to discuss our research with you.

First, I hope we might agree that brains are shaped by a genetic code, which in turn has been shaped by the evolutionary pressures faced by our ancestors. Further, I hope we might agree that specific structures in our brain are responsible for specific cognitive processes. For example, vision is mainly processed in the back of the brain. Finally, I hope we can agree that gross brain structures are identical across all humans. That is, if a person is found who processes vision at the front of their brain instead of the rear, this would be considered a medical marvel. These assumptions are the foundation of my field and our research, and if you dispute them, then I think we would find a conversation very challenging indeed.

But I hope we can agree to these basic tenets of modern biology. But I must emphasize, again and again: biology is not destiny. However, it's our conviction that the best way to ensure that biology is NOT one's destiny is to understand it. We believe that there is no limit to what any person can do. Deaf Beethoven composed the ninth symphony. Any physical or cultural limitation can be overcome. We're big believers in the power of the human spirit to rise above one's given circumstances to achieve greatness, or peace.

With this in mind, we turn to a more contentious question: are male brains different from female brains?

[I feel the need to acknowledge the vibrant discussion about gender that has been raised on other threads here, and presumably throughout fandom and American society. I request that you hold off on your entirely valid arguments about gender so that I might get my explanation off the ground. If you feel you simply cannot suspend your nuanced sense of gender long enough to discuss the possibility of a male brain and a female brain, then I understand, and I'm afraid I have little to offer you.]

The architecture of our brains -- what parts are wired to what, and how big different structures are -- are heavily influenced by neurohormones, such as testosterone, estrogen, oxytocin, vasopressin, progesterone, etc. Depending on which neurohormones are around a particular neuron will determine how it will grow, how it will link, and how it will fire.

These neurohormones are released in different mixes in males and females. First, there's a different soup of neurochemicals in the womb for boys and girls. Then, there's another wild burst of neurohormones during infancy (different in boys and girls), and finally there's another blast during puberty (different in boys and girls). So, during three critical periods of neural growth, male brains are subjected to different growth instructions than female brains.

When we compare the size of different structures in male brains and female brains, we notice clear differences. For example, communication structures are larger in women than in men, as a result of neurohormonal growth instructions.

Another place where the structures are different are in subcortical regions, the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus; and that's what we're interested in. These are primitive regions involved in very basic processing. These are NOT involved with social cognition, personal identity, personality, or the imagination. There are only very indirectly involved with gender; possibly not at all. We're not looking at gender in our own research.

So we know from neuranatomical studies that subcortical structures are different in men and women. We know these differences are due to differences in neurohormones during critical periods of neural growth. But what else do we know?

At this point, very little. That's where our research comes in.

You say, how can we possibly use behavior to understand how the brain works? A good question. Let me give you an example: vision. We have some neuroanatomical knowledge about visual pathways. But the brain is far too complicated a device to simply look at it under a microscope or MRI and say, oh X connects to Y, that must be how it processes Z. Instead, modeling the brain requires data from a variety of intersecting sources. With vision, optical illusions are useful. Figure-ground illusions (like the vase that sometimes appears to be two people looking at each other) reveals that there must be some kind of figure/ground mechanism. The Necker Cube illusion reveals how our depth processing system can be fooled. Claude Monet's paintings, which use adjacent isoluminant colors, create weird pulsing effects, which reveals that whatever brain system processes color is separate from the system that processes location. By looking at these BEHAVIORS, we have predictions and insight into what neural structres must be doing. We expect to find a system that explicitly determines figures and grounds, and can flip them. And by looking an neurantaomical details, we can find that. We expect to find different pathways that process color and location. And we do. We saw these pathways before... but without the behavioral data to go alone with it, we really couldn't figure out what the pathways were doing. And we use other sources of data. If there's a tumor in this part of the brain, what behaviors change? But we need to know the behavior first. In a monkey, what parts of the brain light up when he's looking at an apple?

So we have some pretty good guesses about what the subcortical structures we're interested in are doing. These guesses are formed from primate studies, neuroanatomical studies, and brain scans.

But the only way to really hone in on what they're doing is to identify clear behavioral differences that are also clearly linked to particular structures. We must find the equivalent of optical illusions. Fortunately, there's now data available to do this in the form of large data sets based on gender-differentiated behaviors. By comparing romantic attraction, emotional bonding, and sexual arousal -- at the most fundamental level -- across huge populations of men and women -- we can start to identify the optical illusions that in turn will allow us to identify the precise function of different structures, in the same way that the Mona Lisa smile shows that there are separate neural circuits processing low frequencies than high frequencies.

Now, I think perhaps your assertion that all behavior is cultural is probably the argument you're most concerned with, and I expect many people share your conviction. In fact, our research hinges on a fundamental disagreement with this position, which I will explain in detail in a following post; given the crucial nature of this, I will probably add it to the frequently asked questions. Again, thanks for giving me the opportunity to discuss it.

Offensive Language

In a thread in shaggirl's journal, Ogas commented that:

slash is kind of the female equivalent of the straight male interest in transsexuals. That is, the opposite of what culture would predict.[13][14][15]

He later expanded his transsexual comment to ask the question "How is straight female interest in slash fiction like straight male interest in transsexuals?"

After being told in comments that the term "transsexuals" was so broad as to be meaningless, the question was edited to replace it with "shemale models". [16]

Fandom reacted with predictable outrage[17] to Ogas' use of the terms "shemales" (and, elsewhere, "trannies") as well as to his various assertions (that slash is primarily written by straight women, that straight women's interest in slash can be reasonably compared to straight men's interest in porn featuring transfolk) whereupon Ogas locked/deleted most of his livejournal posts and took the survey down.

Although the survey itself is no longer online in its original form, copies of the questions can be read at who_anon: part one and part two. Screencaps of most of Ogas' posts are available [18] thanks to fail_machine, who also screencapped the survey after Ogas' and Gaddam's edits (but before the survey was taken down); those caps are available as pdf files.[19]

Creative Fannish Response

In addition to responding with meta and critique, fans also created cat macros, tentacle porn[20], slash fiction[21] and filk[22] [23] in response to the imbroglio.

Some fans found the posting of sexually explicit macros and images deeply troubling.[24] Others regarded this as parody[25] or "protest art"[26] and therefore legitimate. elf argues that intent matters:

[T]here's a difference between mocking someone with erotica because erotica is your most versatile communicative tool and mocking someone with erotica because sex is the most degrading thing you can imagine.[27]

Cesare argues that Ogi/Sai fan creations are a kind of "metatextual joke," adding:

I read the manip as critical engagement-- Ogi speculated about our fantasy lives in his survey and comments: the manip speculates about Ogi's fantasy life in return. And the manip gives Ogi fantasies that some slashfen ourselves have, creating a commonality between him and us.[28]

Non-Fandom Responses

When fans contacted Boston University to complain, one fan reported the following:

They've gotten a lot of emails regarding Dr. Ogas. He is no longer in any way affiliated with Boston University, except as a recent graduate. They have asked him to stop using his official Boston University email address in connection with this project, or his website. He is officially on his own, and this project is NOT IRB APPROVED. [29]

The debacle attracted the attention of people outside the media fan community as well, including the Publishers' Weekly blog Genreville[30] and IRB historian Zachary Schrag[31].

Alison MacLeod, of blog The Human Element, writes:

So they asked about these Netporn theories, and then the shit really hit the fan. It’s hard to follow the logic, but his theory (screencapped) drew on data-mining of adult sites aimed at men, and posited that explicit fanfiction for women could be equated with male interest in male-to-female transsexuals (?!) and that both of these things could be used to model subcortical processing (whatever that is) in male and female brains. Or something.

Somewhere around there, people stopped arguing with him and started taking direct action. The academics started complaining to Boston University, the creatives started creating cat macros, the neuroscientists started writing long introductions to neuroscience and the specialists in gender identity just started screaming. [32]

N Pepperell quips that even assuming that the survey project isn't "some sort of elaborate research-themed performance art, or the result of a revenge-fuelled identity theft," Ogas and Gaddam are the academic-research equivalents of notoriously unsuccessful bank robber MacArthur Wheeler.[33]


user tags include terms such as complete crap, psuedoscience (sic), mansplaining, bad science, phds written in crayon, evo psych is make believe

A year later, some fans reported that the book was still going to be published, now retitled A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World's Largest Experiment Reveals about Human Desire.[34][35] However, it has been said that the new book does not use the results of the original survey.[36]

In February 2011, the Amazon page for the book[37], due to be released in May, came to the attention of many people in fandom.[38] User-generated tags on the Amazon page soon included terms like complete crap, psuedoscience (sic), mansplaining, bad science, phds written in crayon, and evo psych is make believe.

The official website for the book is

Ogi Ogas, PhD can be seen on YouTube in an official interview about the book here.

A person claiming to be an ex-colleague of Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam has published a short ebook entitled A Billion Wicked Problems criticizing their flawed methodology and listing the troubles they faced at Boston University because of their research practices. Ogas and Gaddam's mentor, Donald Symons, has stated that A Billion Wicked Problems is "nonsensical neuroscience mumbo jumbo" authored by Ogas and Gaddam themselves, as a "'honeypot' to ensnare the hostile slash fans."[36] This claim appears to be true: the penultimate sentence of A Billion Wicked Problems contains the coded message "Ogi and Sai wrote this satire." However, many of the fans hostile to the book and the failed survey that preceded it appear to be as much fans of science as they are fans of slash.[39]

Further Reading/Meta

A comprehensive list of posts can be found at linkspam on Dreamwidth. The links are all collected in the surveyfail masterpost.

An alternative write up of the events can be found at Fan History:SurveyFail - Fan History Wiki: The Fandom History Resource, Archived version [40]

NOTE: Some of these links are to journals that were public at some point and now locked. Some of these links are to locked journals. Some of these links to to journals that are now completely offline. Since most of this discussion occurred on LiveJournal, every live link is in danger of being purged by LiveJournal itself.

July 19, 2009

July 22, 2009

July 27, 2009

August 21, 2009

August 29, 2009

August 30, 2009

August 31, 2009

September 1, 2009

September 2, 2009

September 3, 2009

September 4, 2009

September 5, 2009

September 6, 2009

September 7, 2009

September 9, 2009


  1. Rule 34, or: tentacle porn, what tentacle porn?, shaggirl, July 19, 2009. (accessed September 7, 2009)
  2. mecurtin, Talking about who writes fanfic, 27 July 2009. (accessed 4 September 2009)
  3. About this survey, August 31, 2009
  4. please don't take the fanfiction survey, eruthros, August 31, 2009
  5. Comment thread discussing Salmon and Symons work on a post about the survey, accessed July 25, 2011
  6. The Pervy Survey, tablesaw, September 2, 2009
  7. Rule 42: What Netporn Tells Us About The Brainless, pandarus, September 2, 2009
  8. Survey: further fail (via eruthros), jonquil, August 31, 2009
  9. Some scientists sure have nerve, or, How Not To Study Fandom, slashpine, August 31, 2009
  10. Ten Steps to a Perfect Fanstorm, August 31, 2009
  11. Highway to the meta zone, jonquil, September 2, 2009
  12. Why Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam Are Phrenologists, neededalj, September 2, 2009.
  13. Ogi Ogas, comment in shaggirl's journal, September 1, 2009
  14. BrainFail continues to spread like, well, the Brain that Ate New Jersey!, ithiliana, September 1, 2009
  15. whaaaaaat (more survey shenanigans), such_heights, September 2, 2009
  16. screencaps of the 'shemales' post, accessed September 3, 2009
  17. response from rm to Ogas, rm, September 2, 2009
  18. fail_machine, index of screencaps, accessed September 5, 2009
  19. pdf screencaps of the edited survey, fail_machine, accessed September 5, 2009.
  20. re: the recent SurveyFail...., alchemia, September 2, 2009
  21. "In Fandom, slashfic writers poll you", fridgepunk, September 2, 2009
  22. Your Arse Is Showing, tablesaw, August 31, 2009
  23. SurveyFail Filk!, pine and quinfirefrorefiddle, September 5, 2009
  24. Why on Earth would I think somebody was mocking those "researchers"?, zvi, August 4, 2009
  25. Inversion and parody, darkrose, September 3, 2009
  26. Protest art, Fandom, and NOT being homogeneous, ithiliana, September 3, 2009
  27. My thoughts on hentai, elf, September 3, 2009
  28. Various lacks of shame, cesare, September 3, 2009
  29. Bad research and fandom: Surveyfail; archive link by deadlychameleon, September 2, 2009
  30. How Not to Engage/Enrage Fandom in One Simple Lesson, September 3, 2009
  31. Internet Survey Sparks Outrage, September 4, 2009
  32. The curious case of the game show neuroscientists, or how NOT to research an online community, Alison MacLeod, September 3, 2009
  34. wrabbit. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam's new (old?) book, 28 November 2010
  35. lindenharp. Survey!Fail rides again, posted in ffr_discussion, 30 December 2010.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Donald Symons' review of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, June 10 2011 (accessed June 17 2011)
  37. Billion Wicked Thoughts on, accessed February 5, 2011
  38. Survey Fail Rides Again on i Wank, accessed February 5, 2011
  39. A Billion Made-Up Conclusions by Doctor Science, posted May 2, 2011, accessed June 18, 2011
  40. Category:Fail images - Fan History Wiki: The Fandom History Resource, Archived version ; Category:SurveyFail images - Fan History Wiki: The Fandom History Resource, Archived version