Humans are deeply curious creatures. We are also a highly visual species - according to one neuroscientist, Kai Schreiber, a quarter to about a third of our neocortex is devoted to vision, which is significant in terms of brain mass, size, and the number of neurons. It should come as no surprise, then, that we express our curiosity in a visual way. Sometimes, though, this combination leads us in new, potentially unsavory, directions.

Recently, there has been some discussion surrounding Facebook and how there is a new program called "FalseFlesh" that allows you to take the face of a friend (or anyone) and paste it onto a naked body. As one reporter notes, this is hardly the first piece of software that has allowed us to do this - but what's unique is that FalseFlesh has been created only for this purpose. According to the company website, you can "in minutes transform any digital camera image, Facebook, or MySpace picture into full frontal nudity! Imagine being able to copy/paste pictures from Facebook or MySpace of girls you actually know into FalseFlesh."

It's obvious that the marketers are aiming at men who want to see their friends-who-are-girls, or other women in their lives, naked.

I couldn't help but read some of the testimonials. Some are supposedly written by women; for example, one sought to embarrass an ex-boyfriend by giving him a small FalseFlesh penis and then distributing the image. Many are written by men, though, and are quite graphic (excuse the pun): "I wanted to make this girl who works with me have bigger breasts than she actually did and also give her a lot more pubic hair than she actually probably really has." "My girlfriend has a really smoking hot younger sister. I had always been quite curious about what her sister looked like naked. FalseFlesh let me do just this with a picture I had of us at the beach and also stay out of trouble with the GF haha"

As a university professor, this one was a slight jolt: "I'm an undergrad at UCLA, and last semester I had a professor for one of my psychology classes who was just gorgeous. Even though she was in her mid-thirties her body was just perfect. I copied the picture she had up on her syllabus webpage to use with FF. The results were even better than I expected."

Then, this gem: "We have the really uptight boss at work. Even though she is really a bitch, she definitely has the ASSETS. Basically she turned down every guy that even approached her. After I got FalseFlesh I immediately tried it out on a photo I had of her from some conference. When I printed it and showed it to my buddy, he actually though I had hooked up with her!"

There are many reasons why this phenomenon is noteworthy and disturbing. As reporter Amanda Marcotte suggests, these images could find their way out into the world and inflict harm. There is the obvious ethics problem here, too, and the infringement of privacy. Then there is the ‘ick factor' whereby women who post photographs to their profiles for platonic, or perhaps narcissistic purposes, come to realize that men in their lives - their platonic friends, co-workers, bosses, and dare I say relatives, - might use them in a sex fantasy, complete with manufactured nude photographs. I note that the same holds true for men who are subjects, although I wonder if many men would have the same reaction to women at being the target of a sexual fantasy.

I personally, though, found it intriguing that Facebook - a place where we ‘friend' our....well...friends, would be involved.

Mikolaj Jan Piskorski, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, talked about the empirical evidence related to social networking sites like Facebook. He was interested in why people spend the time they do on these sites and found that the answer was photographs. "Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people's profiles." Perhaps more surprising, though, was that, "The biggest usage categories are men looking at women they don't know, followed by men looking at women they do know. Women look at other women they know. Overall, women receive two-thirds of all page views."

He interprets his findings in terms of social norms. In an effort to explain men looking at women the do not know, he found that men, including many who are in relationships, are looking at these women because it's an easy way to see if anyone might be a better match. Sites such as Facebook allow us to ‘innocently' explore that option. As for looking intently at the profiles of our friends, in American (and Canadian) society, we're not supposed to ogle our friends - it breaks a social norm. But with Facebook, we can download the photograph and look at it for as long as we want, and as many times as we want, without them ever knowing.

I'm not saying that software such as FlashFlesh is causing these trends. People have been looking at their ‘friends' on Facebook for years now, and data such as these suggest that men have been fantasizing about women they know using this site. As one reporter writes, men like the real women they know on Facebook as an alternative to the fakeness of pornography. But programs such as FlashFlesh begin to blur that distinction, pushing that line, and rather than it involving people who hopefully have given consent (i.e., those working in the porn industry), it involves people we have social, and perhaps professional, ties to in the real world. That is disturbing, to say the least.

You are reading

Love's Evolver

The Science Behind Falling in Love

Ever wonder why the sky is bluer when falling in love?

Inducing Jealousy to Get Your Mate's Attention

Making a mate jealous is a risky strategy to get attention.

Sex in the Springtime

In spring, people are more prone to want love and sex?