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Skin-Deep Ratings

Voyeuristic sites use cold numbers to feed our need to know whether the world finds us hot--or not.

April 05, 2001|CHRISTINE FREY | clfrey@aol.com

On the Web, beauty really is only skin deep--and it can be quantified to within a tenth of a point.

Some of the hottest Internet time wasters are clickable meat markets that allow users to post personal pictures and then have oglers worldwide rate their appearance on a scale of 1 to 10. Voyeuristic sites with bawdy addresses such as http://www.amihot.com and http://www.howmanywouldittake.com use the cold power of numbers to offer users an anonymous, objective and statistically accurate evaluation of their place in the pantheon of beautiful people.

Wonder whether anyone notices those extra pounds? They do.

That bad haircut? Yup.

The poofy prom dress? Oh, yeah.

These sites commoditize human beauty and turn an evolutionary instinct--the selection of a mate--into dorm-room entertainment. Don't look for deep human insight. What's on the inside doesn't matter. Critiques range from "She's basically a dog" to "Let's make hot babies."

"It's kind of like an incredibly low-pressure version of EBay and personal ads," said Theresa Senft, a doctoral candidate at New York University who specializes in the relationship between sexuality and technology. "The object you're putting on the market is yourself."

Online objectification is nothing new. The first dot-coms to make big bucks trafficked in human flesh. But unlike porn sites, these free rating sites feature hundreds of thousands of ordinary, mostly dressed folks eager to know whether the world finds them hot--or not.

An even larger number of visitors--the top sites boast millions of page views a day--fritter away time clicking on a constantly changing gallery of snapshots rendering instant verdicts about people they have never met--and probably never will.

"Since we [rate people] subconsciously, it gives you an out to do it," said Leah Younis, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Southern California, where rating sites are a popular way to put off studying. "You can people-watch from your computer."

Since the first rating site debuted more than a year ago, more than a dozen imitators have popped up on the Internet--from http://www.amigeekornot.com to others with less printable names--leading Yahoo to create a separate category in its search engine.

Human beings are biologically inclined to evaluate looks in their search for a partner, and relatively simple Web technology makes it possible to scope the scene without ever leaving home.

Daniel Roy, a 20-year-old Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore, created Amihot from his fraternity house last year to solve an age-old problem: "You can never find out how attractive you are to the opposite sex," said Roy, who grew up in Woodland Hills.

Keen to know, Roy put up the site with 20 photographs of his buddies. Today, more than 100,000 are online at any given moment. As the catalog of photos grew, so did the number of visitors. "It's not five guys sitting on a couch," said Roy, who earned a 7.8 on his site. "It's 50,000 guys sitting on a couch."

Amihot makes no bones about the fact that it's a meat market. In fact, it revels in it. A slab of steak, which contains the site's rating scale, accompanies each photograph. The "fresh meat" category displays the latest pictures added to the site. The "stockyard" holds the general collection of photographs. And when the site first launched, Roy even included a "rotten meat" category for the lowest-scoring individuals. He has since removed it.

Like most sites of its kind, Amihot displays one photograph at a time. When viewers select a rating for the photograph, a new one appears in the browser screen. The average rating for the previous individual is also posted--along with the number of votes cast.

Features vary by site. At Amihot, viewers can send messages--including pickup lines--to those whose photographs catch their attention. One recent example: "You made my day a whole lot better." At Hot or Not? (http://www.amihotornot.com), viewers can flag individuals whom they would like to meet, and if two people select each other separately, the site lets them exchange personal information.

After discovering the site a few months ago, USC student Younis and her two older brothers placed their photographs--and one of their father at age 19--on Hot or Not? as a joke. The results: Dad got the highest rating of all, a 9. One brother, pictured with a Mohawk, received the lowest, a 3.

Although Younis, who received a "7-something," did not take the scores seriously, her decision to subject herself to such scrutiny is reflective of human beings' need for affirmation, said NYU's Senft. Although family and friends probably hold a high opinion of you, it can be more gratifying when a stranger does because it is not expected.

"It's one thing to have your mother think that you should be able to get someone," said Senft, a 7 on Amihot. "It's another thing for the guys at the deli to think so."

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