Porn 2.0

I am a regular listener and sometimes guest on NPR’s On the Media, which does a great job of covering new developments in news and civic media. One recent segment, featuring an interview with Regina Lynn, the sex and technology correspondent for Wired.com, caught my attention.

The segment started with the oft-repeated claims that pornographers might be regarded as lead users of any new communications technologies, being among the first to test its capacities as they attempt to construct a new interface with consumers. We might add that pornography is at the center of the controversy surrounding any new media as the public adjusts to the larger shifts in the ways an emerging medium shapes our relations to time and space or transforms the borders between public and private.

The Medium Is the Message?

Indeed, I have long used pornography as an example to explain Marshall McLuhan’s famous line, “the medium is the message,” suggesting that the evolution of pornography can show us how different media can change our relationship to the same (very) basic content.

The word, pornography, originally referred to the writing of prostitutes. Prostitutes were among the first women to learn to write so that they could record their sexual experiences and pass them along to their johns, who would use these handwritten manuscripts to remember and relive their encounters. With the rise of print, these accounts could be mass produced and distributed, allowing people to vicariously experience the sexual encounters of others and creating a celebrity culture around particular authors. With the lowering of the costs of print, these stories circulated even further, reaching the lowest segments of society (indeed, becoming associated with the poorest of the poor and sometimes speaking from and to their perspectives.) Several historians have described how this cheap porn (especially representations of the imagined sexual proclivities of the elite classes) helped to spark revolutionary zeal in the working classes. Having read vivid fantasies which treated the Queen as if she were a common prostitute, these tales encouraged them to see the royal body not as untouchable but as debased.

Jump forward in time and consider what happens to pornography with the rise of photography: the movement from text to images, the ability to look “directly” as the naked bodies of total strangers or to record and preserve your own nude body or that of your loved ones (thus changing people’s sense of their own sexual agency or allowing them to preserve the bodies of their youth from the impact of aging.) Or consider what happens with the addition of movement to the pornographic image — or for that matter, the different relationship between public and private created around the male-only or male-mostly spaces where early pornographic films are consumed. Or consider what happens with the addition of video, whether as a tool of production (again, furthering the evolution of amateur pornography or lowering costs in a way which allowed new groups to enter the space) or consumption (enabling people to consume moving images in the privacy of their homes and thus paving the way for a couples market around porn). And more recently still, there has been the addition of digital porn (which has lowered even further the risks of being caught accessing or consuming erotic images).

For a good documentary series which traces the connections between pornography and media history (produced by the BBC no less), check out The Secret History of Civilization.

Porn and Disruptive Technologies

The On the Media segment took all of this back story as given and wanted to explore what is happening to pornography in the era of Web 2.0. Here’s how Lynn describes how web 2.0 software (based on social networks and user-generated or manipulated content) might reshape our relationship with pornography:

Anything from rating the content, allowing users to take existing content and mash it up and create new movies and things, contests – you know, everybody make a minute-and-a-half porn movie out of all of this material. They add a bit of play and a bit of game and just a lot of interaction into it. I mean, it’s basically taking porn and making it relationships.

But, in fact, she argues, the porn industry has been very slow to move in this direction:

For the main industry, it’s really hard to incorporate that because you’ve got to think a whole new way. You have to think of your users with respect and as sort of partners in the whole experience versus sheep that you’re fleecing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I was just wondering if there’s something about the culture of porn that sort of works against community-building. I mean, I guess we always think of consumers of adult content as preferring anonymity and solitude.

REGINA LYNN: You can have community and a certain level of anonymity, because you’re not out there with your Social Security number on the site. You’re out there with your handle and your online self.

As they talk about the challenges of enabling a new kind of relationship between consumers and porn content, Gladstone and Lynn discuss a range of economic, creative, social, and legal obstacles, powerfully illustrating the ways that existing culture re-asserts itself in the face of potentially disruptive technologies. What emerges here is not the typical account of the porn industry as transgressive or experimental but also as deeply conservative, unwilling to change encrusted practices, and in that regard, no different from any other sector of our society (education or government, say).


When Women Make Porn…

A second interesting set of observations in the interview, however, suggests that gender constitutes a significant factor shaping the relationship between content producers and consumers:

If you want to build community in adult spaces, look to the women. The independent websites that women put together where they are the performers and they do the whole thing on their own as maybe their home-based business are all based on community and have been for more than 10 years – talking to their fans, talking to the visitors, building relationships with the fans, who then bring in other people and who then stick around. I know one Webcam performer who has had the same members for seven or eight years.

Here, Lynn’s comments closely parallel some of the cliches about male and female fans which have run through our ongoing discussions about Gender and Fan Culture: the male fan as socially isolated, the female fan as relationship-oriented.

Porn and the Generation Gap

A third interesting idea to emerge from the interview has to do with an emerging generational divide in expectations about our relationship to porn, which parallels similarly claims being made elsewhere about the so-called “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do porn sites really suffer or pay a penalty for being slow to adapt to this new evolving online world?

REGINA LYNN: I think they will. If you think of today’s 12-to-17-year-olds who have not yet looked at porn, when they turn 18 and they look at their very first adult content, this is a generation who is so used to having complete participation and control in their media that if the adult industry continues to just sort of put out content that’s intended to be watched passively, they’re going to lose this entire generation.

Hmm. The biggest problem with this argument is that it takes as given the legal fiction that teens do not consume pornography. But if most current research is accurate, most teens have at least some contact with pornographic images on the internet and many of them become avid consumers well before they reach legal age. (Most teens of my generation were reduced to examining ancient back issues of Playboy salvaged from their father’s underwear drawers, thus learning about sex and hyprocrisy at the same time.) We can argue that porn may not satisfy their expectations for interactivity, immersion, and participation, but it probably isn’t true that they are going to encounter it first in adulthood and be bored then. They may simply become the primary purchaser of porn when they turn 18.

User-Generated Porn

Unfortunately, the interview ignores the fact that there is and has always been a large sector involved in user-generated porn content — and I am not just talking about erotic fiction (whether produced by the fan community or the large number of women’s erotic writing groups that emerged from Second and Third Wave feminism).

Consider redclouds.com (for hardcore content) and voyeur.com (for nudity without explicit sex), which every day publish sets of amateur produced pornographic photographs. (I am not linking to such sites or using sexually charged language here out of concern that my blog may get filtered from schools and public libraries. But you won’t have trouble finding such sites on your own if you are so determined.)

The rise of digital cameras makes it easy for people to produce and share such images, uploading them to the web. The cameras built into mobile phones has helped to increase the number of images which get quickly snapped in public places, such as images of women flashing in shopping malls or parking lots. Indeed, these sites have whole areas devoted to such exhibitionist images (with extra value attached to those where there are bystanders caught by surprised by the spontaneous erotic spectacle). Of course, the wide spread availability of Photoshop and other digital manipulation tools makes it a real challenge to distinguish those pictures actually taken in public spaces from those which are digital composites, exhibitionistic fantasies, created in the safety of domestic space. As cell phone cameras become so commonplace and taking pictures becomes harder to distinguish from other uses of these same technologies, there has also been a troubling increase in photographs shot without the awareness of the subject so shots taken of strangers sunbathing on nude beaches or in their own backyards become another large theme for such sites.

Like many other web 2.0 enterprises, the site stimulates productivity by running contests, soliciting certain kinds of images, and deploying viewers to rank the results, all in the name of what are, at the end of the day, fairly modest cash prizes. More recently, voyeur.com launched a Wiki, which defines various sexual acts, and encourages readers to submit illustrations to support the evolving definitions.

Pornography is often criticized for the commodification of sexual experience — but these porn 2.0 sites complicate this argument. Certainly, the owners of such sites use them to generate revenue (the same problem many of us have with the economics of other web 2.0 practices) but the photographers and models don’t get paid unless they win contests. Many of them see the photographs in the context of gift exchange — sharing themselves with others in their community or posing for and taking pictures as tokens of sexual and romantic feelings within a relationship. These sites may function as social networks through which photographers and models can find each other, getting together to take new pictures, and often documenting such occasions with collective images which in turn get shared back to the group as a whole.

Another common criticism of pornography is the objectification of women. this issue doesn’t go away in porn 2.0 but it gets more complicated as women take greater control over the production and circulation of their images. The images often run with tags from their creators and models, describing what they felt or why they created these images, and thus reintroducing subjectivity into the equation. Certain amateur models create their own fan followings, correspond directly with their fans, and creating images based on requests from the community. All of this brings pornography back into the realm of social relations as compared to the anonymous images that circulate in commercial pornography.

User-generated porn also has broadened the range of bodies which might be seen as sexually attractive. While such sites often give special recognition to women who fall within the same physical range as dominates commercial pornography, there is tolerance and even enthusiasm for women who don’t match those norms. The participants are overwhelming white (and non-white models tend to be exoticized) but the site embraces women who are plump or even overweight, who may be considerably more mature than you are apt to find in men’s magazines. On these sites, women often assert their rights as models to feel sexy even if nobody wants to look at their pictures. Indeed, this sense of self determination in sexual representation becomes a central theme of the goth and post-feminist Suicide Girls website. The Boston Phoenix wrote about this group of women as “the naked sorority,” a phrase which captures the very different emotional, political, and social context within which they operate from what we have traditionally understood as the porn industry.

All of this points to some of the claims which people have made about web 2.0: that it will result in a diversification of the culture as more people share content, that it will enable people to feel more personal stakes in the culture that they consume, and that it will add an important social dimension to the circulation of media content. Once again, using porn as a base line, we can see how shifts in media impact the culture that surrounds us.

I don’t mean to white wash this process. Nothing about this is going to be reassuring if you see the production and circulation of pornographic images as itself a deeply problematic practice. There are still very real questions about consent surrounding these images, especially those which are taken of unwilling strangers, and there are certainly questions about how aggressively these sites police for under-aged participants. Whatever the context of their production, these images still circulate in a culture defined by the sexual exploitation of women and thus they can be read in those terms even when, in the case of Suicide Girls, there is an explicitly feminist project surrounding the site.

Yet, I think we can learn a fair amount about the ways that web 2.0 technologies are impacting our culture by examining how they function within the shadow culture/economy of porn.

For those of you who would like to read more of Regina Lynn’s thoughts on this topic, you can read the article which inspired the On the Media interview here.

Comments

  1. What I found striking about the comment that ‘if the adult industry continues to just sort of put out content that’s intended to be watched passively, they’re going to lose this entire generation’ is that it seems tacitly to deny by implication an understanding of pornographic viewing as already a substitute (i.e. for sex) anyway; fair enough, but if we grant that as a suppressed premise then the porn industry appears to face basically the same challenges as other ‘traditional’ producers of e.g. motion pictures (except for the additional legal hurdles). That calls into question the point of the interview. So even within its internal logic there maybe isn’t a stable conception of what’s going on in the process of using pornography.

  2. Alice Marwick says:

    I don’t necessarily think the porn industry has been slow to adapt to the Web 2.0 aesthetic. Instead, what’s happened is a HUGE explosion in amateur porn, which is extremely participatory and reciprocal and embodies all the other cultural logics of Web 2.0. It has also given rise to a wide variety of fetishes, most of which would never have been considered financially viable enough in the US for adult porn companies to bother with (e.g. hentai). The adult industry has scrambled to catch up, and they have a hard time competing with all the free stuff out there, but “amateur” is now a category on most major porn sites and there are plenty of movies/videos released by adult distributors who cater to popular internet subcategories. There is a good netporn reader called C’lickMe due to be released this year, I think; it includes an interview with Sergio Messina, who calls amateur fetish porn “realcore” and has spent quite some time studying it. He has a website about his project (NSFW) http://realcore.radiogladio.it/

  3. Dave Rickey says:

    Am I the only one that looks at the bandwidth consumption curves that show porn sites dropping and social networking sites going up, and all of the girls on MySpace whose avatars have them in schoolgirl costumes and all their friends are either guys, or other hot girls in costume, and thinks that it is blindingly obvious that porn is already, quietly, making the “Web 2.0″ shift?

    Or maybe it’s just my deeply cynical nature finding it hard to believe that millions of men have suddenly lost their taste for porn in favor of social networking.

    What’s happened to the web porn industry is the ultimate in disintermediation, it’s no longer an industry. Just a cloud of independents, operating below the radar.

    –Dave