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Issue № 112

The Devil His Due: What Online Porn Portends

by Published in Business, State of the Web

Immorality and entertainment may be reluctant bedfellows, but partnered they are.  As goes the porn industry, so goes entertainment generally and technology-based entertainment in particular. Yahoo, to keep its halo, made a bad business decision when it disowned its porn offspring.  Despite Yahoo’s denigration of porn, the online adult industry is a bellwether pointing to where the web is going.

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The online adult industry leads the B2C marketplace.  On the web’s ghost-town Main Street, populated with derelict online storefronts, the Porn Saloon is still open and still doing good business (though not as good as before).  Given that success in our culture is associated with making money, the online adult industry is showing the rest of the industry a possible path to online success.

Designers, developers, and site owners can learn from the porn industry. Not from its generally ridiculous branding and graphics, but rather from its affiliate programs, technology, and customer service.

SACRED AND PROFANE

In 1999, for an article in The Industry Standard, I did an AltaVista search based on the terms, “porn” and “god.”  The two terms scored a near dead heat, each ringing in with around six million websites.

A similar search today produces startlingly different results.  “God“ still scores around six-million-plus web pages.  “Porn,” however, produces a relatively steady page count of 3 million.  Yet, “sex” remains the top search term on Google and porn the single most profitable consumer sector on the Web.

This contradiction signifies a rapid consolidation of the porn industry, one that will someday be faced by the entire web industry.

STRANGE BEDFELLOWS

The 3-million web pages are misleading: a few large distributors, with names as familiar as Hustler, as graphic as PornHolio, and as mundane as Global Intermedia, now supply most of the content populating the porn universe.

Most porn sites, filters and protections notwithstanding, are readily accessible to the determined investigator. The “tours” these sites offer enable prospective subscribers to preview website contents before becoming paying customers.

The tours are dismayingly similar.  They offer the same content and services, vended from the same distributors. On that level, the danger these sites pose isn’t so much moral corruption as boredom.

This consolidation risks deadening the online porn industry.  For the most part, “erotic” sites offering personal perspectives or unique treatments of material have already disappeared.  What’s left is the porn equivalent of a typical sitcom – in syndication.

DULL AS DIRT

The unwary subscriber will pay good money – often $25 to $40 a month or more – for antique galleries of pictures, “streaming video” that runs on has-been platforms like Vivo and Geo, and ridiculously hackneyed online games.  The only things that differentiate most of these sites are their URLs and graphical treatments – neither of which is particularly inspiring.  Essentially, the majority of porn sites are clones.

Many distributors are content to drive traffic to these lackluster websites from well advertised, no-charge satellite sites (usually featuring tame photos).  Search engine placement is everything.  This is an important marketing innovation, but in terms of quality of user experience, the results are still deadly dull.

Porn sites tell uninspiring narratives.  Their art is in their software engineering.

BIG PIPES

It’s well known among adult industry marketers that porn aficionados continually require fresh content.  To satisfy this craving, “progressive” porn producers and distributors are spending millions to upgrade their websites.  The topics they cover haven’t changed since Adam and Eve, but their technologies are impressive and indicative of where the web is going.

For example, the visual and auditory ingenuity that progressive porn sites deliver presages favorable developments in the mainstream.  Progressive porn’s streaming media, whizzing along at 300+ KB, exceeds in quality almost anything available on more conventional websites. Given how many users they serve, the scalability and reliability of these sites is remarkable.

Industry analysts often claim that pricey content and current difficulties in acquiring broadband service will suppress the growth of online entertainment.  Porn’s online status belies this argument.

Porn uses expensive technology, yet its margins (if not its content) remain admirable.  Porn’s success on this count will delight the advocates of rich media and features-on-demand, who never got a chance with the now-failed catalog stores to demonstrate their capabilities.

AT YOUR SERVICE

Porn is innovating in another important way.  Customer service is good – usually personal, often immediate.  Porn’s pioneering customer-service technology, once limited to credit-card payment, now also employs personal funds-transfer and telephone subscription methods. 

Unfortunately, the online adult industry’s email and viral marketing techniques leave much to be, er, desired.  The industry uses too much spam and risks backlash and regulation around the world.  Unscrupulous purveyors have all but reduced the infamous “alt.sex” newsgroups to useless piles of digital dreck.  The more responsible vendors, however, are starting to adopt opt-in strategies less likely to reach children and their properly outraged parents.

The proof is in the pudding: adult website subscribers continue to sign up in droves, paying big dollars on a recurring basis, supporting a business reportedly grossing upwards of $2 billion each year.

These lessons have not been lost on conventional publishers.  Pay-per-view may have been the adult industry’s invention, but today it’s mainstream executives who are touting its benefits.

COMING EVENTS

So what can we expect of tomorrow’s web entertainment, based on this Porno’s Progress?

If the porn model is a valid forecaster, playing on the web will become a splashier but costlier affair managed by a very few, very large corporations. The online content industry will become much more centralized. Surviving entities, most likely the same entertainment companies that dominate the media today, may offer higher-quality features, but at substantially increased prices, often on a pay-per-view basis.

As a result, many individuals may never cross over to the land of rich-media milk and honey.  The public web will become a bifurcated environment.  Most users will be relegated to cruising the mainstream equivalent of porn’s banal “free” sites, where old and dubious content reigns.  Wealthy individuals and company workers will do much better.  The populations of haves and have-nots will be much more clearly defined, with the have-nots growing to include most middle-income families in America.

ON THE FRINGE

Hope lives eternal.

At the margins of the porn industry, small entrepreneurs continue to improvise and improve on the user experience.  They face formidable costs of entry, but among the sizable web underground that follows such things (on, for example, various hacker websites), these beacons of creativity are legend and are growing in numbers.  They suggest that even as the mainstream consolidates and homogenizes, there will be novelty always percolating on the margins, if one knows where to look for it.

Diversity will continue to live on the Internet, but on a shoestring.  Give the Devil his due.

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