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How Data Changed Porn Forever

Through adding data and tech expertise porn today is unrecognizable

6Nov

When we think of a porn company we think of sleaze and manipulation. We think about cheap strip malls and low-fi houses packed full of perverts and con men. We think of the worst people in society who exploit women to make money. However, in today's world this is only a small fraction of the industry. With the increase in the availability of porn online it is less of a vice and more of a generally accepted fact of life.

Porn is so prevalent that two neuroscientists, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam, found that in 2012 around 13% of all web searches involved porn, while the total number of porn websites account for 5-15% of all sites on the internet. This is a huge number considering that there are over 1 billion websites currently live, but when you consider that Pornhub, the world's largest porn website, had 23 billion visits in 2016 alone, the numbers suddenly start to make much more sense.

It is, in fact, down to one man, Fabian Thylmann and his data-droven approach, that the porn industry has hit these numbers and why free pornography is now available across the entire internet.

In the late 1990s, Thylmann created NATs, a software that is essentially the framework through which pay per click advertising operates and allows content owners to be paid commission when people click the adverts on their websites. With the money he earned from this he bought Mansef, a Montreal based adult website company who had just created Pornhub. Using his technology to track clicks and through exploiting the slow-moving traditional porn industry, he allowed users to upload their videos, which were almost all stolen from the original creators and then make money from the adverts that ran alongside them.

Instead of hiring people who really liked porn and who fitted the stereotyped view of what you needed to be to work in the porn industry, Thylmann instead looked to hire the brightest and best tech talent from Montreal to build the site. Through a clear separation between those in the office and those creating the actual content. In an interview, Brandon Reti, Director of Mobile at the time, said 'The content was filmed in the valley and never Montreal, and there was really a separation there which I think was really a good thing...I don't think they would have been able to recruit as many people as they did if people were really on set. You were hiring tech nerds, you were hiring people to program, you were hiring people to do data analysis, you were hiring business intelligence analysts, you were hiring designers.' According to Fabian, who has now left the company, 'If you walk into their offices today, unless you stumbled on the wrong floor, you would not notice what they do.' This doesn't sound like a run of the mill porn company and this approach meant that this business went from being a smut peddler to an incredibly diverse and tech-driven machine that sees more traffic than ESPN and CNN put together.

This transformation came from looking at porn in a way that had not really been done before. The company took an approach that saw them extensively A/B test content for individuals and categorize each video in specific searchable terms. It meant that people could instantly find exactly what they were looking for because the work done by the Pornhub data team had put exactly what they wanted to see in front of them or at least made it really simple to find.

Whilst all this was happening, the number of people paying for porn was rapidly decreasing, so the traditional big studios were losing huge numbers of customers. This is not a surprise because films being released by these companies were almost instantly uploaded to sharing sites like Pornhub, where anybody could watch them for free. It created yet another area for Fabian to exploit and after receiving a $320 million loan, he bought up most of the biggest studios and distributors in the industry.

With this move, it meant that the company could look at the huge amount of data being collected and see the kinds of things that people were interested in and then create movies to suit these needs in their newly acquired studios. Through making the content easily searchable, putting what people wanted in front of them, and then creating the movies they wanted to see, this data-driven approach has fundamentally changed the industry forever.

However, one thing it has done is concentrate the money into fewer pockets, with the actors being paid very little, leaving them open to exploitation in other ways. For instance, where creating porn was previously the way they made most of their money, now according to a Louis Theroux investigation, many women are forced to turn to prostitution or live webcam shows with the videos they make being seen as little more than advertisements for these other riskier jobs.

In addition to that, the prevalence of easily findable pornography is having a profoundly negative impact on society, especially amongst the younger generations. According to the Digital Kids Initiative the average age that children are now exposed to porn is 11 years old and the NSPCC reports that about 53% of 11- to 16-year-olds have seen explicit material online and that 28% of these had initially accessed it accidentally after clicking a pop-up ad. This, in turn, has created an unrealistic expectation of sex amongst many young people, which both damages their relationships at the time and in the future.

Ultimately what we have seen in porn over the past decade has been similar to what we've seen in other industries that have had a data-revolution, but with one company being so dominant that they shaped the entire industry to their will. With other industries like e-commerce and music, this has made what we want easier to access and more convenient for everybody. The same could be said of porn, but the impacts of the product on both those who over use it and those who create it seem to have been so much worse.

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