With innovation, porn beats tech to the punch

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Thank NSFW sites for many of the features internet users take for granted, says Droga5 at SXSW.

There are streaming videos embedded on this page. They aren't porn, but they were made possible by porn. 

In 1994, a Dutch porn company called Red Light District created one of the first internet-based video streaming services. It helped pave the way for CNN’s groundbreaking streaming news videos a year later, and the creation of YouTube a decade after that.

"Porn arrives at ideas faster than other industries," said Michael Bucchino, senior interactive producer at Droga5, speaking at the "Open Sourcing Data and Porn" panel at the SXSW Conference. The industry takes risks that others are often afraid to or lack the finances to try. But the online experience would be much less entertaining—and lucrative—without the innovations pioneered by porn.

Before the major online ad networks had been created, internet porn producers needed to find a way to monetize their photos and videos, Bucchino said, and it needed to be a method customers would trust. That led to the development of online payment options—the first real-time credit card verification software was used to sell the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape. 

Instant messaging grew out of viewers’ desire to request sex acts from their favorite performers. Online video consumption (much of it pornography) fueled demand for larger screen sizes on mobile devices. And the refinement of search engine optimization techniques grew out of the study of the very specific kinds of keywords porn viewers use to locate their favorite videos.

The techniques have been wildly successful for the industry. In 2016, a single porn website—PornHub—delivered 91.9 billion online videos over the course of 23 billion site visits, according to data Bucchino received from PornHub. In that one year, it served 3,000 petabytes of data, with a combined runtime of 5,200 centuries.

That kind of success enables a different kind of marketing philosophy. "Don’t accommodate search trends," Bucchino said PornHub VP Corey price told him. "Dictate them."

Not every new technology created by the porn industry enhances the user experience. Porn sites proliferated the use of pop-up ads to increase time on site. And in the early days of the internet, disreputable porn companies would snatch up lapsed domain names and hold them for ransom until the original owner paid up. Those who refused to pay found their customers redirected to very NSFW websites. But that did push browser developers to create safeguards against domain name hijacking. 

The internet is no longer the Wild West, it’s a staple of modern life, and porn companies are maturing along with it. They’re expanding their appeal beyond the traditional white, male, able-bodied, heterosexual demographic. Closed captioning for deaf viewers is becoming commonplace on porn videos, and voiceover descriptions of sex scenes have begun rolling out. Blind people like pornography, too. 

But porn sites are also becoming unlikely philanthropists, Bucchino said. Women in Republican-leaning states search for porn at higher rates than other states, in part because they lack other options for sexual education. When the Utah legislature rejected a bill last month that would have let parents opt out of abstinence-only sex education for their children, the porn site xHamster began redirecting all traffic from Utah to a series of non-pornographic sex ed videos.

PornHub itself has hired Laurie Betito, a clinical psychologist and sex therapist, to run its new Sexual Wellness Center, which launched Feb. 1. The site features advice on love and sex, healthy relationships, reproductive health and sexually transmitted diseases.

Though it may seem outside the traditional purview of a porn site, it’s in keeping with PornHub’s brand positioning, Price said. "Give people what they want so they search for it."

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