Having covered porn for years, I always struggled with how to explain why porn stories weren’t just fringe events, solely for exotic and prurient interest; to explain that it some way, porn is society. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider that in a country with 300 million people, PornHub’s network (more on that in a second) receives 280 million impressions a day. Despite this, paradoxically, and despite its occasional flirtations with the mainstream (Sasha Grey, James Deen), the prospect of porn ever going mainstream like people assumed it would in the ’70s (see: Deep Throat, The Deuce) has mostly been put to bed.
It’s the cognitive dissonance story of our time. For as long as I covered it, I could never quite nail the elevator pitch. That is, not until I heard The Butterfly Effect, a new seven-part podcast from Audible, written and produced by Jon Ronson.
In 2015, Ronson, a British journalist, published So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, becoming one of few prominent journalists to examine internet culture and its effect on the larger world in a way that goes beyond the usual sensationalism or techno-utopianism. In The Butterfly Effect, Ronson turns that same keen eye on the porn world. Which is to say, on the world-world.
Specifically, Ronson examines how a key event — in this case the advent of free porn, in the form of PornHub and the other tube sites — has had ripple effects that changed not only the porn industry but almost every facet of society.
“As soon as we went to the valley and I started learning about the consequences of this one event,” Ronson says. “Some of the consequences you can imagine: You’re going to get people going out of business, and you’re going to get porn actors going into escorting to pay the rent.
“But then I heard about these other consequences that were so much more unexpected. Like the way that search engine optimization has taken over the industry. All the films have to be called things like ‘Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy,’ because they have to pile as many searchable terms into their titles. And then that has an impact not only the titles but the films themselves. And then that has this incredible impact on people who aren’t keyword searchable, like the 25-year-old adult film actress, who is too old to be a teen and too young to be a MILF. That’s such a resonant consequence, because I think that’s the internet all over.”
In order to understand how this came to be, you need a bit of background on what Pornhub is, how it works, and how it changed everything. And that all goes back to a tech nerd from Brussels named Fabian Thylmann.
“Fabian had this brainwave that porn was like a lamb to the slaughter,” Ronson says. “Somebody with tech expertise could just swoop in and take over, so the way that Fabian went about doing that is he bought PornHub off these brothers, and then he managed to convince a hedge fund to give him this $362 million loan to basically take over the industry. PornHub was already killing all the mom-and-pop businesses, and they were all panicking because their stuff had all been pirated on PornHub, so Fabian came in and bought all these companies at cut-price rates.”
Those “brothers,” in turn, were Ouissam Youssef and Stephane Manos, along with a few other friends, Middle Eastern-Canadians from Montreal who met future SEO guru Matt Keezer on the competitive foosball circuit while attending Concordia University. Together they started some porn sites in 2003, one of which would become future porn giant Brazzers. The name “Brazzers” itself comes from the slangy, Arabicized pronunciation of “brothers.”
“They invented PornHub, but they found it really stressful because their parents… They were from quite a religious Muslim family, I think,” Ronson says. “I may be wrong about that, but in any case, when their parents came to visit them in the office, they didn’t know that they were running PornHub. Everyone had to shut off their computers if their parents ever came to visit.”
That wasn’t the only reason. Brazzers initially downplayed their association with PornHub, which had quickly come to be hated by people in the adult industry for hosting pirated content.
“Brazzers quickly came to be viewed by its many industry critics as an almost The Firm–like criminal corporation,” read a New York magazine feature from 2011. “On GFY [GoFuckYourself.com, an industry forum] the founders were scorned as ‘thieves,’ ‘a cancer,’ and ‘foosball faggots.’ At trade shows they kept a low profile. ‘They’d probably get their asses beat,’ says Jason Quinlan, from LordsOfPorn.com.”
By the time I got to the AVN Awards in 2014, that was no longer true. People in the adult industry had already started to figure out that PornHub and co. were fast becoming the only game in town.
Whatever the combination of reasons, the Brazzers/PornHub guys were itching to cash out just as Thylmann was trying to buy his way in. Manos and Youssef called their parent company “ManSef,” which they sold to Thylmann in 2010, who renamed it the unintentionally apt portmanteau “ManWin.” ManWin in turn became “MindGeek.” As of 2014, MindGeek owned eight of the top 10 porn sites on the internet*, with the exception of xHamster and XVideos (who are owned by separate knots of foreign shell companies that as yet no one has been able to untangle).
Essentially, tube sites made vast sums of money on stolen content, then used that money, along with access to even vaster venture capital, to buy up competitors and corner the market, forcing everyone in the industry to either play ball, find a new niche, or go out of business. And thus, an industry in which most of the people producing the actual content couldn’t even open a checking account (based on a long-held, cockamaimie theory that other customers might take their money out if they found out a porn star was doing business there) came to be dominated almost completely by a tech guy who’d never been on a porn set before. Crony capitalism at its finest.
“It is extraordinary when you think about it,” Ronson says. “It’s like Walmart coming into a town, and Walmart customers would steal groceries from the shelves of the Mom and Pop companies, and then Walmart would then buy up the mom and pop companies at cut-price. They were desperate to sell because all their stuff had been stolen and shoved on the shelves at Walmart. I mean, that’s the analogy.”
At a certain point, analogies fail, but the point is, one of the world’s biggest industries is currently controlled by one of the world’s biggest monopolies. Cognitive dissonance aside, hopefully you’re already beginning to see the parallels between this story and the larger economy.
“Manwin is a tech company,” Thylmann said during an industry speech in 2012, putting a finer point on it.
And these days, anything from mattress sales to taxi cabs can be considered a tech company, depending on how much disrupting they’re doing, backed by how much venture capital.
The initial promise of the internet was to democratize content and commerce, and for a while, it did. But increasingly, the producers of that content are beginning to matter less and less, while a few gatekeepers who control the most convenient way to access to that content — Facebook, Google, Amazon, Spotify, iTunes, etc. — can dictate whatever price content creators would have to take. They’re just that convenient to the consumer. Porn, which initially lagged behind the rest of the economy — YouTube predated PornHub — has now steamed ahead, becoming one of the most egregious examples of this kind of market structure. Which makes The Butterfly Effect not just a lurid story about porn, but potentially a cautionary tale.
“When I started writing a book about public shaming,” Ronson says, “people were like, ‘Oh, do you really want to write something about tech? Tech’s so boring. Nobody cares about tech. No-one’s thinking about it. It’s just dull. The internet is not the real world.’ I remember, somebody actually said that to me in about 2012.”