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When capitalism and a coup d’etat changed the User Experience of porn : MindGeek and marketing

When capitalism and a coup d’etat changed the User Experience of porn by Nahúm García

MindGeek and marketing

Credits

Writer Nahúm García

Illustrator Silent James

This article is provided free of charge. Sometimes we make an issue item free because we feel the message is more important than the commerce. Enjoy!

During an evening in the autumn of 1990, I was with my sister and my mother in our cozy living room when my father arrived with a new gadget he was excited to set up. When he took it out of the package, it was a shiny, silver big box with JVC's letters at the front. That was our first VCR, and it was no coincidence that by that time, the first paid TV channel had just arrived in Spain, and my father subscribed right away.

Canal+, founded in France, was an ambitious project that, compared to public TV at the time, looked like it came from the future. Quality magazines, movie premieres, and adult content. The channel's brand design was later considered a case study for its finesse and modern style. The monthly subscription was not cheap, around $20 a month (equivalent to $40 today) plus a $100 deposit for the decoder. In the beginning, Canal+ was broadcasting using the analog terrestrial signal, so they had to agree with the government to broadcast noncodified content for 6 hours a day. Anyone could tune in their signal on any TV, but only if you were a paying subscriber with a decoder, could you watch the premium content. I liked to watch some TV after dinner in my room because I had the luxury of having an old one for myself. But the Canal+ decoder was placed in the living room, so when the magazine ended around 10 pm, the image became a black and white blur and the audio a robotic, unintelligible sound. We used to joke that if you closed your eyes just enough, you could more or less understand what was happening on the screen. That mess is how I first watched porn, and I'm sure many people from my generation in Spain would say the same.

Porn at that time was not easy to get, especially if you lived in a small town. First of all, you had to find a place that sold it or rented it, but even if you had such a place near, most people didn't want to be seen getting porn because of the stigma around it. They looked for more discreet ways of consuming it. Bootlegged movies were typical already, but when someone from my group of friends could get a videotaped movie, that would become an event. But when Canal+ arrived, it was easier to justify paying for porn, it just came included in the package, and now people could record the movies each weekend with their VCRs. Suddenly, some of us only had it a bit easier to watch it.

Fast forward 20 years and any teenager with a crappy smartphone can access all the porn in the world, entirely classified by type, two taps away with no restrictions. That's if their parents aren't tech-savvy enough to restrict adult content on their phones. What happened?

The porn industry has always been on top of innovations that could help distribute static images and video. When videotapes came out, up to 75% of the tapes sold were porn, and the wide availability in VHS might have been key to the format's victory over Sony's Beta. When cable TV came out, one of the main selling points was porn. When the internet came out, the porn industry helped create online payments, e-commerce, video streaming, and subscription business models. Also, because of their vast bandwidth demands, porn pushed the technological limitations to develop the modern, fast internet connections we enjoy now. Maybe with some hiccups along the way, but we could say that the porn industry was soaring with every new technological revolution. Not only did they succeed in adapting to it, but they were also pioneers.

In the first decades of the internet, for the porn industry, the business was simple, you were supposed to pay for the content upfront, and the cash was flowing. Also, if you had a credit card, it meant you were old enough to watch it. That business model solved two problems at the same time. But in the mid-2000s, a new era for digital services was arriving.

In 2006, an unknown Swedish startup called Spotify launched their service, putting millions of songs one click away to anybody with an account, for free. Netflix also launched their streaming platform, and now it feels almost incredible to think they used to send DVDs via postal service. That was also the year we all started talking about "freemium" services, which were free to use, sometimes ad-supported, that offered premium tiers for a monthly fee after gaining enough user base. There was this feeling like the world had suddenly changed, and it had. But the porn industry was slow to adapt to the new situation. It didn't take long for others to seize the enormous opportunities that the modern era was offering.

Several platforms emerged that same year where hundreds of unlicensed commercial and amateur porn videos were being uploaded and streamed for free. They were considered video-sharing sites, which meant that the users in principle uploaded all the videos. That also meant that the companies were not directly responsible for copyright violations, as long as the company had a system in place to denounce those infractions and removed the videos. But for every video that the porn industry was able to delete, several others appeared. The sheer magnitude of those sites made those infringements impossible to contain. They quickly became the top porn sites, getting tens of millions of users each month. Not only were they popular among porn sites, they also became some of the top-visited sites on all the internet. They made money with advertising, and because they didn't need to produce the content or pay any royalties, profits skyrocketed.

On the other side of this story, porn producing companies saw their benefits taken away from them. Their business model had been completely disrupted. They couldn't battle those platforms that were offering their own content for free. And when things were getting bad, 2008 came with a tsunami: the financial crisis. Those already hurting companies couldn't cope anymore, but one company was ready to profit from the situation. MindGeek (previously Manwin), the owner of 8 out of 10 of those video sharing sites, bought them all.

After taking control of the industry, everything was even easier for these free porn sites because now they controlled the production and distribution of the content. What has happened since then? The truth is, not much. There have not been new disruptions in the industry, and though there are new platforms that could change substantially how content creators make money, free porn sites operate mostly the same and even maintain almost the same look & feel as they had 14 years ago. Remembering how these sites came to be is key to understanding why they work as they do and how that has ultimately shaped today's porn.

I've always had an appreciation for how things work and how services treat me. That's why I became a designer -- to help create products and services that are useful and treat people fairly. While Spotify and Netflix were built with the industry's help and offered top-notch user experiences, these new porn sites felt rogue, illegal. You could tell that because they did whatever they could get away with to maximize the profit they got out of their users. And when a site earns money with advertising, two main things give revenue: ad impressions (when an ad appears on a page) and ad clicks. Now, there are specific shady methods to get more impressions and clicks than you would organically, and the use of those methods to me is one of the most defining factors of the user experience of these sites. These methods are pop-unders, URL-redirections, and fake content.

A pop-under is a form of advertising that loads in windows below your current browser window. URL redirections are also ads, but they load in your current tab when you click on a link, opening the URL of that link in a new tab of the browser. In the end, a pop-under and a URL redirection and two ways of doing the same, loading ads below the user’s sight. Fake content consists of mixing false video thumbnails or faux buttons with the real content or having sections in the web that mislead the user to more ads.

These techniques have been so abused for years, especially in porn and torrent sites, that web browser developers have been trying to incorporate protections for them in their browsers. For example, pop-unders almost only work in Firefox, which now is used by just 4% of users, so things have improved a bit. But still, URL-redirections are so commonly used for legitimate purposes you can't block them entirely without breaking how websites work.

Apart from pop-unders, URL redirections, and faux content, these sites have loads of ads in every inch of every page, in every transition, when you pause a video, before playing a video, etc. In the end, all this means that when you navigate these sites, you see several times more ads than you'd typically see on any site, and worse, you're constantly interacting with the ads unwillingly. Doing so is not illegal, but it's not ethical either, and in websites like these that have millions and millions of visits, this can mean a lot of money.

Why does MindGeek keep doing these things if MindGeek IS the industry now? Well, these sites haven't changed much because it's very profitable, and nothing is stopping them. That's what happens when you have a monopoly. And worse, those profits don't end up in the performers' pockets. On the contrary, performers are getting paid rates that have increased minimally compared to inflation and many have to look for other ways of earning money in the sex industry.

It's interesting to think that Pornhub (and Spotify, and most food delivery services) have implemented ways of tipping performers, musicians, and drivers. And while tipping in itself isn't a bad thing, to think that artists and performers need tips to survive is a neoliberal perversion from my euro-centric perspective. It feels like recognizing that the business model is a failure or that the business owners are greedy and do not care because of invented market rules and sector domination.

In recent years, Pornhub added more ways for content creators to make money, and it is clear that there's a new generation of performers that are having a better time living off the platform. With official profiles, now it is possible to follow performers, subscribe to their updates, and even pay them a recurring fee for accessing premium content or buying single videos. Still, it looks ironic that the same company that profits from streaming content without permission suddenly wants to care about content creators, when if you look at the full picture, until now, there has been no choice but to be on the platform. Also, we need to remember the launch in 2016 of the site OnlyFans, a platform for performers to offer content directly to users for a monthly fee. Adapt, or die.

But the business of streaming is hard everywhere for creators. Spotify didn't save the music industry either. Living off music is more challenging now than ever. It's something reserved for very successful musicians, and music streaming is a low margin business that has brought lower income than selling physical records, merchandise, and concert tickets. The music industry has its long history of abuses, and musicians everywhere were disappointed when they realized that the digital revolution didn't end that abuse. Spotify is, after all, an ally for music companies and editorials, not musicians. But musicians can speak up, demand better conditions, change to another record label, get independent, leave Spotify altogether, etc.

But most importantly, musicians now have it easier than ever to reach their audiences. That doesn't mean they don't need the industry, but when the time is right, they can negotiate better deals, retain their independence, self-management, and control most of their revenue. And that's possible because the music industry is not a monopoly.

It's also not fair to say that streaming has been bad for music. While Spotify's continuous growth causes concern, we still have unique projects like Bandcamp that work directly with musicians, combining streaming with selling downloads and physical goods. They have been there for a long time, and it's profitable, fair, and loved by music creators. Streaming is just a convenient way of distributing digital content; it's the business model behind it that makes it better or worse. And Youtube is an excellent example of it. With a generation of young children wanting to be "YouTubers" now instead of rockstars or football players, the platform has become a symbol of fame and money.

Now, back to the user experience of these free porn sites, the tagging system is another of its pillars; they're one of the main ways to navigate the content. Tags are incredibly detailed, I counted around 110 visible tags in Pornhub's sidebar, but there are more than a thousand in XVideos. While the use of categories and tags is also not harmful, we need to remember that these tags refer to the things happening in the videos and their people. Most specifically, they tend to refer to women's physical attributes. Reducing sex to the kinds of acts that occur in it is arguably a frivolity. But when just female performers' physical characteristics are used as tags, it feels like the women are being treated as a commodity. And while that's how many white men probably like to navigate porn videos, it's worrying that most mainstream porn sites have been normalizing this for years. Even worse, it should raise all the red flags when these porn sites have been allowing tags like "teen" or "secret recording" that represent illegal activities - which some websites do hide a little bit, they're still accessible through search. Allowing these tags to be used is terrible, especially after repeated reports about real abuse videos that have been appearing for years. The problem is, even when Pornhub has started banning some tags, the users always found ways to create new ones by changing a letter or two. In the end, the problem is not just the tags, it's content moderation, and this is one of the biggest challenges of the internet today.

Because in the end, the main thing that defines the user experience, the business model and every other aspect that we’ve talked about is free, fast access to the content. And it might seem silly now, but at the time, it was a game-changer. Especially when you didn't even need an account to access the videos, unlike Spotify and Netflix.

As we said before, all these years, these sites have benefited enormously from anonymous users uploading unlicensed content, and that's been vital since the beginning in making the content free to watch. At the same time, it has been the most controversial thing that they've done, not only because they have been profiting from copyrighted content, also because that brings the inevitable problem of moderating that content uploaded by the users. There has been reports of rape videos on the platform almost since the beginning. The companies always defended themselves, stating that they had a system to report such videos, but until now, those systems didn't look effective enough to solve the problem. Moderating content uploaded to video sharing sites is incredibly challenging; Facebook has been under scrutiny about that for years. When a rape video is found, it’s key to remove those videos as soon as possible to avoid harming the victims even more. Reports state that it used to take days or even weeks to remove a video from Pornhub, but when those videos were already being downloaded by users, they could upload it again and again. To try to solve this, the platform started using a technology called fingerprinting to detect when a flagged video is uploaded. It looked promising because it's similar to what Youtube has been using for years to control copyrighted content. Still, a report from Vice published in October 2019 has declared that the algorithm is too easy to fool to be effective.

All these became the center of the spotlight when in June 2019, with the case around a porn production company called GirlsDoPorn, the pressure started mounting around free porn sites. The company had been misleading, abusing, and raping hundreds of women to make their videos until some of the victims filed a lawsuit and won. GirlsDoPorn has been one of the featured channels of Pornhub for Premium members. After winning the case, the victims experienced the incredible difficulties of removing the content from the platforms, which continued profiting from the videos for a long time.

Some months after the GirlsDoPorn case, a campaign called Trafickinghub was launched by a Christian social activist club whose founder has expressed anti-gay and anti abortion-views. The campaign collected several of those reports of exploitation on Pornhub, published a video explaining why Pornhub was guilty of allowing and profiting this content, and started a petition to close the site. The campaign went viral, currently has 2,2 million signatures. It successfully brought Pornhub into scrutiny. Articles criticizing the platform started appearing everywhere all along 2020. On the 4th of December, Nicholas Kristof published an investigation in The New York Times called "The Children Of Pornhub." A week after that, Mastercard and Visa stated that they were cutting ties with the company. PayPal had already done so in November 2019, so this meant real trouble. After Pornhub saw their ways to get money cut, they quickly published a statement recognizing the problem, announced some changes and some days later, removed all content from unverified sources (almost 66% of the videos). From now on, only content partners and verified profiles will be able to upload videos, and downloading the videos won't be possible. Also, they promise new efforts in moderating the content, announced their first transparency report, and stated that they have been working with an independent firm since April to meet legal standards. It looks like a positive change, and they have promised all these changes will extend to the other sites of MindGeek, but still, when a man was charged with sexually assaulting a girl in videos he uploaded to his verified Pornhub account last September, we already know it won't be enough. Furthermore, though we can agree that MindGeek has profited greatly from wrongdoings, the problem of content moderation is incredibly complex and blaming just porn sites for the distribution of abuse videos is not only short-sighted, it helps anti-porn conglomerates trying to manipulate the public opinion against the industry and might harm non-ethical players as well as ethical. To give some context, Carrie Goldberg, a victims’ right lawyer, stated in her twitter account on the 10th of December that “for every 1 case involving a rape tape on Pornhub, I have 50 involving rape and CSAM (child sexual abuse) being disseminated on Insta and FB.”

Tech companies have become experts in exploiting the limits of what can be done within the grey zones of the law, and the lawmakers are having a hard time reacting to these disruptions before significant damage is done to other businesses and, worse, our societies. I can't avoid thinking of how the main actors in the so-called gig economy, Deliveroo and Uber, are being judged and facing enormous penalties for misclassifying their workers as independent contractors (which has benefited the companies greatly all these years). I also think about how some cities are already trying to regulate the use of AirBnb after rental prices raised up to 20% when the number of available flats for residents diminished because they went to the vacation rental marketplace. Now, with the problem of content moderation, we’re also trying to find a balance between freedom of expression and censorship, and the bad thing is that we’re letting the tech companies decide what is what, and that extremist groups manipulate public opinion and lawmakers.

In the end, a common perception is that we've been living in a time where "user first" has meant "and fuck the rest." Or at least, that's the excuse companies have used to justify their greed. In this new period, we need to reflect how our individuality has allowed these companies to thrive and how unregulated capitalism has brought unsustainable growth, predator markets, and noninclusive monopolies. In some ways, these porn sites are a representation of that, for their monetization strategies, the shameless advantage-taking of the users, the commoditization of women, and the disregard for doing the right thing in general.

We have incredible challenges to solve in the next decade, and everything could completely change again in the way. Meanwhile, if we want to collaborate and fix some of the damage done to the porn industry, look for the alternatives that allow supporting performers directly. That might give performers some leeway to regain some freedom to control their careers. Because the MindGeek monopoly is not going away for now, empowering the performers will ultimately restore some of the lost balance that it has taken. I am confident that this balance would bring more respectful and inclusive services that will be more enjoyable as users and better for performers and the world. 


Credits

Writer Nahúm García

Illustrator Silent James

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