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Innovation in the Porn Industry: Technology, capitalism and sex

Submitted on Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Patrick Keilty studies porn, not just the pornography itself, but the business and technology of porn, and the culture of the industry, which is estimated to earn global revenues in the range of $100 billion per year. His interest, he says, is the “nature of capital and desire today.”

According to Keilty, not only do online pornography companies wield enormous influence over the ways we learn about and explore sexual desire, but the industry also sets the bar for businesses in a wide range of other fields. The innovative algorithmic and data science practices developed in the porn industry now drive profits at companies in the online gambling, social media and electronic commerce spheres.

Yet despite the size and scope of its influence, the technical science of online pornography has gone largely unexamined, in part because of the stigmatized nature of the industry.

In many ways, says Keilty, “innovation was forced on the industry.” Its early breakthroughs in secure online payment processing were partly driven by the fact that most consumers did not wish to admit to a telephone operator that they wanted to subscribe to a porn service as well as by their desire to to access porn more easily in the privacy of their homes. More recent innovations in the use of cryptocurrency are due in part to the threat of banks and PayPal shutting down accounts connected to the industry.

This, says Keilty, is yet another variation on an old theme. Porn workers have often found themselves financially ostracized — with some having to turn to alternative payments like Amazon gift cards because they have been barred from opening simple chequing accounts by bank managers worried that their institutions might face legal repercussions or social opprobrium for having clients in the porn industry.

With his current research, funded through a SSHRC grant, Keilty is focusing on the industry’s technological context and porn companies’ “systems of efficiency for getting users what they want.” He is examining how pornographic streaming sites create an environment for browsing, meandering and prolonging engagement. He wants to better understand everything from their site design to feedback loops that minimize frustration and maximize satisfaction and efficiency. “Their design strategy,” says Keilty, “is to give you an abundance and still make you feel like you’re missing out.”

Assistant Professor Patrick Keilty (above),  AVN Adult Entertainment Expo (top)

Keilty, who conducts interviews as well as analyzing data, code and design is also interested in the culture of the porn industry which he describes as “similar but different to Silicon Valley.” It employs people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, who have ended up working there for a wide variety of reasons, he says.

At the Montreal office of Pornhub, where most of its technology work is done, the office looks like any other tech company. At the other end of the spectrum is the annual AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, which Keilty describes as “amazing for people watching.”

As an observer of the industry and its business and technology practices, Keilty is also watching it grapple with its role as a disruptor. He has seen new businesses — including free video sites, webcam modeling and “adult novelties” — grow while the revenues from traditional porn films have shrunk putting many of the old players out of a job.

For performers, the business remains precarious. Keilty rejects the nostalgic narrative of a once wholesome porn industry now ruined by digital technologies. Instead, he believes that digital technologies have reconstituted sex and profit.

As for the backlash against the easy availability of porn and worry that it is now many young people’s first exposure to sex, Keilty says the industry has never positioned itself as a source of sex education, which he believes needs to be provided by a broad range of social services, including schools.

According to Keilty, one of the biggest paradoxes of the porn industry is that “it functions as both an ideal of late capitalist production and a source of great cultural anxiety. It is a central part of our culture and yet peripheral to it.”

Read more about Patrick Keilty’s work in this  article about UofT’s Sexual Representation Collection, where Keilty is the archives director