The Porn Business Isn’t Anything Like You Think It Is

Oct 15, 2015
Adult Business News
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Midway through the second season of Silicon Valley, the HBO series that so skillfully spoofs the Bay Area tech scene, the plot turns to porn.

Inside the offices of Pied Piper, the fictional startup at the heart of the show, a shaggy-haired coder hacks into a rival company. The rival, he discovers, has landed a $15 million contract with a porn outfit called Intersite, also fictional, agreeing to build software that will compress Intersite’s videos and send them across the ‘net. Pied Piper’s CEO, Richard Hendricks, is bemused. “I don’t understand,” he says. “How does Intersite have all this money?”

“It’s pornography,” says the guy with the highfalutin facial hair.

“Adult content has driven more important tech adoption than anything,” says another colleague. “The first fiction ever published on a printing press was an erotic tale. And from there: super 8 film, Polaroid, home video, digital, video on demand—”

“—credit card verification systems, Snapchat—” adds a third.

“Pornography accounts for 37 percent of all Internet traffic.”

“Thirty-eight when I’m on it,” says the guy with the highfalutin facial hair.

In many ways, the exchange is typical of the show. It’s good for multiple laughs, particularly if you’re wise to the shamelessly eccentric ways of the modern tech world. Punchline aside, the big laugh is that nod to Snapchat, a mainstream private-messaging-and-video-chat app whose status as a porn service is, shall we say, unofficial. But Pied Piper’s porn encounter is a rare case where Silicon Valley gets things wrong. Typically, the parody rings so very true. In this case, it doesn’t.

In the popular imagination, the eternal trope is that the porn industry drives the adoption of new technology; that it accounts for some astronomically large portion of all Internet traffic; and, yes, that it generates equally enormous sums of money for all the faceless people who run its operations. We picture these people as sleazy Southern Californians wearing pinkie rings and polyester. Or, if we’ve come to realize that the pinkie-ring caricature makes absolutely no sense in the age of the Internet, we see them as ruthlessly clever businesspeople with a sixth sense for where the big money lies. That’s the stereotype Silicon Valley embraces. Later in the episode, when Hendricks turns up at an adult industry conference, we encounter an army of porn execs dressed like bankers.

But it isn’t like that at all.

Some of it may have been true in years past. But no longer. A colleague of mine calls this a meso-idea, an idea that has ceased to be true but that people continue to repeat, ad infinitum, as if it still was. With the rise of mobile devices and platforms from the likes of Apple and Google, not to mention the proliferation of free videos on YouTube-like porn sites, the adult industry is in a bind. Money is hard to come by, and as the industry struggles to find new revenue streams, it’s facing extra competition from mainstream social media. Its very identity is being stolen as the world evolves both technologically and culturally.

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