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The Internet Refreshed

The internet hasn’t fully lived up to its original promise. We explore the divide between the internet we want and the one we have.

Thomas Hedger
INTIMATE INTEL

Porn sites collect more user data than Netflix or Hulu. This is what they do with it.

By Aisha Hassan

The biggest and perhaps best source of data about what people like to watch on the internet and what they would pay for doesn’t come from streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, or Hulu. It comes from porn.

While consuming porn is typically a private and personal affair, porn sites still track your every move: What content you choose, which moments you pause, which parts you repeat. By mining this data to a deeper degree than other streaming services, many porn sites are able to give internet users exactly what they want—and they want a lot of it.

There are 125 million daily visits to the Pornhub Network of sites, including YouPorn and Redtube, and 100 million of those are to Pornhub alone. (It’s widely acknowledged that Pornhub is the most popular porn site in the world although exact statistics on the industry are few and far between.) To put into perspective how much content that is: In 2017, Pornhub transmitted more than the entire contents of the New York Public Library’s 50 million books combined.

In money terms, Quartz has previously found that the porn industry could have a bigger economic influence on the US than Netflix. Revenue estimates are as high as $97 billion (Netflix brings in about $11.7 billion), and even trade publications can’t determine an accurate number because of privately held companies, rampant piracy, and discrepancies in porn studies. However, there is one company that clearly dominates the industry: MindGeek.

MindGeek is the world’s biggest porn company—more specifically, it’s a holding company that owns numerous adult entertainment sites and production companies, including the Pornhub Network. Like other streaming giants, MindGeek’s sites analyze user data, but the company has an edge when it comes to producing tailor-made content in-house. With at least 125 million daily visits, MindGeek has a massive range of users to draw data from and create content for.

What’s more, producing many short porn videos—people spend an average of less than 10 minutes on Pornhub—is much cheaper than producing TV shows and movies with A-list stars that often require multi-million-dollar budgets. MindGeek’s adult sites can also host user-generated content, like homemade videos, expanding its range of offerings even further and at virtually no cost.

Lynn Comella, associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Nevada, told Quartz that it’s “helpful to take a step back and think about a company like MindGeek like we would any other monopolized streaming media entity.” It is, after all, controlling the flow of information to one of, if not the most, captive audiences on the internet. And in a landscape peppered with subscription models, MindGeek’s and other porn sites have got it right.

The average user can watch as much porn as they’d like without so much as making an account, let alone paying, but in exchange for meeting desires that can’t always be met elsewhere, companies like MindGeek access user data because the user more willingly lets them. And it eventually pays off, when users decide to pay for premium content and the habits of paying subscribers become even clearer. What’s more, Pornhub, in particular, operates one of the most sophisticated digital data analysis operations that caters primarily to users and not advertisers. Pornhub Insights provides transparency into its data collection—on the most intimate of subjects—by making research and analysis from billions of data points about viewership patterns, often tied to events from politics to pop culture, available to the public. It offers more than many other tech giants do.

One company to rule them all

It’s hard to calculate MindGeek’s share of the digital economy. As Ross Benes, author of The Sex Effect put it, “You’re not going to get a regulator or politician who is going say, ‘we’re going to break up the porn monopoly.’” There are myriad reasons for this: There are other monopolistic companies that exist, such as Facebook and Google’s dominance of the online ad industry, and speaking about human sexuality is still taboo, even if increasingly more people find porn morally acceptable. And while there have been attempts to regulate the industry (the UK is trying to enforce age-verification for porn sites, for instance), the adult entertainment sector has still flourished further from the limelight than other massive digital companies.

MindGeek, whose bandwidth use exceeds that of Facebook or Amazon, began as a company named Mansef, founded by Stephane Manos and Ouissam Youssef in 2004. It was bought by tech entrepreneur Fabian Thylmann in 2010, re-named Manwin, then MindGeek, and now runs a near-monopoly of streaming porn sites.

“Streaming is not just about distribution of content, it’s also about communication,” Kal Raustiala, professor at the UCLA School of Law and International Institute, told Quartz. “When you stream a video or listen to a song, you are sending back information that can be measured,” he says.

According to a recent study by Raustiala and Christopher Spigman, a professor at New York University Law School, MindGeek is at the “leading edge” of analyzing this kind of communication. While Netflix and Spotify might be more well-known household names, they know slightly less about their users than MindGeek does. Raustiala said that you can think of it as a spectrum, and MindGeek is furthest along in terms of using big data in a feedback loop.

This is because MindGeek relies heavily on “data-driven authorship,” or tailor-making content for viewers, to encourage more paying users. MindGeek owns several production companies of its own, which can harvest data analysis from MindGeek’s porn sites, which also means that customized porn videos can be created efficiently.

This production side has proved profitable for MindGeek. “We still believe very strongly in the paid subscription model. So much so, that we have invested heavily in the production side of the business and build several of the top names in Paysites from scratch,” Catherine Dunn, vice president of MindGeek, told Quartz. Sites that charge viewers, such as Brazzers, offer paid-for premium content. Dunn adds that over half of the company’s revenue is generated from such sites, and through “appealing to a demographic that prefers a premium experience with exclusive content.”

In their study, Raustiala and Spigman demonstrate just how meticulously MindGeek can appeal to its audience using a script of a porn video MindGeek actually produced. The script begins by specifying the exact clothing the actors will wear, in terms of both color and style (like “white thong and camisole”). Later, it includes especially important details in bold, such as: “Girl1 and Girl2’s clothes remain ON during sex, while Guy3 is completely naked.

This direction, along with other combinations of dialogue and sex positions, is derived from A/B testing across the company’s massive number of videos. (A/B testing compares similar items to one another, with one variable switched.) Raustiala and Spigman point out that everything in MindGeek’s script “reflected data mining of millions of views,” and that “over many thousands of runs, one can determine what variable produced the highest viewership.”

What kind of viewer might this script be for? Maybe it’s a woman who likes watching threesomes involving two women and one man. And, as she’s clicking through all the videos in this category on a porn site, the majority of videos she chooses feature lace lingerie. She might stay a bit longer on scenes where the man gets naked first, and pause at similar moments across different videos. Perhaps this user remains the longest on videos where the women keep their clothes on the whole time. All these preferences are tracked by porn sites, and if they’re shared by enough people, videos can be produced that are attuned to these exact tastes—even down to the color of the furniture.

Netflix does something similar by using “taste clusters” to recommend titles. More recently, Cary Fukunaga, director of the original Netflix series Maniac, admitted that important film decisions were dictated by the streaming service’s algorithm, which analyzes viewer behavior on a granular level. Like MindGeek, Netflix knows what content attracts and repels the most users, and Maniac was made accordingly. But the huge number and variety of porn videos yield more specific data points. (Netflix declined to comment.)

Raustiala and Spigman write:

“While a ten-episode run of The Crown is a very expensive proposition to produce, and one that surely benefited from Netflix’s data analysis, each episode is one hour. By contrast, while the videos on a site such as Pornhub vary widely in length, many are less than 20 minutes. And with the average viewer staying on only ten minutes, and often toggling through multiple videos in that ten minutes, MindGeek can amass an extraordinary number of data points from each consumer.”

The study also notes that because it costs less to produce adult content, MindGeek can quickly adapt to emerging trends. And search trends in porn evolve as rapidly as search trends in the news. In 2017, the year of #MeToo, the top search term on PornHub was “Porn for Women,” followed by “Rick and Morty,” and “Fidget Spinners,” two other phenomena that took off that year. In 2018, the top two searches were “Stormy Daniels” and “Fortnite.” According to Pornhub Insights, Bigfoot erotica searches spiked 8,000% during the Virginia congressional race, as did searches for Marvel’s Avengers characters after Avengers: Infinity War came out.

The porn kingdom, and I

MindGeek isn’t selling its valuable user data or data analytics to any third-parties, Dunn says, which makes sense considering the massive blackmail potential of porn-related user data. MindGeek puts that data to good economic use in-house. But beyond serving up the exact content that users want and profiting from it, there are other ways that porn sites wield power.

In a story for The Cut last year titled “Pornhub is the Kinsey Report of our time,” Maureen O’Connor wrote: “The streaming sex empire may have done more to expand the sexual dreamscape than Helen Gurley Brown, Masters and Johnson, or Sigmund Freud.” In other words, internet users’ sexual lives are likely to be more impacted by the explicit short videos we trawl through, sometimes even at work, than by the theories of the world’s most respected minds.

How would a user get hooked on Fortnite-themed porn without expressly searching for it? Imaginations are limitless, but they can be fed. O’Connor writes that there is such a thing as a sexual meme, “fantasies that replicate and spread like wildfire,” and typing it into search engines alters the sexual universe both in terms of what it provides and what people can sexualize. Fetishes have existed throughout history, but a Fortnite fantasy could only exist now.

But like many industries, there is a dark side to porn’s outsized influence. “People having access to various forms of sexual expression is a good thing. People having access to various forms of sexual expression without context and/or accurate, relevant sex education complicates that though,” Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Sex Entertainment, told Quartz.

But as experts continue advocating that parents to talk to their children about porn (Pornhub has developed its own sex education portal), it’s the creation of increasingly more content to draw in and maintain the most users that still has the most momentum.

The future of user data from sex tech

Porn companies regularly adopt different technologies to analyze user data and prepare for future customer demands. In March of this year, YouPorn used artificial intelligence to predict the top searches of 2018. (“T’Challa & Shuri,” who are a pair of siblings and two of the main characters from Marvel’s comic and blockbuster film, Black Panther, took the number one spot.) And in October, the site introduced a “search by emoji” function to cater to its increasingly large proportion of viewers watching on mobile.

Spotify is also using AI to find out what its users wants, and is continually analyzing user data. Netflix is also committed to investing upwards of $8 billion in original content in 2018 alone, and has algorithms to ensure that audiences react positively. But if the porn industry’s track record is anything to go by, adult entertainment companies will find ways to stay in the user data lead.

Porn has historically remained ahead of the curve in terms of reaching its market because sex is a demand that doesn’t go away. The industry was an early adopter of new technologies, and consequently, propelled these technologies into widespread use. Prominent examples include the use of VHS, instant messaging, e-commerce, and video streaming. While the porn industry was not responsible for these innovations, “porn helped those things take off quicker,” Benes says. “If you get a bunch of people watching VHS in the ‘70s, or buying off the internet in the ‘90s, it convinces the capitalists that there is something worth investing in.”

Shira Tarrant, professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach, and author of The Pornography Industry, says, “technology and sexually explicit material have always gone hand in hand.” If it wasn’t for the “titillation factor” that arises at any mention of porn, Tarrant suggests, it would be easier to view the industry for what it is: A thriving business that should be part of “media literacy,” in the same way that social media or fake news is.

Bryony Cole, founder of the Future of Sex podcast, points out that porn and adult entertainment is a subset of “sex tech,” which can be defined as “any technology designed to enhance sexuality.” (VR, sex-bots, and sex toys are other examples.) In Cole’s experience, just adding the word “tech” onto the end of “sex” has already made the industry seem more credible. Like one that can build a better online profile of its users than more well-known tech giants.

In many ways, emerging sex tech—like VR to help with intimacy or dildos to track orgasms—is another avenue for porn companies to get ahead (the porn and gaming industries already use VR the most). New technologies might better help companies collect, and create from, more data.

“Imagine tech that’s like a Fitbit for your sexual health,” Cole says. It doesn’t seem like a big jump from A/B testing that determines everything from the sex position to the color of the carpet, to A/B testing that discovers how quickly users switch between vibrator modes, or which characters in a virtual stimulation are the most appealing. It’s a little scary, but your data, after all, is used by porn companies to feed your desire in a way that other industries haven’t got the hang of yet.