‘The Erotic Engine’ — How Porn Changes Everything

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Four Of The Many Lessons Mainstream Media Can Learn From The Porn Industry by Patchen Barss, author of "THE EROTIC ENGINE How Pornography has Powered Mass Communication, from Gutenberg to Google."

The Erotic Engine
The Erotic Engine

In the early 1990s, when much of the world still viewed the Internet as a passing fad for anarchist geekazoids, pornographers were already raking in millions selling online content.

In 2000, about 70% of the $1.4 billion spent online went to porn.

Even today, a now-struggling pornography industry remains miles ahead of the many mainstream media who still can’t coax credit card numbers from their users.

How do they do it?

Adopt early: Pornographers earned their reputation as tech pioneers by getting in on the early days of many new media. They led the world to the VCR, cable television, bulletin board systems and the Internet. Each of these technologies faced initial resistance that was first overcome by early adopters seeking (and offering) sexual content. Pornography kept these technologies progressing until they were reliable, familiar and cheap enough to enter the mainstream.

Mainstream companies, of course, are often too risk-averse to emulate the porn industry’s embrace of new media. But even if you’re not ready to make the leap, it is worth paying attention to the porn industry – the latest tech trends in porn are a strong predictor of the next big thing for mainstream.

You don’t have to make money from porn to make money from porn: In 1972, media innovator Moses Znaimer launched a new TV channel in Toronto, Canada – then the most saturated market in North America. A full dial drove his CityTV onto a new broadcast technology called UHF. He needed a way to entice viewers up to the then-stratospheric channel 79. He turned to porn. For 166 hours a week, his station’s Nielsen ratings were too low to measure. But for two hours each Friday night he captured more than two thirds of the city’s viewing audience – when he aired softcore movies he called “Baby Blues.”

"Pornographers earned their reputation as tech pioneers by getting in on the early days of many new media. They led the world to the VCR, cable television, bulletin board systems and the Internet." -Author, The Erotic Engine, Patchen Barss

Despite the ratings, stigma-wary sponsors had no interest in advertising during Baby Blue movies. But, viewers who came for the porn, stayed for other CityTV programming. Ratings during the rest of the week began to climb. Although Znaimer earned little directly from pornography, he still built a media empire worth tens of millions of dollars on the back of the Baby Blues.

Today many companies, from web development firms to smartphone service providers quietly maintain two operations – one in the porn world and another in mainstream. The porn side allows them to find early adopters, hone their products and make technological improvements. They then sell sanitized versions to their mainstream clients where larger, more reputable profits lie.

Users will pay for content: In the 1990’s, erotic model Danni Ashe discovered that nude pictures of her were being freely traded on the Internet. She responded by creating a website offering nearly identical images for a subscription fee.

In its first week, Danni’s Hard Drive garnered a million hits. For the next two years, it was the busiest site on the web. By 2001, Ashe employed forty-five people and turned $8-million in annual profit. Danni Ashe became one of the first dotcom millionaires and proved that you could sell a product that was already widely available for free.

True, the media scene is different today, with both porn and mainstream companies watching helplessly as free-content sites devour their profits. But consider: Ashe wasn’t really selling pornography. Her customers were paying for convenience.

They spent 20 bucks for easy downloads, rather than spending 20 hours navigating the depths of the early Internet.

And while today’s Internet experience is vastly improved over years gone by (many of those improvements, of course, driven by the pornography industry itself) there is still plenty about it that is difficult and annoying to navigate. The lesson from the world of porn is: Value comes from more than content. It also comes from easier, faster, more reliable and more personalized user experiences.

You can watch the porn industry without watching porn: Every January, the massive Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas coincides with the world’s largest porn industry trade show – the Adult Entertainment Expo. It’s no coincidence that these two expos happen at the same time and place – this is one of many ways for mainstream companies to take a peek into that other world. The adult industry also has a couple of major trade journals – AVN and XBIZ – that offer a wealth of information about latest trends and issues. They’re worth investigating – they might make your company better prepared for the next big thing.

Patchen Barss has written about science, technology and culture for more than a decade. His articles have appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, Reader's Digest, Saturday Night, CBC online, and many other places. His newest book is, "THE EROTIC ENGINE How Pornography has Powered Mass Communication, from Gutenberg to Google." He has worked as a producer at CBC Television and the Discovery Channel, and is currently a director of communications in the field of advanced scientific research.

Email me at bullishonbooks@cnbc.comAnd follow me on Twitter @BullishonBooks