QotD: “the porn industry has transformed itself into a centre of excellence in data analytics”

Estimating how much money the online porn industry makes is difficult, not least because of definitional problems. What counts as “adult content”, for example? And most of the dominant companies are privately held. Current revenue estimates for the US range from $9bn to $97bn a year. The latter figure looks excessive, but a conservative estimate is $15bn. That makes it bigger than not only Netflix ($11.7bn) but also Hollywood as a whole ($11.1bn) and Viacom ($13.3bn). In other words, online porn is huge.

This has been an open secret in the technology industry for aeons. Many years ago, I was asked by a film producer to provide an outline for a television series that would explain the internet to the average viewer. I suggested that the first episode should be filmed in the server farm of a major online porn provider, to make the point that smut entrepreneurs have always been early adopters of the latest communications technology. When I said this to the producer and his colleagues, ice formed on their upper slopes and I never heard from them again. But the point still stands: the porn industry remains a masterful exploiter of digital technology.

The biggest sites have names such as YouPorn or Pornhub and are unabashed about what they provide. But in fact most of them seem to be owned by a holding company called MindGeek, whose website is a masterpiece of assured blandness. It tells us that it has more than 1,000 employees and six offices worldwide, providing services that include search-engine marketing, web hosting, advertising and “media content delivery”. All of which is doubtless true, but nowhere on the site is there any reference to what “content” is “delivered” or hosted on any of its properties.

In reality, MindGeek companies are brilliant exponents of the user-surveillance technology invented by Google and now also practised by Facebook – but with a critical difference. Google and Facebook employ the technology to build user profiles that their real customers – advertisers – pay for. In contrast, the porn companies see their viewers as potential customers: they closely monitor their consumption of “free” porn to infer what kinds of content they will be prepared to pay for. And then they specify and commission “premium” videos based on what they have learned from this surveillance.

So, in a way, the porn industry has transformed itself into a centre of excellence in data analytics. In that sense, it’s a less dishonest industry – or at any rate one that is much more transparent than Google or Facebook in terms of revealing what kinds of data it collects.

(source)

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