Name-Place-Animal-Thing: Of Pornhub, Smartphones and the Internet’s Memory

This week: What ten years of Pornhub data tells us about human sexuality, how smartphones are altering us as individuals and the internet’s transient memory.

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Name-Place-Animal-Thing. Credit: Vishnupriya Rajgarhia

Let’s talk about sex, baby

“Do we f*** this way because of porn, or does porn look like this because it’s how we f*** — or would f***, if our asses were that firm, our penises that priapic, and we knew how to tie such elaborate knots?” Maureen O’Connor asks in ‘Pornhub is the Kinsey Report of Our Time’.

I’m not going to lie, writing about this piece is awkward in itself, and I’m probably not the only one who feels that way. That’s part of what’s remarkable about O’Connor’s easy tone throughout her long article – she actually manages to normalise an activity that an absurdly large number of us (75 million visits a day) engage in but never talk about.

Pornhub: the great producer and archiver of sexual memes. Credit: Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

It seems like this subject can only be approached in a certain way when it comes to writing about it – industry standards for consent and safety, the adverse impact watching porn has on our own sexual habits, why it’s unrealistic, how it’s not a good way to learn about sex. O’Connor isn’t interested in any of that, instead she delves into Pornhub’s data, interviews her friends as well as industry professionals, and shares personal musings to understand how online porn functions – who watches it and what they like to watch, who makes it, whether demand for something prompts its production or the other way round and the ways in which streaming sites have changed the production of porn itself. Put simply, O’Connor forgoes any hand wringing about the demerits of porn and tackles it as the cultural phenomena that it is.

O’Connor introduces the idea of a ‘sexual meme’ – “erotic acts and fantasies that replicate and spread like wildfire.” Some stick and some don’t, and she looks at both. For instance, ‘massage’ first emerged as a category on Pornhub in 2010 and has remained wildly popular ever since. But as O’Connor deduced, “The appeal, for the women I spoke to, was not narrative but practical. Massage recipients look comfortable, which, for women in porn, is not always a given.” She posits that lesbian pornography is popular among women in the US (way more than it is with men) for similar reasons – essentially, ease of viewing.

What all this data and O’Connor’s take on it really tells us is that the porn we watch is “undeniably part of our erotic lives, but that doesn’t mean our porn lives are part of our sex lives”. That means what we watch doesn’t necessarily connect to the kind of sex that we actually want to, and do, have – porn is simply a place to watch our sexual imaginings play out.

According to O’Connor, in porn terms this amounts to, “If you build it, they will come.” In other words, “Humans learn to want what they see”. So do the studios making pornography know why certain genres do well? Not really. The data only tells them what is popular, not why.

There is some irony in the fact that Pornhub, a site that has turned one of the most intimate experiences into a publicly shared one, is now the institution which has maximum access to our innermost sexual desires, both individually and collectively. A quick glance at Pornhub Insights, their data analysis blog (don’t worry, it’s SFW), shows you data broken down by country, city, gender, category, basically however you want it. And since I now know useless facts, I will share one with you – there were 2.5 million searches for ‘fidget spinners’ on the site in just ten days in May, and the new toy was most popular amongst the site’s users in the 18-24 years of age group. This is probably the best example of how rapidly something catches our sexual fantasy.

As O’Connor writes,

“An expansive erotic landscape unto itself, pornography exists adjacent to and in constant conversation with real sex — but is much more capricious and capacious and creative. Pornography is more than a mere causal agent in the way we screw. It has also become a laboratory of the sexual imagination — and as such, it offers insight into a collective sexual consciousness that is in a state of high-speed evolution.”

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Every step you take, I’ll be watching you

How much data are we generating on a daily basis and where does it all go? Credit: Reuters

The insights Pornhub’s been able to gather are in large part due to the anonymity the internet affords us, and as the site’s data corroborates, expanding internet access across the world and the growing ubiquity of smartphones makes it even easier for people to access whatever they want – and porn is definitely on that list. Visitors to the site don’t have to fear judgment or exposure when they go looking for pornography of a particular kind; for Pornhub, this is great – they really do get access to people’s intimate thoughts (much of which can be racist or disturbing in several other ways). But how comfortable should we really be with betraying so much about ourselves every time we tap our smartphones and tablets or even a good old computer?

Pornhub is not the only site collecting data, and it’s pretty obvious that Google already knows way too much about you. Ever gotten creeped out by a spontaneous Google alert informing you how long it will take to go to work on a Sunday afternoon? But come Monday, you’re back to being grateful for Google.

As Adam Greenfield writes in his new book Radical Technologies, “This is our life now: strongly shaped by the detailed design of the smartphone handset; by its precise manifest of sensors, actuators, processors and antennae; by the protocols that govern its connection to the various networks around us; by the user interface conventions that guide our interaction with its applications and services; and by the strategies and business models adopted by the enterprises that produce them.”

We experience the world through our smartphones and all that they do for us, and because the list of functions is so long, in this extract he relies on phones’ map functions to make his point. According to Greenfield, the map, which has gone from rare to an absolute necessity (thanks in large part to our reliance on smartphones) is a very good example of the bargain we are constantly striking – we give up our privacy for convenience.

We need to navigate the world around us, so we let these maps locate us as we go through our daily lives, which in turn produces data that goes to producers of other kinds to help them figure out what to sell us. Just two bits of information – where we are (home, work, restaurant, doctor’s office, at the therapist’s) and what mode of transport we take to get around can say so much about our identities. There’s an opacity to where this data goes and how it may be used in the future that’s disturbing to Greenfield (and practically everyone who’s given a thought to Aadhaar). He shares this anxiety about the data we are inadvertently producing all the time:

“In turn, that data will be captured and leveraged by any number of parties, including handset and operating system vendors, app developers, cellular service providers, and still others; those parties will be acting in their interests, which may only occasionally intersect our own; and it will be very, very difficult for us to exert any control over any of this.”

Even when Greenfield spells it out, it’s difficult to wrap my head around the implications of all this personal information floating out there like a disembodied cloud, waiting for perfect strangers to pluck out random strands of my identity from this undefined mass.

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Don’t wanna be all by myself

The internet never lets us feel alone, even if we want to. Is it fundamentally altering our subjectivity? Credit: dnlspnk/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

This incomprehension leads straight into Greenfield’s next, and perhaps most important point: what’s happening to the idea of the ‘individual’ in all this? So much of political and sociological theory is based on the ways in which individuals interact with each other and experience the world. These ideas in turn inform how societies and governments are constructed. But if smartphones are changing the individual experience of the world then Greenfield proposes (and is probably correct) our political institutions will have to change too. In his words:

 “Our very selfhood is smeared out across a global mesh of nodes and links; all the aspects of our personality we think of as constituting who we are—our tastes, preferences, capabilities, desires—we owe to the fact of our connection with that mesh, and the selves and distant resources to which it binds us.”

Social media apps already exploit this – they know that the best way to keep us coming back to their platforms is to provide us with a dopamine kick, which we assuredly get when someone likes our pictures, retweets us, comments on some silly video with our name. We like to feel constantly connected and that’s exactly what these networks give us.

According to Greenfield, it’s time to first acknowledge and then examine the smartphone’s role in this, “We need to understand ourselves as nervous systems that are virtually continuous with the world beyond the walls, fused to it through the juncture of our smartphones. And what keeps us twitching at our screens, more even than the satisfaction of any practical need, is the continuously renewed opportunity to bathe in the primal rush of communion.”

I recently installed an app on my computer and phone that only allows me ten minutes of Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Instagram time a day. Even though I’ve kept Whatsapp and Snapchat unrestricted, my world feels eerily silent. To think that for centuries the individual experience of the world was centred on this inner silence is unnerving and weirdly enough, feels unnatural. But then I’m a millennial so my world has already been structured in ways that emphasise togetherness over alone-time. Out of the five offices I’ve ever worked in, only one had cubicles; Facebook has only been around for a decade and I’ve been on it for nearly its entire existence, which means I’ve been liking and sharing material on it for nearly half my life.

What Greenfield is describing is not just an amorphous future way of being, but simply the way most of us already live – this is something that often goes unsaid or unnoticed when we discuss the privacy-convenience bargain. Our socio-political lives are already structured in terms of bargains – the government provides us with roads and other public amenities in return for taxes; on a more fundamental level, we follow the government’s rules in return for the protection of the state (so that some institution like the police secures us against theft, assault, murder etc.). Smartphones have just brought a new kind of bargain to the table, and it seems we’ve already accepted it.


And the vision that was planted in my brain, still remains

What does the internet’s memory look like? Credit: Ghaylam/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

What’s scarier, the fact that everything we’ve ever said or done on the internet will be stored there forever or the realisation that it won’t?

In 2015, Jill Lepore wrote an article about the internet archive, the Wayback Machine, which is trying to preserve all the information that has ever been on the internet. Why archive something that’s already permanent? Because contrary to popular belief, things on the web don’t actually last forever.

As she sets up her exploration of this internet archive, Lepore sums up the internet in one sentence, “The Web dwells in a never-ending present. It is—elementally—ethereal, ephemeral, unstable, and unreliable.” If you’ve ever screen-shotted an embarrassing snap or disastrous tweet, you already know that it’s dangerous to assume that a tweet or picture or webpage will last forever, sitting there waiting for you to access it whenever you want.

There’s a strange contrast to how we understand the internet – it moves at lightning pace, collecting and then whisking away more information than we could ever hope to process, but we also expect information on it to be permanently preserved. Perhaps some of this dichotomy can be attributed to the opacity of processes that Greenfield talks us. We don’t actually know what happens to the data we generate so we assume both, that what we’re posting is of no consequence whatsoever and also that some company somewhere is holding onto the information for dear life.

The Wayback Machine, which Lepore describes more as a phonebook than a library, is too large (in 2015 it was 430 billion web pages) to be indexed and archived, so the only way to find something it to type in the URL and date to see what a page looked like on a particular day.

Of course, questions of privacy and ownership plague this project too. Most internet archives (although significantly smaller in size than the Machine) are owned and run by national libraries or organisations (which follow copyright laws and take permission from relevant parties before they preserve information). But despite the global nature of the web and the fact that your nationalist hardly limits you from accessing any part of it, its preservation seems bound up in complex national laws that haven’t quite caught up to the nature of information in this day and age.

At the end of the article, Lepore asks, “Where is the Internet’s memory, the history of our time?” And then describes the machine, “The machine hums and is muffled. It is sacred and profane. It is eradicable and unbearable. And it glows, against the dark.”

If “sacred and profane” and “eradicable and unbearable” don’t sum up my experience of Twitter, and life itself, then I don’t know what does.

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