Success of New Tech Lies in... Porn?

TL;DR: Innovation in communication technology has historically been driven by a crucial factor: its ability to make sexually explicit content more accessible. As we look forward and try to determine what the media landscape of our future will look like, we will only be successful if we recognize porn’s influence in the cycle of innovation.

Remember back in 2013, when every tech blog and business publication was declaring wearables as the next big thing in tech? Digitized eyewear and GPS-enabled jackets were expected to fundamentally transform the way we share information. Five years later, this “wearables revolution” hasn’t materialized. How’d we get it wrong?

We misevaluate new technology whenever we fail to weigh its benefits against major obstacles to long-term mainstream adoption, like convenience, cost, learning curve, novelty, ease of use or social pressures (e.g., Are my friends on this platform? Do I look stupid wearing this?).

Of the benefits that tend to override these barriers, there is one crucial, if often unintended predictor, that distinguishes a shiny fad from an innovation that revolutionizes human communication.

That predictor is — bear with me — its pornographic potential.

No, seriously. Think about history’s most groundbreaking innovations in technology: The printing press. The daguerreotype. The VHS tape. Digital photography. Instant messaging. E-commerce. Video streaming. Most social media platforms. Cryptocurrency. Ephemeral “story” content. These technologies have one thing in common: they were first adopted and popularized by the consumers and purveyors of sexually explicit content. As we try to determine what the media landscape will look like a decade from now, the key is to follow the porn.

Hearing alarm bells yet, marketers? Fear not.

The Innovation Cycle

You see, even though pornography has driven technology throughout history, it’s always done so in the shadows. And as the pace of change accelerates in our information age, a clear pattern has emerged.

There’s a cycle, and it goes a little something like this:

  1. A new communications technology is developed.

  2. Early adopters find that this technology has the potential to make sexually explicit content more accessible. This benefit makes them more tolerant of initial barriers to mainstream adoption, and their adoption helps to lower these barriers for other users.

  3. Once the initial barriers to adoption have been lowered, enough new users get on board that the new technology goes mainstream.

  4. After a tipping point of adoption is reached, monetization demands sanitization. Pornographic applications of this technology are banished or blocked by the companies who use them.

  5. The early adopters who helped to build this mainstream audience are driven from the platform and search for another new technology, where the process begins again.

A communications technology that falters at any one of these steps soon fizzles out.

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Take Tumblr, for example. The first of the mainstream social networks to support animated gifs, it failed to clear step three. Five years ago, it was among the top ten websites in the US, with 20 billion monthly page views; adult websites were its leading category of incoming referral traffic. But Tumblr struggled to monetize, lacked funds to invest in new features and eventually lost many mainstream users to competitors like Giphy, pushing the medium back to step two. What’s left? While its mainstream user base has shrunk, porn is more prominent than ever on the platform.

Google Glass tried to jump to step four without passing step two. Almost a year before Glass was released to the public, a developer released its first porn app. Two weeks later, Google changed its platform development policy to ban all nudity and sexually explicit content. Without this powerful driver, its barriers to adoption were simply too high. Glass was a commercial failure.

(Compare to the Apple Watch, the other emblem of the so-called “wearables revolution.” Though Apple also prohibits NSFW apps, the Apple Watch survived because the product itself presented fewer barriers than Google Glass, and its restrictions to viewing and searching for porn were less stringent. Regardless, neither innovation was earth-shattering enough to trigger the “revolution” we anticipated.

One of the latest developments to the way we consume social content, the ephemeral “story” format that’s now poised to overtake newsfeed sharing, fits neatly into this cycle. Snapchat was the first to introduce ephemeral content, which was so readily adopted by teens as a tool for exchanging nude photos that a 10-year study released in April names Snapchat as the cause of an “explosion of sexting.” A year after its release, Snapchat users were sharing 20 million photos a day.

Facebook made an offer to buy the platform in 2013 for 3 billion; Snapchat passed. Facebook has been imitating its content format ever since, slowly stealing back Snapchat’s user base. Facebook has better infrastructure in place to monetize, better tools to crack down on sexually explicit content, and therefore more success with the content format. Snapchat may be dying, but the ephemeral story format is now virtually omnipresent, adopted by platforms ranging from Netflix to Google AMP. The “newsfeed” format we currently associate with social media may soon become a thing of the past.

These technologies have one thing in common: they were first adopted and popularized by the consumers and purveyors of sexually explicit content.

What’s next?

Let’s apply the innovation cycle to two budding developments that have been hyped at tech conferences for years: Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.

One’s mind need not sink too far into the gutter to recognize that these immersive new technologies would be groundbreaking for the creators and consumers of x-rated content, and that should be our first indication that they will completely transform our mainstream modes of communication and interpersonal behavior.

Eventually.

These innovations face many of the same obstacles that wearables did: the equipment is unwieldy, the tech still isn’t advanced enough to work seamlessly in our daily lives, the product is too expensive, and we just don’t look cool using it. But there’s also plenty of indication that demand should be powerful enough to lower these adoption barriers.

If there’s a reason these technologies still haven't taken off as quickly as we’d expect, it’s not that they couldn’t reasonably make it through the five steps outlined above. It’s because their producers don’t want them to. If these innovations are slowed or suppressed, it will most likely happen when their creators try to skip to step four without passing step two.

The presence of porn is seen as a liability by many of the major players currently working on these developments, many of whom own both the hardware (Facebook’s Oculus Rift, Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android devices, Microsoft’s Hololens, the various voice recognition products installed in one’s home) and the means of distribution (Google search, the app stores for Android and iOS, mobile web browsers, Facebook and Google’s advertising tools). And as the internet is increasingly controlled by what the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo calls the “Frightful Five,” our innovation is too.

The fact is, the path to any truly groundbreaking information tech has never been squeaky clean. Whether we innovate will depend on how comfortable we are accepting sexually explicit content as the driver. Whatever your stance on pornography, it’s not going anywhere—except, if we’ll allow it, forward.

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