RealTime IT News

Porn: Gen Y's New Black?

Porn is the New Black is an X-rated music video, and editor John d'Addario says it's the official theme song for Fleshbot, the sex-eccentric blog he launched last week. Part of the Gawker Media family of Weblogs, it got 10 times more traffic in its first week than any previous Gawker title, according to publisher Nick Denton.

For a certain young, urban segment (catnip to fashion and beverage marketers) porn is as chic, and as integral to the lifestyle, as iPods and camera phones.

The Web's where they find it.

A recent comScore Media Metrix study found U.S. males in the juicy 18 to 35 age group spend 17 percent more time online than the general population. "Younger adults are used to getting all their information online -- not just porn," says d'Addario. "When they think of getting any kind of information, the first thing they think of is heading to the Web."

The Web is just a better medium for risque content, says Steve Outing, senior editor for the Poynter Institute. "How can the print version of Penthouse or Screw compete against something where you can have on-demand video?" he asks.

Fleshbot delivers a mix of unabashedly explicit content and snarky social commentary, covered in a glaze of irony. The -bot in Fleshbot equals technology; the site hopes to showcase "all the porn that digital technology and distribution has made possible." The media mix runs from CGI to Flash to streaming audio and video. "There's a huge underground community of artists producing digitally-altered porn," d'Addario says. "There's always something coming down the pipe that you haven't seen before."

It's telling that d'Addario emphasizes Fleshbot isn't porn per se, rather about porn. "We're just a filter," he says. "It's our job to go out there to the Internet and find what we think is interesting and get it all into one place, so people reading us won't have to spend four hours a day finding good porn sites." In an online commentary, d'Addario points out most kids see their first explicit images in spam or on a Web site, not in a magazine filched from a father or elder brother.

The digital generation isn't looking for the body part-oriented content that's the mainstay of online smut. Urban hipsters like it self-referential and self-conscious, with one eye on the mirror and one hand on the remote control.

For them, the whole definition of porn is in flux, says Susannah Breslin of Reverse Cowgirl, an early sex-oriented blog published by Salon.com. "We need a new word that is more about investigating the culture of sex or porn, less about the sex act itself."

A scribe for "literasexual" site Nerve says, "It's porno for people who get the joke."

The majority of advertisers aren't getting it. The hipper sites do get some ad support. Uber-mainstream Yahoo! offers X-rated ad placement through Overture, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report, and Google provides AdWords advertising to Gawker and Nerve. And there's always AdultFriendFinder.com and Suicide Girls, a Portland, Ore.-based site that celebrates punk and goth girls in various states of undress; both advertise on Fleshbot.

Short-term, revenue prospects for these sites aren't stellar. Nick Denton says, "Fleshbot will be able to be self-supporting, and there's an editorial need for it, but it won't be a big money pot." Gawker relies on ads from Cuervo Clasico and Spring Street Networks, the online matchmaking outfit that features well-lit close-ups and asks users if booze, drugs and self-love are okay. Spring Street has been a financial lifeline for many edgy pubs, including Nerve, a site publisher Rufus Griscom describes as covering "sex and culture." Griscom says a substantial portion of Nerve's revenue comes from Spring Street.

"I'm not convinced there's a huge market for this new porn," says Jupiter Research analyst David Card. (Jupiter Research is owned by Jupiter Media, the owner of Internet Advertising Report.) "Advertisers such as skater gear realize their audience is hard to reach and edgy and not uncomfortable consuming this kind of stuff. But I'm hard-pressed to think of a lot of mainstream products that wouldn't be too chicken to advertise."

Neither will mainstream advertisers find the audience scale they need. In their day, Playboy and Penthouse got a rich mix of ads for liquor, clothing, fragrances, cars and travel, but sexy online content is increasingly fragmented, says John Battelle, teaching fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and former publisher of dot-com bible The Industry Standard. "Playboy was a cultural totem," he says, "something that was a touchstone for a community of people who saw themselves sharing a cultural lifestyle." The Internet lets you find others who share your interests, no matter how specialized they are, Battelle says, and this very diversity may preclude any online publication reaching that pinnacle of mass consciousness.

The venerable icons of print porn, meanwhile, are approaching Web-induced obliteration. AP reported last week that Screw and Penthouse have both filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, largely because the Internet changed the rules of their business. "We are an anachronism; we are dinosaurs; we are elephants going to the bone cemetery to die," lamented Screw publisher Al Goldstein in an interview. Hustler and Playboy successfully migrated online as subscriptions to their print titles continue to fall.

The new porn may be the leading edge in a second wave of self-publishing; a million niche blogs, Webcams and streaming video feeds could replace the personal homepages and e-books of the late '90s. "The porn market becomes an early indicator of what will happen to other media," says Outing of the Poynter Institute. "The interesting question is whether this will play out in the mainstream media over time, and I suspect it will."

What's needed, aside from a new name, is a new business model, says Reverse Cowgirl Breslin. "People don't quite get how to bring together mainstream money and pornographic material. Porn has always been a player in driving technological advances, and I'd like to see that happening in ways that are more interesting than banner ads." Micro-payments for discrete bits of content is one thing Breslin thinks might work.

Affiliate marketing is a model ripe for further exploration. "The whole porn industry is very much oriented around affiliates," Jupiter's Card says. While it began with barter and link exchanges, "It's moved to a more disciplined payment system where people are really paying for leads." Jupiter estimates that porn's share of the paid online content market is between $200 or $300 million. A new acceptance of sex content could combine with an evolving affiliate marketing industry to create a sort of tiered pathway, where more general interest sites could refer users to increasingly explicit and focused content.

So, let a thousand weblogs bloom -- blogs clad in "the new black," and probably little else.