I received a query some months back from writer Mark Hay. Mark was looking for some insights for a piece he was writing for Aeon magazine re the use of data and analytics in the adult entertainment market.

Mark’s piece “Datagasm” — Ever-faster feedback loops and micro-targeted digital porn are pushing human sexuality into some seriously weird places — from July, 2016 did not include any of the extensive commentary I provided him, but you can read Mark’s queries and my full responses below.

MH: Now that sites like Pornhub have an unprecedented ability to observe trends in large pools of users and crunch those numbers (and now that we live in a data-obsessed society), we’re trying to understand what uses that data can be put to. And as an extension of that, we’re trying to understand a bit about how insights from this data might influence the way adult entertainment is made and marketed on the producers’ end, distributed on something like a tube site’s end, and consumed and interpreted on a watcher’s end. 

When do you suppose pornography producers and distributers first realized they could start using data (or rather robust “big data”) to inform their work (if indeed they did), and what sort of changes do you think data awareness may have wrought in pornography to date? 

DrCT: One point that I must make clear before beginning – “data” released by PornHub (as you reference above) is speculative at best. To my knowledge, they have not given access to their categorical data, much less their raw numbers. There is no way to verify anything they say (access is part of something being “good data”). Also, the fact that PornHub is a piracy-based tube site – meaning the vast majority of what viewers see there is a skewed collection of stolen content, most of which is in the process of being DMCAed by the copyright holder, belongs to a copyright holder that is unable to get their content removed (lack of funds, knowledge, etc), or is “orphan content” (content owned by a person or entity that is no longer able to demand takedown) – means that very few of their “findings” say anything about the scope of adult content and/or viewers’ tastes. Well, beyond the fact that viewers seem to opt for “free” content over paying for a good, that is (which you can see via Alexa rankings alone). This penchant for free is due to several wider social issues related to society and sexual shame in general.

Perhaps though, their data (pending reliability) may tell us something about what people search for within the context of one website’s pre-set tags, for free, but it tells us nothing about the scope of adult content overall, nor does it speak to people’s desires beyond Pornhub’s existing lexicon

To your Question #1: porn producers have always used consumer data to guide their productions. Producers and distributors have been tracking who buys what and where, comments from their customers, requests, and more in a manner similar to the way every other industry considers consumer data, for just as long. There is one main difference though – there is no industry-wide representative data available. The closest thing one could get is through the brands/entities housed by a specific large retailer/distributor, but even that is limited to one larger private parent entity.


MH: How important is viewer data and analysis to the present and future of pornography as a business?

DrCT: Very very *very* important – porn is a business like any other. As such, using consumer data to guide future efforts and decisions, shape product development, etc, is key. And in this day in age, it’s actually more significant than ever before. Due to piracy based tube sites, downturns in the economy, cultural shifts regarding media consumption, and a general sustained “embarrassment” re porn viewing habits, tastes, etc, and more, times have never been tougher (in terms of making money via porn) – it’s important for producers to pay attention to their fan/consumer bases.


MH: What do you think of the way most adult sites use their data? What sort of sites use it best? Who neglects it? Is there a lot of untapped potential there? 

DrCT: Some entities/sites use quantitative data for conventional analyses – what’s selling, what’s declining, prices analyses, etc. Others gather and incorporate qualitative data (eg via comments sections and forums within their pay sites). Some producers create content that comes directly from consumer feedback (via submissions, contests, voting, etc). I don’t know of any companies or entities that have a market researcher, demographer, and/or sociologist on staff… so there are probably moments of missed opportunity, sure. But to my knowledge, every producer looks at their consumer data and heeds its insights to the best of their ability.


MH: How do you suppose producers, distributors, or tube sites can best use data in the future; how might it transform the industry? 

DrCT: The most significant way would be for there to be consumer data that’s 1) representative of the larger portion of the industry and 2) specific to particular companies (the way, for example, we can see data re the automotive industry, as well as from individual manufacturers). This would be extremely useful, both for the community, as well as for the wider world that’s so fascinated with porn – if there were actual real number describing even the simplest patterns, perhaps that would help to destigmatize porn in a way that was good for society overall.


MH: How might the use of data to innovate pornography in its production and delivery affect the experience of an adult entertainment consumer? Affect his or her relationship to pornography, sexuality, etc.? 

DrCT: Again, the presence of some form of real rigorous representative data re porn production, consumption, anything would certainly impact the consumer – if there were data describing viewing patters, certainly technology could refine. And though the titillating taboo of viewing “forbidden” content may quell some if you knew exactly who else was watching what, this information would also help attenuate shame associated with porn consumption. This would then have a positive impact on consumers, as well as members of the adult production community, who themselves are still subject to shame and discrimination to society’s discomfort with porn production overall.


(pictured: What do you do with your datagasm?)

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