The bottom line in surfing for sex

Karlin Lillington reports on the real power behind innovation on the Web

It’s late night in Johannesburg, as a computer screen glows blue with a live video feed. Somewhere in a small studio in mid-afternoon Los Angeles, a sultry blonde with waist-length hair straddles a desk and leaves little to the imagination. Wearing nothing but black stilettos, she arches back, revealing behind her lifted breasts her solitary prop - a computer.

Technology as fetish. It’s a relationship that has been waiting to happen as technology has moved out of the land of the geeks and into strutting ads for computers and peripherals that insist that size matters and bigger is, as we always suspected, better.

With online pornography, the medium has also become the message.

Technology is not just a tool for delivering porn content, but - unlike the pornographic print or film industries - a feature in its own right.

Porn sites boast their tech credentials with flashing product logos (Silicon Graphics, Sun, Cisco and Microsoft are favoured companies) and invitations to visit “our live Java chatroom” and other delights.

Not even the defence industry capitalises on new technical developments as swiftly, and with as much innovation and payback, as the pornographers.

They buy the best equipment, use some of the best Internet service companies in the business to give them ultra-fast connections directly to the Internet’s backbone, and are always eager to test the newest applications - anything to push images as fast as possible to the paying punters at the end of the mouse.

From Web video to live chat, online credit card transactions to image compression technologies, the online sex industry usually got there first and pioneered the format. As a result, the Internet has made silicone as ubiquitous as silicon. Sex is the Web’s killer app.

“The pornographers picked up the marketing value of the Web before just about any other industry,” acknowledges a top applications engineer with a Hollywood firm supplying cutting-edge computer equipment and know-how to the film industry - and to pornographers on the side.

The same muscular, high-speed workstations and servers which create the dinosaurs in Steven Spielberg blockbusters run the virtual sex world.

Pornography is in the top five of industries buying state of the art computer equipment, he claims, noting that the Silicon Graphics’ Origin 200 computer is the porn industry’s current machine of choice for powering websites.

But the tech industry won’t admit to having such admirers, “even though everyone in it knows that [the porn] industry is one of their biggest customers”.

The bigger sites will happily drop a quarter- to half-a-million dollars in one go on a computer shopping spree, he says, because they are always looking for technology to deliver a new way of viewing body parts (for example, one site wanted to know if they could rig a camera to zoom and pan over a live model, which the online customer could control from the website).

The justification for constant technical innovation is simple: the bottom line. Adult sites are quick to understand the return they will get on an investment, he says.

Consider Danni’s Hard Drive, a Los Angeles-based website established in 1995 by Danni Ashe, a former stripper who taught herself HTML (hypertext markup language, the language used to construct Web pages).

More popular even than the much coyer Playboy site, Hard Drive grossed $2,7- million last year, and Ashe predicts they’ll pull in a cool $3,5-million in 1998.

The site averages five million hits a day, and has 22 000 subscribers who pay $14,95 monthly for access to more than 15 000 photos of 250 models (many of Danni herself ), 450 newly installed streaming video channels, and six live video feeds.

What compels her mostly male subscribers to search out digital breasts and buttocks? “Sex is so interesting,” Ashe says. “And let’s face it: every man in the world masturbates and they’re just looking for new source material.”

For which they’re happy to pay. According to Forrester Research, the only industry analyst that tracks the adult Web market, pornography accounted for $137-million in United States Web revenue in 1997, and should reach $185-million this year and then double to $366-million by 2001. While that’s only a drop in the US porn industry’s $10-billion or so in earnings last year, the numbers sizzle in e-commerce circles. Pornography is the third-biggest Web earner, after computers (for hardware and software purchases) and travel (for tickets).

A third of all Web users say they have accessed a sex site. The wages of sin pay well.

The lure of quick riches from sex sites has caused them to proliferate - Web industry magazine Inter@ctive Week estimated last year that there were about 10 000 independent adult sites, ranging from the amateur to sites run by Penthouse to the most explicit hardcore. Established sites make from 60 to 80% profit (expenditures include staff, photos, communications, and overhead), with a midsize site (one receiving 50 000 hits a day) bringing in $20 000 monthly.

The sheer volume of sex on the Web is causing marketing problems even for vast sites like Hard Drive - how to stand out in a crowd?

One method is to flag your site’s tech credentials.

Last month, Ashe stuck up a full page of gushing tech detail and jargon (“My brand new screaming SGI Origin 200 servers, with RAID tower and NT box running HotBOX authorizations”) about Hard Drive’s recent move to a larger Web hosting service, Above.net in Silicon Valley.

Complete with topless and bottomless photos of herself with two nervous-looking technicians, the spread delivers the full (technical) Monty: “40 domain names, 2 gig of content, transferring up to 9.5 megabits/second and logging 5+ million hits a day ... Brand new Web servers, new mail server, new DNS server.” So much for 38-26- 38.

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