From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 30, 2007*: The plain brown paper envelope column

Oh my! I should have known better. It was clearly the tip of an iceberg, yet for some reason I thought (to terribly mix my metaphors) that I could safely only get my feet wet without falling over into the deep end. There I was, reading a Regina Lynn column in Wired, Web 2.0 leaves Porn Behind, and I said to myself that this was the perfect opportunity to sink my teeth at least part of the way into an issue that for years I've wanted to examine. As I started to organize my materials for this column, however, I found myself questioning whether, in addition (of course) to feeling somewhat uncomfortable writing about it, there was really that much to write. After all, in order to find additional materials for this column I'd have to dip my feet into material that I ordinarily try to avoid, or at least try to create the impression that I try to avoid.

In her column, Lynn makes what seems to me to be a fascinating observation - although porn sites have traditionally been in the forefront of web development, in the social networking environment of Web 2.0, these sites are no longer the ones that are pushing the technological envelope. She notes:

Community is all about interactivity and personalization. Given the interactive nature of sex and the personal nature of porn, you'd think adult sites would be all over Web 2.0. But with a few notable exceptions, they're not. And I think this is going to bite them in the ass not too far into the future if they don't catch up.
At the same time that I nodded my head in agreement with that statement, I also found myself scratching it, and asking whether it's really true. I'll accept the claim that community is all about "interactivity", but is community also about "personalization"? It may be about finding "common ground", but that's hardly "personalization". Something doesn't seem right here. Putting those two elements together, rather than seeing them as contradictory, bewildered me. Sure, sex is "interactive" by nature, and I suppose that porn is unavoidably "personal", but Lynn claims that these two go together, while it seems to me that in practice they actually contradict each other, even cancel each other out. It would seem to me that when the surfing experience was a personal, individual, experience, porn was logically in the forefront of web development, but when social networking became the norm, porn couldn't compete, for the very simple reason that its very nature kept it behind closed doors.

Lynn's column is abundantly sprinkled with NSFW caveats, and understandably so. We're hesitant to click on certain links in public, and it's nice to be forewarned. But if that's the case, can we really expect people who are truly interested in porn to feel comfortable identifying as part of a community devoted to material that pretty much by definition doesn't get clicked on in public, but instead gets viewed only when we're alone? Questions of just what constitutes an online community aside, I can readily see someone saying that he or she is a member of an education-related online community, or perhaps of a community that enjoys a particular sort of fiction, or cuisine. But I somehow doubt I'll hear someone in a public conversation declaring that he or she belongs to a community of porn lovers, and not only because porn isn't a topic for public conversation. It doesn't seem to be the sort of topic that generates community.

But perhaps it does. Back in May of 2006, I read, via a website devoted to new technologies (and on numerous other sites as well) that an Adult-Only 3D Online Community Launches. The report on that "community", at, told us that:
Targeting 21- to 49-year-olds, said the Internet and technology enables women and men to live out sexual fantasies in a safe environment. The site aims to become a "social experience within a 3D virtual reality" where avatars move about and experience interaction between animated characters.

The site allows users to control avatars that can dance to music and interact with each other. Characters also live out fantasies, such as being an erotic dancer in "The Night Candy Gentlemen's Club," the company said.
Is this porn? Not necessarily. It does, however, seem to be the sort of thing that we'd expect people to do behind closed doors - which may be precisely what having avatars permits them to do. But avatar-aided sexual activity, like what's apparently happening in RedlightCenter, or in large parts of Second Life, doesn't seem to be the only "community" direction in which porn might be expanding. Run of the mill social networking may get less headlines, but it's perhaps also a promising direction. Only recently Playboy opened a "community" on the social networking site Ning. It's a "private" community, so those of us not invited can't get in, even to take a look around. The best we can apparently do is read an article about it. Open or not, and worth the effort or not, simply the existence of such a community (and one press release tells us that RedLightCenter is "the second most populated virtual world") suggests that if, in the past, people were hesitant to do this sort of thing in "public" (and "online" can often be "public"), that may now be changing.

A year ago I referred (in an, of course, entirely different context) to the blurring of the public and the private spheres of our lives, a blurring that's greatly aided and abetted by the internet. And of course that wasn't the first time. Four years ago I questioned why a couple might want to broadcast the birth of their child (to my mind an emotionally personal event) via the internet. But even back then, there was nothing new, nor novel, about this issue. We've witnessed a continual, and accelerated, blurring of these boundaries, and not only via the internet. Reality TV, for instance, though it bears only a superficial similarity to what most of us might call "reality", parades aspects of what has traditionally been considered the personal in front of millions of strangers.

That being the case, I don't really see why the same sort of thing shouldn't happen with porn. Perhaps what's strange is that it seems as though so few social networking communities devoted to porn seem to have sprung up. It may be, however, that there's really no need for them. Many readers comment on Regina Lynn's columns in Wired. Reviews by readers on Amazon might also be considered a form of discussion forum that embodies various aspects of online community. Highly "personal" reviews of lots of erotic literature (and handbooks) can be found in those "forums", such that something alone the lines of community can emerge. And this takes place without the formal framework of a declared "social networking" site. Porn and social networking, primarily because of the nature of the material, may never develop an explicit connection in cyberspace, but they may, perhaps, already be in the process of establishing an implicit connection that builds upon the tools of social networking without requiring any sort of formal membership.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Luftmentsh