Web Informant #106, 27 March 1998:
In praise of porn


I think it is time to stop the whining about web porn sites and admit they make a valuable contribution to web society. I am not talking about the articles on playboy.com, but Internet payment schemes, streaming video and authentication. By and large, these technologies are primitive outside cyber-porn and probably wouldn't have gotten there without the mass-market appeal of sex.

As with the video rental business two decades ago, porn has greatly furthered a medium with inauspicious beginnings.

In the days B.W. (before the web), we had two principle sources of porn: the alt.sex.various newsgroups and Compuserve. Newsgroups made use of special software, called news readers or news clients, that connect to a news server. Because newsgroups were invented before people thought about sending each other dirty pictures (or indeed, any kind of graphics), you first had to take your .GIF or .JPEG file and encode it so that it could be transmitted as a bunch of text. And of course, once you received this message, you had to decode it as well.

Compuserve has always had various forums (their word for the equivalent kind of free-ranging discussions) that contained porn. You just had to know the keyword to find them. A celebrated lawsuit in Germany brought some additional technology to bear where anyone could restrict their own account, say to keep things from the kiddies.

Nevertheless, many would-be porn connoisseurs were frustrated by these technologies. Getting access to the pictures took some technically know-how. Luckily, the web was invented just in time to solve the problem. Most web browsers come configured to view images such as GIFs and JPEGs without any additional software. All that was needed was for porn merchants to put up web sites with such memorable domain names such as clublove.com and naughty.com. Before one could say centerfold, we had thousands of such sites.

Then came along the misguided Communications Decency Act a few years ago. While the legislation was on the books briefly, many web site owners were fearful that any underage viewers could land them in jail. This is where the authentication part of the story gets interesting. Rather than have any would-be customer register at several hundred different schemes, a few enterprising merchants like AdultCheck created standards to authenticate visitors.

Of course, no authentication system is iron-clad. These sites ask you to pledge that you are of the age of majority, and a credit card number to charge your "Adult Pass" subscription to. Neither of these will take the most web-challenged teenager much to defeat. But that isn't the point. The porn sites have brought some order to something that so far has resisted any hint of standardization.

How many of you can keep track of all the various passwords you have for your own frequently-visited sites, even those of us that don't want to stay up to date on the latest pix of Pam and Tommy? You have two strategies: use the same ones over and over again, registering with the same name and perhaps one of three different passwords on multiple sites. While simple, this gets complicated over time because invariably you tend to forget which one you've used for which site.

A second strategy is to just enumerate the passwords and user name combinations on some piece of paper or in a text file on your hard disk. Wouldn't it be nice to have some standards here?

But viewing still images wasn't enough to stay competitive in today's world of net.porn. The public desired video, and this is my second issue.

At the moment, there are over a dozen different ways you can obtain video images inside or alongside your web browser. They all suck: even with high-speed Internet access and under the best of circumstances, the images are too small, the video resolution something akin to a 1950's TV set, and forget about having the audio synchronized anywhere near the video.

Matching the right set of plug-ins, Java applets, browser version and other bits and pieces of technology between your desktop and the video site is anywhere from a complex undertaking to nearly impossible, depending on your own skills and what else you've downloaded lately. And if you want to download the file and play back the video off your own hard disk instead of over the net, you'll find that it takes about five to fifty times longer to download the file than to view it - not a very satisfactory situation.

We haven't yet seen the total effect of porn here, but my guess is that within another year we'll have some solid standards in place for streaming video. And it will happen first on the porn sites.

The third issue is payments, and here again we have the porn merchants to take us to the next level. Right now, if you want to pay for something over the net, you are either fearful (about getting your credit card number stolen) or frustrated (because many eCommerce sites don't work properly). Porn merchants were the first to jump on the Internet payment bandwagon: one of First Virtual Holdings' biggest beneficiaries was a porn site that charged just a few dollars per picture, using their pioneering payment system.

Porn customers aren't going to wait around, filling out several screen-based forms. If the system isn't dirt simple and quick, they'll move on to someone else's site that is less complex. I look to these sites to help the more staid commercial web sites out in designing the right kinds of payment screens. While there is still much work to be done in terms of how credit card payments get posted to one's merchant account, again porn has moved out in front on this issue.

So, let's recognize their contribution for what it is: the trail blazers of net.technology. Meanwhile, I gotta go catch that terrific interview on playboy.com.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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