Follow the porn: To go mainstream, new tech needs hard-core potential

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Credit: Realbotix

We often fail to consider several obstacles when predicting mainstream adoption of an emerging technology, such as convenience, ease of use, cost, learning curve and social pressures. (Are my friends on this platform? Do I look stupid wearing this?)

But the most crucial overlooked predictor distinguishes a shiny fad from a revolutionary innovation: porn.

Think about history's most groundbreaking innovations in information technology—the printing press, daguerreotype, VHS, digital photography, instant messaging, e-commerce, video streaming, most social media platforms and ephemeral "story" content—and there's one thing they all have in common: They were first adopted by the purveyors of sexually explicit content.

As we try to determine what the media landscape will look like a decade from now, the key is to follow the porn.

The innovation cycle

Pornography has driven technology throughout history, but it's done so in the shadows. As the pace of change accelerates, a clear pattern emerges:

  1. A new communications technology is developed. Early adopters realize it has the potential to make hard-core content more accessible.
  2. This benefit lowers initial barriers to mainstream adoption.
  3. After an adoption tipping point is reached, monetization often demands sanitization. Pornographic applications are banished or blocked.
  4. The early adopters are driven from the platform and search for another new technology.
  5. The process begins again. A communications technology that falters at any step fizzles out.

Take Tumblr. The first of the mainstream social networks to support animated GIFs, Tumblr failed to clear Step 3. Five years ago, it was among the top 10 websites in the U.S., with 20 billion monthly page views; adult websites were its leading category of incoming referral traffic. But Tumblr struggled to monetize, lacked funds to invest in new features and eventually lost users to competitors like Giphy. Tumblr's mainstream user base has shrunk, but porn is more prominent than ever on the platform.

Almost a year before Google Glass was released to the public, a developer released its first porn app. Two weeks later, Google changed its platform development policy to ban all nudity and sexually explicit content. Without this, its barriers to adoption were too high. Glass was a commercial failure.

(Compare this to the Apple Watch. Though Apple also prohibits NSFW apps, Watch has survived because its restrictions to viewing and searching for porn are less stringent.)

One of the latest developments to the way we consume social content, the ephemeral "story" format, fits neatly into this cycle. Snapchat's disappearing content was so readily adopted by teens as a tool to exchange nudes that a 10-year study released in April named Snapchat as the cause of an "explosion of sexting."

With Stories, Snapchat transitioned from a chat app to a social platform; Facebook offered to buy Snapchat for $3 billion just a month later, and Snapchat passed.

As a result, Facebook has been imitating its content format ever since, slowly stealing back Snapchat's user base. With better infrastructure in place to monetize and a strict policy against sexually explicit content, Facebook has seen more success with the content format. Stories are now virtually omnipresent, adopted by platforms ranging from Netflix to Google AMP. Thanks, nudes.

What's next

You don't have to sink too far into the gutter to recognize that virtual and augmented reality could be groundbreaking for the creators and consumers of hard-core content. Eventually.

These innovations face many of the same obstacles as did wearables: tech we can't yet integrate into our daily lives; the product is expensive; and we don't look cool using it. But there's also plenty of indication that demand should be powerful enough to lower these adoption barriers.

If there's a reason these technologies still haven't taken off as quickly as we'd expect, it's not that they couldn't make it through the five steps. It's that porn is seen as a liability by the players working on these developments, many of whom own both the hardware (Facebook's Oculus Rift, Apple's iPhone, Google's Android devices, Microsoft's HoloLens) and their means of distribution.

The path to any groundbreaking information tech has never been squeaky clean. Whether we innovate will depend on how comfortable we are accepting sexually explicit content as the driver. Whatever your stance on pornography, it's not going anywhere—except, if we'll allow it, forward.

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