Or: Why you shouldn’t get your porn industry statistics from the guy who was trying to sell anti-porn filtering software to scared parents in 2006.

So, a URL went by on Twitter for a porn article on Alternet. Relevant to my interests, right? So I opened it in a tab. It started reasonably enough:

Pornography 101: Why College Kids Need Porn Literacy Training
Mobile technology and abstinence-only guarantee that more young people get their sex ed from pornography. It’s time to talk to them about what they’re watching.

September 15, 2010 I am a professor. As I return to the classroom this fall, my thoughts turn to porn. More specifically, to the fact that in apartments, dorms — and from the back of some WiFi-ed classrooms — college students are cruising the Internet with the left-handed mouse.

So far, so reasonable. It’s 10 weeks old … so sue me … but I’ll keep reading. Imagine me doing the reader equivalent of the 15 mph cruise through a residential suburb. Then I get to the following paragraph. Consider it to be a railroad tie across the road; the noise you hear is me biting through my tongue as the top of my head bounces off the roof of my vehicle:

“Sex” is the number-one search term used around the globe. Every second, people spend $3,000 on Internet porn. There are an estimate 370 million Internet porn sites, and industry revenues surpass earnings by Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple, and Netflix combined.

Wait, what?

One thing we know about the porn business is that there aren’t any reliable commercial statistics. Most of the companies are privately held, nobody shares sales data, and estimates of the size of the porn business vary wildly.

Nobody knows squat.

Bottom line — seriously — nobody knows. People did use to throw around some huge numbers, especially a few years ago, but the porn industry has fallen on hard times since, with a ton of producers closing up shop and overall sales diminishing sharply. Some of that’s recession, some of that is changing bank credit card rules, some of it is increasing consumer willingness and ability to find and download “free” porn. But these days, nobody seriously believes the porn industry is bigger than all the mega tech companies combined. They probably never were; they certainly aren’t now.

But this is AlterNet — isn’t it a fairly respectable web publication that does real journalism, with editors and everything? Their mission statement says so (my emphasis added):

AlterNet is an award-winning news magazine and online community that creates original journalism and amplifies the best of hundreds of other independent media sources. AlterNet’s aim is to inspire action and advocacy on the environment, human rights and civil liberties, social justice, media, health care issues, and more. Since its inception in 1998, AlterNet.org has grown dramatically to keep pace with the public demand for independent news. We provide free online content to millions of readers, serving as a reliable filter, keeping our vast audience well-informed and engaged, helping them to navigate a culture of information overload and providing an alternative to the commercial media onslaught. Our aim is to stimulate, inform, and instigate.

What’s more, they’ve got at least five people described as “editor” on their staff page. So, surely they didn’t just let this “I am a professor” argument-from-credentials person pull her “$3,000-a-second, more revenue than all the megatech companies earn” numbers out of her ass, did they?

You wouldn’t think.

So, who actually wrote this dog of a paragraph, and where did she pull those numbers, if not from the Stygian depths of her own “personal area”?

The article is bylined by one Shira Tirant, and the byline is linked to this author info page, where we learn:

Shira Tarrant, Ph.D., is a nationally recognized expert on gender politics, feminism, pop culture, and masculinity. She is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at California State University, Long Beach, and the author of several books, including Men and Feminism (Seal Press). She is currently writing The Sex Wars: Pole Dancing, Porn and Other Things That Freak People Out.

Good: she’s got a Ph.D., so she knows about the value of having sources, and citing them, and not just pulling numbers out of her ass.

Bad: her field is not really numbers-heavy, so it might be possible for her to be suckered by some of the authoritative-looking but bullshit-laden wild-ass-guessing that passes for the only numbers that exist out there, on the size of the porn industry.

Still, her numbers are very specific, to a peculiar degree in fact. Again, where did she get them?

I went back and looked again at the paragraph with extra care. In the original, there were some links in there, and one of them was under the words “industry revenues”. Aha! Her source! Sweet, some numbers!

Oh, the quickly dashed hopes. Oh, the terrible pain.

The link took me here, to a website called “Internet Pornography Statistics” run by an outfit called “Top Ten Reviews” with the motto of “We do the research so you don’t have to.”

Are you nervous yet?

Professor Tirant, I think, should be ashamed of herself. What score would she have given her students for citing a source of this quality in work for one of her classes?

Likewise, the editors of Alternet. This is journalism? Sorry, it ain’t even web journalism. I’m “just” a blogger, and even I won’t link to shit this weak.

How weak are we talking? Venture with me, as we survey the grandiose weakness of the shit, yeah and verily with unknowable precision even unto the penny:

According to compiled numbers from respected news and research organizations, every second $3,075.64 is being spent on pornography…. The pornography industry has larger revenues than Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo, Apple and Netflix combined. 2006 Worldwide Pornography Revenues ballooned to $97.06 billion.

That’s from the introduction to an 11-page report. Those numbers are awesomely specific, but where do they come from? “Respected news and research organizations” you say? Oh really?

oh, really?

I say again, respected news and research organizations? Which ones, exactly? And, kiddies, do we notice that the one date we’ve got is for 2006? Professor Tirant, did you happen to notice that in your 2010 article?

Well, it’s an 11 page report, maybe there are citations at the end. (I’ll save you some trouble; don’t hold your breath.) But meanwhile, who wrote this piece of exquisite shyte, and why did they write it?

Well, the author listed as one Jerry Ropalato, and the content management system used by Top Ten Reviews links that byline to this utterly bland and sterile user profile page that doesn’t tell you anything about who he is. But Top Ten Reviews is a product of Tech Media Network and by rummaging in the footer links we eventually discover this informative link to the executive profiles, where we discover that our friend Jerry is the CEO, has “a reputation for his contributions to Internet marketing” and is a “recognized Internet Safety expert” (capitalization his). He also used to be the Chief Operating Officer of a company called “ContentWatch”.

Hmm, I wonder if he’s entirely neutral and reliable on this whole internet porn question?

Let’s read further. Back to the porn statistics article, still in the introduction, a couple of sentences further along:

Anyone interested in Internet Filter Software and Internet Security Suites Software will find plentiful information about creating and maintaining a safe and secure internet experience at home and work.

Wait, what? Those two capitalized phrases (“Internet Filter Software” and “Internet Security Suites Software”) are linked in the article, linked to other pages at Top Ten Reviews. The first one goes to a page featuring a photo of a cute kid at a computer and copy that reads:

Shield Your Family from Pornography and Predators

Today’s high-tech porn-pushers make it a challenge to protect families from unwanted pornography. Fortunately, with tools like internet filter software, it’s possible to fight back.

Do we still think this guy is a reliable source for internet pornography statistics? His whole business is built around building up the size of the threat!

But still, 11 page report, yada yada, maybe his heart is pure and he actually has some good sources and cites them, right? I’ll read through and check.

It’s a fast trip. The 11 “pages” are for SEO and advertising purposes only … there’s more prose on this ErosBlog post, quite a lot more in fact. It’s a tiny report, broken up to ensure pointless clicking, annoy you, and provide more page views. But no, there’s nothing in there like a specific source. And then we finally get to the end, where we find the most hilarious not-quite-disclaimer and non-specific string citation I’ve ever seen. Once again, I must quote:

Sources:
Statistics are compiled from the credible sources mentioned below. In reality, statistics are hard to ascertain and may be estimated by local and regional worldwide sources.

ABC, Associated Press, AsiaMedia, AVN, BBC, CATW, U.S. Census, Central Intelligence Agency, China Daily, Chosen.com, Comscore Media Metrix, Crimes Against Children, Eros, Forbes, Frankfurt Stock Exchange, Free Speech Coalition, Google, Harris Interactive, Hitwise, Hoover’s, Japan Inc., Japan Review, Juniper Research, Kagan Research, ICMEC, Jan LaRue, The Miami Herald, MSN, Nielsen/NetRatings, The New York Times, Nordic Institute, PhysOrg.com, PornStudies, Pravda, Sarmatian Review, SEC filings, Secure Computing Corp., SMH, TopTenREVIEWS, Trellian, WICAT, Yahoo!, XBIZ

I especially love that “In reality, statistics are hard to ascertain and may be estimated…” No shit, Sherlock. Translation: “After much fruitless Googling, I pulled a bunch of impressive-sounding numbers out of my ass to compile this worthless piece of linkbait.”

So, why am I exercised? At Jerry, I’m not, really. He’s just a transparent fear-mongering SEO monkey trying to sell nearly-worthless filtering software to clueless parents who don’t know any better and are too lazy to parent their children in the digital age. Garden variety internet business scum, but there are people who would say the same of me for daring to try and make a buck selling internet porn, and across the philosophical gulf that separates us, I see no point in throwing (any more) stones.

But my sentiments with respect to Professor Tirant are actually rather more derisive. She should fucking know better. She’s a scholar, or she’s paid to be; to her, facts are supposed to matter. And yet she got suckered by made-up commercial link-bait nonsense, and cited it as fact to make a rhetorical point simply because it was convenient. The point wasn’t central to her article, so I’m guessing it was a lazy rhetorical flourish — she wanted a number, so she Googled one, and didn’t give very much of a damn if it was real. She probably forbids her students from using or citing WikiPedia — my college professor friends tell me that’s getting trendy in academia — but she herself cited an internet source that doesn’t have a tenth of its reliability.

Balanced against all this, I grant her only that she could have Googled carefully and at length, and she would have done no better; there realio trulio aren’t any good numbers out there. This Economist article from 2009 is about the best sort of thing you will find, and it has nothing in it better than a number that one really knowledgeable industry insider pulled out of his ass. There’s just no freakin’ data. If she’d been careful and honest, she would have wasted an hour, then had to re-write the article without that zippy paragraph. Just as, I presume, she would expect her students to do, in the absence of reliable sources to cite for a sexy statistic in a class assignment.

And what about Alternet? Do they not edit? I know that fact checking is a luxury that web publications cannot afford, but I’m just a damned blogger, and when I make a factual assertion backed by a link, I at least look at where the link goes to make sure it’s not some complete bullshit destination. Five editors at the “award winning news magazine”, and nobody noticed the link to mendacious four-years-outdated linkbait?

I don’t function often in the role of web critic, in great part because my own feet are made of a rich earthen mixture. But this, my friends, is an entire shipment of FAIL:

shipment of fail