Recently I’ve been seeing lots of tweets and headlines suggesting that Amazon is going through another round of cracking down on porn ebooks, generally burying them deeper and making them harder to find (or, as their people would no doubt put it, making it harder for porn to pop up accidentally in general searches.) I haven’t paid a lot of attention, because I’m old and I’m weary and I’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over again throughout the internet age. Somebody builds a platform or service or community or whatever, it is even better with porn, lots of people use it for porn, it grows awesomely, eventually the suits get uncomfortable with all the porn that is at the foundation of their business, and so they try to marginalize it or (usually later in the process) drive it out entirely (though this often fails).
Smart people know that the internet (hell, any new technology disruptive enough to be interesting) is for porn. Remember why home VCRs exploded in popularity? How many of you UseNet veterans were motivated to get a UseNet feed (or a better feed than the on you started with) because of the porn groups? Smarter observers than me have noticed that the appearance of porn on your new platform is proof, of a weak sort, that your platform is important enough to matter:
I’d offer the hypothesis that any sufficiently advanced read/write technology will get used for two purposes: pornography and activism. Porn is a weak test for the success of participatory media – it’s like tapping a mike and asking, “Is it on?” If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work. Activism is a stronger test – if activists are using your tools, it’s a pretty good indication that your tools are useful and usable.
There’s one sentence there that’s very important: “If you’re not getting porn in your system, it doesn’t work.” The suits always miss an important corollary: “If you’re trying to root out the porn in your system, you’re trying to break your own system.”
But, strive to break it they do. It’s a seemingly-inevitable phase in the growth cycle of any commercial “read/write technology”. (Although, these days, I’ve noticed that a lot of new platforms are attempting to bake “broken for grownups” into their products from the beginning. Pinterest and your “no nudity” TOS, I’m thinking of you! Google+ and your war on nyms, you also.)
The first one of these cycles I lived through was eBay in the early days. If you remember that far back (we’re talking mid 1990s) eBay was especially vital and amazing right after it got a critical mass of users, but before the whole world had figured out that old stuff was suddenly much more valuable now that there was an efficient mechanism for matching it to willing buyers. Basically there was a supply glut on nifty old stuff right at first, the accumulated collectibles of history all hitting the market at once. And this was as true for vintage porn (magazines and books and videotapes) as it was for any other genre of collectibles.
And it was AWESOME. I still have (in very deep storage) apple boxes full of vintage porn magazines I bought for less money than it cost to have them shipped to me via USPS media mail. Someday I’d love to get a high speed scanner and put them all up on the web Internet Archive style, but it would be a labor of years and I’d need a very wealthy and eccentric patron. Meanwhile, I preserve them as best I can.
But then Meg Whitman happened. It’s too many years ago now for me to recall how many successive waves of anti-porn activism swept the eBay auction platform, but it was many. The adult items got their own section, it got put behind an age self-verification button, the adult items vanished from the general search, the adult section itself got removed from the category listing making it very hard to find, and then there was wave after wave of auction removals based on listing policies that were vague and erratically enforced. There were rules about how much nudity could show on magazine covers, there were wide-ranging keyword bans that meant you could not list (or show an uncensored photo of) the true titles of many porn items, there was a ton of selective enforcement, and there was an enormous chilling effect because seller accounts were often banned or limited based on first-offense violations of these deeply-murky rules. It eventually became clear to everyone that Ebay under Meg Whitman (the former Disney exec) was now officially hostile to porn, where once it had been the leading sales platform for vintage porn especially. The market dried up, market offerings became bland and boring, and everybody who was on eBay for that reason had left. The suits, having stricken off the member that so offended them, declared victory and moved on. They broke it, but they like broken better. Broken is what they wanted, broken is what they got.
So now: is Amazon doing the same with erotic ebooks? To me it looks like early days, but yeah, I see the handwriting on the wall.
One high-profile erotica author, Selena Kitt, writes: “The Pornocalypse has begun. Amazon continues filtering erotica out of their All Department Search in large numbers.”
That’s true as far as it goes. My nascent Bacchus Media porn ebook project has one erotica title (a Victorian erotica classic that I repackaged for the Kindle back in 2009) for sale on Amazon, and sure enough, it’s flagged “Adult” and does not appear in an “All Departments” search. But it does appear in “Kindle Store” and “Books” searches, which strikes me as proper behavior. This is not (yet) a hidden and unsearchable category ghetto.
Not yet. But erotic authors are starting to feel the noose. Here’s Selena Kitt in another post:
Hey, does anyone remember when Amazon started banning erotic fiction?
Or when Apple removed “certain” titles from their bestseller lists?
Or when Paypal stopped paying for “certain types” of erotica?
When Amazon began excluding books from its “all department” search?
When Smashwords started cracking down on “nipples and floppy bits and dangly parts?“
When Apple began rejecting outright those books which contained “certain content” they didn’t agree with?
When Barnes and Noble stripped bestselling erotica books (in the top 100) of their ranks by 1,000 points?
And the new anti-porn rules get bizarre very quickly. Why would the largest bookseller in the world deny the existence of the Erotic Romance category? Back to the first Selena Kitt post I linked to:
Back when I hit the top 100 on Amazon, the competition wasn’t anywhere near as fierce as it is today. They didn’t know quite what to do with a naked woman’s bottom on their bestseller list.
That’s when they began the system that we are seeing them implementing now – what we in erotica circles call the “ADULT filter.” Back then, you were only filtered (which means that you were excluded from the all-department search, and your book didn’t appear in the also-boughts of any books that were not filtered, which was very limiting at the time!) if your book contained nudity on the cover.
So I slapped a thong on the woman on my Babysitting the Baumgartners cover and Amazon “unfiltered” my book. Sales resumed at their usual pace and life went on. But I had to figure out myself what the problem was, the reason the filter had been applied in the first place. There was no transparency on Amazon’s part. None. Nada. I even talked on the phone to an “Amazon executive customer service representative” who would only “confirm or deny” my suspicions.
I felt like Woodward and Bernstein talking to Deep Throat in a parking garage somewhere. That’s how bizarre and surreal the conversation was.
The media has recently picked up on Amazon’s latest attack on “porn,” but the Pornocalypse looks as if it’s just begun.
The filtering tool that Amazon previously only used to exclude nudity on covers is now being applied to books arbitrarily, but in very, very large numbers. We haven’t seen a purge this big on Amazon since they banned incest and bestiality in erotic work.
First of all, Amazon has now separated Erotica and Romance. I don’t know if erotic romance writers know this or have realized it yet, but Amazon has recently changed their policy (not that they’ve told anyone about it or anything!) and you can no longer put your book in BOTH Erotica and Romance categories. You have to choose one or the other. “Erotic Romance” as a category will now classify your book as “erotica.”
And be careful, because once you have labeled your book as “erotic,” they will not allow you to reclassify it as NOT erotic. The only exception to this rule I have seen so far is for traditionally published books (ala Fifty Shades). Self-published books don’t get this treatment.
Meg Whitman rides again, and this time her name is Jeff Bezos. My prediction is, the rules will get more restrictive and more opaque and more arbitrary. Erotica will never vanish from Amazon’s platform — just like it never vanished completely from Ebay — but its prominence in the success of the Kindle platform will be swept under the rug of history.
And make no mistake: erotica mattered to the success of the Kindle and to that of ebook readers in general. Here’s my own take on that from a few months ago, from a post I called Discreet Porn For Women:
It’s no secret that the rise of the portable e-book reader (whatever brand you favor) has triggered a quiet boom in the prose-porn-for-women industry. But if you’re a man and you’re like me, you may have been fooled by the unassuming “Erotic Romance” styling of the genre.
When a book was a physical artifact only, you had three choices. First, you could limit your reading to book-objects that wouldn’t get you more grief than you could handle, when you were observed with them by your friends and family. Second, you could limit your reading to times and places so private that your book-objects were physically secure from observation. Or, third, you could fudge, by reading book-objects that looked more innocuous than they were, placing them in the first category by courtesy.
Now the electronic reader gives you a fourth choice: read whatever the hell you want, where-ever the hell you want, and just flip closed your completely opaque personalized bejazzled leatherette Hello Kitty e-reader cover whenever anybody else gets too close to your screen. Throw in the Internet so you can buy whatever the hell you want without any witnesses, and the circle is complete. Your credit card statement says “Amazon” and your browser history says (at worst) “erotic romance” and it’s all so very safe from inspection, criticism, or judgment.
Here’s a confirming related visual found at Bondage Blog, talking about why an iPad is an awesome thing to have for looking at porn in public:
Selena Kitt puts the “porn built the Kindle” case even more strongly, from her erotica author’s perspective:
Jeff Bezos may have put out the product, but I made the Kindle into what it is today. Me, and legions of other erotica writers who were already writing it, and those who came later, who saw how much readers were clamoring for it. Readers could suddenly read erotica without anyone seeing the cover. The Kindle device made that possible, Amazon made the Kindle available… but I provided the content readers were surreptitiously reading under their desks at work and on the subway home.
THAT is what sold Kindles. Porn. Face it, Jeff Bezos. You owe the success of Kindle to me, and to every erotica writer out there making a living writing “porn.”
It’s true. And Jeff Bezos knows it. But Amazon is moving on nonetheless. The Pornocalypse comes for us all.
Who is next? My guess would be Tumblr. Tumblr is, of all the big platforms, perhaps the most porn friendly; there’s lots of porn on there and the Terms of Service do not prohibit it. But if you surf Tumblr porn blogs for very long, you’ll notice that they get deactivated a lot. There are some kind of rules (not published anywhere) and if you break them (or, maybe, if somebody complains) you get nuked. What is forbidden? Tumblr does not say. Maybe it’s age-play images that causes trouble (it can be hard to distinguish that stuff from illegal/pedo shit after all), maybe it’s rough sex photos that aren’t obviously consensual/commercial porn, maybe it’s scat or bestiality. It’s hard to say when all you’ve got to go by is the occasional non-working link with [deactivated] in it.
But Tumblr is, famously, a popular platform in search of a revenue-generating business model. And we’ve learned that the suits have no loyalty to the porn users who made their platform popular. So, my bold prediction is that as Tumblr casts about for a business model, one of their steps will be to “clean this place up” (for the VCs, for the advertisers, for the potential buyers, for somebody). A lot more porn tumblrs will go away when that happens.
The pornocalypse comes for us all.
Is there any defense against the pornocalypse? Not really. To be sure, if you follow Bacchus’s First Rule Of The Internet you can at least protect yourself from losing your data and intellectual property when the anti-porn suits decide to “clean up” whatever social publishing platform you might otherwise have been using. You remember my First Rule: “Anything worth doing on the internet is worth doing at your own domain that you control.” Unfortunately I wrote that before the true social power of platforms became fully apparent to me. You can protect your physical stuff from loss if you keep it buried in a cave, too, but what good is it if people can’t see it and play with it?
Social media platforms, publishing platforms, auction platforms, online stores, all of these benefit from the network effects of their many connected users, and increasingly they are turning into self-contained silos that aren’t sufficiently connected to the open internet. Following the First Rule protects you from loss, but it doesn’t expose you to gain as well as I thought it did, back in 2004 when I first wrote it down. Back then I believed in the power of the open web and in the impartiality of Google. You make a cool porn thing, you put it on the web, people will find it, joy and orgasms and profit for everybody. But here in 2013 things look very different. What’s more useless than an iPhone app that isn’t allowed into the Apple store? If you publish that bad boy on your own domain, Google won’t surface it well for searchers and Apple won’t let them install it if they did find it. Nope, the First Rule is not enough.
If you want to play, you have to play where the people are. If you do anything with erotica and porn, that means shunning the platforms where you’re wholly unwelcome, pushing yourself as far as possible onto the platforms where you’re somewhat tolerated, and enthusiastically exploiting the platforms where you’re truly welcome. But it’s important to understand that companies and platforms have life cycles, and there seems inevitably to come a time in all of them where porn that was formerly welcome (often, porn that played a fundamental role in building the popularity of the platform) will get kicked to the curb or shoved behind a sleazy curtain at the back of the store. Although I believe in making this process as embarrassing and painful as possible for the companies that do it, I don’t really believe it can be prevented, or even mitigated much. All you can do is expect it, prepare for it, diversify as much as possible onto as many platforms as possible, and stay agile.
The pornocalypse comes for us all.
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