The first form of pornography shared online was probably through ASCII art. Before computer graphics became popular, early Internet users in the 1970s and 1980s figured out how to arrange bars, dots, and lines on a screen. pictures of body parts much more complicated than the average “(.)(.)” one might have gotten out in an AIM chat in third grade. As a technology journalist Samantha Cole writes in his new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected Story, “Anyone can make a rough ASCII of tits or pinups, but it took a patient artist to craft something with realistic detail, line by line, like weaving on a keyboard loom.” That is: throughout each stage of the Internet’s history, people have only become progressively more creative to be horny in the main.
When I called Cole a few weeks ago to talk, Elon Musk‘s Acquisition of Twitter had just become final, and we talked about how his book’s thesis—we owe some of our greatest Internet innovations to the enduring but ever-evolving needs of adult content—already has important implications for at least one of Musk’s reported schemes. : create one paywall video service on Twitter. Also relevant: the ensuing exodus of Twitter users who began looking for a new place to hang out, which Cole noted is perhaps the only predictable feature of online life for anyone on the internet, but especially for sex workers and creators of content for adults. whose digital migrations so often revolutionize everyone’s technology along the way.
Downstairs, Cole talks to Vanity Fair about the internet’s long and uneasy relationship with sex, and how, despite all our technological advances today, we still lack faster, better, more true connectivity
Vanity Fair: Your book starts with all these proto-internet stories, an age of bulletin board systems and ASCII porn and Geocities. What was it like to research that time when the internet is so ephemeral? How, how do you go back to the Wayback Machine?
Samantha Cole: Not as far back as I’d like; I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Internet Archive. It’s hard because so much is falling. Link rot is very real even from week to week. So you’re looking at like 30 years ago and trying to find conversations that people had on the forums.
Is there anything in all that internet archeology that stands out to you?
There’s a story I loved on Usenet where people were talking about how to have sex while scuba diving. That conversation happened from 1997 to 2020, and may still be going on in Google Groups. I thought it was really funny because it was something that people kept picking up year after year.
Stacy Hornwho actually founded the Echo New York BBS in 1989, he told me how Echo users would become very close friends. People would use it as a dating pool, because they were all New Yorkers. Some of them got married and had children, but others would break up. And then they couldn’t use Echo anymore, because it was too sad to see their ex post. There was no way to mute or block people. So, she said, I’ve had to delete many times people asking me, “I’m too heartbroken to see so-and-so’s post.”
See Your Ex Online: A Problem Since The Dawn Of The Internet!
A very fundamental part of the internet.
There have been some major recent developments that could have implications for the future of online connectivity. The first thing I want to ask you, of course, is Twitter. Among the many, many things that Elon Musk is playing with for the future of the platform, one of them is the possibility of adult paid video feature. Basically OnlyFans, but on Twitter. Could that really happen?
That’s certainly something I’m on the lookout for. I don’t think anyone coming up with those ideas has seen the extreme difficulty adult websites have in maintaining themselves as adult sites without engaging the under 18 audience.
If they’re going to try it, they’re going to realize very quickly that things like bank discrimination and Square, all these payment processors that people are benefiting from in the mainstream, are not friendly to adult transactions. They will have to think, like, FOSTA/SESTA [the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which became law in 2018 and amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, making websites liable for hosting content that facilitates or promotes prostitution]. They will have anti-trafficking people everywhere. It’s just a Pandora’s box that people in the adult industry have been thinking about and working on and advocating and solving these problems for a long time. Unless Elon miraculously decides to hire and commission advice from people in the adult industry, which I doubt, maybe that would be a solution.
But you know, Twitter is already under attack from people who hate porn and hate internet sex in general. That’s a real risk for him. And it’s a real shame to open up people who are using Twitter to that risk—people who are using Twitter to advertise their OnlyFans or their clip sites and meet clients, things like that. Twitter is one of the last places where you can post adult content where you’re with everyone else; It’s not like the adult section of Twitter. Your exposure is for everyone, with the caveat that Twitter classifies pornography quite severely. i like 13% of the site it’s porn or something, so it makes sense that he’d want to monetize that. He faces a world of problems that I don’t think he’s ready for. But that applies to everything he’s doing.
The other big story in the news is that perhaps the announcement was coincidentally timed Tumblr is bringing nudity back—though not necessarily all NSFW content. Are these two shifts related in any way?