The first form of pornography shared online was probably via ASCII art. Before computer graphics went mainstream, early Internet users in the 1970s and 1980s figured out how to organize bars, dots, and lines on a screen into pictures of body parts much more intricate than the average “(.)(.)” one might have thrown into an AIM chat in third grade. As a technical reporter Samantha Cole writes in his new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected Story “Anyone could do raw ASCII of boobs or stick figures, but it took a patient artist to create something with lifelike detail, line by line, like tiles on the frame of a keyboard.” Which is to say: at each stage of the internet’s history, people have only gotten progressively more creative about being horny on the main.
When I called Cole a few weeks ago to chat, Elon Musk‘S Acquisition of Twitter had just been finalized, and we talked about how his book’s thesis — that we owe some of our greatest internet innovations to the enduring but ever-changing needs of adult content — already has major implications for at least one of the patterns Musk flagged : create a video paywall service on Twitter. Equally relevant: the ensuing exodus of Twitter users who have begun looking for a new place to roost, which Cole pointed out is perhaps the only predictable feature of online life for anyone on the internet, but especially for prostitutes and content creators for adults whose digital migrations so often revolutionize everyone’s technology along the way.
Below, Cole talks with Vanity Fair about the internet’s long and difficult relationship with sex and how, despite all of our technological advances today, we’re still looking for something faster, better, truer connectivity.
Vanity Fair: Your book begins with all these stories of the proto-internet, an age of bulletin board systems, Geocities, and ASCII porn. What was it like researching that era where the internet is so ephemeral? For example, how far does the Wayback Machine go back?
Samantha Cole: Not as much as I would like; I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the Internet Archive. It’s difficult because a lot is falling. Link rot is very real even from week to week. So you look like 30 years ago and try to find conversations that people were having on forums.
Is there anything about all that internet archeology that stands out to you?
There’s a story I really loved on the Usenet where people talked about having sex while scuba diving. That conversation went from 1997 to 2020 and is perhaps still ongoing on Google Groups. I thought it was really funny because it was something 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 truly close friends. People used it as a dating pool, because they were all New Yorkers. Some of them got married and had children, but others broke up. And then they would no longer be able to use Echo, because it was too sad to see their former detachment. There was no way to mute or block people. So he was like, I’ve had to remove people asking me a lot of times, saying, “I’m too heartbroken to see the post of so-and-so.”
Seeing your ex online: a problem since the early days of the internet!
A fundamental part of the Internet.
There have been some big recent developments that could have implications for the future of being online. The first one I want to ask about, of course, is Twitter. Among the many, many things Elon Musk is toying with for the future of the platform, one of them is the possibility of a paid adult video feature. Basically OnlyFans, but on Twitter. Could it really happen?
This is certainly something I’m keeping an eye out for. I don’t think whoever is proposing these ideas has seen through the extreme difficulty adult websites have to even stand up as adult websites without engaging mainstream audiences under 18.
If they’re going to try that, they’re going to realize very quickly that things like the discrimination by banks and Square, all these payment processors that people take advantage of on the mainstream are not friendly to adult transactions. They’ll have to think about, 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 is just such a Pandora’s box that people in the adult industry have been thinking and working on, 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, would possibly hold up.
But you know, Twitter is already under attack from people who hate porn and hate internet sex in general. This is a real risk for him. And it’s a real shame to expose people who use Twitter to this risk: people who use Twitter to advertise their OnlyFans or their clip sites and meet customers, things like that. Twitter is one of the last places you can just post adult content that you’re in with everyone else; It’s not like the adult section of Twitter. Your exposure is to everyone, with the caveat that Twitter rates porn pretty severely. Like it 13% of the site it’s porn or something, so it makes sense that it wants to monetize it. He’s ready for a world of problems that I don’t think he’s ready for. But this is applicable to everything he’s doing.
The other big story in the news is that perhaps serendipitously timed announcement Tumblr is bringing back the nudity— though not necessarily all NSFW content. Are these two shifts somehow connected?