Why Pornhub is rated higher than LinkedIn in global Alexa rank

Pornography is much weirder than music, both as concept and as industry, and so, unsurprisingly, the emergent properties of the overturning of the porn industry are much weirder too, and the full extent of their ripple effects have yet to be measured, argues Jon Ronson in his equal parts charming and spellbinding podcast series “The Butterfly Effect.”

“Whatever happens to musicians happens to everybody,” said Bruce Sterling years ago, referring to the effects of free downloadable music on their industry; and so it has come to pass for pornographers.


Though that story seems simple in outline, a Belgian named Fabian who started trading in passwords to porn sites in the 1990s apparently knew the adult movie industry’s potentials. Next decade, he purchases a relatively small company in Montreal which offers porn online for free. It faithfully complies with DMCA takedown requests, but they have no hope of keeping up with the firehose of uploads. He applied modern data science, A/B testing, SEO, among others, and his business grew from “substantial” to “enormous.”

Based on that he gets a $362 million loan, which he uses to purchase essentially all of his competitors. Ultimately, this cornucopia of free porn makes Fabian very, very rich, while impoverishing the American porn industry, headquartered in the San Fernando Valley just north of Los Angeles. It is the tale of a transfer of colossal amount of money, and viewers, from the Valley to Montreal; from porn directors and performers to buttoned-down data scientists and infrastructure engineers.

It is also, more interestingly, a tale of the emergent properties of free content. For instance: there is so much free porn that it had to be taxonomized. This, in turn, trained users to focus on and search for particular categories and keywords, which also forced the industry to adapt to those keywords.

Ronson finds a director (Mike Quasar, the find of the show) working on a movie called Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy 2. “I guess the first one left a lot of unanswered questions,” Quasar cracks, but in fact it’s called that because titles have become strings of keywords.

Ronson discovers that because porn viewers search for either “teen” or “MILF,” performers in between those ages, i.e. women aged between 24 and 29, find themselves effectively shut out of the industry for those years. It should be noted that Ronson talks to quite a few women, and does not depict the industry as the exploitative nightmare that, say, the movie “Hot Girls Wanted” does, though he doesn’t especially depict it as uplifting and empowering either.

What first drew him to the subject was the raw contempt with which many “normal” people treat porn performers.

Another emergent property of free porn is that porn now reaches enormous audiences. Pornhub, which is just one of dozens of porn brands owned by this same Montreal company, has a higher global Alexa rank than LinkedIn or eBay. 4 of the top 50 US sites are porn.

Studies show that 90% of men in college, and a third of women, have watched porn within the previous year. We can conclude that a substantial majority of the entire adult population — and, awkwardly, probably the teenage one, too — indulges in pornography, while much to most of that same adult population simultaneously treats the porn industry as fundamentally contemptible and shameful.

That neo-Victorian attitude towards sexuality and porn performers, our collective cultural madonna/whore complex, may be changing, but not quickly. Note that Fabian got a $362 million loan, while porn performers have trouble getting leases, or small business loans, and/or get fired from other jobs, when their profession emerges. Which makes the siphoning of pornographic income away from performers and towards data scientists especially problematic.