The first form of pornography shared online was probably via ASCII art. Before computer graphics became mainstream, early Internet users in the 70s and 80s figured out how to organize the slashes, dots, and lines on a screen into images of much more complex than average body parts.” (.)(.)” we could have rushed into an AIM chat in third year. Samantha Cole writes in his new book, How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex: An Unexpected Story, “Anyone could make crude ASCII of breasts or stick-shaped pin-ups, but it took a patient artist to create something realistic, line by line, like the weaving on the loom of a keyboard.” That is to say, at every stage of internet history, people have become more and more creative to get excited about Main.
When I called Cole a few weeks ago to chat, Elon MuskTwitter’s takeover has just been finalized, and we talked about how his book’s thesis — that we owe some of our greatest internet innovations to the persistent but ever-changing needs of adult content — already has major implications for at least one of the schemes Musk pointed out: creating a paid video service on Twitter. Also relevant: the ensuing exodus of Twitter users who began looking for a new place to perch, which Cole says is perhaps the only predictable feature of online life for anyone on the internet. but especially for sex workers and adult content creators. whose digital migrations so often revolutionize everyone’s technology along the way.
Below, Cole speaks with vanity lounge about the internet’s long and difficult relationship with sex – and how, despite all our technological advances today, we’re still looking for faster, better, truer connectivity.
Vanity Lounge: Your book begins with all these tales of the proto-internet – an era of bulletin board systems, Geocities and ASCII porn. What was it like doing research in this age when the internet is so ephemeral? For example, how far back does the Wayback Machine go?
Samantha Cole: Not as far as I would like; I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Internet Archive. It’s difficult because a lot of them fall. Link rot is very real even week to week. Then you look back 30 years and try to find conversations that people had on forums.
Is there anything in all this archeology on the Internet that has stuck with you?
There’s a story I really loved on Usenet where people were talking about how to have sex while scuba diving. This conversation took place from 1997 to 2020 and may still be ongoing on Google Groups. I thought it was really funny because it was something people picked up on year after year.
Stacy Horn, who actually founded the BBS Echo New York in 1989, told me how Echo users would become very close friends. People used it kind of like a dating pool, because it was all New Yorkers. Some of them got married and had children, but others broke up. And then they couldn’t use Echo anymore, because it was so sad to see their ex post. There was no way to mute or block people. So she was like, I had to delete people many times who asked me, saying, “I’m too heartbroken to see so-and-so’s message.”
Seeing your ex online: a problem since the dawn of the internet!
A very fundamental part of the Internet.
There have been a few big recent developments that could have implications for the future of online connectivity. The first one I want to ask you about, of course, is Twitter. Among the many things that Elon Musk would play 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 this actually happen?
It’s definitely something I’m watching. I don’t think anyone coming up with these ideas has seen through the extreme difficulty adult websites have to even just stay online as adult websites without engaging the mainstream under 18 audience.
If they want to try it, they are going to realize very quickly that things like discrimination from banks and Square, all these payment processors that people take advantage of in the mainstream are not adult transaction friendly. 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’re going to have anti-trafficking people all over them. It’s just such a Pandora’s box that people in the adult industry have been thinking about and working on, advocating for and solving these issues for a very long time. Unless Elon miraculously decides to hire and seek advice from people in the adult industry, which I doubt might be resisted.
But you know, Twitter is already under attack from people who hate porn and hate sex on the internet in general. It’s a real risk for him. And it’s such a shame to expose the people who use Twitter to this risk – people who use Twitter to advertise their OnlyFans or their music video sites and meet clients, stuff like that. Twitter is one of the last places where you can just post adult content where you are there with everyone; It’s not like the adult section of Twitter. Your exposure is for everyone, with the caveat that Twitter categorizes porn quite harshly. As 13% of the site is porn or something, so it makes sense that he wants to monetize that. He’s in a world of trouble that I don’t think he’s ready for. But that applies to everything he does.
The other big story in the news is this perhaps coincidental announcement Tumblr Brings Back Nudity– but not necessarily all NSFW content. Are these two changes somehow related?