Colin Rowntree: It was a dark and stormy night in 1994 and my wife, Angie, and I stumbled across an idea. At that time, we had two little mail order catalogues—one selling Celtic and metaphysical jewelry, and the other selling kinky leather gear and BDSM toys. This little idea was to see if we could figure out how to put the pictures from the catalogues on that new thing, the internet. So, we invested $347 on a used and beat-up IBM 286 and a dialup modem, had a friend scan the pictures of our kinky-gear catalogue at the mental institution where he worked, and stuck them on a web page, written in notepad, optimized for Mosaic. The goal was to get people to call or email us to ask for a free catalog.
Within a month, we discovered that a LOT of people were coming to look at the dirty pictures of pretty girls in leather corsets but were not ordering the catalogue, and it was costing us money for bandwidth! So, we thought, let’s figure out a way to charge them, let’s say, $10 to look at the dirty pictures and hide the catalogue pictures in a “secret directory” (this was before we heard about .htaccess) that we would email to the customer after we got the ten bucks. We redid the little website and woke up the next morning to 15 members. HOLY SHIT! A hundred and fifty bucks! That’s half a week’s salary at the day job!
But, alas, still no one ordered a catalogue. Well, we theorized, maybe they just want to pay to see dirty pictures of pretty girls in leather corsets? Kinda dumb, but why not try it? So, on our 14.4 modem, we uploaded as many photos as we had and over the course of two weeks (a total of 100 pictures, one hour each per upload), added them to the “member’s area,” and upped the price to a whopping $50 a year, thinking the world would laugh at this obscenely greedy folly. A little search engine called Yahoo listed us, and people came. Then a new little link list called Persian Kitty listed us. And then they came in droves, phoning and faxing in, and, yes, even emailing their credit card numbers. Wasteland was born.
FSC: Talk about some of the things that set Wasteland apart; innovations you’ve made to expand your market…
CR: Wasteland has always stood apart in various respects from other adult sites. Yes, it is a bdsm site with the expected photos and movies, but as the site has always been very focused on providing information and educational resources for the bdsm and fetish communities, it is also a very large library of how-to guides, safety guides and forums where members can share ideas, ask questions and meet-and-beat other like minded people.
As for innovations, having started the site in 1994, pretty much everything we did over the first 5 years was an innovation as we were helping lay the tracks for what the internet was becoming from day one. Online credit card billing, recurring billing, the pay-per-click model, and the affiliate model were innovations that we were part of in the early days. In the next decade, we were also in the early introduction of video on the internet (really BAD video quality at first!), live chat, social features and the other interactive features which now dominate the adult internet today. We were also part of the vanguard of early sites that began presenting VOD, Pay-Per-View and the concept of vertical content platforms such as mobile devices, Roku and other platforms that re-task our content for different devices and cloud services.
FSC: What are the biggest challenges for the online adult market right now?
CR: Now THAT’s a big question! Historically, there are generally at least one or two concurrent vexing challenges to our industry, but I’ve been seeing that in the past year or so, the number of these going on at the same time has increased. A lot. Here are the ones that stick out in my mind as being the most resource and labor intensive to meet and overcome (or at least stabilize):
- Free Content. Yes, I know, gentle reader. This sounds like a broken record. Since the days of picture posts and thumbnail galleries, there has always been a flood of free content on the internet, both pirated as well as provided to lure surfers to paysites for purchases. It’s different now though. The sheer astronomical volume of free video content has obviously taken away the need for most surfers to ever buy a premium content membership, VoD or Pay-Per-View movie. And, to compound this, the function of free video on tubes is not generally (with some exceptions) to drive curious surfers to pay for video content, but as the “better mousetrap” to keep them coming back for more free content in order to present them with ads for live chat, dating and other intangible and tangible goods (i.e. things which can not be pirated) This results in the content production and studio sector serving the function of providing the “swill for the pig’s trough”, with marginal chances of monetizing their content as the revenue it generates goes to other industry sectors. Many tubes do offer Content Partner Programs to help out with this quandary and although, from personal experience, many of these programs DO drive sales to premium content sites, this is pretty much a fly speck in the bigger picture of how the “volume of biblical proportions” of free video content erodes the profitability of content producers, affiliate programs, VOD and PPV sites and the like. While this does no obvious harm to the novelty sector, live chat, dating or other non-video goods and services, it does harm the very foundation of the adult industry: the studios, producers, performers and paysites that traditionally serve as one of the pillars on which our industry is based.
- One of the biggest problems for the adult industry in general at this time is the swift and merciless “ghettoization” of adult content on the internet. During the 10 years of the “lively discussions” about the threat of Dot-XXX having this effect (which, thankfully, it has not that I can see), who could have anticipated that corporate media would fill the role of the ultimate judge in driving adult content into the dark shadows of the internet? To be sure, mainstream has always distanced itself from “porn”. Since day one of the net, most credit card processors would not do adult. Most mainstream news, information, dating and community sites have never taken adult advertising. That all made sense for a variety of reasons. But, the recent fast trend is that this is happening in a big way now in other sectors that have traditionally, if not we welcomed adult, at least allowed it into their spaces as it drove traffic to them. But this has changed. Looking for generic sounding porn words on google these days? Well, be prepared to wade through the first 2 or 3 pages of wikipedia results. Want to have a Google+ page for your brand? Be prepared to have to use your real name on it, and then be very careful not to slip a nip on there or get banned instantly. Facebook ads, Twitter Vine, Blogger.com Tumblr….. The list goes on and on with a rapid fire list of new developments in which adult is being thrown under the bus. Even the unlikely candidate for doing such, the traditionally liberal Huffington Post, seems to be climbing onboard. A great story about this was written by producer Mike Stabile that is well worth the read. About this HuffPo example, Tom Hymes cut to the case and nailed the core issue, saying,”Unfortunately, it’s much more than that; it’s actually corporate cowardice alert. The Huffington Post, despite its pretentions to being a progressive voice is like any other mainstream corporation: risk averse and very conservative in practice. In effect, it is an entity that perpetuates the very harms that Stabile writes about in his piece.”
So, as much as our industry has always been vigilant in fighting government censorship, those fights are within the realm of free speech protection under the 1st Amendment (and, in the U.K, the Magna Carta, which apparently Prime Minister Cameron need to re-read) and generally “winnable” (or at least, slow-downable) in the courts. But, there is no court for “corporate cowardice” and though I’m sure it is just “easier” for the mainstream networks to take porn off the radar to keep their advertisers and stockholders in a calm and happy “cute kittens on the piano” paradigm. But, once again, the adult industry does need to take a bit of responsibility for this situation. We as an industry have a long and consistent history of “poisoning the well” and alienating mainstream but seeing opportunities for often inappropriate exploitation of consumers and mainstream media, and then flooding those venues with a volume of free content, offers and possible scams that have lead over the years to everyone from PayPal and American Express to now Google and social media to enthusiastically exit stage right from any connection with adult.
FSC: If you weren’t in the adult business, what would you be doing?
CR: Conducting opera and music theater, with a bit of vintage wooden boat restoration on the side. And, maybe playing the bagpipes in Harvard Square!
FSC: What do you see in the future for online adult?
CR: One REALLY BIG pornsite network that offers everything, with the only links to it being on Reddit.
Kidding. Sort of…