The Butterfly Effect is an original Audible documentary by Jon Ronson. He explores how technology has changed the porn industry and by extension all of us. He begins by interviewing the man who used technology to create what became PornHub, a YouTube-style platform for porn. This discursive approach takes in, among other things, porn stars in the San Fernando Valley, the death of an Italian priest, and a Norwegian stamp collector.
Ronson is a sensitive interviewer, letting people tell their own story. He’s also a great storyteller and each episode has intriguing hooks, twists and a teaser ending so you have to keep listening. I’m almost afraid of giving spoilers, but certain things particularly stayed with me.
In Montreal, the data analysts who worked behind the scenes at PornHub were almost oblivious (or in denial) of what they were working on. They just focused on the task. Meanwhile, a whole generation of women lost work in porn because of the search categories that they created in response to the way people access porn. Women under 20 get work in the ‘babysitter’ and ‘cheerleader’ categories, women over 30 get the ‘milf’ roles, but between those ages they are unemployable. (There’s an interesting analogy here with Amazon’s book categories, where discoverability is increasingly driven by genre.)
In another episode, Ronson is on a porn set during the making of a movie. There is an orgy scene and many of the male performers are watching porn on their phones so they can get an erection. It seems watching someone have sex with a porn star is more arousing than the imminent prospect of actually doing it. The analogy here hardly needs stating.
Ronson doesn’t take a position on porn per se but he considers the way in which people ignore the human consequences of porn and the way in which they simultaneously are excited by it and despise the people who work in it. Porn stars report being spotted in the street and facing hostility from the very people who have recognised them.
At one point Ronson sets up an interview which is somehow both poignant and deeply ironic. An old-school San Fernando porn director whose income has dropped dramatically because of piracy challenges PornHub’s founder. The director expresses exasperation at his lack of empathy as free illegal downloads drain away his livelihood, but he asks no such questions about the effect on people of the films he makes.
This documentary is thought provoking and fascinating and I listened to it in one sitting. The stories it tells are sometimes dark, often strange and occasionally moving.
The Butterfly Effect is available as an audiobook and as a podcast.
View The Butterfly Effect on Goodreads