This article contains explicit content and may be NSFW.
In 100 years or so, anthropologists at whatever freemium Google app renders the world's great research universities obsolete will start to ask, “What was the Internet like in 2015?”
There are a lot of ways they could answer this question. They could read hundreds of contemporaneous academic studies about how the growing dominance of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter was transforming the online experience into highly-trafficked boulevards lined with walled gardens. Or they could interview someone who was a youngster back in 2015 about what it was like when their middle school nemesis had to reach all the way into his pocket for his smartphone to mercilessly cyberbully them instead of doing it from an ocular implant like a civilized denizen of the 22nd Century.
However, if these researchers want to stay true to the spirit of our time, they will be lazy and attempt to sum up the entire garbage cacophony that is today's Internet in a single tweet. If I may be so bold, I would like to offer up this tweet as the most representative of the Internet in 2015.Everything you could ever want to know about today's online world is contained somewhere in this tweet. It shows how content is distributed, monetized, remixed, and monetized again. It lays bare the Internet's cross-platform dance of irony and sexuality. It demonstrates the ability of celebrity culture to unify the highbrow and the low.
Shine a stream of ones and zeroes through the prism of this tweet and you'll see it contains multitudes.
The Stock Porn Comments Twitter account utilizes a relatively straightforward shtick. It takes user comments left on pornographic videos posted to the massive tube site Pornhub and overlays them on stock photos depicting the type of person who might have left those comments.
Even if you've spent a fair amount of time watching porn online (you don't have to deny it, we're all friends here), there's a pretty good chance you've never stopped to look at the comments left by anonymous masturbation enthusiasts on the video you just closed because you thought you heard someone walk into the room. If you're in a public place right now without the requisite screen privacy necessary to casually pursue a some porn comments, allow me to give you a brief overview: They're creepy.
Stock Porn Comments has been able to amass over 117,000 followers by visually illustrating that creepiness.Like many curators of risqué Web content, the operator of Stock Porn Comments prefers to remain anonymous. He created the account back in 2012 after discovering another Twitter account devoted to highlighting ludicrous porn comments. He quickly became obsessed and began reading through thread after thread of porn comments.
“I spent quite a while just immediately scrolling down to the bottom of these pages to look at the comments. I was dying [laughing] for hours reading some of them,” he told the Daily Dot. “Why? I don’t know, I guess I’m a bit childish. Who doesn’t want to be a little childish though?”
He wanted to take his newfound love of porn comments and share it with the world, but he needed a way to make it his own. He remembers the moment it clicked in his head—instead of having to imagine who was leaving these strange comments, he'd give people a visual.
“I went through all kinds of pictures of people expressing their emotions... with the comments on the picture,” he explained. “Most of it didn’t work. Casual photos of people weren’t quite right. So I decided on trying people at computers. That's where I hit a note. It looked and felt right. I started to show it off to people and they liked it as well. That’s how Stock Porn Comments happened.”
Like basically every good idea the Internet, the idea of pairing porn comments and stock images had multiple parents.
About a year after the Stock Porn Comments Twitter account popped up, Jason Mustian decided to combine this own obsession with porn comments with the pricey subscription to stock photo library iStock he had purchased a few months prior but hadn't yet done anything useful with. He created a Tumblr blog called Pornhub Comments On Stock Photos that instantly took off—garnering write-ups on sites like Uproxx and Death & Taxes.
“I'd made a habit of reading and aggregating porn comments for some time in hopes of doing something with them,” Mustian explained. “It was such a weird phenomenon to me. Not just because people were taking breaks from jacking off to make anonymous comments on a porn video, but because the comments were as often about the videos as they were political rants, request for gaming cheat codes, and in the quoted instance, random philosophical diatribes.”
When he isn't aggregating porn comments, Mustian runs the viral news publisher Distractify. Unsurprisingly for someone whose day job involves priming content to go viral on social media, Mustian understands that connecting with and then sharing something online is as much about the people doing the sharing as it is the content itself. When something goes viral, it's likely doing so because it allows a wide swath of people to express something very specific about themselves to everyone who hasn't unfollowed them yet.
“To me, the initial ‘hook’ is that it helps you feel superior to other porn consumers, as if furiously punishing your privates to a video [and] then going your separate way is somehow better than pausing to make some comments on it. I mean, it probably is, but that's what I think the 'emotional gift' is,” he said, adding that sharing porn comment stock photos is a rare way for people to imply an emotional investment in Internet porn to their Facebook friends without openly admitting it.
Parody social media accounts like Stock Porn Comments have been around since social networking's early days; however, in recent years, there's been a push to turn these accounts into businesses generating actual revenue, rather than just imaginary Internet points, with a practice called “sponsored social.”
Sponsored social works by connecting companies with products they want advertised and producers of social media content with large followings. The companies pay the producers to push out posts that are effectively ads—whether they're labeled as such or not. A 2014 report by the Halverson Group found that marketing professionals were more enthusiastic about sponsored social than any other form of marketing out there. It's likely the single hottest thing in marketing right now.
Advertising networks like IZEA, which sponsored Halverson's report, have enormous rosters of Twitter and Facebook accounts they connect with brands thirsty for exposure. There's even a new “branded content” sitcom on YouTube that skewers the murky ethics of sponsored social (and is itself, of course, branded content).
The operator of Stock Porn Comments has tried sponsored social a couple times over the life of his account. However, every time he gave it a shot, he'd get a flood of angry tweets and hundreds of unfollows. His experience demonstrates the core difficulty of sponsored social: Social media puts a high value on authenticity, even with joke tweets from anonymous sources. Releasing an obvious ad is a quick way to shred that perceived authenticity to pieces, especially when people following with the expectation of one type of content are suddenly confronted with another.
Nevertheless, the account's operator suspects he may ultimately bite the bullet and monetize his following on a regular basis, grumpy followers be damned. “One day may come where I do decide to purely just do it... for the financial support,” he said. “As anyone would know, it’s a lot easier to do something extra when you don’t have to worry about life outside of that extra.”
Last year, when I interviewed Duy Lin Tu, the director of the digital media program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, about about how social media platforms algorithmically distribute information, he mentioned a maxim that explains how the creator of Stock Porn Comments is able to quickly and easily find so many great porn comments. “The funny thing about social media,” Tu intoned, “is that the general principle is that nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd.”
Porn videos sites like Pornhub work on largely the same principles as decidedly less explicit platforms like YouTube—users can vote up or down on each video. Those votes, combined with a the clip's total number of views, tells the platform which videos to suggest visitors watch. “You just search where the most people would be,” the account creator noted. “More people means more comments. More comments mean a higher likelihood of finding something to use. So basically it’s through most of the more popular videos [that I find the comments I want to use].”
The video from which the Trump comment was taken is certainly popular. Entitled “TEEN GETS ASS FUCKED” (warning: so very NSFW), it has been viewed over 2.2 million times since it was uploaded to the site about a month ago. It has been rated by nearly 6,000 registered Pornhub users, 71 percent of whom gave the nearly 12-minute clip a thumbs up.
The film is furry bondage porn. It features a woman wearing white fluffy cat ears and paws giving a gentlemen, whose face is not pictured, a blow job. Then the perspective switches to the couple having sex while the woman, still in costume, straps a ball gag into her mouth.
There are other videos on the site with the far more views. The infamous sex tape that rocketed Kim Kardashian to stardom has racked up more than 127 million, but 2.2 million views is nothing to sneeze at, especially for a furry S&M video with an appeal that might initially seem a little more, well, niche. However, the video's success suggests that the Internet has normalized a lot of stuff, both in porn and and in everything else, that would have previously been considered fringe. When the algorithms that determine whether or not to show viewers a certain piece of content saw “TEEN GETS ASS FUCKED” was resonating, they went to town.
Nothing attracts attention like a crowd, and, for the uploader of the video, that attention can be profitable. The user who created the video goes by the handle kawaii_girl. She's a part of Pornhub's amateur payment program, where users can register with the site and get a portion of the revenue the platform generates running ads against the content they post. If a video created by someone in the program is featured by Pornhub (a decision the site makes based on views and ratings), they stand to earn somewhere between $50-150—although some have raked in over $800 on a single video.
Revenue sharing is an increasingly common model for social networks trying to incentivize users to consistently post content that attracts eyeballs. YouTube is baking the model into the very DNA of its gradually evolving platform platforms, and Facebook is getting into the revenue-sharing game on videos as well.
In March of this year, kawaii_girl won Pornhub's Amateur of the Month contest, an honor that came with a $1,000 cash prize. Just as YouTube has installed systems designed to boost the profiles of its most popular content creators—who can take home enormous paychecks—Pornhub looks to be doing the same within the confines of its own community by turning customers into porn stars.
The goal for these platforms is to create roach motels of content where web users come in, but they don't come out. That means building a way for content creators to earn some scratch. Another element is the need for individual users to participate—hence comments.
What makes porn comments so fundamentally strange is that while the admission of watching graphic adult videos has largely shed the sense of shame once associated with it, it's still a largely solitary act. Leaving an comment online reveals a desire to connect with other people; doing that while also quite literally connecting with oneself seems like a counterintuitive impulse.
Nonetheless, Pornhub allows users to set up profiles and leave comments about everything from the finer points of bukkake to lasagna recipes. It's even possible to follow other users, keeping track of videos watched and comments left. If you take a peek at the profile the Pornhub user who left the comment used in the Donald Trump stock photo tweet, a theme quickly starts to emerge.
The user, who did not respond to a request for comment, goes by the handle “TheExistentialist” and is clearly really into existentialist philosophy. TheExistentialist has posted—again, on one of the world's largest porn sites—the first few pages of Jean-Paul Sartre's famously bleak play No Exit, as well a large chunk of the French philosopher's 1943 essay “Being and Nothingness.”
Sartre is a touchpoint for everything TheExistentialist does on the site, and the stock photo comment is no exception. University of Waterloo philosophy professor Dr. Patricia Marino, who serves as a co-president for the the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, argued that the comment strongly echoes Sartre's ideas on sex.
“As I understand it the idea of the quote is that sexual desire involves a way of responding to another person's subjectivity—that is, to the person themselves in the first place, and only derivatively to them as a body. In his writings about sex, Sartre challenged the idea of a 'sex drive' linked to biology, positing instead that in responding to one another as people, we discover a capacity for sexuality,” Marino explained. “Since the aim of sex for Sartre isn't pleasure, but more a way of relating to another person, orgasm is a problem because in bringing our attention to pleasure, we bring it back to ourselves instead of the other person, and the possibility of relating to them as a person in the desired way comes to an end.”
Personal pleasure getting in the way of sincere, fulfilling interactions with other human beings isn't just a metaphor for the contradictions of porn comments but for how people deal with the social aspects of the Internet in general. It's the battle between the id's desire for constant self-gratification and the superego's occasional reminders not to be a condescending asshole to a complete stranger on Twitter just because her avatar indicates she's female and therefore could benefit from your sage mansplaining.
It's heady, abstract stuff with serious implications about the moral frameworks in which we live our lives. And it is a world away from the writings of Donald Trump.
I have read exactly one of Trump's books, The America We Deserve. Written in 2000 as Trump was mulling a presidential bid on the Reform Party ticket, the volume is a list of policy proposals ranging from a massive one-time tax on multimillionaires to an argument about how the United States, which accounts for one-quarter of the world's prison population, isn't putting enough people in jail.
The book is a lot of things, most of all a near-constant stream of free-associative self-aggrandizement, but intellectual it is not. Trump has been a public figure for decades, yet the reality TV star label he earned as the host of The Apprentice was the one that always seemed the most fitting. Trump traffics in a brand of nativist populism antithetical to abstract philosophy, especially that of a café-dwelling Parisian like Sartre.
“When I first read the comment, it had a serious vibe,” recalled the guy behind Stock Porn Comments. “Because of its sophistication it felt like the president was saying it. Standing in front of his podium, as all the cameras zoomed in on him, he starts commenting on some porn video. So now I’m thinking what presidential candidate is trying to be serious but just isn’t hitting the mark?”
“It was obvious, all fingers pointed at Trump. He is probably the most mocked candidate in the debate right now. Not only does he have comical written all over him. He mirrors the comment pretty well too,” he continued. “This sophisticated set of words attempting to get across this really serious message. Yet in the end you realize it’s still just a comment someone made on a porn website talking about a porn video.”
While Trump has captivated much of the Republican base, there's still a drive to treat the billionaire's West Wing ambitions as something fundamentally different than those of career politicians like Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush. That tension is why the Huffington Post announced earlier this year it would be funneling coverage of Trump's campaign into the news site's entertainment section rather than its politics vertical.
That tension is also what makes Trump the target of a constant stream of mockery. University of Colorado professor Peter McGraw, who has spent decades studying how comedy works, has theorized that laughter is how human beings deal with things that are at once scary and not scary at all.
“The idea is that humor arises from things that simultaneously seem wrong yet OK. Things that are confusing yet make sense,” McGraw told the Daily Dot in an interview earlier this year. “Things that are threatening yet safe. That creates some arousal, which turns positive when you also recognize this thing that’s bad is actually not bad. This thing that’s threatening is actually safe. It’s these benign violations that we laugh at.”
For people who disagree with Trump's politics, pointing and laughing at his campaign's foibles is a way of acknowledging that Trump’s campaign for the presidency is somehow problematic, but not worth moving to Canada over—not yet, at least.
The sheer noise of these conversations has allowed Trump to dominate online conversation in recent months. There are a lot of people tweeting and posting Facebook comments about him, and a very large percentage of that content is made up of derisive jokes. But even 15 years ago, Trump was self-aware enough to predict how his presidential run would be perceived. “Let's face it, if I run it will be a boon to the political cartoonists and late-night talk-show hosts,” he wrote near the end of The America We Deserve. “But I can take it.”
University of Illinois philosophy professor Helga Varden, who is also a co-president of the Society for the Philosophy of Sex and Love, argued that the schism here between personal pleasure and empathetic connection mirrors the gap that defines Trump's presidential campaign—the one between the candidate's enormous ego (the fundamental building block of his public persona) and the necessary self-sacrifice of being the America's highest public servant.
“Existentialism as such (whether Sartrean or not) may reasonably be seen as particularly good at bringing out certain aspects of sexuality, since it's quite good at bringing out certain issues concerning power and empowerment,” Varden explained. “So, in this context (using a Sartrean style piece of text left at a hardcore porn site as a comment on Trump), it is quite good at bringing out not only how politics and sex is not about procreation (and natural drives), but about getting a tremendous subjective sense of self by the attention, that is about feeling empowered, alive, powerful.”
All that from a joke tweet. Thanks Internet, you did great on this one.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai