Breaking news: Sex is popular online.
"Sex had played a major role in driving many technologies," says Jonathan Coopersmith, a technology historian at Texas A&M.
The example most people are familiar with, he says, is the VCR. Many early video cassettes were pornographic, and consumers' desire to view the material in their own homes fueled the early dissemination of the technology.
Think back to the early days of the Internet, Coopersmith says. "You had to have the hookup, you had to have the computer, you had to have the willingness to experiment a fair amount. And the people who do this tend to be young men, especially in their 20s and 30s, and this also happens to be a prime audience for pornography."
According to Nielsen net ratings, more than a quarter of Internet users accessed an adult Web site in January 2010. The Web research company Hitwise says adult sites accounted for about 6 percent of all U.S. Internet hits that month — putting the adult category in eighth place, with social networking sites in first.
But Hitwise general manager Bill Tancer says that in the not-too-distant past, adult sites used to get the most hits of anything on the Internet. "If I go back to when I started tracking this data in 2004, that was the highest of any category," he says.
Chatting Up Sex
Of course, that's only taking into account pornographic Web sites — the Internet has also provided a private venue for sexual discussion and education. Violet Blue is a sex columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes for several online publications, and blogs and hosts a popular podcast called "Open Source Sex."
"The Internet has been sexualized even before it was the Internet," she says. Back in the days of bulletin board systems, some people would exchange what was known as "ASCII porn."
"This was essentially people using characters by hand on their keyboard to create what look like explicit images, and then send them to each other through bulletin board systems," she says.
Coopersmith says America Online's popularity was driven by its private chat features.
"One of the nicknames for AOL in the industry was 'the house that sex chat built,' " he says.
And Violet Blue points out that before YouTube began better enforcing its community standards, "there was a lot of porn on there."
Porn Paved The Way
Adult sites also paved the way for the mainstream to adopt several technologies.
They were among the first to integrate e-commerce systems to process credit card transactions. "The first part of the Web to make money was pornography," Coopersmith says.
Right now, the adult industry is hurting — due to the same piracy other online content providers face — but in the early days, "you have a lot of some of the tactics, concepts and business strategies pioneered by the cybersex world that then flowed into the regular online world," Coopersmith says. "For instance, creating these Web sites where you join for a fee and you have different levels of membership."
More obnoxious practices were also readily embraced by some in the adult world, as many people's junk e-mail folders can easily demonstrate.
Video technology is a place where adult sites have been especially innovative, integrating live video streams into browser windows with early "jpeg push" video. They continue to be on the cutting edge; Peter Acworth, who founded the very NSFW site kink.com, remembers a few years ago when customers were demanding live HD streams, but he couldn't find an acceptable off-the-shelf solution.
"So we put together our own technology to be able to do so," Acworth says. "You know, you go to CNN or anywhere else on the Web, the video you see is going to be significantly lower bandwidth."