How One NSFW Website Changed The World

August 2017Words by Mr Adam Welch

Illustration by Mr Giordano Poloni

For the past few years, author and journalist Mr Jon Ronson has been thinking about consequences. Particularly in relation to how we behave online. It’s a line of thought that was sparked by the writing of his 2015 book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which told the stories of men and women whose minor missteps became inflated to life-ruining proportions thanks to moral outrage on social media. In these cases, of course, he discovered that the consequences of a transgression in the digital age can often become far more severe than the transgression itself. But while talking to people who persecuted the transgressors, he discovered something else: that for the most part, we don’t like to seriously think about the consequences of what we do online.

“I interviewed this guy – a Gawker journalist – who started an online onslaught against this woman,” he says. “I asked him how it felt to have started this, and he said it felt ‘delicious’. And then he said, ‘But I’m sure she’s OK now, I’m sure she’s fine.’ I happened to know that she wasn’t.”

And so we come to Mr Ronson’s latest project, The Butterfly Effect, an original audio documentary for Audible, which focuses on a particularly uncomfortable set of consequences: the enduring influence of free, streaming online porn, and particular, the website Pornhub. Starting with an interview with Mr Fabian Thylmann – a German tech mogul who from 2010 turned Pornhub into the world’s largest and most influential adult website – Mr Ronson spends the series’ seven-episode run talking to people whose lives have been deeply affected by the presence of free (and pirated) online porn, from the obvious (the performers and producers, many of whom are making one-off bespoke films for private clients to make ends meet) to the less so (the family of a Southern Baptist pastor; a Norwegian stamp collector; a manufacturer of lifelike sex dolls). The stories he uncovers are not only weird and fascinating, they’re often strangely touching, tempered as they are by Mr Ronson’s charming curiosity and uncanny ability to get people to open up, even about this, somewhat sensitive topic. Below, he talks to MR PORTER about making the series.