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‘The Butterfly Effect’ explores tech’s impact on the porn industry

The seven-part podcast will surprise you.
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Free porn changed the world, and The Butterfly Effect explains how. It's a seven-episode podcast series produced by author and screenwriter Jon Ronson that tracks the wide-ranging impacts of the rise of "tube" sites like Pornhub.

The story starts with Fabian Thylmann, who purchased Pornhub's parent company in 2010 and proceeded to buy up a number of key players in the industry before selling it on in 2013. Ronson uses Thylmann as an analog for the rise of free porn -- the proverbial flapping wings of the butterfly -- and then turns his attention to the tornado that decimated the porn industry.

Produced over a year for Audible, The Butterfly Effect has first-hand testimony from porn producers about how tube sites have destroyed their livelihoods, turning them from influential and affluent to just getting by; from performers, who are more commoditized than ever; and from viewers who have been positively and negatively impacted by porn.

Throughout, Ronson's approaches every topic with an open mind, and recounts his findings without a hint of judgement. His warm, naïf approach never feels disingenuous, and leads to open and enlightening interviews.

One director, on the set of Bad Babysitters Volume 2, pulls out his phone to illustrate the problem he faces. He searches Pornhub for the last movie he directed, and finds it in its entirety, multiple times. Why would anyone pay for what he produces when there are countless copies online?

While the struggles of producers were compelling, it's the smaller plot lines that will stay with me. In a thread where Ronson details the production of one-off films ("customs"), we hear the tale of a man who ordered a seemingly nonsensical (and on first glance, kind of amusing) custom, but later explores the origins of his fetish, which are rooted in his childhood trauma. Customs, at least as portrayed by the podcast, often seem to have an air of catharsis. Indeed, in one episode, there's a request that, rather than being sexual, seems to be entirely focused on dissuading the would-be viewer from committing suicide. We hear the performer struggle to hold back tears as she reads the words of encouragement in the script.

For all its good, I feel like the show could've spent more time looking into the exploitative side of the industry, as seen in documentaries like Hot Girls Wanted. Of course, it shows the porn industry as imperfect, but there is more empowerment than exploitation in Ronson's take. The Butterfly Effect's focus on the industry's lost battle against tube sites naturally paints everyone involved in the production of porn as the victim, and that's challenging when taken with the larger context presented by other media on the subject.

Perhaps the most challenging episode focuses on viewers. Moving away from the direct impact of free porn, Ronson weaves a tapestry of a broken society. Young people are being sexually educated by porn, and as a result of porn addiction are having less sex as a consequence. Erectile dysfunction is up among young men, and people with mental health issues are being taught confusing lessons by the likes of Pornhub. One autistic boy is now permanently on the national sex offender registry for sending animated pornography to a 17-year-old. It's all food for thought, but the medium doesn't really lend itself to detailing these topics at more than surface level.

In books like The Psychopath Test, Ronson had the space to explore subjects in-depth. 20 minutes doesn't really feel like enough time to cover the broader societal impacts of porn. Just as, in all honesty, three-and-a-half hours (the series' total running time), isn't enough to cover the impacts of Pornhub on porn. Hopefully Ronson will adapt his work into a book, but for now, The Butterfly Effect is a fantastic podcast that I'd recommend to anyone looking for something different to listen to.


"IRL" is a recurring column in which the Engadget staff run down what they're buying, using, playing and streaming.

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