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Pornhub taught us to expect free porn — now, can it make us pay?

Imagine, if you will, that there's a restaurant that offers diners a free, unlimited buffet. For years they've encouraged their patrons to come in and gorge themselves at will, subtly implying that anyone who pays for food is an idiot. There've been rumors that this restaurant's been able to keep the buffet going by stealing food from competing restaurants, but most patrons don't care — and as the restaurant drives out its competition, or buys them out, eventually the objections die down.

And then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, the restaurant announces a change in policy. The free buffet will still be there, but now they're offering Buffet Premium, and though for years they've mocked anyone who's ever considered paying for food, now they think it would be a great idea if their patrons would start paying a monthly fee to access slightly better meals.

The free buffet will still be there, but now they're offering Buffet Premium

Pornhub Premium, just announced yesterday by the adult streaming site, is just as unlikely a business model. For years, its parent company MindGeek (formerly known as Manwin) has encouraged consumers to think of adult entertainment as a freely available commodity, something to be enjoyed at will on their network of "tube sites" (including, but not limited to PornHub, RedTube, XTube, and YouPorn). Over the years, MindGeek's been plagued by allegations that their freely distributed content is actually the pirated product of their competitors, but as they've amassed power in the industry — and bought up some of their loudest antagonists, like Digital Playground — many of the complaints have died down.

And now, as they control much of the adult industry, MindGeek seems to have realized that — as their competitors have argued for years — giving everything away for free doesn't exactly pay. Pornhub Premium is essentially a Netflix-style site offering unlimited access to HD porn content for just $9.99 a month.

Though free, ad-supported websites are de rigeur across much of the internet, with everything from Facebook to The Verge providing content in exchange for impressions, running an entirely ad-supported adult website is a trickier proposition. Unlike mainstream companies, those who trade in porn have a fairly limited supply of potential advertisers — generally speaking, the only companies interested in advertising somewhere like Pornhub are other porn sites, adult dating sites, and sometimes sex toys. And unlike large companies with extensive advertising budgets that can be invested in large-scale branding campaigns that may not deliver immediate payoff, adult advertisers are often frugal, looking to spend small amounts and see an immediate return in sales — a difficult proposition, particularly given that Pornhub's properties have actively devalued the products of a number of their potential advertisers (if you can get it here for free, why pay for it elsewhere?). As the bottom falls out on ad-supported adult sites, it's easy to see why they'd want to explore a new source of revenue. But after years of the message that porn — like information — wants to be free, it's hard to see why, exactly, any Pornhub fans would want to pony up cash for their product.

It's hard to see why, exactly, any Pornhub fans would want pony up cash for their product

Granted, streaming services like Spotify, Hulu, and Netflix have shown that the right mixture of affordability and ease of access can convert even die-hard pirates into paying customers. But mainstream music, TV, and movies have something that sets them apart from pornography: daylong binges of The Vampire Diaries aside, there's no stigma attached to consuming any of them. Porn is still largely seen as the domain of perverts, which makes it that much harder to convince people to open their wallets for it. Sure, we might lose hours and hours to XXX clips, but paying for porn suddenly transforms someone into an actual consumer of adult media; and for those that have been getting their rocks off for free for years, actually putting money down for their smut feels like a step too far.

Pornhub may argue that faster servers and HD content make their pay option more appealing. But for those that are willing to pay, faster servers and HD content have been available for years; if anything, the success of sites like Pornhub is proof that, when it comes to adult media, free trumps quality any day of the week. Notably, Pornhub isn't even the first to try out a Netflix-style streaming model: FyreTV, which debuted in 2008, has long offered a similar setup, which hasn't proven to be particularly popular. It's certainly possible that Pornhub will have better content, or pricing, or navigation, than its streaming predecessors, but will that actually be enough to make consumers interested?

The success of sites like Pornhub is proof that free trumps quality

If anything, the strongest argument for Pornhub Premium is this: unlike Spotify, or Hulu, or Netflix, Pornhub and MindGeek actually control a large amount of the free competition. Should it serve their financial interests, MindGeek can always turn off the tap at their tube sites, perhaps turning Pornhub Premium into the only way to access their content. But even though MindGeek controls much of the free content, they're hardly the only game in town — and, were they to end their free offerings, smut fans could always go to BitTorrent, or Tumblr, or WoodRocket (a legally produced free site which, full disclosure, I briefly worked for in 2014). The culture of free is far too established for any one company to fight, and, after all these years, it's strange to see one of the biggest champions of free porn trying.


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