Could blockchain revolutionise dating and adult entertainment?
Whether you’re shopping for a dildo, doing a little online dating or hiring an escort for the evening, a little buy-side discretion can be handy. Blockchain may be the saviour of the sex-obsessed.
Over on the sell-side, sex industry pay is precarious, working conditions often grim and rights for buyer and seller uneven. Many sex workers find it impossible to open a bank account. Blockchain could be the equalizer.
In theory, blockchain’s tracking tech and privacy protections promise industry change, not least for those who’ve milked the icky-but-lucrative adult entertainment centre ground for decades: their earning power could well be screwed in future if smart contract power takes hold.
Has, then, a new digital-adult entertainment future come?
A proper spanking
In a world where 50% middlemen commissions are widespread, cam girl site SpankChain describes itself as a “cryptoeconomic powered adult entertainment ecosystem”. Last October it launched its own ICO and raised almost 20,000 ETH (close to $6m at the time of fund-raising).
SpankChain promises an unheard of, for the industry, 5% cap on worker-performer fees. For the buyer, no credit card info is needed; all transaction data just shows up as code. Sex cam models have access to the tech, linked to a micropayment browser wallet.
As a SpankChain trailer vividly points out this means the women can manage their own sites without “greedy corporate hands violating us”. A cam girl managing her own site can wave goodbye to the grip of a porn studio and market her own services in the way an Uber driver also works for themselves (though Uber drivers are not paid in crypto, yet).
Size is significant
Back in April 2018 online porn giant Pornhub, a site rather more popular than Facebook for much of the UK population (it claims 100m daily global users) said it would accept privacy coin verge, or XVG, as payment.
The noise around the mid-April deal caused verge to surge, rising to more than $0.095, before much of the gains seeped back, late April (in mid-July verge sells for a much reduced $0.024). Pornhub is not the only porn site accepting crypto payment, but it is one of the most visited websites anywhere.
Verge deploys internet privacy Tor which “hides your IP address by encrypting your traffic and bouncing it through a chain of computers around the world, and I2P, which differs in practice but offers the same broad strokes peer-to-peer routing”. Public or private blockchain transactions are offered.
Porn, says Pornhub’s head of press, Corey Price, is always at the bleeding edge of tech. “We saw that with VHS, Beta Max, credit card payment icons and, most recently, VR goggles.” Price said he expected “widespread adoption of crypto and blockchain in short order”.
Crypto passion struggle
Some distance from major adult industry names is Passion VIP, a 24-hour escort service based in the West Midlands. The Birmingham-based business added bitcoin to its online pre-payment menu in 2013 (close to another century ago in crypto-time).
Was Passion VIP still taking crypto payment for bookings? Their answer was blunt. “Unfortunately, it’s too complicated. We tried it. It was too time-consuming and everything. Too confusing, too much hassle.”
Why? “It took too long to convert round,” came the reply. “There was a lot of steps to go through to get it [bitcoin] back into cash.” Was there a problem around volatility? “Yes there was. Trying to convert it, to get the right price. In the end we knocked it on the head. It wasn’t worth the time and effort.”
Passion VIP doesn’t accept any other crypto and has reverted to cash payment and bank transfer. So much for technology but perhaps not so surprising: despite the oft-vaunted privacy advantages – Paypal blocks most adult entertainment consumer payments – crypto payment is an exotic option for 99% of the UK population.
A better quality date
Recently Facebook announced it was entering the dating market. The threat of a vast, decentralised online network is not lost on CEO Mark Zuckerberg (his Facebook board includes crypto investor Peter Thiel who is looking closely at blockchain real estate opportunities). Ditto operators such as Tinder.
But one app, Luna, is already headed down the dating route and astride blockchain. Luna says too many existing apps foment a shallow ‘swipe-and-forget’ culture where a facial, as it were, is the only thing on offer. Fine for hook-ups. Not so great for staying power or longer-term nesting.
Key to the dissatisfaction is rubbish algorithms. “If computers are good at anything, it is search,” Luna says. It wants “a market which sets up the right conditions to train them to…search for love”. More sophisticated tech, based on blockchain anonymised data, could make this search far more spacious and effective.
Too many apps have a one track mind
The trouble with subscription dating apps is that they’re generally optimized for generating ad revenue says Luna. If you connect a Facebook or Instagram account to a dating app which makes money by running advertisements, “you can be assured that your data will be used to match you with more compatible ads than with more compatible partners”.
Dating apps are often pricey and based around withholding features from non-paying users says Luna, “which compromises the efficacy of matching, and the consequent utility of the platform, for everyone.” It claims to only generate revenue when users meet in real life.
Some nifty mechanisms promise to weed out low quality messages and guide people towards each other “based on criteria they might never consciously be able to articulate, but that sophisticated machine learning algorithms may…sense”.
That’s a lot of faith invested in algorithms but you get the idea. So far, the internet’s most powerful companies haven’t cracked humanity’s more urgent needs. Is blockchain really smart enough to change this?
Legal flies in the lube – a little goes a long way
On April 11 Donald Trump approved the FOSTA-SESTA bill. Hugely controversial, this bill ostensibly aims to tackle sex trafficking. But many sex workers claim the legislation is an attack on their living.
Crucially, the bill inserts an amendment to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act 1996, a cornerstone of internet freedom and free speech.
Up to now this legislation shields liability for providers and users of internet services meaning they can’t be sued for anything posted by a user (think about the millions of unflattering online reviews of restaurants or businesses published from ordinary citizens).
The amendment makes it easier for state and civil lawsuits against websites suspected of being linked to online sex trafficking for “knowingly assisting, supporting or facilitating” alleged crimes.
Not so personal
A number of high profile websites have now closed down chunks of their online services offering, notably Craigslist, where personal services used to be advertised. One community organizer told Motherboard that Craigslist helped sex workers quit highly exploitative situations.
“They were able to screen for clients and keep themselves safe and save up money to leave the people exploiting them. And now that those sites are down, people are going back to pimps. Pimps are texting providers every day saying ‘the game’s changed. You need me.’”
SpankChain is worried about the new legislation. In the long run, “SESTA stands to fuck everyone over by limiting freedom of speech online,” it says. “The Communications Decency Act allows online communities to flourish; any platform that hosts user-generated content exists solely due to the protections provided by Section 230.”
A long list of organizations ranging from advocacy groups to government officials have opposed the bill’s various forms says SpankChain. The whole thing is a Pandora’s box the cam site warns.
“Theoretically, any online forum or content platform will now be susceptible to legal action if any of the content available could be misconstrued as the promotion of illegal sexual activity.”
Other acts that could open investigation “include discussing paying for escorts with crypto,” SpankChain adds, “cam workers offering in person meet-ups — basically anything that involves some kind of sex work”.