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Look at those fucking persons, for real – The Butterfly Effect review

Last week I mentioned a work by one of my writing heroes, the consistently amazing  Jon Ronson of Them and The Men who Stare at Goats fame. The Butterfly Effect is not a book but a podcast, so I had criminally overlooked it although it was released two years ago. The subject of this excellent investigative journalism feat is the porn industry – more specifically, how it has changed in the wake of PornHub and how this has influenced in turn its people.

It starts in a pretty standard way, with the story of how the streaming video giant emerged in the first place. Turns out that the answer is rather straightforward: if you get financed with a 362 million dollar loan, it isn’t especially difficult to clone YouTube and assemble an army of data analysts and marketers who will make it exceptionally robust and scalable. Then you buy over 90% of your competitors out, you assimilate them while keeping an appearance of free market as you keep all their brands running under your discreet flag. Wait a few months, and you’ll have killed the pornography industry forever.

This is where The Butterfly Effect gets really interesting, as Ronson goes off to interview the people whose lives were affected by the epochal change of free porn for everyone: producers, actors, users, regulators and so on. What he discovers is jaw-dropping even if you consider yourself a jaded man of the world. Just a few highlights are:

  • How optimized tagging made 25-ish years old actresses unemployable because «they are ‘teen’ no more nor ‘MILF’ yet»;
  • Said actresses going into custom videos – the very odd requests they get, and the even odder and sometimes touching reasons behind them;
  • The “soft” social marginalizing of porn and its practical downfalls, including nonexistent sex offenders, cheaters’ dating sites, religious crises, community attrition and parenting issues;
  • The impact of online instant sex fantasies gratification on health – and on the sales of sex dolls;
  • The need for a personal wetsuit diver, or how to get dangerously detached from the consequences of your work;
  • …and, to top it off, a seriously disturbing investigation on what turns out to be a social media-driven possible manslaughter case among porn stars, which ended up requiring another whole podcast series.

Although it all sounds pretty lurid, the way these topics are treated is exceptionally balanced, graceful and nonjudgmental. What could have amounted to a turkey shoot exercise restores the protagonists’ humanity instead, actually highlighting how much better articulate they are compared to your average “media personality”. In fact, after the shock from the raw data presented, my biggest takeaway from the series was its lesson in re-learning how to appreciate the full complexity of people in our era of hastily categorizing them. As Ronson said in an interview, clearing your mind from the urge of labeling and judging leaves lots of room in your brain to actually perceive whoever you are looking at as fellow human beings. Funny how I had to consider porn to realize that.

The Butterfly Effect is available on many podcast platforms.

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