Spark

How streaming sites like Netflix are taking design cues from the porn industry to keep people watching

Recommended videos and animated thumbnails are all designed to offer viewers "satisfaction through abundance." But before they appeared on sites like Netflix or Amazon Prime, they were already common on porn sites.

Porn sites create an 'immersive viewing experience,' says researcher Patrick Keilty

Porn sites try to keep people watching by using design elements like recommended videos and animated thumbnails, things that you can now find on mainstream video streaming sites like Netflix. (Althea Manasan/CBC)
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Video streaming sites like YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime are designed in a way that has a lot in common with casinos. They're a cacophony of sounds, images and text all working to capture your attention and keep you constantly searching for the next thrill.

But according to Patrick Keilty, an associate professor at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information, these design elements first found their footing in an unexpected place: pornography.

Keilty has been studying the business, technology and culture of the porn industry. He's also the archives director of the Sexual Representation Collection at the university's Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies.

His recent article "Desire by design: pornography as technology industry" (link to PDF) explores how porn sites create an "immersive viewing experience" that keeps visitors engaged for longer periods of time. 

"Most people would think of good technical design as being minimalist, something along the lines of Google," Keilty told Spark host Nora Young.

Animated thumbnails and recommendation lists keep users constantly searching for the next best thing. (Netflix)

Instead, Keilty says porn sites and other streaming services subject the user to an environment of seemingly "rambling and chaotic images" that are actually designed to keep you browsing, as though you were "strolling" through a store.

Designing for 'satisfaction through abundance'

"They want to keep enticing you to click and view more, so they will give you pop-up advertisements or thumbnails that are animated and move — something that was developed very early on in [the porn] industry and that's been picked up in more mainstream media like Netflix."

Keilty also describes other techniques that are common to both porn sites and mainstream video streaming sites: things like ad placement (the top right, where Western eyes are most drawn to first, are where the most expensive ads are placed) and offering recommendations for similar items.

Rather than being minimalist, porn sites are designed to create an 'immersive viewing experience' to keep viewers engaged. (Althea Manasan/CBC)

"While some of these techniques have been made popular in places like Netflix or Amazon — 'customers who bought this also bought this' — those were [used] really early on in the porn industry," he said. 

All of this creates what Keilty calls "satisfaction through abundance." 

"I think the idea that there's always possibly something around the next corner, that there's always possibly something you haven't discovered yet, keeps you looking, and that's how they pull you in," Keilty said. 

"It's the promise of an eventual satisfaction."

The 'paradox of pornography'

The dynamic relationship between technology and porn isn't new, Keilty said.

"I would say that many of the technologies that are ubiquitous to us now are either partly developed in the pornography industry or they were embraced by that industry — and it's the very embracing of that technology that made them ubiquitous."

One well-known example is the videotape format war of the late 1970s and '80s. Although there's no direct evidence, some observers believe the porn industry's preference for the VHS format helped contribute to its dominance over Betamax, the latter of which was eventually phased out. 

Keilty says the porn industry is also partly responsible for developments in, or at least popularizing, everything from 3G mobile technology to Blu-ray to broadband internet to online banner advertisements.

The tech sector has had a long and 'complicated' relationship with the porn industry, says Keilty. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"You wouldn't have videos in hotel rooms if it weren't for the porn industry," he added.

Still, Keilty calls the relationship between porn and the mainstream technology sector "difficult and complicated."

"The paradox of pornography is that it's both central to our culture and yet marginal to it — and that's true of the tech side of the porn industry as well," he said.

The future of streaming

This stigmatization by Silicon Valley is part of what drives the porn industry to be more innovative, by forcing it to develop its own platforms and parallel technologies out of necessity. 

For example, Keilty says, when mainstream online payment processing companies wouldn't process payments for the adult entertainment and sex industries, companies like CCBill and SegPay sprung up to fill that need. 

"There's lots of examples of these, of kind of a hostility from Silicon Valley to the pornography industry, yet wanting to learn necessarily from the industry, and knowing that the industry is learning from it."

Keilty says the most recent technical innovations coming out of the porn industry involve new forms of data storage and retrieval aimed at making video streaming faster, more efficient and with fewer disruptions — something that mainstream video streaming sites are also surely interested in.

"That helps make your experience of video streaming faster or better quality or in some way more pleasurable."

Written by Althea Manasan. Produced by Olsy Sorokina.

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