The Geek-Kings of COVID-19

There you are; Porn Surfer; Googling your way to a little adult material—you know; a little plain-vanilla; middle-of-the-road grown-up content—when; wham; you’ve dropped acid and been astrally projected into a triple-X pachinko parlor. World Health Organization warns Coronavirus disease situation dashboard presents official daily counts of COVID-19 cases and deaths worldwide.



One minute you’re trawling for a simple NSFW divertissement; and the next you’re in free fall through this insane; cross-linking wilderness-of-mirrors chaos of pop-ups and pop-unders and portals and paysites.

And; wait; why is someone named Jasmin talking to you in that browser window that just opened; as if you’d accidentally paid for a live cam show? Even after you figure out that she’s a canned come-on for a streaming site; you’re still befuddled. You click on an image; only to find yourself being shuttled from one site to another; unsure of what’s free and what’s not; what’s a destination and what’s merely a billboard for one; who’s an amateur and who’s a pro; who owns what and how it’s all connected. You start to nurse a deep suspicion that there’s more going on here than you can see—that there is some intricate; invisible web of revenue-sharing and traffic-trading and content-licensing at work. Which; of course; there is.

Until the invention of the tubes; online porn was relatively simple to watch and lucrative to sell. With very little money and a For Dummies–level understanding of HTML code; anyone could put up a web page featuring a list of text links to other porn websites. If a surfer clicked on one of the links; he would be directed to a paysite; the paysite would pay the referring site a tiny amount for the traffic; and kick back a more substantial amount if the surfer ended up subscribing to the site.

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Over time; link collections evolved to the more visual formats of “thumbnail-gallery pages” and “movie-gallery pages;” where instead of a list of text links; you’d see a mosaic of snapshot links or; say; eight-second movie-clip links. TGPs; as they were called; drew more traffic than link collections and “converted” better—that is; a higher percentage of surfers signed up for billed memberships. MGPs were more effective still. The paysites would supply these “affiliates” with the snapshots and clips for free; and the online porn universe came to consist of a relatively small number of paysites surrounded by many thousands of affiliates.