Podcast: The Butterfly Effect

Network: Audible

What Is It?: A seven-part series that delves into what happened to the porn industry when one intrepid German teenager set out to make porn videos easy to upload and free to watch on the internet, thereby transferring millions of dollars in revenue from the people who make it to the people who run those websites. As the title suggests, each episode delves into one of the many ripples and unintended consequences of that change, for better or worse, and gives us a first-hand look at how the lives of people in the middle of this industry were forever altered.

What’s It About?: It might be hard for anyone under the age of 30 to realize, but it used to be kinda hard to find porn. If you could find it on the internet, it usually took hours to download and required credit cards and passwords that acted as gatekeepers. Before that, you had to buy DVDs or VHS cassettes or know that creepy guy on your block who owns hundreds of them. In other words, porn was a commodity propped up by an industry where various companies, performers, and filmmakers made lots of money.

In the 1990s, a German teenager named Fabian Thylmann was tired of trading online passwords and scrambling to find pornography. At the same time, the internet was revolutionizing the way we all consume content. Thylmann realized that the porn industry wasn’t changing with the times and that meant there was an opportunity for someone like him. So he purchased a company that had just launched a YouTube-esque website called Pornhub that allowed users to upload any and all content.

Copyrights be damned, Pornhub blew up and Thylmann quickly bought up dozens of rival upstarts, basically cornering the market on free online porn. In doing so, he became wealthy running his empire while everyone else involved in the industry scrambled to figure out how to make up for all the revenue he’d “redistributed” from them.

The podcast attempts to identify some of the players who were affected by this transition but continue to persist. In doing so, he showcases how most porn producers and performers have to work twice as yard only to make a pittance of what they used to while watching their work get uploaded to the internet for free and no real recourse to stop it from happening. We meet people behind the camera, people in front of the camera, people who started their own niche businesses, people who were run out of the industry, and people who still find a reason to pay for their very specific, very curious porn.

Jon Ronson (Credit: Gaius Cornelius/Wikimedia)

Who Is The Host?: Jon Ronson, who is not the DJ Mark Ronson, but instead the prolific author, documentarian, journalist, screenwriter, and podcaster, amongst other things. His bestseller The Men Who Stare at Goats, about the U.S. Army’s exploration of New Age concepts and the potential military applications, was turned into a movie starring George Clooney and Jeff Bridges. His book  So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an illuminating look into the lives of people whose lives have been ruined by the internet after they committed some kind of cardinal sin (i.e. Justine Sacco). You may have also heard his voice on NPR’s This American Life or BBC Radio 4.

What’s A Normal Episode Like?: In each of the seven episodes, Ronson re-establishes the basic premise and then delves into a specific aspect or sector of the porn industry that was irrevocably changed by the advent of PornHub and its ilk. Most episodes revolve around one-on-one interviews with “porn people” that illustrate a larger point.

For example, in one episode he digs into the Ashley Madison hack, which unleashed a torrent of karmic retribution against seemingly hypocritical people who were users of the extramarital affair-friendly service. He speaks mostly with people who knew a pastor who was outed in the hack and how what happened next sent reverberations through his family and community. Ronson also pulls back to give some perspective about how the free access to porn has changed the way many men seek out sexual gratification in the real world, which then brings things full circle to then-popular websites like Ashley Madison.

Some of the episodes are jarring while others are surprisingly moving. While the changes discussed have wreaked havoc on many lives and bank accounts, they’ve also created opportunities for people to make more intimate connections and create personal experiences that mean more than just sex.

Who Is It For?: The This American Life listener who isn’t afraid to dig into a topic that isn’t quite so radio-friendly. People who are willing to look past the titillating topic and actually understand the vastness and sizable effect that the porn industry has on people, oftentimes with disturbing results. People who have never stopped to think about the porn industry and how much it has changed in the last decade. People who would be interested to hear about how the rise in free porn has also coincided with the staggering rise in erectile dysfunction in young men and how the heck that could be.

Who Is It Not For?: Anyone who is skittish about anything to do with the porn industry as there are certainly some risque moments peppered throughout, not to mention some salacious discussions (it IS porn, after all). People who just really don’t want to think about what happens behind the scenes in porn (though they’d be wise to).

How Many Episodes Are There?: There are seven episodes in this very-contained season. Ronson has said that the series may continue with a focus on different effects and instances.

Any Special Guests?: Well, depending on how well-versed you are in the world of porn, Ronson speaks with quite a few filmmakers and performers, so it’s entirely possible you will already know who some of these people are. You know who you are.

Gimme Some Great Episodes to Get Started: Well, given the nature of the series, you’ll probably want to just start at the start with episode one. In it, Ronson lays out his reasons for creating the series, his general thesis, and introduces us to Fabian Thylmann and his porno-changing business model.

So, Should I Listen To This?: The Butterfly Effect isn’t the be-all, end-all dissertation about the modern porn industry, but it’s more of a people’s history of what happened and who was affected. If you’ve ever wondered who the people are behind these videos and what their lives are like in the mundane moments in between, the podcast offers an insightful look at their world. Episodes usually clock in around 30 minutes, just enough to dig into a topic but not so long that it wears you down.

It’s a worthwhile binge listen for your commute, just make sure your headphones remain firmly affixed to your phone. There might be children around…

About Sean Keeley

A graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Keeley is the creator of the Syracuse blog Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician and author of 'How To Grow An Orange: The Right Way to Brainwash Your Child Into Rooting for Syracuse.' He has also written non-Syracuse related things for SB Nation, Neighborhoods.com, Curbed Seattle and many other outlets. He currently lives in Chicago.