Damon and Hunter is replaced on the 2006 Sydney International Gay & Lesbian Documentary Film Festival Program with two episodes of a gay-theme soap opera from the UK.
[caption: Matt and Khym: Better Than Ever (2006)]
In late November 2006 massive shifts in Google's algorithm de-rank and/or completely delist websites for Good Vibrations, Babeland, and numerous other "sex-postive" bloggers, communities, and businesses. My company's website ComstockFilms.com completely disappears from any search results, including [comstock films] and [tony comstock]. The story receives relatively wide coverage, including personal interest from Google's Matt Cutts. ComstockFilms.com has its ranking restored on name-specific searches. This is when I first become aware that at least some aspects of Google's vaunted "algorithm" are in fact the result of hand-tinkering.
[caption: Ashley and Kisha: Finding the Right Fit (2007)]
Google's algorithmic shift hit at the height of the online Christmas shopping season, and pioneering sex-positive independent feminist retailer Good Vibrations, which had already been struggling to find a workable business and organizational model emerged from the shift with their Google listing restored, but teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. In September 2007 Good Vibrations is bought by GVA-TWN, a mainstream wholesale distributor of "adult media and novelties".
By 2008 the trend is becoming clear. Paul Little, aka Max Hardcore notorious producer of videos featuring urination, vomiting and women dressed as children is convicted on 20 obscenity counts. Over at Salon.com, Tracy Clark Flory chronicles the implosion of the market for over-sharing with her post "Sex writing goes limp" detailing lay-offs and cancelations at Wired, Playboy, The Village Voice, Gawker and elsewhere. Tartan Films and ThinkFilm, the distributors of 9 Songs and Shortbus respectively, go out of business. And in December the social networking platform Ning announces they will "no longer support adult social networks". Ning is forthright with their reasons why:
1) "Adult social networks don't pull their own weight financially." The old detective's maxim - follow the money. Over and over again we hear it asserted that businesses turn their back on "adult-content" because it's bad publicity, or that they're "getting ready for their IPO." But if the last decade showed anything, it's that capital is maddenly amoral; it seeks profit as relentlessly as water seeks the ocean, whatever the cost.
2) "By having legal adult social networks on Ning, we've seen a rise in volume of illegal adult social networks." This speaks to my ecological metaphor. The opening of a niche for Midnight Cowboy also opened a niche for The Devil in Miss Jones, and if it stayed there, society would probably tolerate it.
But it doesn't stay there. In the '70s, the socio-economic conditions that allowed The Devil in Miss Jones to be produced and screened publicly also allowed a host of unwelcome anti-social activities to flourish. In the digital era, the conditions that allowed me to produce and market my films also gave rise to torrents of spam and other invasive media, much of it vulgar, even menacing, all of it unwelcome.
3) "Adult social networks on Ning receive a disproportionate number of DMCA take down notices creating additional work for our team." Again it comes down to money. If the adult social networks were cash cows, they'd be worth all the attention they require, but they aren't and they don't. It's simply impossible to come up with a rational, even-handed, scalable policy that differentiates sexual art from erotica from pornography from obscenity (add or subtract whatever, ultimately meaningless meta-tags you want to that list.) Like the standard for Obscenity set forth in Miller v California, commercial terms of service for acceptable sexual content on private platforms are practically forced to evolve to be vague and community-based. But unlike the legal standard; these commercial standards will be enforced with extreme prejudice and little or no recourse for appeal.
This last point is probably going to put some of my more libertine friends' noses out of joint, but look at your own behavior. Do you put NSFW next to links when you don't want the recipient to get in trouble at work? I bet you do. And when you do that, do you push the edge, and only label the most explicit links NSFW, or do you play it safe and label anything that might be a problem? (NSFW: But Then Again, Safety Is Over-Rated
[caption: Bill and Desiree: Love is Timeless (2009)]
The difficulties faced by Ning will be writ large in April, 2009 when over the weekend of April 11-12, adjustments to Amazon's merchandizing algorithm results in the wholesale deranking/delisting of gay and lesbian themed books and merchandise. The internet explodes with outrage and accusations that Amazon is caving to conservative pressure. But I see the event from a slightly different perspective.
For one, we are an Amazon consignment retailer. Since the complete collapse of Google search-driven direct sales, Amazon has become the tent pole of our self-distribution network. This means we have to sell twice as many DVDs to make the same amount of money as we would with direct sales, but it also gives me near real time access to our sales numbers on Amazon. On the basis of those numbers I can make pretty reasonable guesses about how other titles are performing.
From that perch what I see is that Amazon has made a tweak to their merchandizing algorithms to try and prevent sexually oriented merchandise from being presented to people not specifically looking for it, ie Amazon doesn't want to accidentally push Doc Johnson products at people who are looking for Johnson and Johnson products. They don't want to do it because it's bad business.
But over this weekend they over-torqued the valve and it blows up in their face.
It blows up in our face too. In the aftermath the of the April 2009 #AmazonFAIL, ours sales fall 65%. This puts the fear of God in me. I realize that if I don't take steps to try and move my filmmaking off the boundary of the Sphere of Deviance
to firmly inside the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, we are done for. Done for.
I am also keenly aware of who polices those boundaries. In June of 2009 I go into a near fugue-like state and begin writing The Intent to Arouse: A Concise History of Sex, Shame and the Moving Image, starting with the first post: My name is Tony Comstock and I am a thought criminal
I know the days of simply making things and putting them on the internet for the world to marvel at are long gone, so when I'm not writing I am calling film departments, media studies departments, law schools, art departments, psychology departments, and medical colleges at Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Cornell, Stanford, Berkley, UCLA, USC. I have to begin building my academic speaking resume, and I don't care where, so long as it's somewhere that looks impressive on paper! The films no longer matter. I need credentials.
On September 23rd I delivered The Intent to Arouse lecture for the first to the Film Studies Department, at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. The lecture was well received with several students and faculty staying hours after while I held court. For a week or so after I managed to hang on to the thought, "If this is what it takes, I can do it."
But six weeks later I find myself at the helm of a small boat rounding the eastern most tip of Long Island. When the boat clears the point I set a course for Bermuda and points South. I don't see my home again for seven months.
On June 9, 2010 Jim Fallows published my letter to him "Climax Ecology" on this very blog. In it I gave a very short version of what I hope has been interesting reading this past week.
On that very same day, Jim's colleague Jeffery Goldberg published an incredulous account of having New York Times editor Helen Cooper ask to replace "tuchas" with "tushie" in an article she was writing in which she had quoted him. The title of Goldberg's post was "Words That the New York Times Will Not Print, and in it he speculated on what other Yiddish words he should avoid.
Four years after its screening at the Sundance Film Festival, Destricted was finally set to be released on DVD in the US (unrated, of course.) As a part of the hype surrounding the release, the National Coalition Against Censorship organized a screening of the film and a panel discussion with the film's producers. This struck me as odd. To my knowledge the film had never suffered from any prejudicial treatment either by state or corporate censors, so I made a stink about it on Twitter.
This garnered me an invitation to the screening and to sit on the panel, which I accepted.
The film was so appallingly dull and so purposefully ugly it was all I could do not to get up and leave. The audience sat in complete, dumbstruck silence for the entire excruciating hour. I had gone to the event brimming with years of pent up rage, and by the time the house lights came up I was in a lather. How dare something like this be feted while my tenderly made films were being persecuted.
But when I got up up there on the stage, next to the producers, watching them have to stand by their ugly, detached, boring film, all I could imagine was how I would feel if I were in the same awful position. My rage departed. In its place all I felt was pity.
And oh, by the way; Larry Clark's "Impaled" was not included in the NCAC screening or on the DVD. It seems the producers had botched the paperwork. They couldn't prove that all of the young men involved in making of Clark's segment were of legal age.
Not long after that Steve Jobs declared the iPad will be porn-free, "That's a place we don't want to go - so we're not going to go there." Jeers of "Prudery!" and "Not smart busineess!" rose from predictable quarters, but Wall Street failed to punish Apple's stock price for Jobs turning his back on the "trillion dollar/year adult industry." Perhaps they were too worried about his liver to notice.
[caption: Brett and Melanie: Boi Meets Girl (2011)]
When people talk about trends, they often say things like "it's come full circle" or "the pendulum swings the other way" but I find those metaphors unsatisfying. History doesn't repeat itself.
In 1989, sort of on a dare, I took the pre-engineering physics course from Dr. Rudy Hwa at University of Oregon. That's the same year I was doing my BFA. One of the things I learned in that course was that it's not really accurate to say light travels in waves; more accurate to say that travels in spirals.
Depending on how you look at a spiral motion it can look look like a pendulum, or a circle. But it's not. It's a spiral. It goes around and around, but processes too. It goes back and forth, and around and around and forward.
My next post is going to be my going to be my last post. If you managed to make it all the way to the bottom of this one, I'm grateful. I guess I've got the hook set pretty deep. We still need to check Dick Cheney's heart off the list. Thanks for reading!Tony Comstock is a documentary filmmaker whose company, Comstock Films, specializes in erotic documentaries. Follow him on Twitter at @TonyComstock.