But this is hardly the consensus opinion. Allie Chase, operator of solo-site NaughtyAllie.com, takes issue even with the five-minute trailers that plenty of producers deliberately upload to tube sites in the hope of whetting appetites. “Do you honestly think that your average guy watching a five-minute porn, or several of them, won’t be able to get off? Of course he will. And once he’s shot his load all over his keyboard after watching my free five-minute video, he certainly isn’t going to be pulling out a credit card to join my site.” Manwin, in fact, has studied the question of optimal clip length. “We tested one minute, three minutes, five minutes,” Antoon says. “The best converting for the content owner is three minutes. The best for the tube sites—for the surfer to come back and back—is five minutes. So we always ask for three to five. We don’t mind if they send us seven to nine.”
It’s also unclear whether piracy can ever be contained. Besides tube sites, the industry must contend with torrent sites and cyberlockers. And for every tube that goes legit, a hundred new rogue ones pop up. Vivid’s Steven Hirsch sees it as a cat-and-mouse game. Under the DMCA, the onus is on piracy victims to monitor tube sites and send takedown notices. Hirsch has nothing bad to say about Manwin (“My dealings with them have been very fair, and our stuff isn’t up on PornHub, so I take them at their word,” he says), but even if the sites are good about complying, the content can be reuploaded minutes later. Hirsch holds out hope for legislation, passed by a Senate panel in November, that would allow victims to get pirate sites shut down entirely.
Marc Randazza, a San Diego–based First Amendment lawyer who represents porn companies and sued Manwin in November, citing pirated content on Spankwire, remains unconvinced by Manwin’s conversion to solid corporate citizen. “I guess they’re trying to come to the surface,” he says, “but I still think they have a toxic business model.” We are sitting at a cluster of slot machines in the Venetian and discussing the woes of Porn Valley, as the traditional bricks-and-mortar, L.A.-based industry is known. For all the work-from-home opportunities afforded by the new universe of micro-smut, professional porn continues to hold an allure. A few minutes into our conversation, a middle-aged guy in a plaid shirt walks hesitantly toward us, leering at our trade-show lanyards printed with the logo bang bros. Almost shyly, he asks, “How would I get into that?”
“You mean become a performer?” Randazza asks.
The man nods.
Randazza looks at him wearily, like he gets this all the time. “Honestly,” Randazza says, “the gay side’s where all the money is. There might be 30 straight guys who can make a living at it, but if you’re willing to get fucked in the ass, I can get you five grand right now.”
The man’s smile quavers, and he backs away.
However the industry ultimately reshapes itself to accommodate the twin threats of free and stolen content, the broader legacy of the tubes may have little to do with the high-gloss, professionally made porn that they have imperiled. More than anything, the tubes have the potential to change the viewer’s relationship to erotica itself. On some tubes, gigabytes of home movies are being uploaded and streamed without any money changing hands. There, consumers can also be producers. Posting can be as arousing as watching. We are all porn stars, if we want to be. Maybe porn isn’t even really the right word for it anymore, as it evolves from something made to be watched to something made to be shared.
On xTube, of the videos submitted to the amateur portion of the site, only 20 percent are pay-per-view; the other 80 percent are evidently uploaded for kicks. Consider AlphaHarlot, a regular contributor to the site. Her real name is Liz. She’s 30 and lives in Clifton, New Jersey, where by day she works as an accountant. Two years ago, she started uploading videos to xTube, which her boyfriend at the time had done. “When I joined I was in kind of a weird place,” she says, “dating that guy plus a bunch of others that were more like one-night stands than relationships. And xTube gave me another outlet for that sexual energy, so I stopped slutting around in real life. xTube made me feel better about myself.”
She eased into it, starting with photos. After loving the response she got, she moved to faceless videos, and ultimately to showing her face. She now has over 4,000 “friends” following her on xTube. She has been recognized twice in public, once in the Bath & Body Works at the Garden State Plaza. Some of the nearly 150 videos she has posted show her with a woman or with a man—she lives “a polyamorous lifestyle”—but most show her alone, masturbating or performing a fetish at the request of one of her fans.
Liz has never sought to make money from her videos. “I get excited making them, posting them, and seeing how people react,” she says. She fears it would be less fun—more like a job—if she charged. “xTube is my family. It has completely altered how I see people. It’s made me realize there are people out there who understand there’s more to the world than black-and-white sexuality, that everyone fits in somewhere.”
Still, even Liz, who lets people watch her videos for free, doesn’t like to see her content show up on other websites. A few times a month, one of her vigilant xTube fans will alert her to an instance of piracy. Usually, after she contacts a site, they’ll remove the video; sometimes they argue. “You want control of where your stuff appears,” she says. “Stolen porn irks the hell out of me.” She tries, at least once a month, to buy a DVD from an adult video store, “so I feel like I’m giving back a little.”
Note: This article has been updated with the following correction. Vivid Entertainment's online revenue projections are off 50 percent, not its online revenues.