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What is the point of changing your Facebook profile picture to a French flag?

If you aren’t personally affected by the attacks in Paris, then putting a filter on your profile picture can look a lot like a superficial repetition of a publicly acceptable opinion.

It is shocking, but death, terrorism and murder have become a normative image when we (in the western world) think about the Middle East. By contrast, and exemplified by the reactions to Friday’s attacks on Paris by social media and mainstream news, such attacks in western cities are received with total horror, fear and anger. For most people going about their daily lives in busy European cities, such attacks are assumed to occur predominantly in distant war zones and countries which are not politically stable. More and more, it is becoming clear that this imagined distance is just that, and that terrorism is becoming increasingly transnational.

Friday’s attacks on Paris have, once again, brought the concept of terrorism and the danger of spontaneous death, through no fault of one’s own, into the forefront of many people’s minds. We are aware that such attacks are extremely difficult to predict and prevent. This fear of impending danger is heightened by the fact that Friday’s events took place in relatively “local” regions of Paris – it was not the Sorbonne, or the Louvre or Gare du Nord that was targeted, but a series of Friday night hotspots packed with local Parisians.

People interacting on social media forums have been extremely quick and vocal in their reactions to Friday’s attacks. However, this seems to have elicited two main reactions: the first is that small changes and demonstrations, such as changing one’s Facebook profile picture to include the French flag, are kind acts of support. The idea is that collectively we are stronger – that wherever we can, we will help each other.

However, the second, perhaps more cynical or perhaps only more nuanced, opinion, which I heard many people suggest over weekend, is that such proclamations are short-term, pointless and somewhat selfish. If none of your Facebook friends were personally affected by the attacks, then the only people who will see your new profile picture and so-called declaration of support are those who do not need supporting. By changing a photo of yourself for a week, you are doing nothing for the victims; instead, you are making the issue about yourself, by making your public, online persona appear more sympathetic. These arbitrary changes mean nothing in real terms, and they belittle the seriousness of the situation in Paris by the fact that they are in the company of videos of dancing dogs or memes of Kylie Jenner. Thus, some people view these acts of “support” as insensitive and indicative only of the depressing idea that people love to be part of a crisis.

Some of my French friends responded to another friend’s status which expressed this scepticism yesterday, saying that, to the contrary, they found the images of support encouraging and consoling, even if they did not know the people who were posting images of the Eifel tower or quotes from Martin Luther King; the point was that citizens from across the world were with them in spirit. Are these opinions – those of the people who are most in need of consoling – more valid than those of others, further removed from the situation, who are more critical?

Ultimately, it falls to the individual to decide. Personally, I find these social media – I want to call them fads – trends, such as changing one’s profile picture to reflect current affairs, superficial. Take, for example, the large number of people who changed their pictures to incorporate the rainbow flag after the American Supreme Court passed gay marriage. The vast majority of these people had done nothing to aid the LGBT community’s fight, and some campaigners were unhappy about people jumping on their victorious bandwagon. I’m sure that such people were in full support of gay marriage as a concept, and, of course, you can support a cause without actively participating. However, taking a strongly positioned stance in public – and I think this issue of “public” is the crucial point – on any given issue or event once it has occurred does, to me, seem superficial. Is this merely people pointing out that they are aware of current affairs and repeating a publicly acceptable opinion – indeed, the dominant, preferred discourse? How much does that count for?

Social media can be extremely useful, and I applaud the PorteOuverte hashtag on Twitter, which afforded many stranded Parisians the help and comfort they desperately needed on Friday night. This is the way social media, and strangers actively participating in a crisis, works best. To me, this makes so much more sense than a swiftly changed profile picture, doubtless prompted by a newsfeed cluttered with identical changes – a change made in order to be seen to publicly agree that, yes, this has been a tragedy. Such a statement is unnecessary – I won’t assume that, just because you didn’t change your picture, you are somehow condoning these atrocious acts of violence. By sending someone a personal, private message you let them know that you are thinking about them; by making a general, public statement, the sympathy and goodwill you express is impersonal and somehow misdirected.

Some people think social media is a good thing, and an almost limitless and helpful resource; some people think it cheapens statements of support because they are two-a-penny. Some people are learning about current affairs through engaging with social media, while others deplore the fact that many seem only to be able to express horror and anger when the violence is directed at people and places close to home. Perhaps there is no real answer – you cannot know with what sincerity something has been typed, nor what any given individual has done or tried to do in the name of a stranger.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times