Love your iPhone, but don’t *LOVE* your iPhone

Today saw the much anticipated release of Apple’s Software Development Kit (SDK) for the iPhone. The iPhone SDK will let developers write applications native to the iPhone, rather than just the web applications that you’ve been able to create so far. The internet is ringing with positive endorsements of the power of this new SDK. Jason Fried of 37signals called it “the start of two decades of mobile domination by Apple”. Steve Jobs is inviting everyone to come and get involved.

Oh, but no sex please.

Press releases on the subject of the new SDK seem to be glossing over the fact that applications for the iPhone will only be able to be distributed via Apple’s official website. You will be able to sell your new iPhone apps through this site, and apple will take 30% of the profit. That commission isn’t so bad, but the idea that you can’t put your own applications on your own website for download is incredible. Imagine if Microsoft said that you couldn’t install anything on your computer that didn’t get downloaded from microsoft.com, there would be a riot.

The real casualty of this, predictably, is sex. No pornography is allowed to be distributed this way, and there is no other way to distribute. There are a whole lot of sex-positive uses for an iphone, but this delivery method is going to stand in the way of us seeing a raft of customer vibrator interfaces, dirty adult games, or whatever other sexual ideas our creative minds might come up with.

The internet is a free playground for us to all explore our diverse interest, and that freedom should extend to devices that we pay plenty of money to legally own. What we install on them should be our own business, and there should be an avenue to do so without Steve Jobs enforcing his opinion of what is acceptable to be associated with the adult brand.I can only hope that Android, the competing (but largely vaporware) mobile playform from Google gains a lot of traction and stops Apple from having total control over our mobile devices for “the next two decades”, although I can’t say I’m holding out much hope.

Playful Bent on the iPhone, picture by Aurelien


Adult websites and the tech media

Geeks are a pretty liberated bunch, on average, but it’s very interesting to see the way in which discussion of technology used for sex is still so very different from discussions of other similar technologies that happen to be used for other purposes.

I talk a lot about adult sites being way behind the rest of the industry when it comes to web2.0, but I think it’s also true to say that adult sites often don’t receive the same sort of coverage. One article which was a very good example of this was this article on mashable.com, about a new (no longer operating) adult social network. There’s nothing particularly negative in the article, but there does seem to be a bit of an unspoken assumption that adult sites are not something that we normally want to talk about. The author writes “Will it get a review on Mashable? Nope, but it’s worth mentioning these sites for the sake of completeness.”, and then goes on to make a point that he’s not actually going to link to the site in question. Links, since they improve your search engine rankings and direct traffic, are a valuable commodity for web entrepreneurs and are basically the main reason why a new business would send a press release to popular tech blogs like mashable. Presumably, the author of the article felt that it was a good compromise to mention the site, but not review it or link to it, since after all, it is an adult site.

For a more positive view of the adult web 2.0 industry, one can often go to popular silicon valley blog, techcrunch.com. Earlier this year techcrunch wrote an overview of the adult web2.0 industry in an article entitled New Generation Adult Sites Roundup. It’s a short, but fairly insightful article on the state of play, and tech crunch has consistently written on some of the big players in this industry, in particular giving good coverage of the sale of Adult Friend Finder (and associated sites) to Penthouse. However, for even this very occasional glimps of the adult web industry, techcrunch operator Michael Arrington has received a lot of flack.

In the article mentioned above, commenters wade in pretty quickly with jokes and then in many cases very strong opinions that this is not an appropriate subject to discuss on a tech blog. The tenth person to comment writes:

this might as well be trashcrunch.com!

i’m leaving and it looks like other are already leading the way!

this is all you have to talk about mike???

And the comment I personally found most astounding:

I’m very disappointed to see this post. Pornography causes untold harm to men and women daily. Despite the industry’s past or future technical contributions, covering specific pornographic sites should be beneath any respectable blog.

Let us not pretend that pornography is an acceptable past time for mature adults. It harms those involved, it harms it’s customers, it harm us as a society.

Despite these rather strong comments, techcrunch has continued to cover adult sites, and many of the comment threads on these articles have turned into pretty heated discussion between those who, for want of a better term, I’m going to call sex-negative and sex-positive readers. In particular, if you’re finding yourself bored one day, reading the comments on this article is a very interesting exercise, and contains some good defenses of on-line sexuality by Arrington and also by fellow tech blogger Robert Scoble.

I’ve had a similarly diverse range of reactions when mentioning my adult website work to other geeks. It’s very easy to forget, when hanging out with liberal minded sex-positive people that this isn’t necessarily a majority view. Still, I don’t think that this means that we should shut up, and I applaud those bloggers who are managing to give impartial coverage of this subject, in particular to American audiences.


Why okcupid is so darn good

I’m going to talk about various sites in the adult social networking space from time to time, and looking at a lot of the ones out there, I imagine I’m going to do a fair bit of bitching about them. However, before I do that, I’d like to rave for a minute about okcupid.

Okcupid is a dating site, which is an area of the adult online space that I’m a little less interested in. However, I thoroughly recommend it for finding people similar to you for any purpose, including dating, friendship, or casual sex.

Like many sites we’ll look at, okcupid is essentially based on one good idea. This is that compatibility between two people can be calculated based on their answers to various questions. The system works well because rather than just finding people who answer the same way as you, each question allows you to specify how your ideal match would answer it, and how important that answer is to you. I’m not going to go into any more detail about their algorithm, as it’s explained very clearly on the site.

A good idea is not enough by itself. What makes okcupid works is how well the idea is executed. You aren’t tackling huge questionnaires which require a massive investment of time. Any time you like you can go to the question page and answer one question, or one thousand questions, it’s entirely up to you. The questions are fun and engaging, and the site rewards you in various ways, such by using the number of questions that you’ve answered in public views of your profile, so that it feels like a mark of pride.

The game playing nature of the site is amusing for a couple of days, but where it gets really interesting is when you go and look at the people in your area who are good matches for your views. For me, with only a couple of hundred questions answered, my matches list immediately read like a who’s who list of interesting poly, sex-positive people in Auckland. There are heaps of different ways to explore your matches, including “find a random penpal”, detailed searching, and lots of boxes offering you varous similar people. The result, for me, feels like I’m surfing through a social network of sex-positive geeks. For you, it no doubt feels like your in a network of people sharing whatever your interests are.

Finally, as web developer, I’m often very turned off sites which have a good idea, but demonstrate poor design and useability or are full of bugs. In this area, okcupid doesn’t disappoint. It’s one of the few dating sites that I’ve used which demonstrates nice clean early web2.0 style design, with lots of active white space and nice clear ways to navigate. It’s delightfully snappy, and the developers tell us that they’ve written it in C++ and written their own webserver to boot. This may demonstrate that they are certifiably insane, but it certainly works for them.

Go check it out. They have a facebook plugin, but no sign of an API. I’d love to be able to integrate it with other social networking sites and use okcupid match scores as a way of navigating various communities, but we’ll have to see what happens on that front.

If you want to see how your profile compares to mine, you can drop by my okcupid profile here.

okcupid screenshot


Social Networking with Non-Binary Relationships

Social networking began when we first started to be able to list our friends on our favourite websites, and thus be able to separate them from the mass of strangers on the site. However, as many people have commented, the idea of having friends is a very contrived and limited way of managing our relationships. A five year old might ask “are you my friend, or not?!” and demand an instant answer one way or the other, but generally adults prefer something a little less black and white. I’ve read many articles complaining of this issue, in particular Corey Doctorow’s article at information week has gotten me thinking about this problem today.

A situation where we must answer either “yes” or “no” to the question “are you my friend?” is what we might call a binary relationship. If we think that this isn’t always ideal, then it seems like we need to explore ways in which we can model relationships which have more than two possible states.

A number of sites, live journal springs to mind, allow you to specify that a relationship belongs to a certain group which is distinct and separate from other relationships you might maintain. For example, on live journal, I could create a friendship group called “enemies”, and send out a post just to those people. At best, this system can elevate our relationships from binary to discrete, that is, having a number of possible states that is greater than two, but is still a finite whole number. I think that this is a good thing, but it tends to fall down a little when the things that you can do with such relationships are basically the same for all groups. If the point of friendship in a social network is to show people more information about yourself, shouldn’t an enemies group allow me to show that person less information than a stranger?

An important aspect of social networking relationships is how they are perceived by the users. Even if the relationship has no actual affect on the ability of those two users to interact on the website, it has a psychological affect. If you say “no” to my friendship request, then I may well feel rejected, despite the fact that a “yes” would have had no real effect.

Likewise, the effects of relationships on a website could be controlled without using friendships at all. Instead, we could simply have a raft of individual settings for each user, specifying which bits of our data they can see, or which interaction methods they are allowed to bug us with. One major disadvantage of such a system would be it’s time consuming complexity, but certainly some per person configuration could be a great benefit.

Since the social pressures of saying “yes” or “no” to friendship requests only apply to the obvious representation of the relationship, rather than to the functionality that it drives, then I think an important goal is to start by making that representation a bit “fuzzier”, and a lot less binary. Even if we do nothing more, and in fact the interactions in our network are still very much based on binary choices, simply being able to represent our relationships organically will help people feel less pressured into choosing the lesser of two ill fitting evils for each person.

An example of this is doing away with the word “friend”, and allowing users to build their own taxonomy. I always liked the way that audioscrobbler (now last.fm) let you specify relationships with a word or phrase of your choosing, and explained the system purely by putting your phrase in a sentence.

For example, a friend creation form might read “Craig [TEXT BOX GOES HERE] with Frank”. This feature on audioscrobbler was particularly freeform because the site didn’t even suggest contrived answers. Rather, it’s auto-suggest text box suggested popular answers, and reading them was quite amusing. Rather than “Craig is friends with Frank”, it became much more common to see “Craig frequents a local pub with Frank”, or “Craig fights ninjas with Frank”.

I freely admit that this only gives the illusion of non-binary relationships, and I’ve been experimenting a bit with more radical ideas. It seems that a totally different approach might be to stop asking users who they are friends with, and start trying to compute it quantitatively.

On Playful Bent, I’m experimenting with such a system in conjunction with a more normal binary friendship system (which also uses the strategies mentioned above). Since a lot of information on this particular site is public, the users have plenty of chances to try and interact without being friends. By watching what they do, and making a note of it automatically each time two users do something together, I can build up a rough “interaction score” between two users.

Measuring this stuff wasn’t actually too hard, but communicating it to the users is another story. I try and do so graphically, with big green ticks for each interaction. When there were only a few types of interactions, it was much easier to present the things to do on the site as something of a checklist. As the site gets more complex. the users begin to lose track of the reason why they might have a number of ticks with a person. As such, perhaps the “ticks” metaphor falls down a bit as a way of explaining the system, but certainly an interaction score still has merit.

I allow certain interaction score values to unlock certain types of interactions. For example, two ticks are needed to be able to private message another user. However, it really remains to be seen if users trust such a system enough to do things like make certain photos available only to people with an interaction score (with them) of more than eight, or in other ways stake their privacy on the system. I think the system looks promising though, and I’d like to push it further where possible. I’m even considering leaning a bit more heavily on this system, rather than on the binary friendships which are also on the site, to really drive it home to users that there are certain people that they interact with a lot, and maybe these are their “real” friends on the site.

I’d love to hear about what other people are doing in this area. It’s all very well to bitch about how friendships work on facebook and myspace, but coming up with some new ideas is much more fun.


Sexual Games – Knowing the Stakes

So I was thinking, dear reader, how about you and I cut the cards and if you lose, you have to perform a sexual act of my choice, and if I lose, then I perform one of your choice?

This is an example of a sexual game played for dares, or forfeits. I’ve been a bit obsessed with them this month, and I’ve played a number of them both online, and in the lounge room over a few drinks. Although a range of different games and challenges work well, I want to talk today just about the stakes, being the sexual acts that get performed.

Dares and Forfeits

Lets consider the example above. How would you feel if I really made that offer to you? What exactly does “sexual act of my choice” mean? Generally speaking, we can feel fairly safe about this because we trust the other person to request a sexual act which is risque, but not too confronting, because no doubt they are aware that although we’ve agreed to play the game by the rules, in practice we can just refuse to perform the act.

In my experience, the problem wish such games isn’t that the dares are too confronting. Quite the opposite. Unless you happen to be playing with particularly sexually dominant people, I find that people are often more embarrassed by thinking of dares than they are by performing them. This seems to be true even with fairly kinky groups of people.

The problem is one of politeness. If I lose the game and get dared to perform a sexual act, then I don’t have to feel impolite by doing so. I’m just following the game rules. However, if I have to issue the dare, then suddenly I have a world of choice, and I become worried about going a bit too far. Lets say that you lost our little card cutting game, and now I must think of a dare for you? How much flirting have we done already? Should I ask you to show me your nipples, or fuck yourself with a cucumber in the McDonalds drive through? If I picked the latter, would I come across as a total sleaze for misjudging the sexual energy of the current situation?

The solution to this problem seems to be to know the stakes up front. Rather than just agreeing to “a sexual act of my choice”, how about you and I decide in advance which sexual acts we’re going to stake on this cut of the cards. I tried this recently with a girl I met online. We took some time to stop and talk about what sort of dares we wanted to pick. The goal was to find something that was confronting enough to make sure that neither of us really wanted to lose the game, while not being something that we couldn’t bring ourselves to do at all. Also, it remained important to ensure that the dares were titillating to the darer.

You can treat this a bit like haggling. Start with an opening offer, and see where things go from there.

“You want me to flash my tits at a passing truck? Yeah, well only if I get to fuck you with a strap-on”

“There’s no way that a strap-on is the same as a flash. Maybe if we make it five trucks, and you have to stand there and wave with your top half totally naked.”

You get the idea.

Now, when we play the game, we know what the stakes are. We can enjoy the flirtatious competition ahead of us. If we’ve gotten ourselves worked up by thinking of all these kinky acts, a nice drawn out competition that actually involves skill as well us just chance can work really well. The game that I played online used scrabble, on facebook. I wonder if those facebook folks know how many kinky thinks you can use their site for.

(Photo above used with permission, from our game of scrabble. No credit given for privacy reasons)


Sexual Competitions

He let out the amazing truth. For a very long period before the time of Our Ford, and even for some generations afterwards, erotic play between children had been regarded as abnormal (there was a roar of laughter); and not only abnormal, actually immoral (no!): and had therefore been rigorously suppressed.

– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Most of us have played some sort of sexual game, even if only when we were very young. Sexual games are more than just a way of adding sexual acts to normal situations. Our games introduce us to a range of sexual behaviours, which can give us an opportunity to act out roleplay fantasies or experiment with different power dynamics. One of the key words in sexual games and competitions is “excuse”.

Lets take a very simple sexual game that you may have performed as a youngster, “kiss chasey”. If you haven’t played it, it’s basically normal chasey, or tag, but if you get touched by someone who is “it”, then you have to kiss them. If we didn’t want to perform sexual acts, being kissing in this case, then we wouldn’t play the game. Obviously as kids there is some amount of peer pressure, but I don’t recall ever finding my childhood sexual games to be forced on me. Now that we’re adults, I think it’s certainly safe to say that our sexual games will remain strictly consensual.

So, withing the boundaries of consent, what does it mean to have an “excuse”?

In primary school, I didn’t have an opportunity to walk up to someone and kiss them. I’m not even sure that I actually wanted to. However, when desire and curiosity are in conflict, a good resolution is to put yourself in a situation where the decision might be seen to be out of your hands. The game gave me an excuse to kiss girls, and obviously I thought that was worth doing.

This same motivation is true of other games, such as the ever popular Strip Poker. I admit that as a child, I never played strip poker, because I didn’t actually know how to play poker. However, we were familiar with the name, and tried it with other games instead. I think strip “Uno” was the most popular. Usually, stripping games are spoken of as if the main motivation is to see the other person naked, and that risking being naked yourself is simply the bargaining piece. While this may be true to some extent, the excuse to take our own clothes off shouldn’t be ignored.

Many sexual games involve dares or forfeits. This might be Truth or Dare, or the more complicated variety I played a lot as a young teenager, “Truth-Dare-DoubleDare-Kiss-Torture-Promise” (you can figure that one out yourself). Dares give us an excuse to perform a whole range of sexual acts, provided we have engaged in a game that has a clear motivation for us to play, and a set of rules that indicate that when we “lose”, then we have no choice but to perform the act.

I’ve been fascinated with sexual games for a long time, to the point where my lovers tend to get a little sick of me introducing them into our sex lives constantly. I’ve also been experimenting with a range of them online. In subsequent posts on this subject, I’m going to dive into the motivations involved in sexual games and competitions in more detail. In particular, I’ve found that a few tweaks in the rules of some of the classic old games that we played as kids can have all sorts of interesting effects on the sexual dynamics.


Do you produce adult content, or exploit it?

I have to admit, that although it’s within my area of interest, producing pornography is a bit of a strange world to me. I do think that pornography is a wonderful thing. If someone is able to produce pictures, movies, stories, or works in any other media which arouse people, then I think that’s very valuable, and certainly worth paying for. That being said, it does seem to me that the industry is a little weird.

Lets consider some stereotypes about porn sites on the web. As a web developer, the first thing I notice about porn sites is that they typically feature what would be considered to be atrociously bad web design in any other industry. The stereotypical porn site is typically almost entirely image based, and has been designed by a graphic artist in one go in photoshop, and then cut into a few sizable chunks and stuck into a HTML page. This means of course that they typically don’t perform too well in search engines, and have to lean heavily on meta and title tags in order to convey any semantic meaning to search engine parsers. Perhaps because of this, they also often rely very heavily on referred traffic, although that’s true of all sites to some extent.

The intertwining web of link-exchanges, banner ads, and affiliate programs that feed traffic from one porn site to the next seems to me to possibly be a bigger industry than the actual act of producing naughty photos using the human body. If you’d like a bit of a glimpse into the world of adult webmasters (forgive the sexism, it’s not a term I’d normally use) then spend a few minutes perusing the forums at http://www.gfy.com/, or on a similar site. I found it to be a very strange place where erotic activity is expressed mainly in terms of signup-to-clickthrough ratios, content is a bulk commodity, and it seems at a glance that females working in the industry are asked about how hot they are, even if they are marketers or web developers rather than models. I should add that I’m not well informed enough to be very certain of that last statement, and would like to hear from anyone with more experience in this area.

Recently, there has been a bit of shock running through the music recording industry as several big name artists have realised that they are much better off by not working through music labels. Within the last fortnight, Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Madonna have all made announcements regarding their new approaches of selling their music more directly to the public. It would seem that if someone has a talent for staring in erotic movies and pictures, then perhaps they should likewise be avoiding the ecosystem of the pornographic web and be trying to find ways to make more direct connections between themselves and their viewers.

It makes me want to run out and program some hosted service that is like “wordpress for porn stars”, allowing them a push-button way to deploy and share content, and monetize it, without having to suffer from terrible web design, poor search engine optimisation, and quite possibly rampant commercial exploitation by all those others in the industry who are making more money than they are (and without having take off a single article of clothing).

If someone can make you feel aroused, spice up your sex and fantasy life, entertain you, get you hard or wet, or help you orgasm, then that person is doing something much more beautiful and wonderful than the operators of a link-exchange or an affiliate program. I’m not going to be rushing out and building any such site as in the paragraph above (although I really would love to, given all the time in the world), but we need to find ways to reward such people more directly. This applies to both photographers and models, however I think the internet does a slightly better job of helping out photographers, and that perhaps it’s the models who deserve just that extra little bit of admiration and support at the moment in return for the wonderful gift that they give us.

If you’re not sure about this, don’t spend all your time considering it intellectually. Take an erotic photograph of yourself and send it to a friend or lover. Perhaps form a deal with them for a mutual exchange of photos. Try taking a photo in a mirror, and try a range of different shots and poses until you find something that is genuinely sexy (I guarantee you that it’s quite possible, no matter who you are). Receiving such a photo, or giving one, will put a great big smile on your face, and may help to remind you what this whole thing is about.

"Building the Sex" is a blog about creatively using technology to enrich our sex and fantasy lives.

Craig is a professional software developer, and the creator of Playful Bent, an adult social network.

self portrait


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