Author Archive for Craig Ambrose


Speed Dating

There are a lot of real world practices that translate well onto the web, and in doing so, open themselves up to participation by much more diverse audiences. Speed Dating is the practice of organising a bunch of very rapid dates, of only a few minutes each, in order to find mutually compatible matches.

speed data CC photo from flickr by Urban Mixer

The core idea here is remarkably similar to my previous discussion of “HOT or NOT”. At the end of the date, each person marks down whether they would like to see more of this person, and if the feeling is mutual, they are both informed so that they can hook up. In the real world, it can save a whole lot of time wasted sitting through expensive meals with people you don’t even click with. The real benefit, however, is that once again, this is an interaction with a reduced sense of rejection.

In fact, rejection in speed dating can be managed even further by changing the format slightly. I witnessed one round of speed dating where each person sat down for ten dates, each of three minutes duration, and at the end had to provide a list of up to five people who they they had dates with that they would like to see more of. This is a little different to the “yes” or “no” approach, and on the surface might seem less efficient (if the goal is simply to find all possible compatible matches). It does, however, give you a bit of a mental excuse if you don’t end up hooking up with people. You were only allowed to mark down five people, so there may have been some perfectly lovely people who just didn’t quite make the cut. Likewise, if the people who you marked down didn’t end up doing the same for you, then perhaps it was because they found too many other great people on their dates, and couldn’t quite fit you in.

Five people doesn’t have to be the limit either. The further you reduce it, the less successful matches found, but also there will be a lessened sense of rejection. Perhaps four is an interesting number, as you can fail to get a match, while still possibly being “above average” in the other person’s esteem.

Considering the fear of rejection in sites like HOT or NOT is not so necessary, as your yes/no choices are made about each profile you encounter out of a very large pool, making the whole experience very anonymous. Speed dating brings something a little different to the table. It offers a chance to form an opinion about your actual two way interaction with another person, rather than just judging them as a static image or collection of facts. However, by making it a two way dialog, you open yourself up to rejection, which is why I believe that this aspect must be considered.

So, how does this work on the web?

There seem to be two key features which set speed dating apart from saying “yes” or “no” to a user profile. One, as I’ve just mentioned, is doing something to make it a two way channel of communication. The other, is to reduce the pool of people involved so that you can be fairly certain that you are offering an opinion on someone who is also offering an opinion on you. In practice, two way communication seems to automatically imply the latter, however I’m fairly certain that there are some possible types of communication which provide some of the benefits of speed dating without necessarily being real time.

On the real time front, I’ve come across one site recently that does this. At, users are actually lined up to take part in live, three minute webcam or text chats. This is a very literal interpretation of speed dating, and probably the most succesfull way of doing it, although not everyone has a camera or is confident interacting with strangers in this way.

Like all ideas, I think that this one is open to being picked apart and used in a variety of ways. Perhaps other activities which we perform on web sites might benefit from involving a fixed group of people. Waiting for the group to “fill up” before being able to start the activity might be a bit of a pain, but a structured social experience that involves a known group of people might have some benefits over our usual rambling social networks. This doesn’t just apply to dating sites. It could be just as applicable for people watching a private webcam show (for those who like their porn to be sociable).

Perhaps also we can consider how we can make our interactions more like two-way conversations, so that instead of judging the a photo, people are judging how well they get along.


Simple, but Clever

HOT or NOT is based on two simple, clever ideas. They started, I believe, with just one, which was the ability to rate a picture of another person’s “hotness”.

Rating a picture is not a terribly clever or exciting idea, but a few twists made it addictive. You’re faced with a picture of a girl or guy (you get to choose), and you have to give their attractiveness a rating out of ten, or the site doesn’t do anything else. Want to see another picture? Rate this one. Want to find out more about this person? First, rate the picture. Rather surprisingly, I also found myself motivated by a desire to see how my ratings compared with the norm, and you guessed it, if you want to know that person’s average rating, first you have to rate the picture.

It’s a simple idea. Users are rewarded in these three ways, the simplest of which being they get to see another picture, and to achieve this reward they end up generating a simple but useful form of site content (the ratings).

Like all clever ideas, it’s been cloned endlessly on the internet. I first encountered it about four years ago, and by that time it already existing in such endless permutations (RateMyWife, RateMyRack, RateMyPet, etc) that I gather it had been around for a while.

The other idea at HOT or NOT is a slight variation on the same thing. Instead of rating someone’s attractiveness from one to ten, you just do so with a “yes” (I’d like to meet them) or “no”. If you and another use both happen to say “yes” to each other, then the site will put you in contact. The main reward motivations described above still apply, because the site still fires picture after picture at you, and this conveyor-belt of content is powered by you clicking on your response for each one.

Strangely, I have a memory of considering this concept from when I was a young teenager. At this point, I doubt I was actually using the internet, even though it existed in various forms. Lets say I was about fifteen, and like most fifteen year old geeks, I had a few good friends, but was certainly not popular. I was starting to think about girls, and there seemed to be no possibility of actually getting one.


I recall standing in the bathroom of my parents house, and looking at myself in the mirror. I was a weedy little thing, but I could see, in certain ways that I might post, that I could surely be considered attractive by some. So I considered if every girl in the world could see that image of me in the mirror that I could see. There are a whole lot of girls out there, even if it’s just every girl in my school. Without any social pressures at play, how many of them would say “yes, I’d like to kiss that boy”? I considered that if I likewise looked at every girl in the school and answered the same question, we could see which ones matched, however I no doubt admitted to myself that I would probably say “yes” for just about every single girl. Still, it seemed to me that plenty of girls out there were just as lonely as me, and I didn’t care how many other boys they said “yes” to, as long as they said yes to me.

The whole dating site industry seems to be driven by this idea that people are basically lonely and would just love to say “yes” to other compatible people, if only there weren’t social pressures not to, and most critically, if only there was no need to worry about rejection. I’m not sure if that’s as true as we might think, but the HOT or NOT concept is probably the simplest and cleanest implementation of this idea that I can think of, and the interaction between the web site and the user is so clearly beneficial to both parties that it just works, with no effort at all.


My Three Muses

The three muses

Playful Bent started with three words. These three words became my muses, inspired much of the development of the site, and also acted as a yard-stick to hold up to other ideas that I encountered, to see if they would fit in.


Conversation is perhaps an obvious priority for adult social networking. I’m talking here not just about spoken conversation, but of the general idea of communication being two-way. Conversation is perhaps one of the themes of the Web 2.0 movement in general. Blogs are not just publishing, they are a conversation with our readers. A myspace page is not just a user profile, but a conversation between that user and their friends.

Implementing conversation isn’t terribly hard. You can put a web forum up, and suddenly you have a space for your users to converse. However, building a courtyard, and bringing it to life with a throng of people are two very different exercises. I think that it’s important to make the barrier of entry into the conversation as low as possible. Spammers don’t make this easy, because if you make things too simple, you open the floodgates for spam. There’s some defense in doing things a little differently. It’s worthwhile to spam wordpress comments, because there are millions of wordpress blogs. So far it hasn’t been worthwhile to spam playful bent, but it’s only a matter of time.

As well as making things easy, you need to make them relevant, and integrated. Conversation isn’t a stand alone activity that we regulate to the forum section of our sites. Like the other two of these muses of mine, conversation can be considered in all aspects of the website. If web 2.0 is all about users generating and sharing content, then the process of doing so should resemble a conversation at all times. If you show me a sexy photo, I need to be able to talk to you about it. Not somewhere else, right there on the page. Conversation also separates the adult social sites, which are my particular area of interest, from the adult content delivery sites (yes, I mean porn). However, even porn sites benefit from having strong conversation channels.


The internet is not necessarily about immediate gratification. There’s as much pleasure to be derived from the buildup to something sexy, as in the act itself. Anticipation is my second muse. She’s always just around the corner, making me impatient to catch up, but never so far away that the reward isn’t worth the wait.

Getting anticipation working for you on the web is a tricky business. It can drive users off, and I often struggle with the dillema of scaring off great swathes of new users because they just want to see some nice tits and don’t have the patience for anything else. However, these users are probably not going to enter the conversation anyway, so I figure it doesn’t matter too much. This muse should probably not be listened to all the time, as it may well be worth having some nice tits around the place somewhere for those impatient users to view. However, when designing each interaction between your users and the site, or between two users, anticipation is a valuable principle to try and incorporate.

Partly, it can just mean waiting. Is an erotic story sexier if it’s delivered in installments? Quite possibly. Is a naked person sexier if you see them with their clothes on first? I certainly think so. However, waiting can’t be just “doing nothing” or the users wont do it on your site. There needs to be many pots on the go, and the expectation of plenty more interesting things on the horizon. Non-real-time conversations between users almost always generate anticipation, but I think the challenge is to try and take this principle beyond that, and see how we can apply it to erotic images, to movies, to cam chats, and to anything else we can think of.


I might pretend I don’t play favourites, but Escalation is the muse with a special place in my heart. She’s the patron saint of games of all kinds, as few rewards for winning work well without escalation. She spends most of her time keeping people addicted to World of Warcraft, but when she’s not busy with that, we should enlist her aid in building our sites.

We see escalation in pornography, or at least we do in decent pornography. If they put the money shot at the start, it’d certainly lose something. If I search the web for pictures of naked bums (nothing like a good naked bum to cheer you up), then I might click through photos of one delightful bottom after another until I eventually get bored, due to the lack of escalation.

I can’t think of blanket advice to give on applying escalation, so I’m going to fall back on examples from my own site. If you can think of examples from elsewhere, pop them in the comments.

Playful bent has a strip-shows section, where users upload fifteen photos, and can only see the next photo in someone else’s strip-show by revealing one more of theirs to that person. Exposing photos one at a time creates anticipation, but the escalation only occurs there if the users can be convinced that the concept of a “strip-show” involves the photos getting progressively naughtier. We haven’t had any problems convincing the users of that. There isn’t a special system for it, we just tell them to do it that way, and it seems to work fine.

More pervasive in playful bent, however, is our interaction points system. Every thing you do with another person (thanks to the good lady Conversation) is like ticking something off a checklist. My relationship with another person, for example, can be displayed as a number of these ticks. One tick for watching their stripshow, one tick for doing one of their dares, one tick for writing a story with them, and so on. That lets us measure the escalating relationships between people, and the next trick is to reward them for it.

We haven’t got the reward bit fully licked. The main thing at the moment is that private messaging requires two interaction ticks before you can do it with that person. The good lady Escalation has been whispering in my ear though, and she’s fairly insistent that I try and think of more ways to model these escalating relationships. Perhaps it will be the ability to mark photos as only being viewable by users who have a certain number of ticks with you. Or perhaps, down the track, having a certain number of ticks with me will let you see my webcam, or activate my tele-dildonics device.

This principle of escalation could also be described, at least in the above example, as being about modeling non-binary relationships between people. The myspace way of doing friends is a bit like walking up to everyone and saying “Are you my friend? Yes or No?”. We’re not four year olds, things are fuzzier than that. There is a lot to talk about in this area, and I’m planning some future articles that go into the social networking application non-binary relationships.

So those are my three muses. Conversation, Anticipation and Escalation. What are yours, and most importantly, do they rhyme?


A Call to Arms

Welcome to “Building the Sex”. In it’s simplest sense, this is a blog about building adult websites. On a broader level, I really wish to talk about the huge impact that technology has had on our ability to express our sexuality and fantasies. If we set our wayback machines to 1979, we might be lucky enough to witness the birth of usenet. Since I was in nappies at the time, and today’s current generation of web savvy young adults was probably not even born yet, this reference might need some explaining. Way back before the web, usenet was already a sizable network for sharing and organising news and other forms of communication. These “news groups”, on just about every conceivable topic, were one of the first widely available and basically anonymous ways to talk to like minded people from all over the world about a particular subject.

For the first time, people discovered that they weren’t the only one.

Not the only “gay in the village”. Not the only one who liked to look at women’s shoes, or be tied up and spanked, or fantasize about the postman.

Perhaps I’m not giving enough recognition to magazines, private clubs, telephone chat-rooms, bulletin boards and all the other ways we already had to communicate, but I think the importance of usenet was massive due to the fact that the conversation was two way, and it wasn’t just in your local area.

So usenet, and the internet in general, are disruptive technologies. They change, and broaden, the options available to us for communication. Expressing our sexuality was one of the earliest uses of these technologies. We often hear how the adult industry has driven innovation in technology. I’m told that the vibrator was one of the first steam powered devices (not verified by me), and we often hear about how the porn industry was instrumental in pushing the acceptance of VHS over Betamax video tapes, in order to allow them to ship higher quality pornographic movies. The distribution of pornography is one of the earliest, and still one of the most profitable industries on the internet. IRC was very quickly adopted by people exploring alternative sexualities, in order to express in cybersex what they may not have been able to do in the real world. 3D virtual worlds have been used by many for the same reason.

So who’s been innovating lately?

There is a boom going on in the web industry at the moment. Tim O’Reilly coined the term “Web 2.0”, to reflect that fact that this is the second such boom, after the “Dot Com” era of the late 90’s. There are a tremendous amount of web sites around coming up with new and interesting ways to interact online. So of course, leading this charge are those coming up with creating new ways to explore and express our sexuality online, right?


The porn industry is producing porn (bless their little cotton socks), the dating industry is finding people dates, but the rest of the adult industry is asleep at the wheel.

This is a wakeup call. A call to arms. A reminder that just because we know that “sex sells”, that doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels and expect to dish out the same old thing anymore. Adult sites deserve to be user friendly. They deserve good design and typography, they deserve to be responsive via AJAX (or similar technologies). They deserve to work with our iphones, and our RSS readers, and quite possibly our sex toys. And most of all, they deserve our creativity and our thought when coming up with new ideas, not just stale old ones.

In this blog, I’m going to discuss some of my own ideas. As it happens, I have plenty. Some seem like they’re new (although probably others have thought the same thing), some are blatantly stolen, and some are put together in new ways. It seems so easy to think of a few good ideas for the web, that I’m a little surprised and disappointed each time that I visit an adult site which is just copying all those that came before.

I hope you’ll join me in this exploration. Please feel free to send me an email, or drop me a message over on my Playful Bent profile.

"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


Sex 2.0 Conference