"Be the porn you want to see in the world," said our tour guide at the Kink.com studios in San Francisco's Armory, deploying repurposed inspirational slogans as readily as any Silicon Valley CEO at a #TCDisrupt talk. Thus began a tour that, the farther along we went, started to seem like a revelatory mirror of the trends that are driving San Francisco's tech and business culture generally. As Melissa Gira Grant's recent piece in Dissent argues, porn like all other media these days wants to jump from content production to content platform-- not just publishing, but mediating and distributing user-generated content. I left the Kink.com studios feeling that, in wanting to be a platform for sexual content like others are for social content, Kink has interesting things to teach us about platforms and our relationship to them.
The first thing our tour guide wanted to make sure we understood was that not only is tourist photography fine at Kink, it is also encouraged, as is posting photos from Kink to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. "If you feel inspired to enter a cage and pose for pictures, please do!" the guide said enthusiastically, cautioning us only that the professional performers in the building were not fair game for photos/friend requests unless asked. "Just because you've seen someone's asshole doesn't mean they want to be your friend on Facebook," our guide admonished.
This was the first of many uncanny moments I felt during the tour, where a porn platform representative was laying down rules for social media that are more explicit than those of social media companies themselves. When was the last time a social media platform told you the house rules for friending or distributing information? For social media platforms, all information flow is good flow. At Kink, there are rules, and the proprietors of the platform wanted to make sure we knew them.
"If any of the information I am telling you is too much, I'm going to teach you the safe words," our guide told us. "'Yellow' means that you are reaching your limit; 'Red' means that your boundaries have been reached and I should stop immediately." "Hmm", I thought, increasingly interested in the platform analogy. What if when I went to a website and it placed cookies on my browser, it would tell me what information it was registering, and if I said "yellow" it would slow down, or "red", it would stop? Why don't media platforms have safe words? What does it mean that they don't? Would we 'play' more freely on social media if they did?
At Kink, having safe words means that all possibilities for play seem realized, because within the "platform" people have boundaries that they can set and have respected. We went to the "electrosluts" room, which simulated a brightly-lit futuristic space where people could play with all kinds of electric gadgets. Aesthetic specificity is important at Kink: there are actors-turned-auteurs and set designers, and the Electro room was apparently modeled off of a science fiction movie, all white walls and bleeping consoles. Earlier we had visited the Abattoir room, a room decorated as a meat locker with meat hooks upon which could dangle enormous slabs of fake meat (there was confusion among the tourists about whether the "fake meat" was edible vegan meat or foam; it turned out to be foam).
The uncanny valley of fake and real within the Armory-- is the meat fake or real? is the creepy crawlspace just a creepy corner or a creepy dungeon set? is the drinking fountain real or prop?-- evoked other interesting resonances to social media. When we perform "pleasure" on social media is it "authentic" or show or both? What if our performance and our possessions are "props" in a show we are creating for our social media voyeurs-- not unlike the voyeurs who pay to watch people play on Kink.com? Does it matter? What "is" authenticity anymore? If not paid, for whom are we producing content, and for what reward?
Kink.com plays with the real-fake distinction as much as any social media platform: it invites people to play, for free, in its spaces, along with performers who are paid, in order to create "authenticity", a sense of unscripted fun. Unscripted fun, of course, is what social media platforms traffic in as well, and the unscripted amateurism of the production is what draws us to social media: anything can happen. On mainstream social media, porn is the one thing that can't happen, via the Terms of Service; on the other hand, at Kink, porn is the terms of service, a space of play that is created when the field around it is defined and made safe, and when the platform has been built and furnished so that the resulting content can be broadcast to paying customers.
I was left to wonder what else Kink, the porn platform, has to teach social media platforms. What if a social media platform was created where we did know our privacy boundaries, where we could play freely because we knew where our information would go, and that it would be safe if we said "red"? How much do we curtail our social media play because we don't have those safe words and we don't know where our information is going? What would a social media platform built on consent look like?