Rule 34: Why Technology Has Forced Playboy To Drop Nude Photos

Last year almost 80 billion videos were watched on Pornhub, the world's largest repository of free online porn. No wonder Playboy has to rethink its revenue stream.

Beginning next March, the print edition of Playboy will no longer feature fully nude women. “Don’t get me wrong,” Cory Jones, an editor with the magazine told The New York Times this week, “12-year-old me is very disappointed in current me. But it’s the right thing to do.” Jones originally pitched the idea to Hugh Hefner in September and Hefner, now 89, agreed. As part of the redesign, the new edition of the magazine will feature PG-13-oriented images that show sexually seductive photos similar to Playboy’s Instagram feed. Fully nude is out.

At the height of its readership in the '70s and '80s, Playboy boasted 5.6 million readers. Now, circulation of the print magazine hovers around 800,000 according to the Alliance for Audited Media. The average age of its readership dropped as well, from 47 to just over 30. Perhaps foreshadowing the magazine’s shift to the online world, the cover model for Playboy’s most popular issue ever — from November 1972 and selling more than 7 million copies — is known as “The First Lady of the Internet.” The upper portion of her centerfold is the world’s most widely used test image for electronic photograph manipulation and transfer.

Last August, the magazine created a safe-for-work version of its website that shows no nude photos. It then watched its monthly unique visitors swell from 4 million to 16 million. In describing the decision to no longer feature nudes, Playboy CEO Scott Flanders said the magazine can’t compete in an era of freely available Internet pornography. “That battle has been fought and won,” he told The Times, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.” Flanders, and the rest of the Playboy crew, discovered something known as Rule 34 and it’s caused them to reevaluate their revenue model.

Rule 34

Like the beginning of many Internet memes, the history of Rule 34 is murky and vague. Some claim it started in 2003 with the creation of a webcomic drawn by Peter Morley-Souter; others that it may be related to the “Rules of the Internet,” a list of rules originally seen on 4chan. What we do know is what Rule 34 states: If it exists, there is porn of it. No exceptions. That is, if you can think of it, if you can conceive of a topic, no matter how farfetched or obscure, there is pornography online that depicts it.

Everyone knows that the Internet is changing our lives, mostly because someone in the media has uttered that exact phrase every single day since 1993. However, it certainly appears that the main thing the Internet has accomplished is the normalization of amateur pornography. — Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto

Research related to how much porn exists on the Internet is sketchy. Some argue 12 percent of the web is made up of porn sites, while others claim that 30 percent of all data transferred over the Internet is porn. In a study by the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, 42 percent of online users age 10-17 had seen pornography online. Another study by them found that 93 percent of boys and 62 percent of girls had seen online porn during their adolescence. A recent survey by Cosmopolitan magazine uncovered that 70 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds view porn online at least once a month.

Pornhub, arguably the largest free porn site on the planet, reported in 2014 that it had received 18.35 billion total visits, equating to 5,800 visits per second. Pornhub claims that visitors stay on its site for just over nine minutes. The most popular search terms on Pornhub for 2014 are disconcerting and cover just about everything you can imagine.

Boom. Rule 34.

Tech disruption

The point is that technology is disrupting the porn industry again. Remember the Betamax versus VHS videotape format war in the late '70s and early '80s? Some argue it was a direct result of Sony allegedly not agreeing to license its Betamax technology to pornography companies, thereby limiting the mass production of porn movies onto the Beta format. Whether or not that’s true, the fact that porn flicks transitioned from a movie theater to our living rooms changed the way we consumed them. No longer did adult moviegoers have to endure shadowy theaters and sticky cinema floors. They simply could pop a tape into the VCR and enjoy the show.

Likewise, freely accessible porn is forcing Playboy to change. In an effort to remain relevant, it is shifting its focus to a less hardcore and more mainstream format. Less nudity; fewer produced photos; and more emphasis on investigative journalism, interviews, and fiction. The target audience now is young urban males; Playboy is interested in attracting millennials. “The difference between us and Vice,” Flanders told The Times, “is that we’re going after the guy with a job.”

Perhaps now we really will be reading it only for the articles.

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