Online Sexual Fetishism and the Specialist Market:
The Horizontal Economy

Technopolis 1.6, by Michael Jensen
originally published in Breeze, October 1996.

The pornographers have long known that people's desires are as diverse as their faces, and that once a sexual fetish is identified, it signifies a market for it. Sadomasochism, dominance/submission? That's a gimme. Threesomes, orgies, bestiality? Of course there is interest. May-December pairings? Naturally.

The surprise comes with the more specific fetishes --baby-doll dominatrices, slipper-clad feet, only-purebred-Alsatian bestiality, tattooed redhead transsexuals, bald Malaysians with moustaches, hairy toes in sandals. Go into an Amsterdam or New York or Akron, Ohio adult bookstore and the options are astounding. Local laws differ, but somewhere, that special specific something which speaks to some peculiar proclivity can be found.

Lessons from the Market
That "specificity market"--where identifying a specific fetish is the same as identifying a specific market--is not unique to pornography. Nonsexual publications too have followed an increasing specificity trajectory. As design, printing, and distribution technologies lowered the production costs, the few general-purpose magazines and newspapers of the past sired our current panoply of specialist publications: Black Biker, Sausage Production Manager's Monthly, the Henry James Quarterly, the Cat Hypnotist Newsletter.

It can be argued that the cheaper the creation, publication, and distribution, and the larger the potential readership, the more likely it is that audience specificity will succeed. If I had the ocean to filter and really cheap power, I could extract my weight in gold, just by trolling the ocean for stray molecules.

Lessons from the Internet
During the early days of Usenet (online discussions amongst volunteers, read like email), back when there were only a few hundred thousand Internetizens, I began venturing online. Usenet had hundreds of Usenet "newsgroups," from rec.frisbee (an everchanging conversation about the aerodynamics, games, weight preferences, and throwing techniques for frisbees) to sci.biology, alt.homeopathy,, alt.homeschool, etc. About 800 of them, if I remember correctly. As more people came online, and the discussions got broader and broader, offshoot discussions were sired: rec.frisbee.ultimate,, rec.frisbee.aerodynamics.

The arena which of course brought the most specialization was the hierarchy. I lurked (read without active involvement in that discussion) as a deep and long discussion was had amongst the members of the newsgroup about whether it was appropriate to begin a .leather subgroup, or a .humiliation subgroup, or, or The pro forces wanted to avoid "noise" in the discussions (all those stupid "I want to get laid" messages, for example, as well as the irritant of discussions of humiliation as a sexual trope to those for whom bondage had nothing to do with humiliation), the con forces objected to watering down the diverse group who currently were in lively agreement on some fundamentals (that consensuality was a requisite, that there had to be "stopwords" if it got too extreme for the recipient, etc.). In the end, both sides won, as the pool of participants increased; the general discussions went on, while the specialist discussions and postings also flourished.

The Specificity Market
The specialization of newsgroups, whether sexual or nonsexual (there are now some 12,000 public newsgroups and unknown hundreds of thousands of private email lists), was all done without economic market forces--that is, there was no profit involved except people's satisfaction. Yet it shows what happens when the pool of connected people gets large enough for us to find "communities of kind."

All of us have odd interests which nobody seem to share. You fell in love with a '66 Porshe when you were 10 and don't know anyone who shares that love; you memorized entire passages of Gilligan's Island and get strange looks when you spout them at parties; your brother caught a tropical disease in the Peace Corps or the Persian Gulf and you want to know what it means. Now, online, you can find the 10 or 100 or 1000 people who are online, interested or knowledgeable or curious about these topics. Geography is no longer a limit to finding a specific community for a specific part of yourself.

The "specificity market" is a natural result of diverse interests, can arise organically from our individual uniqueness, and is limited only by the mechanisms of interconnection. Now that the Internet is here, the mechanisms can be cheap and easy, which will only increase the diversity.

Micropayments and the Specificity Economy
Let's take this one step further. The online specificity market is currently all-volunteer. The physical specificity market, conversely, is currently mined by magazines and newsletters because they can make enough profit via subscriptions and advertising to continue collecting, refining, designing, manufacturing, broadcasting, or distributing that material to an audience who wants it. The economic gamble of creating a new magazine, tv station, radio station, or even newsletter is still significant, however; usually Big Money has to be involved to make a big splash.

That is changed when micropayments come in. Micropayments (online transfers of fractional pennies, nickels, dimes, and dollars) are only months away from being pretty easy, a year or two away from being painless. The transfer mechanisms are secure enough for small amounts of money, with transaction overhead low because everything's automated.

Micropayments in a searchable environment changes everything. That's not an overstatement: it changes the economic foundations of the consumer age.

What happens when I can electronically send a nickel to someone whose online retort has made me laugh? When I can send a dime to someone whose suggested online resource I appreciated? When I can pay Stephen King directly more than his current royalty percentage for his most recent novel? When I can pay a buck to get a radio feed of an Indiana basketball game while residing in Baltimore? When I can invest ten or twenty dollars in small businesses worldwide without going through Wall Street or NASDAQ (when I'm willing to gamble with those ten or twenty bucks), and get my microdividends every month through micropayments? When I can watch a new multimedia presentation online and then choose what to pay? When I can skip the store and go right to the manufacturer? When I can pay a quarter to watch the 6:00 news at 8:00 instead of taping it? When I can ask any reader who learned from this article to send a nickel to my online account?

What happens when I can make micropayments to satisfy my microinterests, or get micropayments for satisfying a microinterest of others?

What happes is that the economy changes. The moneyflow changes. The basic nature of commerce (producer push) is changed to consumer pull, and who fulfills that pull is no longer determined by the level of investment required to create it. Microeconomies are created, and these microquakes in the economy will force restructuring of our way of running things.

A friend of mine described the Internet as a "giant disintermediation machine," challenging the historical intermediaries like publishers, movie studios, television stations, printing companies, libraries, specialty stores, universities, schools, salespeople, even governments. The filterers, the gatherers, the duplicators, the distributors, the finders, will all find themselves sprinting to restructure themselves to the new economy, and they won't all make it.

What About Pornography?
Pornography sold more VCRs than did all the great movies available. Once those VCRs were out there, then the rest of the market followed along, resulting in a market for the Smithsonian's special video sets of the Jazz Age. What sexual specialty markets will do for online commerce is very similar. Once micropayments are easy, we will see remarkably robust virtual supermarkets for pornography, catering to whatever specific interests you might have. We will also see virtual supermarkets for other products (see the beginnings with L.L. Bean, Eddie Bauer, and the other mail-order businesses online), and will see microstock options, micropublishers, micropayment theatre, micropayment educational presentations, micropayment-based community service organizations, and micropayment training courses (wouldn't you pay a few bucks to watch a plumber explain how to fix that dripping faucet by showing you?).

Microinterests, specificity markets, micropayments, point-to-point connectivity, small investments--these are some of the influences that will dramatically affect our economy as we approach the 21st century. The more people come online, the broader the overall market, and the smaller the microinterest niches will be. We have seen it on the Usenet groups, we've seen it in every media publication form: the cheaper the transaction costs, the broader the market, the more finely tuned the special interests.

What we are about to see will surprise us all: until I noticed, I never would have guessed that there was erotic literature about shoes. Who knows--even that niche may subdivide into sandals, sneakers, pumps, and Nikes by this time next year. If so, it will mean that there is enough interest to justify the creation, proving that there is a new micromarket which will eventually be filled.

One person's shoe can be another's desire; we are very close to having one person's desire being another's microbusiness.

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