In summer of 2010, I was broke and needed a job. Walking the sunbaked streets of Montreal’s downtown, I called up old friends hoping for a lead. I was in luck: a buddy told me a “porn company” was hiring customer service reps. “They pay 15 bucks an hour, and it’s super chill,” he said.
Long before it was called MindGeek, the company was Manwin Canada, a name that, at the time, didn’t ring a bell. From an internet cafe, I sent in my CV. I had only ever held low-level service jobs. But I had edited a friend’s indie zine and put that at the top of my work experience.
A couple days later, I got a call from an enthusiastic woman at Manwin who told me they were impressed by my résumé and asked if I would be interested in a more senior position as a media buyer for the company. I had no clue what a media buyer was, but I was damn sure interested. I went to buy a collared shirt for the interview.
In sweltering heat, I walked next to a highway dotted with car dealerships, fast food joints, and strip clubs at the edge of Montreal’s Cote-des-Neiges neighborhood, up to a six-story cube of blue glass. I sat in a posh waiting room with gleaming surfaces and flourishing plants, feeling out of place with my DIY haircut. I was met by an upbeat guy in his 30s named Mark. We walked through the buzzing Manwin offices, passing dozens of mostly young people — guys in anime T-shirts, women with colored hair — seated at expensive-looking monitors and huge desks. The vibe was relaxed, with an undercurrent of excitement. Mark told me my job would be to buy comedy videos for a non-porn website the company was building. We hit it off, and after a brief second interview, I was hired at a starting salary of $35,000, more money than I’d ever made in my life.
I was given a $10,000 monthly budget to buy videos — I bought Jackass-type skits from skate punks and clips from Gavin McInnes in his pre-Proud Boys days — and joined a team of five easygoing guys, all in their 20s. A few weeks later, the site launched, and Mark pulled me aside to say my job would be ending. But I was offered a social media role on the adult side of the company, in the “tube sites” division, home of Pornhub.com.
I was interviewed by Corey — short, dark-eyed, emanating a fierce intelligence — who ran the tube sites. Soon, I was running the Twitter accounts for Tube8, Keezmovies, and Spankwire, three sites that allowed people to upload and watch porn for free. It was my introduction to tech company life: cool and laissez-faire, where people were left to their own devices and expected to self-manage. I couldn’t believe my good fortune; I banged out a few dirty jokes on Twitter and got a ton of engagement. Things were off to a good start.
Besides tweeting, the other part of my job involved answering emails from site users and handling video takedown requests, which were treated by management as a minor annoyance. I’d been told that when a request to remove a video came in, I had to watch part of the clip to make sure it actually violated the terms of service (which I never actually read but were summarized to me as: no underage performers, serious violence, visible alcohol, nor animals) before taking it down. I grasped immediately the implications of the task — that I would be seeing disturbing or illegal content — and decided I would quietly remove whatever video people asked me to without bothering to watch.
After a couple months, my bosses caught on that I was takedown-happy: I got scolded for pulling down a celebrity sex tape that had gotten millions of views. At that point, I was told to pay closer attention to the content and consult with management before pulling down popular videos. I started watching them more closely. In one case, users flagged a video of a couple engaging in some intense sexual activity with a bottle — I got dozens of emails screaming at me to take it down — but my bosses said I couldn’t remove it since it didn’t violate the terms.
That was the first time I felt queasy about my job. I wondered if videos being uploaded to the tube sites were being screened by anyone before going live. It seemed unlikely. But I reminded myself how lucky I was to be making a good living telling dirty jokes and soothed my conscience by telling myself I could still help people remove videos of themselves. I kept my head down and kept tweeting:
In the mornings, I would sit down at my desk with a cup of tea, open the three inboxes I handled for Tube8, Keezmovies, and Spankwire, and start removing videos. Reading the dozens of emails I received every day provided a window into the real-world impact of the tube sites; I was already beginning to see the long shadows cast by their glittering facades.
I’d hear from regretful couples who, in the haze of a Friday night, uploaded a video of themselves going at it, only to be horrified at their decision in the cold light of morning. Please, they would beg, take down the video! We’re so sorry! I’d happily comply, write them back, and be thanked profusely.
I got pissed-off emails from guys who uploaded clips of themselves jacking off, only to realize that these videos — of which there were hundreds — were eventually placed in the Gay section. I’m not gay! they would fume, demanding the video be removed.
Sometimes a video would be flagged just because someone didn’t like the content (like the bottle video, which everyone hated). But if it didn’t violate the terms, it stayed up. I felt a small satisfaction in shutting down busybodies who spuriously flagged videos; I wasn’t an arbiter of taste. One gentleman uploaded videos of his attempts to have sex with every appliance in his house: washer, dryer, fridge, stove. The complaints from users rolled in, but I left them up. There’s nothing illegal about copulating with machinery.
Tougher to deal with were videos uploaded by verified Manwin partners and flagged for review by users showing young women who looked to be of questionable age. “Verified” meant that the producers of the videos had attested to the performers’ legal ages, absolving Manwin of responsibility for scrutinizing the content. As far as I remember, I wasn’t allowed to remove videos from partners. (While it’s fair in retrospect to ask how closely porn producers scrutinize their performers’ IDs, it’s equally fair to note that many porn performers of legal age do their best to look younger than their years.)
Well before publishing, The Verge asked MindGeek to answer several questions related to this story and offered the opportunity to provide comment. A spokesperson signing off as “Ian” wrote back from what appeared to be a personal Gmail address. Over the course of 20 emails between The Verge and “Ian”, the spokesperson attempted to argue with us about our ethics policy. They refused to provide their actual identity, reveal their title at the company, or forward us to another official spokesperson.
In 2021, The Globe and Mail reported that Pornhub’s public relations staff “routinely used fake names when dealing with journalists.” A spokesperson told The Globe and Mail this was for the safety of their staff. No such explanation was offered to The Verge, though Ian did suggest a name, title, and answers to our questions might be offered in exchange for proof of “unbiased journalism.”
One clip that really bothered me was described as a prostitute having sex with her pimp. The woman in the video was middle-aged, the supposed pimp a younger man. The act itself wasn’t particularly obscene, but it disturbed me because of the way the man talked to the woman: commanding and disrespectful. This wasn’t grounds for removal: a ton of pornography — fully legal and enjoyed by many — shows performers saying hair-raising things to each other and engaging in consensual sadomasochistic violence. By comparison, this video was tame. But it raised so many questions: Can a sex worker consent to sex with her exploiting pimp? Were they really even pimp-and-hoe, like the description said they were? Maybe they were a couple, role-playing? There was no way to know.
I hated what I saw and heard in that video, though. I took it down and felt good when I did. I realized that, even as I tried to keep my distance from the porn, I was, in fact, exercising my personal judgment every day — and that there was no way to do the job without making decisions based on what I thought was appropriate.
I often encountered videos that were uploaded again and again, no matter how many times I removed them. One day, a woman emailed me, calmly explained that her ex-boyfriend had uploaded a video of them having sex, and asked me to remove it. I deleted the clip. Later that week, it was re-uploaded. The woman wrote again, I removed it, and this continued for months; I must have pulled the same video down a dozen times. This was before I had ever heard the term “revenge porn.”
Requests like this were not uncommon. Once, a woman wrote to say there was a video of her on Tube8 that showed her being sexually assaulted after someone spiked her drink at a party. The video had tens of thousands of views, so I had to review it before making the call to remove it. In the clip, the woman is clearly high, laughing and head lolling, having sex on a bed surrounded by fully dressed people holding drinks and watching as colored lights flashed and music blared in the background. I took it down, but it was uploaded again repeatedly in the following months. Each time, the mortified woman flagged it, and each time, I removed it; both of us were aware that there was nothing we could do to stop the clip from resurfacing.
I only learned about the adult industry through informal chats and secondhand conversation around the office. Competition in the porn world was cutthroat. A Manwin developer told me how, when they caught a competitor ripping off content from Pornhub to create a knockoff website, engineers placed a link to the offending website in a few pixels of the Pornhub homepage, where millions of people clicked daily. The resulting tsunami of web traffic swamped the pirate site and knocked it offline in minutes — the kiss of death.
Manwin had a whole team of employees paid exclusively to comment on and upvote videos across the tube sites. This “community” created a never-ending mirage of engagement, attracting authentic users to the comment-thread astroturf. In real life, Manwin was fairly diverse: women occupied senior management roles, and there were people of color at every level of the company. The upper management team, though, was nearly all dudes, an insular, sharp-eyed group that projected an air of power, wealth, and a smirking pride.
Besides my reservations about content moderation (a term that was unheard of at the time — we just called it customer service), work was going well. Channeling my foul mouth and compulsive nature, I was cranking out 60 or 70 tweets a day, impressing my bosses. I rented a huge apartment with wood floors the color of honey and wainscotting in the dining room.
But the reality was that, beneath my collared shirt, I felt like a simmering misfit. I had no experience of how organizations behaved; my work was passable, but my sense of professionalism was nonexistent. It wasn’t long before I started to make mistakes.
One day, I received inquiries from journalists looking to find out more about Manwin. Believing it was a major threat, I sent off a panicked email to the owner of the company and some vice presidents. My bosses were stunned, and not in a good way. Corey, the guy who had originally hired me, marched me into an office, and I nearly got canned. They had mercy on me. I think they could tell that I was trying to protect the company in my own overzealous, entirely inappropriate way. It was true — I felt like part of a team and wanted to do my best for them. But I had blown it.
After that, with my reputation tarnished, my fortunes at the company started to dwindle. But the good times were just starting to roll at Manwin.
I remember the day the investors arrived. We’d been given instructions not to look at them, not to talk to them, and, most of all, to make sure we had our screens switched off when they passed through. I found that odd; the investors obviously knew what they were buying into, but they clearly didn’t want to get their hands dirty with the details. When they arrived — a phalanx of white men in dark suits, assessing the offices coolly, like specters being led around by Manwin managers — it was deathly quiet, like the moment before the drop in an EDM track.
At work, interacting with everyone from developers to executives, I absorbed everything I could learn about the company. I dug into articles about Manwin’s owner, Fabian Thylmann. We never spoke, but from a distance, he seemed nerdy and confident, cut from a different cloth than the people he employed. I learned that Thylmann saw the porn world as ripe for disruption by tech. After making a small fortune designing ad revenue tracking software for porn sites, he acquired the companies that would become Manwin, including Pornhub and Brazzers (an over-the-top porn production company named after the slurring of the word “brothers”).
Thylmann cranked up profits at Manwin using the same approach Google and Facebook took to dominate their respective markets: rigorous testing and optimization of the online experience. Thylmann’s technical prowess and understanding of how the industry could be exploited virtually guaranteed his mission to take over the industry would succeed. (Thylmann declined to be interviewed for this story.)
But for all the improvements Thylmann made to his websites, it would take major capital to propel the company to new heights. Manwin needed cash — lots of it — to take over vast swaths of the adult industry.
Shortly after the investors’ visit, the company secured more than $360 million in loans. (It was revealed later that investors included JPMorgan and Cornell University, which has since reportedly divested.) They went on a buying spree, snapping up gargantuan tube site YouPorn, dozens of smaller sites, and whole networks of seedy smut smorgasbords you’ve never heard of. Prized for their traffic and revenue, these assets were analyzed, polished, and plugged into the Manwin Borg, growing the company’s footprint in the industry exponentially. Manwin took over the digital side of Playboy, trying to establish a more mainstream presence, even as it bought Fuck.com and Men.com. It was a relentless land grab.
Around that time, our team was given T-shirts with puzzle pieces, each marked with a different Manwin-owned website logo, assembling over a black background. The tagline: “Everything is coming together.”
The mission given to the Pornhub network social media team was to infiltrate the pop culture conversation with our brands, and we went for the jugular. We trolled celebrities and musicians for retweets and attention, with some success.
At the time, I thought this was strictly for visibility, but looking back, there were likely deeper motivations. Thylmann had a grand strategy to take Manwin public; to do so, he would need a strong mainstream presence to balance the hardcore nature of Manwin to make the company attractive to the financial markets.
Flush with cash and brimming with confidence, Manwin pulled absurd marketing stunts. They tried to buy Charlie Sheen’s house to turn the mansion into a porn studio. The company also raised its profile through activism that conveniently served its business model: when Reddit and other prominent sites blacked out to protest the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), Manwin tube sites did the same. (Our team kicked off the top trending topic on Twitter for a few days with the #SavePorn campaign.)
Around that time, someone at Manwin tweeted, “Fast Times at Manwin High,” and that’s what it felt like at the company: a big high school with all its cliques, youthful energy, and politics that just happened to have a money-printing machine in the basement. But a fissure was growing within the company, and the content moderation and consent issues that would plague the company in the future were already taking root.
From the beginning, Manwin was riven by two internal competing factions: the paysites, old-school companies that actually produce pornography, and tube sites, which flood the internet with free, often pirated, porn uploaded by users. By possessing valuable properties on both sides, Manwin conjured an unprecedented business model — like owning Coke and Pepsi but giving away one product for free. (In 2013, Thylmann would sell the company to his top managers and a shadowy investor, who renamed the company MindGeek.)
While I was writing this story, I reached out to a number of former colleagues at the company, most of whom didn’t reply or declined to talk. The insular culture of Manwin had left its mark on employees. Or maybe, as I was, they were feeling some degree of shame about what we were a part of back then. But after a while, I did find someone who wanted to chat about the old days. He just wanted to be anonymous.
Leon, I’ll call him, was a longtime manager of Manwin paysites who was around during the company’s transition to MindGeek. The scale of the sites he managed was enormous: “By 2013, I was managing more traffic than Facebook Mobile,” he told me over the phone. Leon described his overall experience at the company as positive but said that, over time, the paysites he managed lost importance within MindGeek as Pornhub grew into the “cash cow” that defined management priorities. As tube sites attracted more traffic, the paid-porn industry suffered, even within MindGeek.
“MindGeek pitted the two [sides of the company] against each other, I guess in the hopes of making us more efficient or profitable. It became a straight-up, us-versus-them competition,” Leon said.
As Manwin cannibalized itself, investing more resources into tube sites as paysites faded, content moderation on the Pornhub network became a growing challenge. Leon told me users would find ways around the few security measures to upload whatever they wanted. He believes MindGeek management was so busy keeping up with the growth of Pornhub they lost sight of how easy it was for users to circumvent security measures.
Eventually, Leon left due to differences in opinion about the direction of the company. Pornhub was later transformed from a tube site solely focused on attracting user-uploaded content and generating ad revenue to a content producer in its own right by partnering with studios to launch Pornhub Premium.
“When I was there, paysites still handled production, but [today] Pornhub controls the content,” he told me. After the change, Leon said, “that’s when the content partner scandal happened.”
In 2019, the operators of Pornhub content partner Girls Do Porn would be charged with sex trafficking in the US. Following the charges, 50 women filed a class-action lawsuit against MindGeek in 2020, alleging that MindGeek knew Girls Do Porn employees were coercing and lying to performers about how their videos would be used. Still, MindGeek continued to partner with the studio, allowing their videos to be distributed on Pornhub and other tube sites. Pornhub ostensibly removed the Girls Do Porn videos after the operators were arrested, but clips remained available on the site.
In October 2021, MindGeek settled the lawsuit. But as I’d learned years earlier, once videos appear on a tube site, they are impossible to get rid of.
As the company grew, so did its notoriety. Adult performers railed against the company for widespread piracy on the Pornhub network. Inside the company, as far as I could tell, these were minor concerns. Management seemed to be focused on exponential growth and little else.
Despite the celebratory atmosphere at work as Manwin took over the industry — catered breakfasts, daylong party events, Nerf gun fights — I was enjoying my job less and less. I took sick days, needing a break from the endless exposure to disturbing content, and got reprimanded for coming in late. I shaped up just enough to keep my job and lost myself in the Twitter accounts of Tube8 and Spankwire as the company flourished around me.
In spring 2012, near the end of my time at the company, I was utterly disenchanted, my behavior erratic. I’d send off rambling emails to my bosses with laughable ideas (a Street Fighter-style video game but with porn stars! A union with healthcare coverage for adult performers!). Silence would follow, and their smiles became thinner when I saw them in the halls; soon, the smiles disappeared completely. I’d come to work and tweet all day without talking to anyone and spend my lunch walking around an abandoned horse-racing track. I had been applying for other jobs for a year without luck but couldn’t quit — the only way I could get unemployment benefits would be dismissal without fault.
Finally, in June 2012, I was fired. I was ecstatic. Ironically, the last wild-eyed idea I was preparing to pitch to my bosses before I was fired — one that surely would have gotten me labeled an irredeemable fuck-up — was that Manwin create a well-staffed, round-the-clock team to screen all user uploads to tube sites in real time, assuming such a team didn’t already exist. But I never sent the email; even as I prayed to be let go, I still was reluctant to totally self-immolate in the eyes of my bosses.
After I left, Manwin continued to grow in the way it always had, acquiring RedTube and other major porn sites. As the years passed — me in a new job, reading stories about the company in the news — I learned how Thylmann had sold the company after being charged with tax fraud in Germany. I watched from a distance as Pornhub penetrated further into pop culture, fulfilling the lofty goal of taking porn mainstream.
I read with interest how MindGeek used data generated by their millions of users to create reports picked up by major media outlets, all about what porn people watched. Pornhub was regularly mentioned on late-night talk shows; I learned that by 2018, MindGeek was more effective at mining their users’ data than Netflix or Spotify and using more bandwidth than Amazon. I was stunned to read glowing profiles of Manwin social media personalities in mainstream tech publications. I wondered if these new employees still had to moderate content, as I had done.
But even as Pornhub was reaching the zenith of its pop-culture influence, I was intrigued when a strange new problem that spoke directly to the company’s weaknesses — content moderation, piracy, and consent — emerged in the form of deepfakes. The company moved to ban the AI-generated fake celebrity porn in 2018. But deepfakes ended up being just the first of a series of blows to the company.
In November 2020, 20 Members of Parliament, including Arnold Viersen, a conservative politician from Alberta, wrote to Justice Minister David Lametti demanding MindGeek be investigated for hosting illegal content. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Pornhub began voluntarily reporting child abuse videos to child protection groups and federal police around the same time.)
The following month, The New York Times published “The Children of Pornhub,” a harrowing expose in which multiple young women describe the devastating personal consequences they suffered — drug addiction, self-harm, suicide attempts — after pornographic videos of them as minors were posted on the site. Journalists began asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about MindGeek during press conferences.
It was fascinating to see the problems I had noticed with tube sites a decade previous suddenly become headline news. I wondered how MindGeek executives would handle the pressure, then chuckled to myself when I thought back to their brazen disregard for critics during my time there. I doubted they gave it much thought, insulated as they were in their shimmering blue cube in Montreal, their luxury cars, their suburban mansions.
But then real consequences arrived: following publication of the Times piece, Visa and Mastercard suspended all payment processing for the MindGeek network. Their cash cow torpedoed, MindGeek immediately removed some 10 million user-uploaded videos from Pornhub and instituted new policies to stop unverified users from uploading content. But these measures amounted to too little, too late for the people who’ve had their lives shattered by becoming unwitting porn performers.
I could just imagine the panicked management meetings that led up to the purge of the unverified videos — the fear they must have felt before they pulled the plug on the defining feature of Pornhub: the ability to upload and download any video you want.
In February 2021, the MindGeek executives Feras Antoon, David Tassillo, and Corey Urman — my old boss — were called to Parliament to testify about the company’s operations and respond to the allegations in the Times story. Elected officials were less than impressed with executives’ answers, especially after hearing painful testimony from survivors who’ve had illegal videos posted on Pornhub.
A few weeks later, Viersen and more than 70 colleagues wrote to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Canada’s federal police force, demanding a full criminal investigation into MindGeek. Since then, pressure on the company has mounted in other ways, too: legislation supported by Viersen that would force porn sites to verify the age of all site users is currently winding its way through Parliament. At least one protest was held outside of the MindGeek offices.
I reached out to Viersen to ask about his efforts to rein in MindGeek. He told me he feels a responsibility to hold the company to account. “They’re in our backyard,” he said. “The world is looking at Canada, like, What are you guys going to do?”
To their credit, during my time at Manwin, my bosses at the tube sites unquestionably wanted any obviously illegal content removed. But as anonymous tube site content moderators explained in a recent investigation into MindGeek, to monitor user-uploaded sex videos is to live in a constant gray area: it’s practically impossible to tell if a performer onscreen is of legal age or a few months shy of their 18th birthday, has had a few drinks, or was pressured before cameras started rolling.
I contacted MindGeek hoping to answer the nagging questions I had about how content moderation was handled when I worked there. Specifically, I asked: were user uploads screened by Manwin employees before being published live?
“All content was reviewed by human moderators at that time,” a spokesperson named Ian responded, adding that this applied to all tube sites.
Somehow, that didn’t seem right to me. Hundreds, if not thousands, of videos were uploaded to tubes every day back then, and I wasn’t aware of anyone screening the uploads. Was it feasible that every single video was reviewed and approved by someone before going live? And if that was the case, how could illegal or pirated content still end up on the sites? I followed up with more questions, trying to clarify how the process worked: Had there been a team reviewing videos before they went live working around the clock, including weekends, while I was there? Or were we after-the-fact moderators the only ones accountable for the content?
The company didn’t respond to my follow-ups, but my questions were answered by Pornhub moderators who spoke out in December 2020. They recounted how they were handed lists of thousands of videos on the site to review and, if warranted, remove. This suggests that only once videos were on-site, ballooning Pornhub’s content offering, were they gradually reviewed, leaving wide-open windows for any type of video to exist on the site, at least for a while.
Because Pornhub previously allowed users to download videos, anyone could re-upload a clip an endless number of times to any number of tube sites, no matter how many times it was taken down.
This functionality allowed any video, regardless of its content, to essentially live forever online — precisely the nightmare described by survivors of revenge porn and exactly what I witnessed firsthand in my role at Manwin.
This policy may have been the company’s biggest tactical error. If they had screened videos before publishing, the company could theoretically have kept all content in violation of the terms off the sites or at least minimized the number of violating videos that slipped through the cracks. Instead, for years, the Pornhub network was a lawless zone where sexual abuse videos, scenes of bestiality, and an endless river of pirated material could safely exist until the company’s slow-moving moderation team got around to clicking delete.
Maggie MacDonald, a PhD student and researcher at the University of Toronto, studies porn platforms. She told me that, in her opinion, the decision by MindGeek to remove the 10 million unverified videos from Pornhub and improve controls around uploads was essentially a show for the payment processors.
“MindGeek could have built content moderation into the onboarding process by having a real person review every video uploaded before allowing it to be published,” she said, adding that she isn’t surprised the company chose profits over the user safety for so long.
“From a research perspective, they’re just capitalists,” MacDonald said. “Without legislation, they’ll continue to do what they do best: maximize profits and power.”
In the world of computer hacking, the word exploitation carries a different meaning than it does in the real world, where we hear about “exploitative working conditions” or “child exploitation.” In tech, the word has been stripped of negative connotation: hackers and tech-minded entrepreneurs exploit vulnerabilities in systems to gain unintended results and create value. To discover an exploit in the tech world is to strike gold.
Manwin set out to exploit the weaknesses it saw in the sex industry. By taking advantage of those weaknesses — fragmentation, lack of technical understanding, marginalization — Manwin handily dominated much of the industry and generated hundreds of millions in profits. Users of tube sites, in turn, identified the weaknesses in the tube site model — lax oversight, the prioritizing of growth over restrictive content policies — and ruined lives in the process.
Looking back, I can see the small part I played in ushering porn into mainstream culture. My dumb tweets helped make the tube sites seem irreverent and fun — even as I worried out loud about the creeping pornification of pop culture — and glossed over the harm tube sites could cause.
When you work at a company that is doing well, that showers employees with generous pay and a sense of belonging, you become saturated with the sense that what you’re doing is right. Even as performers shouted from rooftops that we were destroying their livelihoods and people begged us to remove videos that showed them in their most intimate moments without consent, those negatively impacted by Manwin were shrugged off as an afterthought, unfortunate collateral damage to a great undertaking. This legacy worries Erika Lust, a producer of feminist porn.
“The mass availability of free porn can serve to guide the consumer to view the performers as less than human, which can, in turn, shape their conceptualization of sexual norms and sexuality more generally,” Lust said.
MacDonald, the researcher, concurs but sees the problem of free porn from a labor perspective: “The problem is the supply chain of porn: how is it getting to the user? Are the performers being treated fairly?”
“Horrifying labor conditions make free porn possible, but legislators aren’t willing to die on that hill,” said MacDonald.
I asked Viersen, the politician, why it had taken lawmakers so long to scrutinize MindGeek. He thought for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said finally. Some have speculated that the taboo nature of pornography kept regulators at bay. But considering the hundreds of people employed by MindGeek in Canada — and the tax revenue those workers generate for federal and provincial governments — maybe the answer is that, for everyone involved, it was all about the money.
In an industry that no one wanted to touch, tech-savvy Fabian Thylmann and his crew were able to roll in and take over without any serious competition or pushback. There was no Google or Facebook of porn to challenge them; the billion-dollar buffet of porn profits, one of the last wild markets of the internet, was theirs for the taking.
The irony of Pornhub’s relentless pursuit of mainstream culture is that the desire for recognition from middle-of-the-road institutions worked too well. By becoming the most successful and visible face of online porn, MindGeek attracted scrutiny from the lawmakers and activists who are now working overtime to bury the company. More ominous are the anti-porn right-wing extremists who have set their sights on Pornhub and threatened violence against MindGeek executives. In April, MindGeek CEO Feras Antoon’s multi-million dollar mansion went up in flames; police are investigating the blaze as a possible arson.
But if Pornhub survives its current woes, it can thank those who tried to take the company down with forcing the site to become a better version of itself: a place where content creators can earn a living, where only verified users can upload videos, and where content moderation is taken seriously.
It was clear to me from the day I started that my tweets were more important to the company than the quality of my content moderation; if I tweeted something off-brand, I’d quickly hear about it. But that level of scrutiny just didn’t apply to video removals, which only became a priority if I pulled down something popular.
When I was at Pornhub, content moderation was treated like taking out the trash: an unpleasant but necessary part of running the business. It was pushed down to those of us low on the corporate ladder because no one wanted to get their hands dirty. Looking back, it felt like my role in content moderation was primarily to protect the company, not the victims of illegal porn. Removing those videos was just something I did between jokes.
On a whim recently, I sat down at my computer and opened up Tube8 dot com. The site had changed somewhat — it was more modern, slicker, and mobile-friendly — but the eight-ball-with-devil-horns logo still loomed in the corner. I flashed with anxiety, momentarily back at Manwin again.
In an odd way, there are parallels between the role I played and the role sex workers played in the grand venture of Pornhub: we were all essential to the company, yet ultimately disposable. Porn performers are sometimes misled about what kinds of sex they’ll be participating in and quickly find themselves in situations they aren’t prepared for. In a similarly sneaky way, I wasn’t fully informed or equipped to handle my role as a content moderator. Honestly, who could be?
I’d like to think that if I hadn’t been “Nate-Tube8” for those two years, the women I tried to help perhaps wouldn’t have had an ally on the other side of the screen to help them regain their dignity. But maybe I’m just trying to convince myself I was the good guy, despite the fact I was tweeting to promote the company in between video takedowns.
I thought of the woman whose boyfriend had repeatedly uploaded a video of them having sex. How many times had I removed that clip? And would it still be there today, a permanent source of shame for her?
I tapped the keys, searching for it, trying keywords that should have pulled it up: red lingerie, POV, brunette.
After six or seven tries, I couldn’t find it — just new clips of different women, in different places, doing different things. But in many ways, they all looked the same, and there was just so much of it. An endless number of videos to sift through — too many for one person.
I gave up trying to find the video and closed my laptop.