Podcast of the Week: THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT
This is absolutely going to be the next big thing podcast-wise, and you’d do well to make up for lost time by downloading and listening immediately. After a long bout of time only available to Audible users, Welsh journalist and documentarian Jon Ronson’s fascinating exploration of how internet pornography has shaped pop culture and society is finally available to the public at large. For those of you already clutching your pearls, don’t worry—if Ira Glass and THIS AMERICAN LIFE can tout it, you can certainly handle what gets thrown your way.
So, yes, THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is about porn. There’s no way around the fact that it’s an inherently titillating topic, and in 2017 it’s no longer a secret, much less of a dirty one, that virtually every individual has or is interacting with porn in some form or another on a regular basis. Considering how intimately tied to the online experience it’s become, and thus intimately tied to our daily lives through algorithms, advertising, and the way in which it shapes larger cultural and social mores, it was a high time for a serious, exploratory, but most importantly of all, caring look at the industry in the modern age and the major players that have come to define our interactions with it. But of course, this podcast isn’t really about porn.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is something much more complex and human. Yeah, yeah, I know, that seems like a cop out descriptor, but for a form of entertainment so casually regarded as detached, fetishitic, and functional (in the sense that you approach it for exactly one thing and get what you want every time), this feels somewhat more powerful and purposeful. This is due to Ronson’s multi-pronged approach to reporting. Of course we get the requisite accounts from porn stars that showcase the humorous accounts, sadness, and both hopeful and crushed dreams the industry propagates and exploits, but that’s nothing new from what we’ve seen from the various porn-related Netflix documentaries that pop up now and again. The first two episodes are what truly set THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT apart.
We first meet Fabian Thylmann, the German national popularly regarded as the catalyst for the internet porn boom of the late aughts. A lonely teen on the internet trading passwords for paywall porn on latent message boards, Fabian struck while the iron was hot in terms of realizing the lucrative potential of a YouTube for adult films. Buying out the Montreal-based Mansef, things were really set to get interesting when his team of techies began an aggressive and unprecedented campaign of demographic analysis, keyword analysis, and search engine optimization. Focusing on these tech nerds, many of whom never even saw porn being filmed during their time under Fabian, is fascinating, detailing how the early Mansef projects essentially shaped pop-up ads, thumbnail generation, and all the rest. Juxtaposed perfectly with the follow-up episode, where Ronson travels to the San Fernando Valley to explore how these data-driven market movements have changed the lives and livelihoods of actual people, we’re presented with an almost sobering take on how scripted porn is a thing of the past and directors are forced to cobble together slap-shot scenes only serving the keyword categories Fabian and Mansef created. Pretty much any category you see clicking through AV sites didn’t exist as a searchable term before 2003.
But that’s not all: Ronson also takes the time to track and explore more personal stories directly relating to “the Butterfly Effect” mentioned in the title. One ends in death. One ends in banishment to the wrong side of the tracks. One ends in a lucrative stamp collection being burned. It’s a standout bit of narrative documentary, and would make an excellent webseries if LORE gets enough clout to warrant more podcast adaptations. And not to worry, Ronson also isn’t afraid to shy away from confronting the participants of porn about their consciences one way or another. Some seem like people who are running a business as consciously as they can, others are Mark Spiegler, a fast-talking, filthy smut peddler who is unapologetic in his Good Ol’ Boy approach to filming bangin’ broads. Others seem to consider things in a new light, which is by far the most interesting thing to hear.
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT is soon going to join the ranks of SERIAL, MISSING RICHARD SIMMONS, or S-TOWN, and it’s almost immediately apparent as to why. Once again, it obviously is enjoying a little bit of a boost due to our curiosity with anything considered remotely taboo, but this is a porn podcast you could reasonably show a slightly more open-minded mother. Ronson does a fantastic job of showcasing every aspect of the industry, good or bad, and manages to give everyone their due consideration and time to showcase their opinion. Intensely bingeable and only taking up about four hours of your time, this is one well worth a spin.