The aesthetics of websitename.com have changed imperceptibly since it was established in 2004, which might speak to the success of its design; although I’ve always thought that the green and white colour scheme with its silhouetted palm trees is more reminiscent of a travel insurance website than a website for viewing live sex shows.1
The homepage of websitename.com is not where the majority of my work takes place; the homepage is for the clients, it’s not designed as a space for models. My working time is spent in the model admin pages, where I respond to emails or on the broadcast page, where my live video feed is streamed to an audience of screen names. Having said that, I sometimes find myself looking at the homepage of websitename.com, partly as an action of simple curiosity, partly as an act of research. By clicking my way around the homepage, imagining that I’m a client, I feel as though I can attempt to understand what draws websitename.com visitors into a model’s chatroom.
An equally important reason for examining the websitename.com homepage is that all design tactics have social and political implications; examining how the technical design of websitename.com regulates the way its visitors access webcam pornography reveals contemporary heteronormative attitudes towards bodies, sexuality and desires.
The majority of websitename.com’s homepage is filled a grid; a grid of the avatar images of the forty-four highest earning models that are online at that particular time. The more money a model makes on websitename.com, the higher up the grid their image appears. This means that while there are thousands more models online at any one time, the website visitor needs to scroll down the page to see anyone other than the top earners.
The homepage is full of smiling faces, sultry faces, open mouths, closed eyes, heeled boots, bare feet, underwear, wet t-shirts, chains, soft toys, against backgrounds of beaches, balconies and bedrooms. Not all avatars show the model. One avatar is an image of the ‘iconic’ 1976 Martin Elliot Tennis Girl poster, the one with the blonde tennis player lifting the back of her white skirt with one hand. One is a bright red heart emoji. One is an image of a cat, photoshopped to be wearing a pained expression. All these images sit next to each other, on top of each other, eleven wide, four deep. My avatar does not appear in this top forty-four, because I do not work enough, or more accurately, because I do not earn enough.
That these avatars appear in a grid is not only an aesthetic choice. By laying out the avatars of models in a grid formation of rows and columns, websitename.com attempts to give the viewer a sense of method and control for navigating the abundance of images, the abundance of models. The use of a grid as a tool for organising and managing a subject is nothing new. A woodcut by German Renaissance painter and printmaking Albrecht Dürer made in the 16th century as part of his book The Painter’s Manual: A Manual of Measurement of Lines, Areas and Solids by Means of Compass and Ruler shows a draughtsman drawing a reclining nude woman using an object known as the ‘the draughtsman’s net’ in order to maintain perspective. This net stands on the table between the draughtsman and the model; a square wooden frame with threads pulled tightly across it, through which the body is divided into sections and moved piece by piece onto the draughtsman’s paper. This object has both the effect of framing the nude woman, like I am framed by my webcam and acting as a technological mediating interface, like my screen of my laptop, the screen on my phone.
In the 1997 book Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseª: Feminism and Technoscience, Donna Haraway describes this object as a ‘revolutionary apparatus for turning disorderly bodies into disciplined art and science.’2 This attempt to disciple bodies is clearly not gender neutral; it is female bodies which are, and have for a long time been, predominantly considered disorderly and in need of discipline.
The hierarchical nature of the websitename.com homepage does not affect all webcam models equally. In the 2015 paper ‘For Black Models Scroll Down: Webcam Modeling and the Racialization of Erotic Labor’, Angela Jones shows how race and class based inequalities are perpetuated throughout websitename.com and how the top earning webcam models are white, native English speakers living in the Global North, writing that ‘being on the bottom of the page both symbolically and structurally reproduces racial and class based inequalities’.3
The logo of websitename.com sits in the top left corner of the page, a typical place for logos, both online and in print. Our eyes tend to follow the shape of a capital F over a page, starting from the top left-hand corner before moving right and down, which means that placing of the logo in this position has the effect of guiding the viewer’s eye into the centre of the page, creating a cyclical viewing pattern. This prompts viewers to take in more information, more adverts, to spend more money, spend more time, increasing the economic value of the website, which in websitename.com’s case, is in the range of two hundred million dollars.
Running down the right hand side of the websitename.com homepage are options to view algorithmic lists of online models, such as ‘Top 10 Popular Rooms,’ ‘Models You May Like’, or ‘Trending Rooms’. The viewer can also customise these selections by how many people are in the chatroom or when the model joined websitename.com. The effect is an endless identity parade tailored to the website visitor’s sexual preferences. This suggested content on the outskirts of the homepage aims to keep the viewer browsing on the site in the search for that perfect imagined content, or in the case of websitename.com, the perfect model. In his article on the implications of pornography website design, Patrick Kielty cites psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s Ecrits where Lacan writes that nothing compares to the imagined image, the fantasy; all other images are rendered inadequate.4 The user is kept searching, clicking through chatrooms, through webcam models. When a potential client enters my chatroom only to leave seconds later, I try not to take it too personally; I know that I am just one of many models that the user will click past as they browse through faces, bodies, personas, styles, fetishes, on their search for their ultimate fantasy.
When the websitename.com visitor hovers their cursor over the avatar of a model, a low-quality preview of the webcam models video stream will play. This has the effect of suggesting that the image, or rather the model herself, has been brought to life by the viewers touch. While the video preview may be a relatively recent technological possibility, the concept is not. For Melissa Gira Grant, in Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, webcam modelling is a continuation of the peepshows of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which it appeared that the models were brought to life by the viewer’s action of the dropping a coin into the slot.5
It is not only through images that the websitename.com visitor is kept searching for their ideal webcam model; they can also use words. This is done through model tags, which are mostly to identify appearance or race (blonde, brown eyes, big butt, legs, ebony, latina, tattoos), specific fetishes (double penetration, squirting, domination) and personality traits (friendly, naughty, flirty). As in pornography, these tags sometimes appear in confusing combinations, for example ‘small tits’ and ‘big tits’, in an attempt, presumably, to appear in double the amount of search results. At first, I was reluctant to use the model tags on websitename.com, resentful of having to place my body and persona under arbitrary categorisations. After reading webcam model advice blogs, however, I relented in an attempt to be more successful within the constraints of the system.
In early essays on digital culture, the act of tagging images on websites such as Flickr, the original photo tagging website, was seen as somehow utopian because there is no human or algorithmic authority dictating how the user chooses to tag an image. This is true to some degree on websitename.com, as models can tag themselves however they choose, like ‘not a vegan’ or ‘follow the indications’, whatever those mean. However, while tags are created by the model, they are deeply affected by how our clients describe us. I would never call my body curvy but that is how I’ve tagged myself, based on my clients’ comments, attempting to appeal to similar minded viewers.
These design tactics; the logo, the grid, the suggested viewing algorithms, the tags, are of course not specific to websitename.com; free pornography websites such as PornHub and XHamster also employ these methods for organising the abundance of images, increasing the time spent on the website, leading the viewer through. These design mechanisms might invoke a sense of fear about the controlling nature of online pornography; for so long the pornography viewer has been depicted as what Laura Kipnis describes as the ‘asocial compulsively masturbating misfit’, unable to act with autonomy under the control of pornography.6 However, these design tactics are not limited to pornography websites; the video hosting and sharing website YouTube, for example, features all of these elements; the grid of videos, the video preview when the cursor hover touches the thumbnail, the algorithmically suggested content at the side of the page. Rather, my point in detailing these design tactics is that technology is not autonomous; websitename.com didn’t design itself; it was constructed this way in order to turn the viewer’s browsing into a form of labour production but also to ensure that webcam models are constantly working to reach viewers, to ‘stand out’. The design might keep the viewer on websitename.com but getting them to spend any money on webcam models is a whole other story.
- Websitename.com is a pseudonym that is used here to refer to the website that I work on, as naming the website would pose a risk to my security.
- Donna Haraway. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseª: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge, 1997, p 87
- Angela Jones, ‘For Black Models Scroll Down: Webcam Modeling and the Racialization of Erotic Labor’, Sexuality & Culture 20, no. 1, 2015, p 791
- Patrick Kielty, ‘Desire by Design: Pornography as Technology Industry’, Porn Studies 5, no. 3, 2018, p 2
- Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, (London: Verso Books, 2014), p 152
- Laura Kipnis, Bound and Gagged:Pornography and the Polotics of Fantasy in America. (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2003), p 187