In the 1990s, a Belgian lad called Fabian had a wonderful idea: Free Pr0n. He belonged to an internet group which would share passwords to porn sites enabling those unable or unwilling to use a credit card to pay themselves the joy of fapping merrily along to the onscreen antics. Years later he would realise his dream, becoming the owner of sites like Pornhub, RedTube and others, as well as becoming the kind of multi-millionaire who has an underground aquarium and employs a diver to scrub the inside of it.
I, too, was a teenager in the 90’s and remember the dark days in which Fabian’s dream grew. Those lucky few who had Sky TV installed would immediately be asked if they received the German sex channels and a mental note subsequently made about whether one should begin being nicer to them. My first job was as the Saturday girl in a paper shop where every week a man who lived with his mother and looked like Michael Gove after 20 years of pie would buy a wank mag and smoothly stick it in his copy of The Telegraph for his walk back up the hill.
The Butterfly Effect is Ronson’s investigation into the consequences of Fabian’s Free Porn empire, from the performers and their shrinking paychecks to the thousand percent increase in erectile dysfunction in young men. It is a fascinating journey which has been intelligently put together. His first trip is to the computer programmers - a subject I would have been enthusiastic about anyway - where he learns about the breakdown of data and how this is used to design website, how they get people connected with the things they want to see. This leads him to the porn director, who tells him about how he now has to create his pornography for the website keywords, for a particular niche, Cheerleader Step-Daughter Gang Bang volume 2 etc. This leads him somewhere else, and so on.
I’ve listened to few of Audible’s free shows but I’ve never been very impressed (I like audible, but their original content is not great) so I had few hopes for this, despite enjoying Jon Ronson’s books and journalism. I was wrong. As I got to the end of each episode I was fastforwarding through the credits to get to the next. It is fascinating.
Ronson is a British journalist, not a thousand light years from Louis Theroux, whose previous work has included Them: Adventures with Extremists, and The Men Who Stare At Goats (made into a film with George Clooney). He’s a pretty good host for this journey and comes across as somebody who finds it all as fascinating as I do. He’s affable and has Theroux’s gift for taking anything anybody tells him with equanimity.
But Ronson is a listener. Unlike Theroux, he doesn’t push back, merely asks people for their stories. When his questions are included in the recording, they tend to be seeking an expansion of information rather than challenging their view or finding out more about why they hold it. This is sometimes frustrating, especially when there is something blindingly obvious to be asked, and sometimes problematic, because Ronson does have an agenda. You just don’t know about it until the final episode when he takes all he has found out and “confronts” Fabian, the man who dreamed of free porn, with everything his dream has “caused”. I am especially troubled by the implied connection between a man’s suicide, the Ashley Madison hack, and Fabian’s websites. It was not the only thing.
In the most frustrating part, Ronson challenges Fabian about the copyrighted work which is on his website. Fabian rejects the idea he is a thief - he has not uploaded it, users have, and if the makers want it removed then here is how you do that. It’s totally not Fabian’s fault that the site users don’t care about copyright. Except it is. The site owner is responsible for what is on the site. And Ronson doesn’t point this out, he doesn’t bring up comparable issues, like The Pirate Bay’s legal battles - it’s just… welp.
Then in an attempt to show it’s not all bad, Ronson presents something good he found in the industry. A group of people who act with incredible humanity and compassion to try and help somebody they don’t know and will never meet without asking for payment or even knowing if it will be received or do any good. Which, you know, is gives-me-hope-for-humanity levels of kindness, but hardly unique to the industry. It feels very much as though Ronson knew before he started what he thought about this and didn’t bother to go over it much making the investigation feel like an exercise in fulfilling a contract. Which is coincidentally the same problem I had with his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”.
There are plenty of other niggles, such as a man Ronson describes as being “harassed” into speaking with them (srsly, don’t do that), the focus on the involvement of porn in a story when it’s really more of an accessory to a problem, such as the young man who sent a girl 50 explicit messages in an attempt to impress her, and the focus on straight heterosexual porn aimed at young men.
The first 6 episodes are mainly terrific, interesting and massively educational. Then we have to have that final episode. Ronson attempts to paint Fabian as a villain but I respect him very much for his refusal to have any of it, especially as he is not responsible. Porn can be damaging in lots of ways, but it has as much to do with us as a society as with the product itself, and Ronson never seems to consider this as a factor.
4.5 stars for the first 6 episodes, I’ll pretend that final one doesn’t exist.