XXXI.1 January - February 2024
Page: 17
Digital Citation

UX as Money Shot

Gopinaath Kannabiran

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I propose a critical provocation, UX as money shot, in relation to existing HCI discourses on user experience. A critical provocation must provide analytical and generative impetus for further action toward making life better. While UX and usability remain core concerns for many HCI researchers and practitioners, there have also been recent efforts to move past the "user" in varying degrees through different paradigms. Linda Williams, a pioneer in pornography research, described money shot as "proof of pleasure" in porn. More broadly, the term money shot invokes descriptions emphasizing different aspects of a film, such as most money-consuming shot to produce in a sequence (resource consumption); most intense shot that is core to a sequence (excess and expenditure); most valued shot by consumers (memorable experiences); and most money-producing shot (revenue generation). Through this provocation, I aim to demonstrate that porn's money shot concept can provide analytical insights relevant for UX practice, as well as to generate questions for further communal engagement about paradigms that aim to move past the user in HCI.

back to top  How Do We Do Porn Better?

Rife with social-justice-related concerns, online porn is a nearly pervasive phenomenon in increasingly technologically networked societies in several parts of the world. HCI researchers have pointed out that "there is a need to explicitly engage with the intersections of sexuality and social justice as applicable to the design and development of digital interfaces and interactive experiences" [1]. Feminist porn considers "sexual representation—and its production—a site for resistance, intervention, and change," according to the editors of The Feminist Porn Book anthology. Researching porn in a responsible manner requires observing complex relationships between the types of attention paid to porn (e.g., consumption for sexual gratification, archived as cultural artifacts, etc.) and the intentions of its creators (e.g., sexually explicit material created to arouse, political satire, etc.) that are contextually situated. Existing approaches to studying porn as information prioritize content. To provide a much-needed complementary perspective, I advocate for approaching porn as an information experience to prioritize its relational, experiential, and interactive aspects.

I advocate for approaching porn as an information experience to prioritize its relational, experiential, and interactive aspects.

I argue that approaching porn as an information experience can aid design explorations to responsibly engage with intersections of sexuality and social justice. The concept of information experience is concerned with how people experience and make sense of their interactions with information as a part of their everyday lives. Christine Bruce and colleagues suggest that an information experience should be "considered broadly as people's engagement with information, the nature of people's engagement, and how they relate to information as they go about their daily life and work" and that it also can be understood by studying "their informational life worlds, where people and their information environment are considered to be inseparable" [2]. Information experience explicitly foregrounds the relational dimensions between people, use context, and technology-mediated interactions with and through information. I argue that framing porn as an information experience can provide a better conceptual grasp to aid design explorations that strive toward a broader agenda of promoting sexual well-being. Framing porn as an information experience is necessary for meaningfully engaging with social-justice-related concerns about porn and also can be complementary to existing approaches for studying porn with the agenda of sexual well-being.


back to top  What Designers Ought to Do About Porn

Approaching porn as an information experience can provide a much-needed conceptual (re)orientation that supports design explorations toward sexual well-being. Porn as a part of sexual well-being can thus be described as the following: 1) a technologically mediated process involving people's sexual desires that are expressed and experienced through a framework of human rights, and 2) a contextually situated, value-laden, and socioculturally significant interaction among moving bodies. Porn must be approached as more than information. Framing porn as information experience foregrounds the relationship between peoples' technology-mediated interactions and their respective contexts. In such a framing, porn users are not merely consumers of information but rather intermediary agents who remediate existing content (e.g., curate, mash-up, comment, annotate, algorithmically perpetuate, etc.) and therefore disturb, if not collapse, the producer—consumer binary. Existing UX paradigms, though necessary, are not sufficient to responsibly deal with emerging sociotechnical realities and therefore warrant further communal engagement. Porn in the age of artificial intelligence taunts the paradigm of "seeing is believing" since it wildly confounds established visual sense-making norms. For example, the "barely legal" porn genre is a can of worms concerning the legal age of performers, artistic freedom of expression, and sociopolitical ramifications of such information experiences.

Porn is an increasingly pervasive information experience made possible through networked interactive devices, heterogeneous media ecologies, hybrid information architectures, and context-aware tailored services. The design of interactive technology deliberately generates specific desires, affords certain possibilities through systemic design choices, and (re)defines communal norms about sexuality [3]. Therefore, it is crucial for design researchers to understand how people experience—create, record, process, store, distribute, transmit, seek, own, collect, curate, consume, manage, reveal, hide, and erase—porn as a part of their informational life world. Commenting on data-driven porn, Gustavo Turner observes that "a corporate porn conglomerate can analyze a continuous stream of information from online viewers, who supply feedback in the form of comments, and leave behind a data trail as they travel around porn sites…enabling companies to cater more closely to the perceived tastes of their audience" [4]. Specifically addressing the corporate consolidation and the monetization of people's attention, Turner alerts us that the "data collected by porn companies doesn't just shape what happens on set [but also are] starting to shape how the media understands the state of sexuality today…by supplying the fodder for sensational stories about people's `true' kinks" [4]. People watching porn online generate information that is collected to algorithmically inform and monetize attention toward further interactions with porn, which, in turn, generates more porn consumption.

When facing behemothian black-boxed systems, never underestimate the power of small actions!

In relation to dark patterns and negative connotations of user (associated with addiction and substance abuse), design explorations about the future of porn as an information experience must go beyond concerns of resource consumption (effectiveness and efficiency) and memorable experiences (satisfaction). Florian Vörös traces a genealogy of knowledge and practices regarding porn addiction as a sexual "disorder" that supposedly affects mainly men. "The fight against porn addiction, lead by [sic] quite a mixed group of moral entrepreneurs (psychiatrists, psychologists, sexologists, anti-pornography militants, ex-addicts and journalists) took great pains to redefine the usage of pornography as a `medical problem,' replacing the pleasure experienced by the amateurs of this visual genre with the suspicion of illness" [5]. I have argued for approaching well-being as an ongoing contestation of power: "a feminist approach toward well-being must begin with an acknowledgement of existing power inequities and work toward designing interactive systems that can afford fair negotiations among various stakeholders" [6]. As a pervasive information experience, porn demands engagement with complex issues such as seamless mobility, multimodal interactivity, contextual awareness, and privacy across device ecologies, among others. If the role of interaction designers is to create enjoyable user experiences, what ought we do in order to do porn better toward sexual well-being?

back to top  What Can Designers Learn from Porn?

Generating billions in revenue, porn is an information experience that involves human actions, motivations, perceptions, cognition, emotions, affect, needs, desires, values, norms, and conventions, to name a few. Organizers of the ACM CHI 2018 workshop "Design for Sexual Wellbeing in HCI" noted that "HCI is designing not just to meet user's sexual needs but deliberately (re)defines various practices and communal norms about sexuality" [1]. For instance, the intr3101_a.gif and intr3101_b.gif emojis are examples of newer forms of sexual expressions that have emerged as sexting was made possible by specific constellations of design choices. Such emotive expressions and affective intensities mutually coshape desires that are mediated through technological interactions in their situated ecologies. Porn as an information experience brings together content and context wherein the "user" as a concept is not bound to a system but rather is interactively situated within an ecosystem. Porn as an information experience tests, if not implodes, the conceptual limits of the term user. Studying porn can reveal how existing paradigms of evaluating UX through measures of effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction are woefully inadequate for ethically engaging with social-justice-related issues through design. But what can designers learn from porn? Let's look at two examples.

My first example involves OnlyFans, an Internet-content subscription service that is used primarily by, but not limited to, sex workers who produce pornographic content. Kaylen Ward, an OnlyFans model, raised significant charitable donations for people affected by the Australian bushfires in January 2020. Several other OnlyFans performers joined Ward in fundraising, thereby giving rise to the term charity porn. In this example, we observe how OnlyFans, a technology-mediated information experience, enabled a real-time effective response to an ecological disaster involving human and nonhuman lives. My second example involves Reddit, an American social news aggregation, content rating, and discussion website that is also one of the most visited websites on the Internet. Following the Reddit moderator strike in July 2023, some of the big subreddits that had previously been nonsexual were suddenly flooded with pornographic content from Redditors as a form of protest. These users believed that Reddit would lose revenue from being unable to advertise in subreddits that were now NSFW. In this example, we observe how users posting porn becomes an attempt to rewire the system against itself—a form of dissent and subversive protest about the free labor of human moderators, consumer rights, and organizational decisions.

To better understand the significance of these two instances, I introduce the term expenditure as conceptualized by the French philosopher and pornographer Georges Bataille. For Bataille, expenditure specifically refers to "unproductive use" and categorically excludes modes of consumption that serve as means to the end of production. As noted earlier [4], people watching porn online generate information that is collected to generate more porn consumption—in Bataille's terms, this is consumption that serves as a means to the end of production. Kaylen Ward's "charity porn" information experience and Redditors posting "porn as protest" moves beyond the utilitarian paradigm and, arguably, toward Bataille's notion of expenditure. Such instances of information excess and affective expenditure shatter neoclassical economic assumptions about supply and demand, diminishing returns, scarcity, and rational choice. On the one hand, digital platforms like OnlyFans promote a worrying conflation of consumption with community—the more one pays, the more one belongs. On the other hand, the above two instances also demonstrate an important insight for designers who might feel anxious about machine automation taking over human autonomy: When facing behemothian black-boxed systems, never underestimate the power of small actions! Suffice it to say, conceptually grappling with existing sociotechnical complexities of porn as an information experience has far-reaching implications beyond sex.

Porn has undeniably been one of the front-runners in embracing and exploiting new technological advances, although not without problems. An expansion in scope of the user has become increasingly difficult to ignore within emerging sociotechnical paradigms such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, and AI. Recent developments with generative AI have also prompted serious debates about human creativity, labor, and authorship. In relation to porn and AI, deepfakes and revenge porn are pernicious concerns that require thoughtful engagement from researchers and designers. For instance, current copyright laws are poorly equipped to help victims of deepfake AI-generated porn. Since the source material of the deepfake video does not belong to the victim, the victim has a weaker claim to copyright infringement. In such instances, are effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction sufficient evaluative measures that can equip designers to make ethical choices? UX is bursting at its conceptual seams trying to accommodate emerging sociotechnical scenarios. Since HCI is concerned with productive use and producing proof for user experience, what can HCI researchers and designers learn from porn as an information experience that audaciously claims money shot as proof of pleasure?

back to top  Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Elizabeth Churchill for her thoughtful feedback.

back to top  References

1. Kannabiran, G., Ahmed, A.A., Wood, M., Balaam, M., Tanenbaum, T.J., Bardzell, S., and Bardzell, J. Design for sexual wellbeing in HCI. In Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2018, 1–7;

2. Bruce, C., Davis, K., Hughes, H., Partridge, H., and Stoodley, I. Information experience: New perspectives and research directions. In Information Experience: Approaches to Theory and Practice, Vol. 9. C. Bruce, ed. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2014, 315–320;

3. Kannabiran, G., Bardzell, S., and Bardzell, J. Designing (for) desire: A critical study of technosexuality in HCI. Proc. of the 7th Nordic Conference on Human-Computer Interaction. ACM, New York, 2012, 655–664;

4. Turner, G. My stepdad's huge data set. Logic(s) 6 (2019);'s-huge-data-set/

5. Vörös, F. The invention of addiction to pornography. Sexologies 18, 4 (2009), 243–246;

6. Kannabiran, G. and McKinnon, H. Design and living well. Interactions 30, 4 (2023), 44–48;

back to top  Author

Gopinaath Kannabiran is an HCI researcher, design educator, sexual rights activist, and yoga instructor. He is an assistant professor in the School of Information at Pratt Institute in New York City. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2024 ACM, Inc.

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