Feb 27, 2015

    Strippers shimmy onto Snapchat app

    PORN, it has been said, is a driver of technology.

    Pornography has spurred the adoption of most tech innovations of the last generation. It helped hasten the growth of VHS tapes, interactive CDs and DVDs, and pretty much the entire Internet.

    Now, it is coming to your smartphone in a whole new way, thanks to a messaging app popularised by teenagers and being courted by big consumer brands.

    That app is Snapchat, and its unintended foray into pornography began in November when the service unveiled a feature called Snapcash, which allows people to send money using Square, a payments platform.

    It is pretty simple to use. Say you want to pay someone US$20 (S$27) for dinner. Just go to the person's Snapchat account name, type "$20" and hit send. The feature, of course, is not limited to dinner checks. You can send money for rent, an IOU or a virtual lap dance.

    Those lap dances have become quite popular. Strippers and porn stars have started to use Snapchat to send videos and photos of themselves naked for a small fee. Some transactions are as inexpensive as US$1 to US$5 for a few personalised photos. The prices can reach double digits for personalised sex shows.

    One brunette on Snapchat this week, most likely in her 20s, wore nothing more than skimpy underwear and offered to send pictures personalised for a person's proclivities for US$5. Men offer similar products at comparable prices.

    You may ask why anyone would pay for online pornography when it is available free everywhere. For one thing, a private video chat on your mobile phone with a naked person is much more intimate and personal than a website or even a webcam - so I hear. Moreover, Snapchat does not leave anything in your search history. There is no trace of it to be found by a snooping significant other or an overprotective parent.

    To be clear, the pay-for-porn quadrant of Snapchat is currently a small fraction of the app's estimated 200 million users. But it is growing as supply meets demand.

    The main obstacle is finding these Snapchat strippers. Most operate undercover, partly because pornography violates the company's community guidelines. Last week, Snapchat published a "Snapchat Safety Centre", reminding children that nude pictures were not allowed. "Don't use Snapchat for any illegal shenanigans and if you're under 18 or are Snapping with someone who might be: keep your clothes on!" the company wrote.

    Snapchat seems to be enforcing its own rules. A few weeks ago, as a test, I added 30 Snapchat accounts that promised to share porn pictures, some at no charge, others for a fee. A week later, 28 of those accounts were shut down.

    "We have sophisticated systems in place to detect abuse and shut down accounts that violate our terms of use," Snapchat said in a statement. "We are very aggressive about taking action and we will continue our efforts on that front."

    To avoid being removed from Snapchat, users have turned dozens of online sex forums into virtual swop meets. Strippers advertise their services there, and interested viewers post their Snapchat user names. This way, the unclothed can vet the clothed before sending them pictures or receiving money.

    Some strippers are also avoiding expulsion by not charging users on Snapchat. Instead, they offer a daily tease on the messaging app, then lure people to their personal websites, where they accept payment from third-party services like PayPal and Amazon.

    Snapchat is not the only mobile app on which pornography has covertly flourished. The messaging app Kik, which allows people to chat using text and photos and to share links to webcam chats, has also become a playground for porn. While Twitter and Facebook do not allow people to send money, both are popular with porn actors who want to engage with fans.

    Of course, pornography is not new to the Internet. It seems as if webcams were invented solely to allow people to pay to see someone else naked. But what's changing now is the rapid shift to mobile. According to a recent study by Juniper Research, video chats and subscription services on mobile devices will account for US$2.8 billion in porn-related revenue this year.

    While Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel has tried to distance the company from its sexual roots, the reality is - as I noted in 2012 - that Snapchat was primarily used for sexting in its start-up days. Since then, Snapchat has taken on an entirely different role, becoming a portal for messaging and in-depth storytelling.

    But - and that is a big but - while sexting is no longer the main use on Snapchat, it is ludicrous to think that an app that allows you to send videos and photos that automatically disappear would not also be used to transmit nude images.

    It is equally preposterous to add the capability to send money on a platform and not imagine that this feature would not somehow be exploited by those who make or consume pornography. After all, pornography is the mother of tech innovation.