Here’s one way the Web is being used by a group of young artists in collaboration with one of the “evil” big media companies:
MTVu created a challenge campaign called “Against Our Will,” asking students to submit creative concepts to highlight the problems of modern-day slavery. The winning entry came from students at James Madison university and grew into an online, multi-media project called The Backstory, combining music, interpretive dance, story-telling, and an RPG-style interface to help viewers understand various human trafficking scenarios that could be happening in their communities. Collaborators on the project include rapper Talib Kweli and dancers from Ailey II, with choreography by Troy Powell and music by Kenna.
I watched several of the pieces on The Backstory, and there really is something extraordinary that takes place when a concept or message is synthesized through artistic media. I already pay attention to trafficking stories on a regular basis and have read or watched plenty of documentary video or news segments that convey real and horrific anecdotes about the victims of modern slavery; but seeing the familiar themes transformed into a shadowplay expressed by these exceptional dancers creates a tension between beauty and horror that leaves a unique and lasting impression. It’s not that we should turn away from the cold facts of the documentary forms, but I do think our psyches have natural defenses against staring too long into the real face of depravity; and one thing that art does so well is to build new routes past these defenses to reach our empathic instinct for response.
So, this is what artists do when they decide to lend their talents to fight for freedom — not a perceived, complacent, or academic idea of freedom, but real freedom from real bondage, real abuse, and real murder. By contrast, it seems to me that too many self-appointed “defenders of the Web” presume to bestow upon every hacker and content exploiter the honorific titles freedom fighter, innovator, or cultural game changer. The hypocrisy would be funny if it weren’t so serious.
Presently, people like David Lowery, Ellen Seidler, and Chris Castle are focused on mainstream advertisers whose banner ads appear on torrent and other infringing sites, and this is certainly an important issue. But in the contextual question at to whether or not these sites are about freedom and culture, or using the Web to its best purposes, let’s take a look at what appears to be the majority of advertising on some top torrents.
Here’s Kickass Torrents, which is listed in the #3 spot by TorrentFreak among the 10 Most Popular of 2012. Of course, #2 Torrentz is actually a meta-search site, making Kickass the functional #2 behind The Pirate Bay, which supposedly has over two billion page views per month. I purposely chose a page for downloading Oscar winner The King’s Speech, picking a film a little more high-brow than the most popular stuff just to see if it has any effect on ad service; but the reality is that most of what appears on any page on Kickass will be a banner that looks like this:
It’s one variation or another on themes designed to titillate the 18-24 year-old male, which is the majority demographic using torrents. The link in the middle reads: 10 Disgraceful Intimate Acts 87% of Girls Regularly Do!
So, just to review before we go any further, The Backstory is just one example of how artists will use the Web to fight the exploitation of women, whereas I’m about ten seconds into my browsing Kickass Torrents before being invited to think of women as 87% sluts. But where does this ad lead?
If you click on the link, you won’t actually find any research on women who regularly do something “disgraceful and intimate,” but you will be about two clicks away in almost any direction from landing within the reach of a snake-oil business called The Tao of Badass. This is a kind of self-help program comprised of books, DVDs, a blog, etc. that claim to teach any man how to get women — not how to have a better relationship or find love, just how to get lots and lots of really hot women in the sack using the “techniques” you can only learn from The Tao of Badass.
Now, it’s a given that the majority of torrent users won’t click on any of these banners, but out of let’s say a very conservative three billion page views per quarter, that one half of one percent are men desperate enough to believe they can learn techniques to become real ladykillers. That’s 15 million potential customers for Tao of Badass. And let’s say only one percent of these suckers buy the 10 DVD set for the “discount” rate of $47. That would be over $7 million in sales for Badass Ventures, Inc. based in San Carlos, CA.
What’s interesting about the mechanics here is that Tao of Badass is not an overt advertiser on the pages of Kickass Torrents. It just happens to be the default recipient of the lion’s share of generically produced house-ad traffic. And guess whose books and videos are not available for free download on the Kickass sites? Smell funny in here yet?
But let’s move on to an even more relevant contrast to The Backstory…
Welcome to The Pirate Bay, where a large portion of the ads are like this one: We Got Asian Schoolgirls, in this case appearing next to a list of episodes of My Little Pony. Now, I understand that particular show isn’t just for little girls, but we’ll leave the phenomenon of the Brony for another conversation. Suffice to say that these ads generally lead to one version or another of a page promoting a “dating service,” which is generally not about dating so much as international matchmaking. These services connect western men with women in Asia, Russia, Ukraine, etc. So, far, the reviews on these services seem mixed. I haven’t seen any reports connecting these legal (if a little sleazy) matchmaking services with sex tourism, which is a different enterprise known to involve trafficked sex workers.
At worst, it seems that these sites and services are generally designed to string men along while extracting as much money as possible from them. It doesn’t appear that many happy marriages come about in this way. And here’s a fun example that you have to love: the top service and the one most likely to be linked to The Pirate Bay, Anastasia Date, supposedly charges up to $8 per email between the user and the apparently interested woman on the other side of the world.
So, let’s review again. . .
The Pirate Bay provides stolen, free media that users are too cheap to pay for, but the site is littered with ads designed to entice some of those users to cough up eight bucks an email to correspond with Olga in Odessa, who might actually be Brad in Bangor, Maine (Bangor is where Anastasia International, Inc. is located). Is it getting creepy in here, or is it just me?
There is no question the Web is very often used as a tool to exercise free expression in unprecedented ways and from nearly any voice. But when the leaders of that industry presume to claim that our criticism of sites like Kickass Torrents or The Pirate Bay is tantamount to chilling the same right of speech being exercised by the artists behind a project like The Backstory, how does all reason not veer into the abyss of ordinary ignorance?