How Paint Bottle Ushered Porn into Web 2.0

Meticulously curated and pleasant to look at, Paint Bottle is an adult site for the modern age. From the sophistication of its design to source of funding – exclusively the world’s best high-stakes poker players – there is nothing typical about this start-up, co-founded by Canadian entrepreneurs John Philips, Amy Ambrose and Craig Hensley.

Content aside, the brilliance of Paint Bottle is in its viewing experience. Philips, who programmed the site, elevates both aesthetic and interaction in ways that reflect the evolution of pornography’s place in society. True to its progressivism, Paint Bottle sees almost double the traffic for its mobile site – about a million visits a month, compared to the 600,000 of its desktop counterpart – with an average time on site of 14 minutes, double that of its competitors.

MISC spoke with Philips about the industry, its ties with technology, business and society, and how he sees Paint Bottle’s fit within.

MISC: How did the idea for Paint Bottle come about?

John Philips: We were tired of seeing sites where you’d have to skip through pages before seeing anything worth watching. Further, a large source of their content is submitted by users who don’t self-screen. So what happened over the course of several years is there were all these sites with tons of videos on them with no quality control.

Second thing we saw was the inability to charge a high cost-per-mile because of the low quality of content. Their ad revenue per unit was very low, so they had to make up for that by having a lot of ads on their websites. Not only did that lack of quality control apply to content, it also applied to ads. They were all over the website – pop ups, pop-unders – and because they were on an adult site, they’d just get the most racy and boundary-pushing type of ads from other adult sites; practically borderline rape banners.

The final thing we noticed was design. I’m a web developer, and the other two people I work with also have experience in the field. The overall experience, never mind the low quality in content, was aesthetically very dark. It reinforced the existing notion that what you’re doing is gross, underground, and shameful.

With the quality of your site’s content, that probably leads to a bigger variety in advertisers. Is there a model you hope to achieve – or already have?

As far as we’re aware, no mainstream company has ever advertised on any adult porn site – because the lack of quality control can’t account for the juxtaposition of your content on the target website. With us, we literally screen every single video, so advertisers won’t ever have their products paired with something very graphic. If you choose to advertise with Paint Bottle, there’s little risk unless you’re a family-friendly company. If you’re an alcohol company, or edgy fashion company, there’s nothing for you to risk in terms of brand reception—except for perhaps feminist backlash.

The unique viewing experience Paint Bottle offers seems to be an enormous driving force behind your business ideology. Did you have any experience in consumer experience?

I had experience in web design, so I’d keep in mind how things would affect consumer experience or interaction—but beyond that, no. Having now seen how good non-adult-content sites are, the discrepancy was obvious. I guess there weren’t any other entrepreneurs or developers who were interested in bridging the gap or taking the risk.

The experience and aesthetic on the sites were literally a reflection of a previous decade: a time when websites weren’t designed to be easy to use, but just designed, period, because there were never any prior models for user experience online. It was up to the user to figure out what kind of content they wanted. It was obvious to us that there needed to be a transition into Web 2.0.

You’ve titled the site ‘Paint Bottle TV’; the viewing experience does feel a little bit like channel surfing. Content is provided for you as a television would, as opposed to searching for something like Netflix. Is that a parallel you were looking to convey?

We wanted to model ourselves after something like HBO, which doesn’t feel like a TV channel because of its premium content. As for the content being pre-chosen, that was just a result of us seeing how garbage user-submitted content is.

Would you mind telling me a little bit about your process of choosing content?

After choosing the ones we like and licensing them in bulk from the studios, we start editing them down from thirty minutes to ten. [The editing] is almost entirely determined by Amy. The guys choose the video depending on how attractive the women are; the girl chooses how to make the video as sexy as possible.

That’s an interesting process: the males judge visually, the woman judges narratively.

[laughs] It’s wound up in us having pretty good content. Thumbnails are chosen by committee. We all decide which three to use.

Is there any pressure at all to branch out in terms of types of content?

We try to stay away from niche stuff for the most part because it doesn’t play to our strengths, which is the number of videos we have. We have several hundred currently and it’s increasing, but other existing tube sites have several hundred thousand [for SEO purposes]. We’re never going to have enough volume for a search function to be useful. Instead, we cater to the 80% out there with mainstream interests, which is good-looking people trying as hard as possible to mimic how sex happens in the real world.

It seems to be that you’re trying to take porn out of its isolated yet enormous corner of the Internet. Are you trying to bridge the gaps between the porn industry and others?

It’s funny that sex appeal in ads – orchestrated on advertisers’ behalf to get your attention – still works. That immediate access to high-quality porn with a smartphone these days should cancel that affect because whatever they’re teasing you with, you could get it all immediately. I’ve always found it interesting how pervasive it is to who we are. It speaks to the fact that [interest in sex] is a biological byproduct, yet adult content remains so isolated.

In the very beginning we thought about making Paint Bottle a one-stop-shop for content. If the majority of our audience is assumed to be guys 18–30 – then what else would they watch online? You can switch into adult mode; you can switch into humour mode, like College Humor; you can even switch to education mode, where you can watch things like “How to Bartend” or “How to Talk to Women”.

We also intended for additional modes for female and gay viewers. But licensing that kind of content is incredibly difficult, because those studios – particularly ones for gay content – are highly profitable compared to the straight ones. They don’t see any advantage in licensing the content off to a place like us for free. All of our optimism – well, let’s call it ‘altruistic pursuits’ – didn’t only go towards gender neutrality, but also sexual orientation.

You’re very transparent about Paint Bottle’s ideology and about your opinions on where pornography stands in society and culture. Has that worked to your advantage?

We have not had any sort of backlash whatsoever. We’ve been treated so well, beginning from our initial TechCrunch coverage to follow-up articles from Gizmodo and Fleshbot. I think that’s a reflection of the fact that you’re not seeing rape ads on the website; there’s a serious and obvious intent towards quality control; there’s an About page; there’s a Parents’ link in the footer, which you never see on adult sites. We’ve taken it to a point where it’d be really conceited to give us crap. People are still going to watch adult content, period. You might as well do it in the best way you can.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

the author

Caroline Leung