Rule 34

A twisted journey through the history of the internet which is, in some ways, the history of internet pornography. And vice versa

by Pietro Minto


Photos by Jo Broughton

Notoriously, the first rule of Fight Club is that you don’t talk about Fight Club. In the early 2000s, the bizarre era when computers were transparent and the web an expanse not yet colonized by the titans from San Francisco, a few remarkably avid internet users decided to lay down a few rules for the virtual environment in which they spent so much of their lives. The resulting “internet rules,” spawned by a variety of sources, emerged in a document on sites such as Encyclopedia Dramatica (a satirical wiki-based community shut down in 2011) and 4Chan (an unruly web forum — a sort of primordial soup of Western digital culture). One of them is Rule 34. It addresses a topic that was already both a delight and a curse for users back then: sex. Or, better, porn. It claims: “If something exists, or can be imagined, there is internet porn of it.” Before looking into the axiom’s ramifications any closer, we should make some sense of its key point, the sneaky addition of an essential detail that takes the matter beyond things that “exist” to things that “can be imagined.” Of course, we could just stop here and point out in amazement what has been happening over the past two decades on the internet, well aware that it was prophesied by Rule 34. But that is only the beginning of this journey into the complex dynamics by which the history of the internet is, in some ways, that of internet pornography and vice versa.

This is the contention of How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex, a 2022 essay by Vice technology columnist Samantha Cole, who rightly points out that even before the internet, there was ARPANET, a military project aimed at creating a “network” of giant computers, the first node of which ran an operating system called “SEX,” short for “Set X.” A coincidence, some may say, but why in the world would you need to abbreviate a four-letter expression? A few years later, in the ’70s, a form of electronic communication predating the internet, Bulletin Board Systems (or BBSs), attracted hippies and gangs of anarcho-socialists. The new tools promised the kind of freedom expressed by the views of Stewart Brand, the influential author of the Whole Earth Catalog magazine (from which came Steve Jobs’ legendary phrase “Stay hungry, stay foolish”). This also spawned a digital rib as a BBS called “The Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link.” However, as Cole put it, “Many BBS system operators devoted their online worlds to porn with names like SleazeNet, and Pleasure Dome.”


Empty Porn Sets — Jo Broughton’s Empty Porn Sets are a typical example of circumstance and serendipity influencing an artist’s output. At a young age, she ran from home away “to live with white witches,” applying through Thurrock College for work experience as a photographer’s assistant. Little did she know it was at a porn studio and the man who ran it was to become her mentor, tutor, and guardian, providing her with a place to stay, a job, training in photography, and the content of this exhibition. These are playgrounds of cheapish fantasy which are left like historical documents of the sex act. At first, they have the appearance of a show-home in questionable taste. The colors are vivid and the structure is at once basic and commercial looking. Then you look again and see the clues… a bottle of lubricant, a dildo, lights at the edge of the frame, and glimpses of the studio beyond. It slowly becomes apparent that these are fantasy landscapes, rude pictures without the nudity.

So we can argue that there has never been a version of electronic communication that was not at least partly NSFW (Not Safe For Work). Things certainly didn’t change with the advent of the World Wide Web in 1991 and its global reach. The steady, exponential surge of users had quite an impact on the very nerdy — and already rather horny, as we’ve seen — user community, which found itself confronted with a myriad of newbies who didn’t know how to behave, didn’t understand the insider jokes on the boards, and were unaware of the local culture, so to speak. Perhaps that is also why “the internet” was forced to come up with its own rules, including Rule 34.

The sexualization of everything also has cultural repercussions, as reflected in the extent to which fan fiction, the production of stories inspired directly by successful novels, movies, and TV series, has become so important. In fan fiction, fans themselves modify, twist or re-cast the plots and characters of the major franchises. They often crossbreed storylines, drawing from different products. The most well-known case involves Star Trek and Star Wars, among the stories dearest to the nerdy audience that has laid the digital ecosystem’s foundations, for better or worse. When fans invent love stories between characters that are originally unrelated, we call it shipping. When this unique phenomenon involves characters of the same sex, it’s called slash fiction. The landmark case that gave its name to the subgenre itself is that between Dr. Spock and Captain Kirk from Star Trek. However, back in the days of Arthur Conan Doyle and his Sherlock Holmes, many fans proposed a case of much earlier slash fiction concerning the detective and his assistant, Doctor Watson.

Looking back upstream, the history of online sex and sexuality seems to hinge on one point in particular. It is a trivial detail, perhaps, but like all trivial things, it ensures an essential simplicity worth noting. On the internet, you can express yourself with greater freedom, knowing that no one can see or hear you. That was particularly true in that paleo-web, where video calling and taking, uploading, and sharing photos and videos was all but impossible. Everyone could express (or invent) the personality they preferred, shamelessly. A famous cartoon in The New Yorker published in 1993 showed a dog in front of a computer intent on talking to a fellow dog, to which he said, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It has become a famous line, a non sequitur particularly dear to those who were on that now ancient web, and remember the strange rush granted them by such a new, powerful anonymity. But on the internet, to be fair, no one even knows if you are a kinky person or particularly fond of certain not-quite-mainstream sexual pursuits. And since, of course, the early web was divided into thematic forums, there was room for everybody’s kink. In that textual web of acronyms used to express frequently used phrases (AFK, LOL, ROFL originated around here), an acronym inspired by precisely this spirit of acceptance and openness became widespread: YKINMKBYKIOK: “Your kink is not my kink, but your kink is okay.” Simply put, there was room for everyone, even for those in the real world who felt lonely, misunderstood, and isolated. Cyberspace was the safe haven, the alternative to what had already aptly been renamed the meatspace.

Indeed, “I feel so lonely” was the message one Jennifer Ringley, considered the first camgirl, wrote and showed her viewers via webcam. Leveraging the capabilities offered by technology, she was the forerunner of a new type of performer. As many young girls after her began live streaming, camming was soon gobbled up by the porn industry. Proximity, connection, sharing of secrets, and intimacy: what made the web attractive to its early users were also the characteristics that made it, and continue to make it, in its own way, ideal to be shaped by its more sexualized and sexualizing side. An inevitable outcome. It may seem strange, but the internet, this cold thing made of metal cables and servers, is the most carnal, sweaty, moist, and sticky thing mankind has created. In this souk, every pleasure, deviance, taboo, and secret finds its own audience and, why not, its own business model, transforming the rest of society due to a domino effect that has been going on for decades.

If something exists, or can be imagined, there is internet porn of it. This is Rule 34.


Photo by Jo Broughton

In 2021, when Mark Zuckerberg pitched Meta’s “metaverse” to the world, many found it cold, flat, with muted colors and lifeless-eyed virtual avatars. Even worse: these avatars had no legs, features that were particularly difficult to program and animate in real-time, set to appear later, in late 2022, when Meta gleefully announced on Twitter that “Legs are coming soon!” At the time of writing — the first quarter of 2023 — Zuckerberg seems determined to remove his interest in the Metaverse from mainstream awareness due to its lack of audience and critical success (and remaining technological limitations). Perhaps, to be successful, such a futuristic technology will have to collaborate with the underground and perverse aspect of the web, the aspect that has driven its development since the days of ARPANET, and that currently would not really know what to do with this new Second Life full of legless and, above all, sexless people.