Category Archives: Tech

The Secrets Of The Internet’s Most Beloved Viral Marketer

Matthew Inman boasts that his site, The Oatmeal, has received over a billion page views since he launched it in 2009, making it one of most widely read comics in the world. But Inman bears little relation to his lumpy everyman profile on the site, and the disconnect between that cheerful profile and his actual identity — an edgy comic and unapologetic online operator — collided this week after a rape joke made its way into his typically safe comic.

In this comic, Inman described the role of different keys on the keyboard. F5, he said, was the “rape victim” of the group. “I MUST VIOLATE YOU OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!” a rapist blob monster said to the F5 key as it ran away crying.

Inman quickly found that he’s now too big to jest about sexual violence in the language of Reddit. The Internet was quick to trash the comic.

His own fans quickly took him to task on The Oatmeal’s Facebook page. “Really, in your awesomeness and creativity, you couldn’t come up with something better than a rape ‘joke’?” one asked. “I expected more from you.”

At first Inman ignored the criticism, but by Tuesday, he felt enough heat to remove the panel with the rape joke. But he added a comment at the bottom complaining that comedians like himself are no longer allowed to say the word “rape.” Defensively, Inman said he’s previously “donated $1,000 of my own money to a battered women’s group.”

The removed panel from Inman’s comic theoatmeal.com / Via elevatorgate.wordpress.com

“To all those who complained: thank you for censoring me,” he wrote. “It worked.”

He had to walk that sneering response back, too, writing on Twitter that both the comic and the comment were “fucking stupid.” He finally said he was sorry, then quit Twitter for the day. The comic is no longer listed on his website’s homepage, though it remains accessible with the last panel removed.

Inman is finding what big American businesses have known for decades: Keeping your mouth shut is generally better for business. Inman embodies a generation of online publishing entrepreneurs who came up as independent figures, with a touch of the outlaw. On one hand, Inman sees himself as a comedian, an artist who has to answer to nobody, a guy who works for himself and is thus finally free to mock people who dislike his work. But on the other hand, The Oatmeal has always been first and foremost a business, designed by a formula to be as popular and inoffensive as possible to the social-media-sharing Internet public.

And making rape jokes is bad for business.

Unlike most cartoonists, online and off, Inman, 30, came to the profession by way of one of the Internet’s most-hated practices: Search engine optimization tricks.

Inman, back when The Guardian speculated in 2008 on whether he was a “genius…or a fiend,” was an online marketer who made his name devising quizzes and cartoons aimed at going viral on the web. But the real purpose of this linkbait was what was hidden inside: search-engine keywords and links to his clients’ websites, an underhanded tactic meant to shoot them to the top of Google.

Inman’s transformation from a reviled search-engine-optimization expert and marketer to a beloved comic artist was less dramatic than it sounds. Inman has described The Oatmeal as a kind of continuation of his Internet marketing work. He’s still making cartoons and quizzes carefully configured to go viral, but instead of doing it for clients, he’s now lining his pockets directly. And on The Oatmeal, he hosts some comics and quizzes originally created for SEO traffic right alongside work created originally for the site.

“With The Oatmeal, I wanted to create something where the viral marketing itself was the product, rather than trying to put it on something else,” he said in an interview two years ago.

Inman’s SEO work was successful, but he was always beholden to the whims of Google, which doesn’t appreciate schemers looking to game its search engine, and shut down one of his most effective tricks, hiding the term “free online dating” in unrelated quizzes.

youtube.com

With a webcomic, though, Inman doesn’t have to rely on outrunning the Google police. Instead, he focused from the start on the conversations on other, more human, platforms.

“At the beginning, I assumed that, to be successful, I had to sort of pander to these ideas that were coming out of Digg,” Inman told an interviewer this month. Digg, of course, is no longer the social media giant it once was, but posting his comics there was responsible for much of his early success. Inman said he regrets that blatant pandering now, but his comics still seem to be written according to that formula — simply pointed at Reddit, Digg’s bigger spiritual descendent.

But Inman has had a complicated relationship with Reddit. Two years ago, Redditors discovered he had been posting his comics to the site himself, and, in his past job as an Internet marketer, had posted his linkbait quizzes and comic infographics designed to draw traffic to his SEO clients. If there’s one thing Reddit hates, it’s spammers, and after Inman’s Reddit activity was outed in a thread for a webcomic satirizing The Oatmeal’s pandering, there was a veritable Reddit backlash against his comic.

Inman reacted by rickrolling readers who had been linked to The Oatmeal from Reddit.

Soon he stopped, and Reddit, apparently unable to resist a webcomic from a sharp traffic guru aimed squarely at them, resumed serving as a major source of traffic. But the damage was done. Inman mocked his critics, but in the end, when his bottom line was threatened, his business sense forced him to capitulate.

A year after starting The Oatmeal, Inman said he was already making half a million dollars in profit a year annually from the site.

He’s been able to monetize that traffic by exploiting the webcomic model. Readers are willing to buy T-shirts from webcomic artists or donate to their virtual tip jars at least partly for altruistic reasons — unlike commercial creatives, they depend on the patronage of their readers to make a living with their art.

Inman plays into this myth of the solitary, struggling webcomic artist, calling The Oatmeal a “one man operation,” though he employs family members to run his sprawling retail business. When Inman declined to be interviewed for this story, the word did not come from Inman himself, but from his publicist.

Unlike that of most successful webcomic artists, Inman’s work was not originally a labor of love, a slow process of honing one’s voice, developing an original perspective and take on the art form, and eventually building an audience. It was always business, always a play to known sources of Web traffic, whether for clients or for himself.

In interviews with mainstream publications, he strongly denies this. Being perceived as part of the webcomic community is vital to his bottom line, and Inman certainly wants to be seen that way. “I’m totally opposed to making this a company. I just don’t have it in me,” the apparent millionaire told his hometown alt paper, the Seattle Weekly.

When given the opportunity to speak in front of business-minded audiences, however, the former SEO mastermind has been unable to hold himself back. Speaking before a tech conference audience at Gnomedex in Seattle in 2010, Inman delivered a 27-minute presentation explaining his process for creating a comic or quiz for his website. His comics, the slideshow says, are created according to a formula aimed at pandering to the broad tastes of the Internet and social media, based on six core principles:

– Find a common gripe
– Pick things everyone can relate to
– Create easily digestible content
– Create an infographic
– Talk about memes and current events
– Incite an emotion

Inman’s “gripe” comics take ideas that are already being expressed by certain constituencies around the Internet and simply put them in comic form. For example, many people get irked by the incorrect use of grammar and spelling, so he writes explanatory comics on this subject to attract that traffic. Inman has admitted in multiple interviews that spelling and grammar are not actually interests of his, but the comics get traffic (and sell a lot of posters to schools, ads for which appear at the bottom of each of those comics), and he works with an editor to correct his own use of language in those comics.

For “infographics,” he gathers groups of factoids together, making readers more likely to share because they feel like they’re learning something interesting. Inman also says one of his main comedic strategies involves taking a noun and attaching funny words to it, or taking a list of nouns and drawing lines to between them. It’s not unlike a fourth grader filling out a Mad Lib, one critic observed.

By and large, Inman plays it safe. He doesn’t write comics about things he doesn’t already know are popular on the Web. Before the rape joke, there was scant evidence he held any opinion truly unpopular on the Internet.

Inman is also a fitness buff. Though he draws himself on The Oatmeal as a blob of a man, he’s actually young and attractive. Inman has said he draws himself that way because attractive, detailed characters are less “relatable” for his audience.

In an interview with Men’s Health Singapore, he detailed some of his running feats, including completing an ultra-marathon of 50 miles, and explained why he doesn’t draw comics about a subject that interests him so deeply.

“I would love to make a comic about ultra running,” Inman said. “But not many people can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I totally know what that feels like, running a hundred miles.’ Similarly, I wanted to make a comic about snowboarding because I love snowboarding. But I don’t know if enough of my readers will get it. So I try to limit my comics to the stuff on everybody’s frequency.”

Inman’s version of a creative risk came recently; instead of just pandering to the Internet’s love of cats, he made a comic about his dog. “That was in my notebook for two years,” Inman said. “I thought, this is no good, people don’t — dogs aren’t funny. You can’t make dogs funny. It’s impossible. People can’t relate.” He said he published the comic in “embarrassment,” but it turns out the Internet also likes dogs. The comic has been “liked” over 600,000 times on Facebook.

Inman has always focused on traffic, not comments or criticism. But until the rape controversy, Inman had never faced such sustained criticism from so many corners. And even if he has admitted to pandering, comic artists are an inclusive community, and nearly all I talked to said they were happy to have him part of it.

“Inman’s large and loyal following (and their wallets) is the envy of nearly every cartoonist,” New York Times cartoonist Brian McFadden said in an e-mail. “Because he’s a relative newcomer, some of the old farts are jealous and bitch and moan by saying ‘I could do that.’ Well, they didn’t.”

That loyal following lends him a special power, one Inman has taken advantage of on a couple of occasions recently, both according to a standard Internet-attention-grabbing script. He may be able to attract criticism, but he’s also shrewd about drawing in goodwill.

In June, Inman was sued by attorney Charles Carreon as part of a dispute with FunnyJunk, an aggregating site that Inman showed to be hosting his comics without attribution. The lawsuit was clearly ridiculous, and Inman, clearly in the right, took the opportunity to attract even more positive press for The Oatmeal, leveraging his audience to accumulate over $200,000 in charity donations to the American Cancer Society and National Wildlife Federation. It’s not entirely clear what the sudden charity push had to do with the lawsuit, but after the money had been donated online, Inman withdrew a similar sum of money sitting in his own bank account and took photos of himself with it to post online (before re-depositing it) to further gloat about the annihilation of Carreon in the court of public opinion, aided by the moral authority of his large audience.

Now that he’s accumulated this mass audience, he’s begun to toy with its power. He’s said he wants a seven-figure income; he’s talked about writing comedy or becoming an animator. And his peers are watching with a mixture of interest and fear.

“He’s like Elvis right now, swinging his hips, and we’re all still doing the Buddy Holly thing,” said Nicholas Gurewitch, the cartoonist behind the webcomic The Perry Bible Fellowship. “Not say we’re going to die in a plane crash. We’ll be just fine. Unless Inman takes over the world. Which he could do.”

Update: A previous version of this piece linked to a profile that implied Inman was married, had children, and holds certain political beliefs. The profile is a fake. Inman refused to comment for this story, but posted an extended challenge to it on his website.

Jack Stuef is, among other things, a contributor to The Onion and New York Magazine’s The Cut. He tweets here.

You Don’t Have To Know How To Use Twitter To Be A Social Media Guru

Why are people whose Twitter bios claim to be “social media gurus” always the worst at actually using it? A lot of these so-called experts keep making a rookie mistake: beginning a tweet with a username, not realizing that means only mutual followers can see the tweet.

While I’m very sympathetic to accidental typos, this is more of a fundamental misunderstanding of how Twitter works. For those cases where you need to begin a sentence with a username, the typical trick is to toss in a period first, i.e. “.@BuzzFeed is my favorite site.”

Tweets with this misunderstanding are sent all the time, but I just couldn’t escape them today as I was browsing through responses to this morning’s scandal with the official @sweden twitter feed. Sheesh!

Here are tweets made by people whose bios claim to have some fluency or skill in social media, that will only ever been seen by the few (if any) of their mutual followers with @sweden:

Bio: Social Networking Guru, Discussing Social Media & Marketing Strategies. Successful Online Marketer since 1994 willing to teach you his methods

Bio: To Share Online Biz Opportunities. Interests – affiliate marketing, SEO, online marketing methods with little investment and effort

Bio: Community Editor of The Wall Street Journal and Juggle on Sunday columnist.

Bio: Hi guys, I love to help other people find the best online business opportunities to help them quit there day job!!!

Bio: Ladies and gentlemen, I love to help other people make the best use of TWITTER,looking forward to seeing your tweets

Bio: Bringing together news, events, and blog posts on place branding and public diplomacy in several languages.

Bio: Social marketing @possible, Designer, Photographer, Returned @peacecorps Volunteer + Constant Digital Disciple. Opinions are my own.

Bio: Digital Development Manager for Publishing Company, sharing web, mobile, video, social media, augmented reality and search news, plus insight and predictions

Bio: Online Reputation & Social Media at @AboutYou_TSW by #TSW

Bio: I’m indifferent to most items on the planet. Some people call me a Social Media Guru. I don’t correct them. #TeamFollowBack

Bio: CBSNews.com technology & lifestyle blogger. I like beautiful things, quick wit, technology, and video games. Opinions are my own.

Bio: Follow Tech Talk for all the latest technology news.

Silicon Valley Gets Its Own Hogwarts Academy

Students repeating their daily “hero pledge.” mercurynews.com

Next January, around 100 people will stream out into downtown San Mateo, the launching pad for YouTube and other legendary start-ups. They will look like ordinary business school geeks or Steve Jobs-venerating designers, but they know the truth. They are heroes.

How do they know? They will be the first complete graduating class of Draper University’s School for Heroes.

The nascent institution, founded and bankrolled by investor Tim Draper, will open its doors in early 2013. Its mission, broadly defined, reflect the interests of its creator, who is no stranger to a superhero costume. Draper is best known as an early force at Hotmail who became a backer of Skype, Tesla and other companies, and created the term “viral marketing.” He is not without his critics (a co-founder of Hotmail has gone on record as stating that Draper exaggerates his claim to be “the founder of viral marketing”) and he comes from a family of performers — his sister is actress Polly Draper and his daughter Jesse is the star of “The Valley Girl Show.” (That’s a talk-show-like web production in which the younger Draper puts pink feather boas around guests. She recently got Dropbox founder Drew Houston to drop an empty cardboard box as a gag. Draw your own conclusions.)

According to a San Jose Mercury News story, at Draper University, students recite a “hero pledge” every morning before embarking on a curriculum filled with field trips to successful start-ups like Tesla and viewings of movies like Risky Business. (The pledge begins “I will promote freedom at all costs…I will do everything in my power to drive, build and pursue progress and change. My brand, my network, and my reputation are paramount.”) Draper has purchased three buildings for $15.5 million to use as a campus.

The details of what defines “superhero” still remain vague, but a promotional video offers some clues. It is replete with shots of go-kart races, a slide with the word “disruption” on it, yoga, Shawn Fanning and two men on a bike pedaling furiously while being chased by a cop car. And if the idea seems fanciful, the price is not. Draper has said that a term at the school would cost “what Stanford charges” — and Stanford’s business school runs upwards of $18,000 per semester.

Unfortunately for FWD, the students’ June introductory session wrapped up before we could see the school for ourselves — but we did get to interview Draper.

Video available at: http://vimeo.com/45872530#at=3.

What was the inspiration for the school? How long has it been in development?

It was a flash mob in my head. Happened very fast and, like all great works of art, just came out on to the canvas. For the record, my son, Adam came up with the original idea.

Who will be instructors? How many students will be in the first graduating class?

We have had our pilot with 40 students. We will double or triple that for the first class in January. The pilot was 4 weeks. The school will be 10 weeks. Instructors are inspirational leaders out of industry. More people who live and breathe what they preach than people who teach for a living.

What kind of degrees will be offered? Do you have any syllabi yet you could send to me?

Some schools are hoping to offer credit for the 10 week period. It would be the equivalent of going abroad for a quarter.

How much will it cost?

We think we will ultimately charge what Stanford charges for a quarter. A little less for the first session.

Is it designed to be a year-round institution or summers? Will you pursue official accreditation?

It will run year round, but students will come for a quarter. I currently see no benefit to pursuing accreditation. The best high schools in the country are not accredited.

Obviously, there’s a diverse range of views on what kind of education is needed in the tech economy. What do you think the Draper University can add to existing programs?

Our goal at Draper University is to make people better people. We hope they will pursue great missions with their lives.

Why “superheroes”? What is the full pledge?

Superheroes inflame the imagination. People who think “superhero: think anything is possible. You will have to come to a session to hear the full pledge.

What did you learn from this summer’s session about what works and what doesn’t?

It all seemed to work. We were blown away. It is a new model for education. Much more participative and group-oriented, and people seemed to take to it.

What do you hope students will take from this? What kind of jobs does Draper prepare people for?

Draper University prepares students to create their own paths. Create their own jobs.

Deep Inside The Social Media Operations Of A Gay Escort Service

“I zone out when I’m home. I just don’t think about it.”

Dave* has just begun telling me about a typical day at the office. Dave doesn’t usually tell people right away what he does for a living. That’s because he works as the director of online marketing for, as he first described it to me, “a pimp.”

Dave’s employer is not, strictly speaking, a pimp. Instead of dealing directly with the trade, the company runs what is, on the surface, an online social network for gay men, shielding itself behind a legal loophole that allows it to profit from the sex trade while maintaining plausible deniability.

His parents don’t know the exact details of his work, either. When people ask, “I’m a consultant for some companies in New York” is his standard cover. He and his coworkers use fake names at work, and he treads lightly when discussing the details of his job. “I try to have a first conversation to see what kind of people I’m dealing with so I can tell them what I do.”

Most people “don’t believe that it exists,” Dave said. Some immediately assume that he works as an escort himself; others find it fascinating, and pepper him with questions. No one seems to know the first thing about how these online escort services operate within the law.

Welcome to the world of rent boys.

How prostitution works online

Because online escort listing services are not technically escort agencies, they have no responsibility for the escorts. Clients communicate the exact details of their transactions via phone numbers or email addresses included with each listing. Dave told me that his employer has never experienced any friction with the law.

It is, in essence, a dating site. Imagine OkCupid, but with pictures of scantily clad men everywhere (ok, that’s not much different), and explicit descriptions of likes/dislikes, fetishes, preferred position, and condom policy. Working hours are clearly laid out, and rates are provided for weekend stays, overnights, dates, and home visits. Body descriptions include additional attributes of interest, such as body hair, build, foreskin (“cut” or “uncut”), and “cock size.”

The market is crowded with competing sites: A Google search for “gay escort” turns up results for RentMen.com, HourBoy.com, Rentboy.com, Men4RentNow.com, and dozens of similar networks.

Dave’s company has less than 30 employees. Escort listings form the core of the business model. Users can purchase advertising space with a credit card, but also with other forms of payment, like money orders, which don’t require a real name. Escorts can place the ads themselves, or through an agency.

Dave characterizes his work as “mostly social media and search marketing.” He looks for “stuff that [clients] are going to either talk about, or relate to in a way. Because that’s one of the elements of the web site — some people go there just for the pictures.”

The first thing Dave does upon arriving at work is open Tumblr, and to search for “straight up, hard-core gay porn,” as he put it. Dave spends up to 10 hours a day doing this, reposting the most click-worthy material to the company’s small but loyal following on various social media sites. (He declined to specify exactly which ones.)

Dave’s job is complicated by the fact that he’s straight. He told me he’s tried to expand the company’s horizons beyond its current social presence, but that his boss feels because Dave is not gay, he doesn’t have the perspective to know the best ways to reach the site’s audience.

“I don’t know Google+ because I never tried.”

Why Tumblr? It’s the best place to get fresh material. While the site’s community guidelines request that accounts with adult-oriented content be flagged as NSFW by the owner, it does not specifically prohibit pornography.

The service does, however prohibit uploading explicit videos to its own servers. Tumblr’s guidelines state, “We’re not in the business of profiting from adult-oriented videos and hosting this stuff is fucking expensive.” The site allows external hosts, however, and the guidelines recommend the porn hub xHamster for hosting anything unsuitable for direct upload to Tumblr.

A search for posts on Tumblr tagged with “escorts” turns up a smattering of actual escort listings along with more PG-13 content.

Tumblr is far from the only place where adult material can be found though, and escorts operate on most major social networks. Twitter, Craigslist Personals, and Facebook all turn up results for escort services when searching for “escorts”. Even Instagram hasn’t escaped the sex trade; this search on Statigram (warning: NSFW) has mostly adult-oriented content from accounts with names like miamiescorts and your_secret_desires.

What about Google+? “I don’t know Google+ because I never tried,” Dave explained, chuckling.

“If you post just a butt crack, your whole Facebook page can get taken down.”

Of all the networks Dave posts to, Facebook is the least accepting of lubricious content, and the site’s draconian enforcement policies mean that he treads carefully on Mark Zuckerberg’s lawn. “If you post just a butt crack, your whole Facebook page can get taken down.”

The site used to advertise with Google Adwords until the search giant changed its terms of service to specifically prohibit escort services. Massage is fair game, but “any mention of sexual content, you’re out.” In response, some escort listing services have launched massage sites specifically targeting gay men.

The one large outlet that doesn’t present an attractive target for distributing gay porn? Pinterest. According to Dave, the site’s terms of service, which specifically prohibit “any information or content we deem to be hateful, violent, harmful, abusive, racially or ethnically offensive… profane, or otherwise objectionable,” meant that his employer never even considered posting their material there. And while there are some pics of topless men on Pinterest, it’s mostly just photos of partially clothed mainstream celebreties like Daniel Craig or Ryan Gosling, not the gay pornstars which make up the majority of the site’s pageviews.

And what turns up when searching for “escorts” on Pinterest? Photos of escort cards. The site was the only one out of all the social networks examined that didn’t have any links to actual escort services in the results.

Searching for “escorts” on Pinterest leads to absolutely nothing that could possibly generate any kind of sexual arousal.

To catch an escort

Soliciting a male escort comes with its own set of complications. There has been a rash of users who put up fake pictures, book a hotel, then wait in the bathroom for the client to appear before knocking him out and robbing him. Dave told me these crimes go largely unreported: “Shit. I just got a hooker, got beat up by the hooker and got robbed by the hooker. What do I do? I’m a victim, but at the same time, I’m committing a crime.”

Clients have no way of communicating with each other through the site. Still, many connect through Daddy’s Reviews, a review site — registered to the blithely named WinkWinkNodNod, LLC and based in a strip mall in Renton, WA — where users post painstakingly detailed accounts of their appointments with different escorts. When a client travels to an unfamiliar city, the easiest way to find an escort is to visit the site’s message board and request assistance in code: “Do you know the 411 on Patrick Bateman?”

Arrangements vary; there isn’t always a guarantee of sex. Some escorts specialize in “muscle worship,” posing and flexing for clients. Others go on dates with the understanding that if things go well, the night will end with a blowjob. Dave has also seen a recent surge of escort listings in India. Quite a few of the listings I found in my own search for similar listings were for straight men, specifying the user’s sexual preference with descriptions like “for females both married and unmarried”, and “i am intelligent. god made me only for female.”

Lots of escorts offer services as a team. Couples can be heterosexual, which is the only way a woman will get past the unwritten “penis rule” (transgender escorts are welcome, as are transexuals and cross-dressers). These couples mainly go after married couples and elderly men, who can turn out to be cash cows.

Craigslist killed the gay pimp

Most of the gay men Dave knows have worked as an escort at some point in their lives. “It was always the first job they got in New York,” he explained. Newcomers with scant resources often resort to informal prostitution in bars, and the profession offers an easy, consistent source of income.

Offline male escort agents have been largely phased out by the disruptive influence of online sex listings, which began in the early 2000s. “Prior to that, it was really hard for [escorts] to live off the little ad on the back of Village Voice,” Dave explained.

These days, Dave said, “It’s really easy. You put up an ad, people call you up — why would you need a middleman?”

In cases where administrative assistance is required, pimps have largely been supplanted by online agencies and sugar daddies. The former manage multiple escorts, taking a cut of the fees. The latter usually retain one escort for themselves and occasionally pay for listings to supplement his expenses. While the agencies are in it for the money, Dave said, “[the sugar daddy] is more selfish — he only wants the product for himself.”

The top 20 U.S. cities by number of listings on Rentboy.com, according to the site’s search filters.

Rentboy.com (warning: NSFW) — which achieved notoriety after a scandal involving George Rekers, a member of the Christian right and vocal anti-gay activist — lists close to 2,000 escorts in the United States, and over 1,000 in China, according to data collected from the search filters. After New York, the biggest markets are in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Clients can join for free to get “enhanced browsing” with advanced filters, though this appears to be less useful outside of major cities due to sparsity of listings. A user searching Rentboy.com in Manhattan can choose from around 400 escorts; Brooklyn, on the other hand, has only 17, while the Bronx and Queens have 7 and 12, respectively.

Tragically, if the listings are to be believed, there is only one lonely escort servicing the entire borough of Staten Island. His offer states simply, “Partnership with my younger BROTHER available upon request.”

But while male escort networks have disrupted both the print classifieds and offline pimps, they have thus far escaped disruption by even newer entrants. Grindr, which leverages geolocation technology to facilitate casual encounters between gay men, has not hurt business; Dave says it’s “mainly for cruising.” Escort sites, on the other hand, caters to those with deep pockets and very specific tastes.

“Shit. I just got a hooker, got beat up by the hooker and got robbed by the hooker. What do I do? I’m a victim, but at the same time, I’m committing a crime.”

At “The Hookies,” escorts compete for awards like “Best Top,” “Best Boyfriend Fantasy,” and “Best Daddy.”

“If they have the body for it, they’re gonna try porn.”

Porn serves two purposes for the male escort. First, it works as free advertising. The majority of the porn is legally produced and widely distributed, and the site’s clientele is “very much aware of their pornstars… they walk around Chelsea and people take pictures They wanna talk to them, get to know them. Because there’s this element of ‘Hmm, I might get to have sex with this guy, if I play my cards right.’”

But it also pays better, with a “one-on-one” shoot for a relatively unknown actor going for $1,000-$1,500, a princely sum in comparison to a typical escort’s $120-$300 base rate. Other types of shoots carry standard markup fees. With a threesome, for example, “If both guys are tackling one guy, he’s gonna get more money.” This extra fee amounts to around $500-$700, but as Dave noted, “This is for one guy in the front, one in the back, not for two guys in the back.”

Porn stars and escorts compete each year in the International Male Escort Awards (more commonly referred to as “The Hookies”), sponsored by Rentboy.com. The ceremony includes awards for “Best Top,” “Best Boyfriend Fantasy,” “Best Daddy,” and “Best Transsexual,” among others. Nominees are drawn from regional events, where “Mr. London,” “Mr. San Francisco,” and others are elected by the crowd.

The hardest job on the internet

Dave has developed a sixth sense for what will fly with the site’s fan base on Tumblr. Animated GIFs are by far the most popular, followed by video. These generate thousands of notes, while photos rarely break four digits. When they do, it’s generally “a guy who’s well-endowed, in shape… Not like a selfie. Professional work, that’s what they like.”

As for subject matter: “twinks” (attractive, boyish-looking, young gay men) or transexuals work best. “If there’s like 3 or 4 [twinks] in the video, that’s the one you want.”

“The best part of my job is when I leave.”

According to Dave, animated GIFs are “the ones I hate the most.” This is mainly because they often begin fairly innocuously — “I try to avert my eyes every time I see something that I deem ‘too much,’” Dave explained — but upon loading can quickly progress to something far more intense before he’s able to look away. “I thought it was a myth, but I actually saw a mangina on the site… I thought it was bad Photoshop at first, but there was a link to a video,” which showed the man playing with a dildo. “I’m seeing this really hairy, buffed-up guy that sports a functional vagina.”

As a joke, Dave once printed out an online “male escort manual” to give out at a Christmas party when people asked what he did for a living. One of the men he met at the party would not stop talking about how it was the most fantastic thing he had ever seen. A few months later, while optimizing some code on the web site, he opened a profile and found himself staring deep into the man’s sphincter.

Dave is looking to get out of the sex trade and find a less salacious line of work, but so far it hasn’t been easy. In the meantime, I asked him about the highlight of his day. “The best part of my job is when I leave.”

*Dave’s name has been changed in order to avoid any repercussions with his employer