"You wouldn't believe the things you see when you ask people to send things in," says Edwards, hawking his newest site, YouLove.com, an amorous takeoff on the latest out-of-nowhere Internet phenomenon YouTube.
Like YouTube, YouLove takes advantage of the near ubiquity of digital cameras and video editing tools on both the demand and supply side of the adult entertainment industry. The site welcomes users to submit homemade porn clips, however bad. Then, through the same wisdom-of-crowds process that gave rise to television's "American Idol," viewers get to vote and elevate the best clips.
"It's nice to have a different flavor for a change," Edwards says, a not-so-indirect jab at the sameness issue currently plaguing the online porn trade. "[It's] not just straight guys in blue jeans. You don't get the creepy director off-camera. You don't get the juvenile zoom-in, zoom-out aesthetic of videography, which seems to be on every jerk-off site."
Uniqueness and freedom are two things Edwards has taken pride in ever since his days as a backroom programmer at Bell Canada.
"This was in 1997," he notes, "back when you could just get involved in a career online; it was simply a matter of making a decision to do so."
Developing children's content for Sympatico, Bell Canada's answer to America Online, Edwards had a front-row seat to the dot-com mania and its stifling effect on creativity. Within the span of a few months, he and his colleagues went from working on a website to building a billion-dollar portal. Suddenly, Edwards recalls, a new species of character — suit-wearing executives — began to inhabit the hallways of the Sympatico building complex.
"I'd always enjoyed the devil-may-care aspect of the tech industry, going to work in sweat pants, that sort of thing," says Edwards, looking back. "Suddenly, things got all corporate. You couldn't just do anything. You had to run your plan through 16 levels of bureaucracy."
Edwards says there wasn't a breaking point that forced him out of the mainstream content business, just a general sense that whatever freedom he'd enjoyed as an early participant was fast giving way to bland respectability.
"I finally just looked at my friend and said, 'This is stupid. Let's start a porn site,'" he says.
With those simple words, the pioneering gay megasite Bedfellow.com was born. Edwards says it took barely two months to build the site. Building a steady supply of fresh, interesting content would take a bit longer, however.
"There was nothing else like it on the Internet at that point," he says. "There were a couple of providers of gay content, but it was all crap."
To remedy that situation, Edwards and his business partners took to developing their own content in-house. A self-described "nerd" with a degree in photography from Toronto's Ryerson Polytechnic University, Edwards had little problem handling the camera duties in the company's Toronto's office/studio. Getting the photos developed, on the other hand, was another story entirely.
Shooting Porn in Canada
"This is Canada, so it was hard to find a place that would just take a bunch of film and develop it," he recalls. "We were in situations where we'd drop off 10 rolls of film. We'd get the first roll back developed and nine undeveloped rolls with a note saying 'We don't do porn.'"
Once again, necessity provided the motivation for further change. The company purchased its own set of Polaroid 35 mm scanners in 1998. Still, the 10 minutes needed to scan each image introduced yet another production bottleneck. Soon it was time for another "this is stupid" moment.
"I finally said, 'We need a digital solution,'" Edwards says. "That's how we became one of the first porn companies to go all digital."
Another innovative offering was streaming video, a bug-prone novelty in the late 1990s, but something Bedfellow.com was able to tame thanks to a proprietary software engine that users downloaded after gaining membership status. Rolling out video ahead of almost every other porn site on the Internet, Edwards goes even further to proclaim his site was the first-ever video porn purveyor online, and at that time, Bedfellow gained just enough traffic to survive the content aggregation war against other lead market rivals such as Badpuppy.com.
Markets evolve, however. In the course of fusing self-produced content with commodity back-end content pulled in from across the Internet, both Bedfellow.com and Badpuppy found themselves facing a new challenge: niche sites focused on a specific segment of the gay porn marketplace.
"Instead of paying $24.95 and getting a massive variety of content, people now wanted to pay $24.95 for just one kind of content," Edwards says. "It used to be that you could rotate content — bears, hunks, twinks, whatever — and satisfy everybody. Nowadays, as soon as you shift from one group to another group, you lose the first group entirely."
While the straight Internet porn market appears to have undergone a similar evolution — witness the current explosion of multiracial sites and other finely tuned offerings — Edwards sees the overall gay culture as more conscious of individual desire and how those desires add to a person's sexual identity. He links the phenomenon to the coming out process, an act which, in the process of making a person's sexual identity public knowledge, tends to burn away whatever feelings of shame mainstream society continues to heap on gay sex.
In other words, where heterosexual men turn to specific forms of porn as a way to experiment and test the limits of certain fantasies, homosexual men tend to get their sexual identity squared away first and then look for the content providers that will cater directly to it.
"[Gay consumers] are not so much looking for porn as looking for 'that' porn," Edwards says.
"They're a lot more scrupulous about what they're buying or what they're consuming. There's no shame. Sex is just a really entrenched part of how they see themselves. It's a part of life for them."
The key tension with this phenomenon, however, is that while gay porn consumers tend to be more loyal than their straight counterparts, they also tend to be fewer in number. As a result, the pressure to find the lowest common denominator desire and thus build up enough customers to sustain a business is that much higher. Edwards laments the current profusion of "straight-for-pay" content to the copycat phenomenon that crops up whenever somebody finds a winning genre and everybody else in the industry feels the need to follow suit.
"The entire gay market seems to be populated by guys who are straight but broke and decided to have gay sex to pay the rent," Edwards says with a laugh. "I'm not saying that porn should be about nothing, but it doesn't always have to be the thing that's hot in the market right now."
Although YouLove offers plenty of straight-for-pay content — the site's first branded offering, YouLoveJack.com, recently featured cover model James Charnwood with the promo disclaimer "James wanted us to know that he was totally straight before making this gay porn video" — Edwards hopes the open invitation for user-submitted content will help the site break free of the current straight-model straitjacket.
"By looming over the camera, the performers in our videos are not trying to be who they aren't," he says. "They're being who they are, and it's actually pretty compelling."
Meanwhile, the company's profit strategy relies on the open-ended nature of the YouLove brand. If the company can draw in enough quality submissions in other genres, it will build specific sites for those vertical markets as well. The key to the strategy, Edwards says, is finding a balance between the small, self-defining audiences needed to support each site and the general company-wide audience with broad enough tastes to keep featured content fresh and innovative.
"At conferences, I joke that while I may know more about the gay porn industry than anybody in the room, together the whole crowd knows way more about gay porn than I do," Edwards says. "That's the situation we're really in right now. It's no longer Site A vs. Site B. It's Site A vs. the whole alphabet."
The key, in other words, is looking past the 1990s Microsoft business model in which companies seek to build enough market share to dictate terms to competitors and consumers alike and instead look to the current 2000s business model in which out-of-left-field sites such as Wikipedia.org, Digg, Flickr, and, yes, YouTube put their faith in the overall wisdom of the Internet user base and do their best to market the occasional plums that result.
"That's really the secret of the Internet," Edwards says. "First you make your own market, and then you sell to the market you just created. That's what we're trying to do here."