Amateur: n. 1. Devotee, Admirer 2. One who engages in a pursuit, study, science or sport as a pastime rather than a profession. 3. One lacking in experience and competence in an art or science.
None of the above definitions describe with any sort of comprehensive precision the number of people on the Net who refer to themselves by the increasingly unsatisfying term: amateur. Maybe number one, if by devotee one means enthusiast. (Not sure what "admirer" is doing there.) Number two may have been more valid a few years ago, even if a few romantics still cling to the hedonistic idealism of those halcyon days. Number three depends on the individual, but our observations have convinced us that there is in fact a daunting amount of carnal experience and technical competence at play in the still vast and prolific orchards of the amateur adult Net.
But does it really matter the label one uses to describe their online sexual identity? And if a word like amateur has become so ill defined that all meaning is up for grabs, does it make sense to use it anymore? The truth is, we're stuck with it. Like the word "niche," which most of these online communities now abhor, it has stuck because nothing better has come along, and also because marketers require something to hang their hats on. Even the word "community" is sort of bogus, soft and cuddly as it is, because these online "groups" are habitually more like warring tribes, complete with regional conflicts and bloody pitched battles. In the end, it comes down to the same thing, whether you're a gay, fetish, or amateur Webmaster; everyone is working together even as they engage in conniving ruses to procure the best, most targeted traffic.
Another question that comes apparent when you look at the amateur niche (for lack of a better phrase) is its relationship to mainstream adult. At times, it seems as if there is none, and that other than offering sex on the Net they share nothing else in common, including temperament, philosophy, and traffic. Even the sex is different. And the more you delve into amateur, the more you realize that its maturity as a businesslike niche is where the mainstream was a few years ago. That's neither bad nor good, but it's interesting to note the uneven development of the adult Net, and there is something deliciously messy about all these sites and cam networks and hubs of activity, not to mention all the rogue reality sites that dare to claim the mantle of Most Authentic Amateur Porn.
"I know it when I see it," said a venerable Supreme Court Justice about obscenity. All amateurs make the same unimpeachable claim.
Rick Muenyong runs Amateur Ranks (www.amateurranks.com) and Amateur Masters (www.amateurmasters.com), the former a search engine/directory and the latter probably the foremost amateur Webmaster resource site. A veteran adult figure, he sits at the crossroads of much of the amateur activity, and offers a thoughtful perspective on the amateur scene. First, of course, we ask his definition of amateur.
"The definition of what makes an amateur is a [source of] huge conflict in this business," he says. "In my opinion, an adult Internet amateur specifically is someone who shares his or her sexuality and personal lifestyle with anyone who wishes to access it online, first for the sexual part of it and not necessarily for the money. Everything you see and read should be 100 percent real, and the content shouldn't be too professional. These are people who want to exhibit themselves online and get user feedback. They want to make a little bit of money, but that's not what's most important to them."
What about cohesion within the community, and where the power resides? "It's more organized than it was a few years back," he says, "though it definitely was behind in relation to the mainstream adult business. It seems as if everyone knows who all the big players are, even if everyone has their friends and groups that they communicate with. Any of the amateur cam networks would be considered big players. Certainly Wild Rose Productions is on top, as well as Homegrown Video. Naked Hosting has established themselves as one of the leaders, specializing in getting the newer amateurs started, and Amateur Hosting, which is also owned by Dan, who owns Amateur Cams, is also one of the big players as far as services go. iFriends is the biggest one-on-one video service by far. They provide the video technology for the girls to earn a per-minute fee for putting on a show in front of their Webcam at home."
But what about the amateur girls; do they make any money? "If you averaged it out, I would say [they make] between $2,000 and $2,500 a month," he says, "but that's probably overestimating it. If you go down the line, there's girls who make less than $1,000 a month and then the few who make over $5,000 a month." And there are the elite few who do far better than that.
"Within the last two years, it's been a fight for survival," he says, echoing the sentiment of everyone we spoke with. "Of course, that's the same as the mainstream adult industry, but it's been difficult because the girls coming into the business have the false perception that they can just build a Website and as long as they're good looking, people will come and pay to see their content. But there are just way too many girls who are willing to do anything to make a dollar, and yes, there is an over-saturation."
In running one of the Web's only amateur message boards, he also gets a lot of amateur feedback, and we wonder what the main issues are. "The main concern is getting traffic and converting people. But even if you get the traffic, if a girl doesn't know how to convert people, she could get 5,000 surfers and only one sale."
So what's a girl to do? "[Develop] marketing skills," he says. "The only superficial type of skill that's important would be the actual girl and what she's available for. If she's willing to do almost anything for the user, that can help, but without the marketing side of it, it goes nowhere. Basically, it's pretty much every girl for herself."
"It takes someone who can commit themselves to the business day in and day out," he adds. "They really have to focus 100 percent if they're going to survive. A lot of people don't have that capability. If they need to pay bills and have people to support, this probably isn't the business for them. It's a business for people who have time, and who can survive on a small income and possible growth later on."
According to Muenyong, there are still more people coming into the business than are leaving. Many submit their sites to him for listing on Amateur Ranks. "We get probably an average of 25 submissions a week and accept maybe 30 to 40 percent."
As far as ways to get traffic, he says, "There are a number. They could do traffic trades, or they can do friend's pages, which will get them started a little bit, but they really have to go through picture-posting-type Websites, like TGPs. There are a lot of amateur-related TGPs, where you can go get instant traffic. But again, you have to know how to convert the traffic." But who has the magic solution to that eternal conundrum?
The Wild Homegrown Rose
We combined the names of these two amateur powers for no other reason but that we like the sound, but make no mistake, they are very different companies, even if they do have some interdependent plans afoot. Each is a pioneer of amateur content, Wild Rose on the Net since 1994, its flagship Website the formidable CarolCox.com, and Homegrown Video (www.homegrownvideo.com), in existence since 1982, when it began producing the longest-running amateur video series ever.
In the intervening years, both have survived and thrived, with Wild Rose developing more sites and a slew of supportive amateur services, such as hosting and billing, and Homegrown authoritatively making a move onto the Internet and into the Webmaster mainstream through a ground-breaking partnership with CyberErotica (www.cybererotica.com). Now both companies seem poised for even greater success, with each considering themselves perfectly and strategically situated to take advantage of the future by melding new technologies with what they see as a time-honored amateur ethic.
We spoke with each fearless leader separately in Montreal, during this past June's Cybernet Expo.
Carol may be the star, but Danny is the star maker. Married 20 years, the Cox's have parlayed a longtime swinging lifestyle into an online empire. Danny is the garrulous one, Carol shy and reticent, until a video camera is turned on, and then some sort of hidden demon takes over, much to the loyal and rapt attention of 80,000 to 100,000 unique visitors a day.
"As far as surfer traffic goes," says Danny, sitting in an office at the Wild Rose studios in suburban Montreal, "I think we've hit the saturation point. I know people who say they're not using it anymore; they're never on the Net. There's nothing new for them, not just on our sites but on the Net in general. Also, people are not amazed anymore. When we started Carol's site, we used to get e-mail from people that were amazed that here's this housewife, this mother, who's not even an adult entertainer, who was doing this stuff. They couldn't believe it. Now it's like, 'Oh another one?'
"The amateur market is over saturated right now," he continues. "The vast majority of sites have very little to offer the surfer. There's no content there. They put up 400 to 500 pictures. It scares off a lot of the surfers, and hurts other sites. A lot of amateurs will pay someone to design a front end for them. You can see it whenever you see that word tour. I'm sorry, but you can't have an amateur site with that word tour. I don't believe it. A tour is a pay site. 'Tour my site.' What do I have? 100,000 pictures? Next. Videos? Next. Well, you're not telling me who you are, and amateur sites are all about personality."
Because he's seen so many amateurs come and go, we ask Danny about the typical amateur's sense of professionalism. "The amateur community is probably the biggest kindergarten around," he says. "There's more backstabbing than I've ever seen in anything else I've ever done, where one day someone can be your friend, and the next day they turn around and stab you in the back."
We ask him how that happens. "Amateurs will hook up with other amateurs, start doing work together, and almost always some sort of split happens, some sort of fight happens, and it will become two separate groups. Because you'll have an amateur community that gets together, and two amateurs won't like one another, and when they pull apart they pull everyone else apart with them. People will split up, and then certain amateurs will tell other amateurs that if you do anything with this amateur, I won't do anything with you, and if you keep linking to that amateur, I won't link to you."
Gee, that doesn't sound like fun, but he says that not all are so immature. "I've seen a lot of the amateurs becoming more professional, finally realizing that it's a business, because it is a business, even for those who are still having fun. Seska (www.seska.com), for instance. Seska is a good amateur, the mom and pop operation at home. Her husband works a lot of the traffic side of things, and she does all the work on the site. It's her full-time job; she enjoys doing it, she makes a nice living, and that's what it is. She doesn't care about being us."
We ask him about the swinging angle. "A lot of the girls on the Net are swingers," he says, "and what you see them doing is what they've been doing for years at swinger parties. It's just an extension. So someone like Carol is very comfortable doing it. Most of the girls we know can get together at parties with a whole bunch of people, and start fooling around and get naked, and it doesn't faze them in the least. It's because of the lifestyle that we led before, where we used to go to parties and the same stuff would happen. So it's natural - well, it's not natural - but it's natural for us."
We ask about the Wild Rose's future. "One thing we're going toward here is building up our video production infrastructure. I hope to be at [Internext] in January, but also on the AEE (Adult Entertainment Expo) side. There's a reason: I see a convergence between video and the Net coming, and someone who is positioned properly in both areas is going to profit, so we're trying to build up our expertise in video production, and we're getting quite good at it.
The Grand Visier
Farrell Timlake, president of Homegrown Video, is a rock star. A presence both in front of the camera and behind, he takes a modest but distinct pleasure in being an amateur god and a laidback pride in running a company that personifies the essence of amateur. He is also determined to protect the amateur integrity.
"So many people come in as new Webmasters with a super pimp daddy [attitude], and then they buy some content and think they're running an amateur Website, and they put up this polished content and have this idea that that's what amateur is, but it's not. They don't get the sensibility, and they don't get the heart and soul of what it's all about. For us, the mentality of 'Why can't amateurs be prettier?' is not what it's about. It's about there being something for everyone, whether it's BBW or older or whatever. It's about having fun."
Homegrown grew out of the swinger community in San Diego, and they've seen it all. "We've been around for 20 years," says Timlake. "We've embraced every single aspect of what amateur is. Even if you go in the swinger community, where there's the thing of, okay, my wife can be with other women but not with other men, we take everybody at the level that they want to play. If they just want to have a voyeur experience or an exhibitionistic experience, we're going to cater to that. We've developed into all aspects of amateur, so for us it's very easy to be friendly, and our way of doing business is to just avoid any conflict, and that's served us because everybody is friendly with us. They may have their own rivalries and considerations, but we've transcended it."
Homegrown moved onto the Net in 1997, doing everything themselves, something Timlake says is part of the amateur creed, and struggled with their own learning curve. "We began shooting live shows," says Timlake, "something called Orgy for World Peace, which was a live Netcast. We didn't make so much money back then, and we didn't have the types of traffic deals that we have now, but we were learning about the industry. This was 1997. We were na�ve, struggling to get on to the profitable side of the Net. We decided that we should do everything ourselves, developing the technical capacities and marketing instincts, taking the burden upon ourselves, and then that's when we really started growing."
Then came their partnership with CyberErotica. "We got partnered and split our efforts so that we could work with the mainstream Webmasters, and that's where CyberErotica came in. They brought savvy to our marketing and billing, and really cleaned things up. After that, things became easier. We love those guys and enjoy our deal with them, but now we've come to a place where we're not ever going to trust anyone completely with handling us, and will never give over the keys to our city.
"Where we stand today is amazingly well placed between that mainstream market and the true amateur market. And what we've brought to the deal on the marketing side is that true amateur market, because they're the best fit for us. Their traffic converts insanely better. Our biggest and best traffic comes from the true amateur community, which we're the best connection to. So we'll let CyberErotica do what they do with the mainstream market, and we're going to go and bring in the amateur market that we know better. Always back to our roots, where we feel the most comfortable."
We ask what's in store with Wild Rose. "We're going to transform the current RoseCam as it exists right now into something called Homegrown Cams, and Homegrown Cams will be a more full-flavored variety of RoseCam, and will have more components for the upsells for the models, more ways to profit from upsells, like stores, the general shows where they share content, pay-per-view movies, and then other kinds of content or product upsells, like panties, and it will have an auction involved as well."
We've saved the best for last. We first met Seska at last year's Wild Rose Amateur bash in Montreal. She immediately struck us as a true amateur, and more. Pretty but not glammed-up, sexy but not enhanced, an exhibitionist with strong personal boundaries, she was also extremely bright and articulate. An amateur wet dream. We had developed a professional crush on her. Since then, she's spoken at several trade show seminars, and when it came time to pick a cover girl for this issue, she was an obvious choice.
She and her husband, James, started Seska.com in 1999, as a clear but somewhat risky labor of love. "Before that I was just a fan," she says. "I would look at different porn sites, but liked the amateur ones because I could connect and relate to what they were doing. So I found Carol Cox's site, and found out that she was having a bar meet, and so we went and became friends with them.
"Danny [Cox] would tell me that I should have a Website, but I took a long time to decide. I was working in education at the time, in remedial programs for learning-disabled teens, and knew that I couldn't do both. Finally I made the decision to quit my job and start the site because I didn't want to have a regret when I was older and think, 'What if I didn't do it?' That was one of my big motivations. It was the excitement of the sexual aspect, the thrill of the exhibition aspect."
We were curious if anything in her past had pointed toward this. "When I was little I could ham it up, but I have no discipline to go into acting, and I have no talent for singing or dancing. For some reason, those seem to be riskier than going into porn. It's easier for me to show my sexual side than to take on a role. It's easier for me to be in my own skin. I went to school and to a university, but as I got older I realized that there was this sexual part of me that I wanted to look into and explore. I thought of becoming a stripper, but that didn't make sense for me, it's not the kind of performer I could be, and the same for prostitution or escorting. That's more about the client, and I wanted to do something for myself. So the site is about me and for me, and all the boundaries are mine."
James handles the traffic for the site. They spend most of their days together and perform cam shows together, but Seska will have sex with other people, male and female, while James will not. They are almost insanely comfortable with one another and tend to finish one another's sentences. What they present is almost the perfect amateur couple, at ease with their arrangement and completely supportive of one another.
"We're very happy with the money, but it's not the main reason why we do it," explains James. "The freedom is," finishes Seska. "We get up when we want and work when we want, but we have to be disciplined because it is a business."
Seska and James are within the top one percent of amateurs that earn six figures. They are all too aware that their early entry into the market helped, and how difficult it is now for newbies. "You can't go in for the money right now," says James. "You can still get into it, but it's going to take a lot longer to build up a following and make really good money."
"When we started there were hundreds of amateurs, not thousands," adds Seska. "Now," says James, "if somebody starts and they're really doing it right, I give them six months before they can consider quitting their jobs, if they're working at it seriously and not making too many mistakes."
But they still think it's worth a risk, especially for women. "The one thing that's different about amateur sites than any other type of porn is that it's the fairest type of site for a woman," says James. "She gets her share. We don't have a boss, so all the money comes to us and it's 50-50, while with almost all other porn the company makes all the money and the girl gets paid a certain amount. And when they're done with her, it's over."
Back to the Future
Unless some sort of catastrophic, globally encompassing law takes affect, amateur porn on the Net is here to stay, and will always provide a distinct alternative to mainstream adult fare. There seems to be no end to the number of women who want to get in, and who knows, maybe more men, who represent a tiny percentage of amateurs, will also take the plunge. The future could also see more gay amateur sites, which are also rare.
According to Muenyong, "iFriends is probably one of the largest gay amateur services where you can make money, but you don't find a lot of gay men making their own Websites. I don't know particularly what those reasons are, but I would guess that it has to do with the difficulty of getting traffic."
There will be ever more varieties of presentation and creative methods of exploiting the old in/out, and in many ways so-called professional porn and amateur porn will meld. There are, in fact, many porn stars who are making forays onto the Web. Some are ensconced within corporate Websites that squash their individuality, but others are going it alone, and some of them are taking tricks out of the amateur playbook. They are accentuating their personalities, interacting in chat rooms and cam shows, and even getting together with their members for some quality face time.
Seska is a lifer. "If our society was different," she says, "and there was no taboo about doing sex work, or I could somehow earn a living another way, if we won the lottery or something, I'd still do it, though we might not update as much."
And Rick Muenyong sees, as we do, an imminent explosion of new technologies with robust amateur applications. "As far as where it's going to go," he says, "you're going to see technology come into play. Surfers are going to be directed to the amateur business through Webcam interaction and feeds, any kind of video where they can interact more with the girls over and above looking at them in pictures. And any broadband-type of content where they can interact with the girl is definitely going to be something that will be taken advantage of in the future."