Forget Jeff Bezos. Learn the Name Danni Ashe.
Becky Holt / Concordia University.
It might come as a surprise that as a porn studies scholar, I spend a lot of time thinking about Amazon. Why Amazon? Despite their sizable market of sex toys and latex, Amazon does not seem relevant to an Internet pornography researcher. I think about Amazon because I am fascinated by how it has come to dominate our ideas about technological innovation. I think about Amazon because I am fascinated with the way its founder, Jeff Bezos, has become mythologized. From Steve Carell’s impression of Bezos on Saturday Night Live to Bo Burnham’s titular track where he sings, “Come on, Jeffrey…put your back into it”—Jeff Bezos is a household name. With all that in mind, I am taking us back in time to the mid 1990s when the Internet was exploding in popularity and a new economy was beginning to form. We’re going to leave Jeff Bezos’ shiny head and turn instead towards another of the most important tech entrepreneurs of our time, Danni Ashe.
Danni Ashe started working in the adult industry as a stripper and nude model. On the side, she ran a fan mail club where she sold mail-order tapes of herself. When Ashe started using the Internet in the early 1990s, she frequented Usenet groups like “alt.sex.breast” and “alt.sex.movies.” There, she came across nude modeling shots of herself that other users were uploading and sharing for free. She realized it was time to move her fan club online.  Ashe describes meeting with programmers to discuss designing a website, but they either overcharged or did not understand her vision. Ashe took matters into her own hands: “I picked up the ‘HTML Manual of Style,’ and for inspiration I picked up Negroponte’s ‘Being Digital,’ got on a plane, flew to the Bahamas and sat on a beach and read these books.”  Shortly after, she purchased $8,000 worth of computer equipment and in 1995 she designed and launched Danni’s Hard Drive. 
Danni’s Hard Drive primarily focused on what you might call, “soft-core pornography.” The website contained photos, video, audio, and online magazines that featured predominantly white women posing topless or engaging in sex acts with one another. The website’s subscription service called the “HotBOX” promised “24-Hour Support” and access to all content for $19.95 per month. As you can see from an archived screenshot from 1999, the website also promised insights into Danni and the other models’ lives, a “blooper of the week,” and even a faux-gambling section where Danni’s “two best naked bookies” would cover the NFL. 
Danni’s Hard Drive was incredibly successful. Two years after it launched, the website’s annual profits had grown from $60,000 to more than $2.5 million, boasting somewhere around 17,000 paying members in 1997.  As of 2000, the website’s income was predominantly based on subscriptions (instead of ad revenue), which was unheard of at the time. Even to this day, it is the only subscription pornography website to be covered by The Wall Street Journal.  When asked why she believed her website had been so successful, Ashe responded, “There’s an awful lot of content available for free on the Internet. You can find virtually anything out there for free. I think people are interested in subscribing to my site because it’s a real environment. It’s all just a really fun, organized experience that’s all laid out for you. People are willing to pay for that.” 
Journalists and researchers who study the website have said much the same: Danni’s Hard Drive was so successful because Ashe and her team were savvy at branding and customer service. However, what is oftentimes overlooked about Danni’s Hard Drive is that behind their obvious dedication to user experience and customer service was undeniable technological innovation. Ashe developed her own payment processing software to smooth credit card transactions and increase her clients’ security and trust. Her team also developed a proprietary streaming technology called DanniVision that allowed users to watch videos on her website without software add-ons—remember Flash popups? In journalist Kelly Flynn’s article and interview with Ashe in 2000, Flynn writes that Ashe and other subscription pornography websites may be “on to something;” continuing, “The music industry is considering a subscription model similar to the one used by Ashe to alleviate some of its copyright issues with online sites like Napster…”  Of course as we now know, the subscription model would come to dominate music and was undoubtedly shaped by the subscription model in pornography. Finally, Ashe and her team were among the first to develop the approach and technologies that enabled affiliate marketing.
It would be difficult to say for certain whether or not pornographers introduced affiliate marketing before Amazon. But at the very least, they developed the programs in tandem. Yet, Amazon is the company historically associated with technological innovation and disrupting e-commerce. Pornography is not. Granted, Danni Ashe is not a billionaire and even though Danni’s Hard Drive rode out the dotcom crash (similar to Amazon), she sold the company in 2004. Still, I think the example of Danni’s Hard Drive demonstrates the taboo that exists around pornography has prevented us from considering what online pornography and its entrepreneurs have contributed to the Internet technologies we use daily. Danni Ashe is one of if not the most prominent examples of this. So, forget Jeff Bezos. Learn about Danni Ashe.
- Patchen Barss, The Erotic Engine: How Pornography has Powered Mass Communication, from Gutenberg to Google (Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada, 2011), 114. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Kelly Flynn, “Danni’s hard drive to adult content success,” CNN, October 21, 2000. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- “Home,” Danni’s Hard Drive, April 29, 1999, http://www.danni.com/danni/home.html. (Internet Archive). [↩]
- Frederick S Lane III, Obscene Profits: The Entrepreneurs of Pornography in the Cyber Age (New York: Routledge, 2001), 221. [↩]
- Ibid., xii. Ashe was only the second pornographer featured in the Wall Street Journal; the first being Hugh Hefner after he took Playboy public in 1971. [↩]
- Flynn, “Danni’s hard drive to adult content success.” [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- “Webmasters,” Danni’s Hard Drive, January 27, 2001, http://www.danni.com/danni/webmaster/index.html (Internet Archive). [↩]
- Brad Stone, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013), 80. [↩]
- Barrs, The Erotic Engine, 115. [↩]
I think the example of Danni’s Hard Drive demonstrates the taboo that exists around pornography has prevented us from considering what online pornography and its entrepreneurs have contributed to the Internet technologies we use daily. Danni Ashe is one of if not the most prominent examples of this. So, forget Jeff Bezos. Learn about Danni Ashe.