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Jon Ronson gets curious about porn. A Q&A with the man behind "The Butterfly Effect."

If you’ve spent any time with young children, you know they’re insatiably curious. “Why?” is their favorite question, and they usually won’t stop asking it until, in a state of utter exasperation, you reply “Because that’s just the way the world works!”

Sadly, many of us outgrow that burning desire to understand everything and everyone we encounter at a deep level. However, well into their adulthood, the best interviewers—and anyone desiring to practice greater empathy—fan the flames of their curiosity and allow it to lead them to wonderful discoveries in the most unexpected places.

Author Jon Ronson is one of those delightfully curious adults. Curiosity has lead Ronson to some very dark places in his research for books including The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

For his most recent project, it lead him into a world that many hold in contempt, but Ronson found to be surprisingly endearing: pornography. “It’s a world people are assiduously incurious about,” he said in a recent podcast. “And it’s good to be curious about worlds

The origin story of Ronson’s new series, The Butterfly Effect, is—in and of itself—a very interesting and charming one that kicks off the seven-part audio series. The Butterfly Effect is the culmination of a year-long, curiosity-driven exploration into the many unexpected ways that the porn industry has been forever changed by an outsider’s vision of making porn free on the internet.

Ronson will take the stage at our Relate Live conference in New York on October 24th, to tell us all about it. In the meantime, let’s dive into the industry that everyone is “assiduously incurious” about.

I think most people assume they already know everything they need to or should know about the porn industry and how it operates.

And they know nothing. The Butterfly Effect is full of new stuff that people don't realize. In the [San Fernando] Valley, the porn people are lovely. I'm sure there's exploitation in some corners of the industry; I have no doubt about that. But by and large, the people in the mainstream porn world are a lovely, caring group of people. And the villains—if you want to call them villains, although I don't really think of them as villains—are the faraway, ostensibly respectable tech people. So I think it turns people's preconceptions upside down.

What did you think about the industry before you started your research?

I think I thought what everybody else thinks: that it was exploitative, that people were being exploited by dodgy directors, that everybody had mental health issues. I saw it as a dark place. As the director Mike Quasar said to me, everybody in porn has a kind of "wisp of darkness" to them. But, you know what? You get a wisp of darkness everywhere. Everybody has mental health issues, everywhere. And the exploitation turns out to come from the outside. From the viewers, who are happy to watch their porn on PornHub for free and not think about it and all of the hypocrisy that goes with that. And from the PornHub people, who exploited them and made a fortune on the back of their pirated content.

As the director Mike Quasar said to me, everybody in porn has a kind of "wisp of darkness" to them. But, you know what? You get a wisp of darkness everywhere.

There were so many interesting and unexpected things in the series. What were the most surprising things that you learned?

Well, I was very into the story of "bespoke porn" that we discovered, because it was such a remarkable insight into people's inner lives and so surprising. And I knew nothing. I didn't know that world existed. This idea that because of technological changes, you can have teams of professional porn people making entire porn films for just one viewer. And then we got to talk to some of the people who commissioned these videos, and their stories were amazing and so human. There was no villain in that story. The porn producers and the consumer—the people who commissioned the custom videos—were all finding each other and appreciating each other and just being caring towards each other.

That was the furthest thing from exploitation that you could possibly imagine. It was surprisingly touching.

In fact, it was the opposite of exploitation, because I think for some custom producers, they know that the porn people are losing all their money because of the tech people, and so they're paying them to make the custom videos as a way of helping them survive.

One of the most interesting things about listening to your audio series versus reading some of your books is listening to you interact with your interview subjects. Very few interviewers seem honestly curious and able to empathize with people with whom they have very different views. You've had to follow some very dark people in your career, seemingly without judgment. How do you do it without being dishonest or disingenuous?

It's definitely easier when it's people like the people in The Butterfly Effect, who are the people that I don't feel combative with. So it's much easier to be that way when you're interviewing people that you really like. In the last couple of years, I've abandoned a couple of stories because I didn't like the people in the stories, and I felt that

In the last couple of years, I've abandoned a couple of stories because I didn't like the people in the stories, and I felt that I didn't want to bring that kind of combative journalism into the world.

Which isn't to say I won't do it in certain circumstances—if it's important. Right now, what's happening in America is very important, and so a story like that I would still jump into: spending time with people whose politics I despise.

But the question is what do you do when it's an important story and you want to do it, but it's people that you don't like? Don't be performative, that's the really important thing. Don't make it all about you not liking them for the sake of performance. You put yourself in a mindset of curiosity. And I think it's okay to be that way even if they're the worst people you can imagine, even if they're white supremacists. I don't see anything wrong with it. The knee-jerk way people on Twitter behave about that sort of thing is, "Don't give them a platform, all you can do is attack them or ignore them." And I understand that position. And part of me feels that way too. But when you think about it, when you do it that way there's a danger of everybody becoming further entrenched in their own positions.

Have you always been curious?

No, I'd say it's grown. I think when I was younger, I was more ambitious, so I wanted to make the story more about me. I'm still ambitious—I still want to do really great stories. But when I was in my twenties, I kind of wanted to be a star, and as a result, I guess I was more ruthless. It was about "get the story, make myself look good, even at their expense."

People used to accuse me of giving people enough rope to hang themselves, and I would always reject that, but it was kind of true, back then. But I'm not like that anymore. And now when people do that, I just find it annoying. People who do those kinds of stories that play to the gallery—mocking people, giving them enough rope to hang themselves. I just turn off; I don't watch them.

The idea behind The Butterfly Effect—following an idea along the various directions it leads you—is wonderful. Most of us don't have the luxury of following an idea across space and time for months or a year. Do you have advice for how we can incorporate The Butterfly Effect into our day-to-day interactions?

I think every time you notice yourself being not-curious—you're just tearing somebody apart on social media, you're watching free streaming porn, or you’re behaving in a kind of incurious manner—when you're deliberately avoiding thinking about the consequences: I'm hoping that's one lesson people take from The Butterfly Effect. There are always consequences, and consequences are often kind of extraordinary.

The Butterfly Effect, available now for Audible subscribers and coming in November to iTunes and other free podcast platforms.

Listen to Jon Ronson in a recent Relate by Zendesk podcast episode. “Curiosity is what drives me. I don’t think I could write a book where I wasn’t genuinely curious.”

Monica Norton directs the merry band of social media and content wizards for Relate and Zendesk. A former journalist and reformed advocate of the serial comma, Monica has wanted to be a writer ever since she penned her first (and last) novel in the 6th grade. Originally from Texas, she enjoys confounding everyone in the San Francisco Bay Area with her lack of an accent. Find her on Twitter:@monicalnorton.