In the early 1980s, when I was barely a teenager, a friend invited me over to his house to take a peek at his dad’s secret stash of porn. At the time, it felt like striking oil. Porn was still a finite resource, something you only had if you were lucky or knew where to dig.

But then I saw the uncanny array of porn my friend’s dad had hoarded. There were magazines indexed by fetish, stacked so high they nearly touched the basement ceiling. There was row after row of tapes, both VHS and Betamax, in greater quantities than I’d seen outside of a video store. He even had a few reel-to-reel tapes of stag films dating back to before I was born.

I remember looking at this avalanche of filth, a collection that dwarfed most libraries, and even with a brain clouded by raging hormones, my first thought was, that’s just … too much porn.

It’s the same emotion I had while reading Pornhub’s year in review for 2018. It’s a statistical smorgasbord of data that the hugely popular website—ranked seventh in the world, beating out Instagram, Wikipedia, and Reddit, according to SimilarWeb—has been sharing every year since 2013.

Over the years, we’ve learned fascinating details about how people consume dirty videos, from the 1424 percent increase in porn watched on mobile devices since 2010 to “fidget spinner porn” becoming inexplicably popular a few years ago.

But the most gobsmacking revelation was this: In 2018, Pornhub transferred 4,403 petabytes of data.

Let’s repeat that number, just so we’re all clear it isn’t a misprint or typo: 4,403 petabytes. Not megabytes or gigabytes or terabytes. Pet-a-bytes.

The human brain can store around 2.5 petabytes of memory data. So that means Pornhub has the brain capacity of Stanford University’s entire class of 2022.

That volume of petabytes is either staggering or just about right, depending on who you ask.

“Wow, these numbers are just insane,” says Dan Miller, the Managing Editor at AVN (the Adult Video News), who’s been covering the industry since 2001. “I suppose we just have to take their word for it.”

But Sai Gaddam, a data mining consultant and co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, a 2012 study of internet porn habits, points out that it isn’t such a preposterous amount when you consider that all those petabytes are really the data that’s being transferred.

“If one gigabyte file was viewed in entirety by a million people, that is a petabyte of transfer,” he says. “If 100 million users are consuming content on Pornhub, that’s 34 gigabytes worth of content per person, or 44 hours of high quality content per year, per person. That’s about 50 minutes each week. Seems plausible to me.”

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What Pornhub is storing in raw data is probably much lower, Gaddam says. “A completely wild guess would be that they have 1,000 times the 44 gigabytes of content each person has consumed,” he says. “That’s 44 terabytes.”

Most assumptions about how much data is stored at Pornhub maxes out in the terabytes, with high-end guesses hovering “in the region of 50 to 200 terabytes of porn” (or .02 petabytes on the high end).

Pornhub has a collection of choreographed orgasms that’s the same duration as human civilization.

I reached out to Pornhub VP Corey Price to see if these educated guesses were even close to correct. They’re not. “Pornhub actually hosts 11 petabytes of content,” he told me.

Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math: The average bitrate of a streaming video file is one megabit per second. So we’re looking at six megabytes of data for every minute of video porn.

That works out to about 333,333,333 minutes of porn in a single petabyte. Pornhub claims it has 11 petabytes, which works out to 3,666,666,666 minutes of porn. Or roughly 6,976 years.

It would take a human being just shy of seven millennia to watch all of that porn. It’s about the same length of time that it took for humans to go from the Neolithic age to nuclear submarines. Pornhub has a collection of choreographed orgasms that’s the same duration as human civilization.

In other words, they have the world’s biggest porn collection.

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A Petabyte Stockpile of Porn

Pornhub’s numbers may not seem impressive compared to online goliaths like Facebook and YouTube. The video-sharing titan purportedly adds about 76 petabytes of video every year. And some sources suggest Facebook’s data warehouse has in the ballpark of 300 petabytes. But comparing either of those sites to Pornhub is like comparing Costco to a liquor store that sells 10 different types of vodka.

Pornhub’s founder isn’t being dragged in front of congressional committees to find out if the sex videos are being faked, and nobody is making grand proclamations to friends and family that they’re leaving Pornhub, for real this time!

Pornhub’s petabyte stockpile may not be the biggest on the internet, but it’s astoundingly resilient. When other sites go down, Pornhub usually picks up the slack.

Last March, both Facebook and Instagram had a massive, nearly 24-hour outage (which they blamed on a server configuration change) and Pornhub saw a 19 percent increase in traffic. The same thing happened during a major YouTube outage in 2018. When Fortnite went dark last October, Pornhub suddenly had a 116 percent increase in searches for Fortnite porn.

Not that Pornhub is indestructible. “The site does briefly crash occasionally for very short periods of time due to application issues or networking problems that are outside of our control,” Price says. “However, we have always managed to bring the site back up very quickly thanks to our advanced infrastructure setup.”

I know it’s ridiculous, but there’s a part of me that wants to imagine that Pornhub’s database (or databases, more likely) are something strange and beautiful, like the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But porn servers are just ... servers.

"Here at Pornhub, we’re accustomed to taking big loads of data."

“Pornhub uses around 100 bare metal powerful servers that we periodically upgrade to the latest hardware,” Price explains. The configuration and type varies depending on the type of the servers, “but they are all commercially available servers,” he says.

They’re 10 times more powerful than the servers Pornhub used just five years ago, and they all have more than 24 cores, often many more, Price says. But nothing jaw-dropping.

And because this is Pornhub, no explanation of their architecture would be complete without at least one gratuitous sexual pun. “Here at Pornhub, we’re accustomed to taking big loads of data,” Price says.

But otherwise, data is just data; 11 petabytes of porn, at least in terms of software, doesn’t look all that different from 11 petabytes of cat videos.

So perhaps the more interesting question isn’t, “How does Pornhub handle 11 petabytes of porn?” It’s, “Do human beings need 11 petabytes of porn?” Isn’t it arguable that after decades of tireless work, we’ve finally reached peak porn?

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Malte MuellerGetty Images

Hoarding Porn for Posterity

It’s not quite the same thing as the basement porn collection of my high school friend’s dad. We’re long past the point of, “No one human being could ever watch this much porn.” Even if everyone alive today worked together to watch all the porn uploaded just this year, screening every category alphabetically, and clocking your hours on Pornhub became like jury duty, we probably still wouldn’t get past “anal.”

I reached out to Kate Dundon, a special collections archivist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, because she knows a thing or two about porn hoarding.

In 2010, she was asked by New York’s Museum of Sex to create a “box-level inventory” of what’s considered the largest collection of physical media contemporary pornography, which the museum purchased from the late Library of Congress worker and “erotic archivist” (his description) Ralph Whittington.

Dundon went through Whittington’s massive thousand-box collection, which contained hundreds of films in every pre-internet format, and a myriad of printed materials like books, magazines, and stills.

What does Dundon make of Pornhub’s 11 petabytes of porn, a collection that, unlike Whittington’s boxes of porn, will only keep growing and growing and growing?

“It’s reflective of the overall growth of content creation throughout the 20th and 21st centuries,” she says. “We create massive amounts of everything: photos, videos, text.”

Though we keep churning out data, long past the point of redundancy, it still makes us nervous, Dundon says, “because there is no way to preserve all of this content for posterity. People talk about a ‘digital dark age’ in which we won’t be able to understand history because of this loss. But the secret archivists know that people have been really good at losing information for a long time, so loss always has and will be part of the historical record.”

One of those secret archivists—he goes by the handle “-Archivist” on Reddit and declines to share his real name—has been hard at work making sure that whatever’s lost during the coming digital dark age won’t include thousands of hours of camgirl videos.

He’s part of a crowd-sourced effort that first became highly publicized in 2017, when another Reddit user, Beaston02, decided to test Amazon’s “unlimited” cloud storage plan.

Beaston02 amassed a truly ludicrous 1.8 petabytes of webcam porn before throwing in the towel, claiming he had “more of a problem with collecting or hoarding data than I do with porn.”

-Archivist took up the mantle, creating the Petabyte Porn Project with Beaston02’s scripts and 3 petabytes of his own collection of streams. It was so much content that, as he explained on Reddit, “realistically not one of us could consume the entire archive given a hundred lifetimes.”

“It’s a huge dataset of social interaction, and I think that’s important. Not the t*ts.”

The Petabyte Porn Project is marked as “dead for now,” but -Archivist says that’s not exactly true. “It’s marked that way to quell some of the constant PMs I get from horny folk wanting a very specific video of a camgirl that was capped four years ago,” he says. “Shit gets old. But it’s not dead at all. It didn’t even slow down.”

He and other volunteer porn hoarders have been adding to the Petabyte Porn Project every day for the last few years. -Archivist isn’t certain of the exact petabyte numbers—it takes nine days just to list all the files for an updated count, “in which time more files have been added,” he says—but his best estimate is somewhere between 18 and 22 petabytes.

That’s double the number of insane petabytes stored by Pornhub, supposedly the most popular adult website in the world.

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For -Archivist, it’s not a question of whether anyone will ever actually watch all of it, or even a fraction of it. His interest is more about preserving a historical record.

Since his archive focuses on camgirls, who chat with users when they aren’t performing sexual acts, that means it’s a lot more than just porn. “It’s a huge dataset of social interaction, and I think that’s important. Not the t*ts.”

What’s even more important is that even after all these years, the internet still has the capacity to shock us.

Just when you think it can’t get more audacious—11 petabytes just for porn!—someone finds a way to up the ante—22 petabytes just for webcam porn! And it’s likely that we haven’t even come close to hitting the proverbial glass ceiling. But while -Archivist has the byte lead on Pornhub, he thinks the smut behemoth has the actual advantage.

“If [the Petabyte Porn Project] was the only porn left, people viewing would get bored pretty quickly,” he says. Pornhub isn’t serving just one person, “it’s serving millions of people, their interests and specific kinks,” says -Archivist. “If we were to give porn a value, then Pornhub takes the prize every time.”

That might be the most ironic lesson in this era of digital porn hoarding. In the end, it’s not the size of your petabytes that matters, it’s what you do with them.

Or as -Archivist puts it, “Wankers are in it for quality over quantity.”

Additional reporting by Brendan Baber