Zivity.com: Updates from a Topless Laundromat Madonna

photo courtesy Zivity.com

Before founding Zivity.com, the sexy web startup that claims to "promote female beauty," Cyan Banister says she was the kind of person who'd jump into a swimming pool fully clothed. These days, she's not only the editor-in-chief of a site that specializes in images of women in various states of undress, she is one of those women. Putting her money (and more importantly, her body) where her mouth is, she has now modeled for five different erotic online photosets.  

Shoots like these are the bread and butter of Zivity, the subscription-based site of "tasteful" nudity that's scheduled to come out of beta (i.e. be available to the public) in early 2009. Reportedly, the social-networking platform has already received millions of dollars from investors who feel it offers internet-goers something they can't already find in the vast expanse of straight-up pornography. Cyan, a former systems administrator and network engineer, runs Zivity with partner Jeffrey Wescott and her husband Scott Banister, who was an early board member of PayPal and previously the cofounder of Ironport, an email spam-blocking program he sold to Cisco Systems in June of 2007 for $830 million. Point being, Zivity's founders aren't lifelong pornographers, they're Silicon Valley insiders.

We first covered Zivity last December, weighing the site's potential as a bridge between the dynamic Web 2.0 movement and the increasingly static cesspool of traditional porn. The site offers what could be a landmark revenue model: no advertising, but instead employs a unique system of user votes that directly correspond to incoming cash for photographers and models—each member gets five votes a month with their $10 montly subscription fee, with the ability to purchase more; one vote for a picture is worth 60 cents for the model, 20 for the photog. Could this be a new way of monetizing the web? Or would Zivity be just one more site featuring thin, white women with their clothes off?


The Lovely Ladies of Zivity
Photos from the subscription-based site of "tasteful" nudity.

Heroine Sheik
Bonnie Ruberg's blog about sex, tech, gender, and videogames

Seven months down the line, things are looking good. The Zivity beta is showcasing photosets from more than a 100 models and photographers, and a hefty handful of the latter are women. The site still has no images of men, naked or otherwise, though Banister is considering a male Zivity spin-off. From a Stanford University parking lot, where she's just finished presenting before a board that will pick 250 promising businesses to appear at an upcoming global summit, she admits she's still having trouble getting ethnic diversity on the site. "But we do celebrate all body types, which is something our members love," she says. "They're like, I'm so glad to see someone who's not a size two… [Beside that] the number one thing we actually hear is our models look happy."

Though it's too early for any unhappy Zivity models to come out of the woodwork—something that's happened at other alternative erotic sites like Suicide Girls and Abby Winters—the site has been attacked for sexualizing geek femininity. But mostly, it seems Banister is leading by example. Her own shoots show her posing in an abandoned barn wearing a 1950s prom dress or playing a "Laundromat Madonna" while standing naked in front of a washing machine. "Before, I was one of the most modest people you would ever meet," she says, though it's worth noting that the then-22-year-old was voted "Sexiest Geek Alive" at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference in 2000. "I'm much more aware of my body now. People write to me and say, 'I saw your photos. You're captivating.' Who doesn't want to hear that? Of course, my parents have looked at them. I'm really out there."

Banister explains that Zivity doesn't do perpetual licensing, something that's caused trouble for models on other sites. "You're not stuck on Zivity forever. We ask for two years. Then, if you decide it's not for you, your content comes down." The majority of Zivity models also come through online model agencies—meaning they're not first-timers unsure of the process.

As for those alternative bodies, it's true that the site features women with a little more muscle or a little more pudge than the perfectly proportioned beauties Banister calls the "L.A. model" type. One particularly striking set shows a pretty, flat-chested girl with dreadlocks playing with a handful of marbles. Banister is quick to point out Pearl, the site's top model, whom she calls "petite, with pixie hair, very unique-looking." Also on the top five list is LeEvil: "Alternative, bright red hair, gothic." Banister remembers a story that highlights the breadth of her site's appeal. "This man came up to me at a party and said, 'I really love this model named Cricket. She's full-figured. She's introduced me to new types of beauty. [In her set] she's in her kitchen making brownies, and I just want to be in there making brownies with her.'"

Writing over e-mail from Bali, where Zivity recently sent its top three models for a photoshoot, Pearl says she's pretty happy herself. "I continue to be interested in Zivity because no one is telling me what 'sexy' means, or how to do shoots. . . I have a few photographer friends who I feel very comfortable with, and I trust their creative aesthetic. We meet up and the vision for the shoot usually comes together in a pretty organic way."

But what about Zivity's Web 2.0 model? Will the site's models and photographers ever be able to make a living off user votes? Female photographer Icka—who according to Banister, wants to be the next Helmut Newton—has high hopes. "It's likely too soon to tell, but I believe that making a living is what every model and photographer on Zivity strives for. . . I've already received my first royalty check—which went straight to purchasing more camera gear!"

Want to check out Zivity for yourself?  Write to VillageVoice@zivity.com to bypass the normal beta signup and get an inside peek, before the monthly subscription model kicks in and ogling naked women actually costs money.

Previously in Click Me: Porn and Pong: Videogame Sex Beyond Grand Theft Auto

Also, Click Me runs weekly on villagevoice.com. Got a question about cybersex? Write to your friendly cyberhood sexpert Bonnie Ruberg to ask advice or to share stories about sex and the internet: bonnie [at] heroine-sheik [dot] com.

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