Sex, money, tech, and power. One way or another, all major world events have been tied to one of these four concepts. OnlyFans, a social media platform created to share explicit content finds a way to merge all four. In doing so, it also manages to elegantly reflect the state of technology in 2021. Censorship, the dispersion of creativity, COVID’s impact on the economy, sexism –
What affects a young woman in Paris and an American art director in Ukraine will inevitably affect us all.
The Uberisation Of Sex Is Here
Like many other young women throughout the world, Paris native Hélène, aka EnMarcheNoire, started her OnlyFans account in March 2020. After modelling on a variety of other platforms, she signed onto OnlyFans because the community within which she evolved relentlessly asked her to sign up. “Honestly, I started off a bit haphazardly and it worked out very well financially for me,” she said. “It’s become my main source of income today, even though I never really tried to maximize it.” She is now in the top 1% of content creators on the platform. All her subscribers pay a monthly fee to access her content, which ensures she has a comfortable life in a famously expensive city.
This process will sound familiar to many OnlyFans content creators. Most start off as Instagram or TikTok models, gathering a huge following by posting mildly racy lifestyle photos. Nothing too explicit, but enough to cater to both men and women on the platforms which sustain them. Then come the comments: “Hey, if you don’t mind I want to f*** you”, “Let me throw it in your ***”, “I want kiss your beautiful feets my precious queen.” From there, two options present themselves: block and ignore this unwanted fanbase or ask them to put their wallet where their mouth is.
During the COVID pandemic, many women chose the latter. Thousands created OnlyFans accounts, and let their followers know that for a nominal monthly fee, they would be able to chat together, receive exclusive, explicit, and personalized photos, videos, texts.
Chris Hunt, a fashion industry veteran turned OnlyFans marketing advisor, confirmed the permeability between various social platforms: “For most models, it really is just money. It’s a way for them to pay their bills without doing much different than what they were already doing on Instagram.” Obviously, good marketing and clever pricing is encouraged to best influence demand. But truth be told, demand was never going to be an issue: many men are tired of major adult websites’ lack of authenticity and have been primed by the likes of Uber, Netflix, and Spotify to respond positively to the immediacy and personalization that OnlyFans offers. Pick a girl you like, send her money, get a nude.
The Uberisation of sex is here.
Once the word came out that some young women were making up to $30,000 a month on the platform, searches for “What is OnlyFans?”, and “How does OnlyFans work?” skyrocketed. And as more content creators came on, yet more users followed, thanks to shrewd advertising on Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok. OnlyFans went from having 90,000 creators in 2019 to 1 million in December 2020, and from 50 million registered users in August 2020 to 85 million at the start of 2021.
Most Don’t Make Much…But The Platform Does
OnlyFans has grown steadily since the pandemic hit. There are three obvious reasons as to why this happened: many women lost their jobs in 2020 and looked to supplement their incomes, celebrities legitimized the platform by joining, and dates became harder to come by as a majority of the world’s population sheltered at home. Adult performers and models eager to make up for lost earnings have flocked to OnlyFans, while lonely men have found a way to add some excitement to an otherwise dull year of confinement.
The platform’s financial pitch is straightforward. If an Instagram model has 100,000 followers and converts 1% of them to OnlyFans subscribers, the money quickly adds up, even if we only base ourselves on the $12 average subscriber’s monthly payment. According to Hunt, this simplicity is a double-edged sword: “It’s easy to take selfies and make videos, but actually getting users to the platform is really difficult. If a girl doesn’t have that built-in audience already developed on Instagram or TikTok, you really have to start from scratch.”
Therein lies the issue. What OnlyFans systematically fails to advertise is that payments very heavily favour top content creators. Research shows that the top 1% of accounts make 33% of the money. Since the platform is (allegedly) paying out more than $200 million a month to its creators, this means that the top 10,000 content creators make an average of $6,600 a month, while the remaining 99% have to make do with $133 a month.
This imbalance is unlikely to change anytime soon. Now in its fourth year of operations, OnlyFans generated more than $2 billion in sales last year, of which it kept about 20%, for a total of $400 million in revenues in 2020. Make no mistake: nude or clothed, the rich getting richer is a staple of post-2016 tech. Just like everywhere else in tech, a conversation about the just remuneration of the thousands of workers turning a select few into millionaires is well worth having.
An OnlyFans IPO?
OnlyFans is just the latest company to bypass major players in their industry to connect users directly with creators. Substack, Patreon, Twitch, Cameo, Etsy, TikTok – all have made great strides over the past year by promising to reduce barriers between creators and their fans, dealing blow after blow to traditional gatekeepers. Both economically and socially, this dispersion of creativity is the most important trend in tech over the past 5 years.
With its millions of users and comparably small cut (20%), the appeal of OnlyFans is obvious, and many traditional players are crowding the space to ensure they get a piece of the action. Musicians The Dream and Swae Lee have promoted new music on the platform, Drag queen Shea Coulee has filmed herself doing makeup before performances, social media personality YesJulz has used it to share fitness workouts. These new users are bypassing both traditional fundraising players like Patreon, and personalized videos newcomers such as Cameo.
But many models are worried that a turn to respectability may leave hard-working women who built the platform from scratch with little to show for it. This has already happened on Tumblr and on Patreon. Sex workers are often the first to be left behind when a platform takes off. Hélène has been cultivating a following on many different platforms specifically to ensure she would not be left penniless should this happen.
“There’s always this worry, and that’s why I’m getting my content everywhere, on all platforms. In theory, I like that the platform is democratised and open to a different type of content. It shows that you’re not a pariah just because you have an OnlyFans account. But in fact, sex workers are always the first to suffer from new rules once a platform is popular enough. If OnlyFans manages to prosper thanks to non-sexual content, I’d be worried that the platform would close access to sexual content.”
She’s right to be worried: OnlyFans probably has the ambition to IPO someday soon (rumours abound), and a platform without smut might be more palatable to Wall Street. This theme of censorship is prevalent in today’s discussions about Tech: what should be censored and what shouldn’t? What do we owe to stigmatized sex workers? Can platforms really be both judge and jury? Is the commodification of adult content a net positive or negative for society at large? Here, too, fights over a small platform are reflected in the wider world.
Was It Ever Truly Yours?
OnlyFans was birthed by the natural voyeuristic impulses of young men, and by decades of hinting to young women that their body and what they did with it defined much of their worth.
For years, sexist men and women have used the following phrase to shame women in control of their sexuality: “If a key opens many locks, it’s a great key. But if a lock is opened by many keys, it’s a terrible lock.” Having been told this since they were teenagers, many women have come to the conclusion that scarcity is what gives them value. And where there is scarcity, there is money to be made.