OnlyFans and the Future of Media

Influencers, Pornography, and Virtual Reality

This pandemic has enabled a paradox in the media industry where consumption of content has never been higher but the constraints placed on production have limited supply and work available. While this has slowly started to change, as production modestly resumes under workplace health and safety protocols, the means by which performers can get paid remains limited.

We touched upon this earlier in looking at the rise of Zoom Comedy shows, however another phenomena worth examining is the prominence and success of OnlyFans.

Given that many of you are avid media analysts and professionals like myself, I would imagine you’re already quite aware of OnlyFans, and have your own analysis that I encourage you to share in the comments. Even if you don’t dabble in media scholarship or production, you must have noticed the increasing references to OnlyFans on social media and in popular culture.

A quick search of “OnlyFans” on twitter for some relevant commentary and the results are overwhelming, most posted in the last hour, with a balance between jokes and people promoting their profiles.

Some involve public contemplation of how one might fit into the culture as demonstrated by the tweet above. Others translate what they see as the culture and adapt it as a means of making fun of it.

Meanwhile the envy or greed that motivates this activity is what captures people’s attention.

Yet there is also an absurdity to it all that like a train wreck is hard to look away from.

For those of you who are not familiar with OnlyFans, it is a social networking site that focuses (not exclusively) on adult content, and makes it easy for content creators to use paywalls and charge for the content they offer.

Before the pandemic, OnlyFans was largely focused on sex work and pornography.

Ms. Harwood is one of the top earners on OnlyFans, where subscribers — mostly male; straight, gay and beyond — pay models and social media influencers a fee, generally $5 to $20 a month, to view a feed of imagery too racy for Instagram. With that access, subscribers can also direct message and “tip” to get pictures or videos created on demand, according to their sexual tastes.

Models who join the site often presume that their subscribers will increase in number if they post more often and make the content more explicit. The “more often” part is true. The “more explicit” part is not.

At a time when anyone with a smartphone or small studio can become his or her own pornographer, and content is often free, the hottest site in the adult entertainment industry is dominated by providers who show fewer sex acts and charge increasing fees depending on how creative the requests get.

This NYTimes article from over a year and a half ago does not anticipate the impact the pandemic has had on OnlyFans, but it does note the “paradox” that while OnlyFans was established to enable pornography and sex work, many of the more profitable profiles focused more on (virtual) relationships and emotional support (above and beyond the nudity). That will become significant post-pandemic.

Interestingly enough the other thing the article fails to dig into is the ownership of OnlyFans. That’s partly what motivated me to write this issue today. The story of OnlyFans seems to be getting a bit more complicated as more attention is placed onto the platform.

Amazon Alexa’s internet ratings calculate that the OnlyFans website is the 222nd most visited site in the entire United States according to global internet traffic and engagement over the past 90 days.

As of April 2020, a researcher put the valuation of OnlyFans “between $810m and $936m.”

Behind this explosion of success, however, an analysis by Forensic News has revealed that OnlyFans is owned by a Ukrainian-American porn entrepreneur named Leonid Radvinsky with a history of lawsuits and allegations of spam, theft, fraud, and drug dealing.

In October 2018, Radvinsky acquired 100% of the shares of Fenix International Limited in London, the parent company of OnlyFans from Tim Stokely, a former Barclays banker, for an undisclosed sum.

Since then, OnlyFans has exploded and become one of the most popular websites on the internet.

Interviews with over two dozen content creators and users of OnlyFans and another large camming website owned by Radvinsky, MyFreeCams, illustrate a decade long laundry list of complaints against Radvinsky, with many losing thousands of dollars.

Other concerns include the uber-popular OnlyFans’ seemingly lax safeguards against possible child exploitation.

The article above contains a litany of accusations and stories that depict the owner of OnlyFans as being the kind of creep and crook who cares not why the site has become popular only that it provides more means for profit and exploitation.

The site that published the article seems neither fake nor particularly credible, more independent and starting up. Therefore it will be interesting to see if anyone else picks up the story. OnlyFans is not going away, nor will it be any less controversial.

As the story of the site has taken a number of turns in the last several months as it has faced the influx of a new tier or class of user.

In the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, the content-sharing platform has exploded in popularity, seeing a 75 percent increase in sign-ups in recent weeks and garnering 170,000 new users per day. It was the subject of a shoutout from none other than Beyoncé in her remix of Megan thee Stallion’s “Savage,” and influencers like Caroline Calloway have flocked to the platform as a way to monetize their content by selling directly to their fan base.

The influx of so-called civilians (industry terminology for people outside the sex industry) has prompted concern among many sex workers, who’ve long relied on the platform as a source of income and are worried about oversaturation of the market. “The top content creators on there are no longer sex workers but celebrities/YouTubers,” says Mrs. Hell, a model and dominatrix. “That’s very problematic.… More people into the vanilla lifestyle think it’s easy to make money on there, so it could have an impact [on our ability to make a living].”

To make matters worse, some feel that they’re being pushed out of the platform, reporting that their accounts have been deleted even when they have not violated OnlyFans’ terms of service. Such complaints “are hitting fever pitches,” says Rothfield, who says that she has spoken to more than 20 models who have complained about losing accounts without being able to recover their funds. Emails shared with Rolling Stone show the boilerplate language OnlyFans has sent to such creators, saying accounts are “typically being deleted due to suspicious/fraudulent activity” without specifying the activity in question. “Unfortunately, we are not able to override this automatic process,” the email concludes after informing the user their account has been erased from the system.

It’s not just the influx of influencers that have been joining OnlyFans that has displaced the existing culture, but more significantly the arrival of some notable celebrities, or “whales” in the attention economy.

The Bella Thorne OnlyFans incident this year was a turning point, but it was not the end of how the pandemic crowd changed the culture and business of OnlyFans. It was however an example of the kind of money and power that can be found in this emerging genre of intimate media.

On the day in August that former Disney star Bella Thorne joined OnlyFans, a subscription site known for adult content, she made $1 million. Before week’s end, she had made another million.

That was bad in itself. Sex workers are the majority of creators on the site, and here was a celebrity coming in and making more in a day than they could in a year. Many sex workers rely on OnlyFans as their sole source of income during the pandemic, as in-person encounters became unsafe. But what especially angered workers was how Thorne caused a wave of chargebacks that “broke OnlyFans” after fans accused her of promising a $200 pay-per-message nude photo that she then shied away from sending.

Shortly thereafter, OnlyFans changed its terms and conditions, limiting max subscription and tip payments and extending payout time by 23 days in 14 countries where fraud risk is deemed highest. The company denies these changes were due to actions of any single user, but it’s hard to believe the backlash to Thorne didn’t factor into the decision.

To rub salt in the wound, Thorne’s sister Kaili responded to the controversy by seeming to dismiss and shame sex worker concerns. As Sinnamon Love, a long-time adult performer and founder of BIPOC Adult Industry Collective, noted on Instagram, it’s incredibly insulting for rich white women to come into an industry and start judging the people who actually live it. “You don’t get to create some false hierarchy and shame sex workers who are doing this labor because they don’t have access to the same WHITE PRIVILEGE you have.” (Love is also the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at PeepdotMe, an adult platform and OnlyFans competitor being built that promises 90 percent payouts to creators, compared to the 80 percent paid on OnlyFans.)

Another disturbing aspect of this evolving story is how the content created and uploaded to OnlyFans by users is not properly protected or secured, and as a result get copied, repackaged, and distributed across the Internet.

OnlyFans offers glimpses into the future of media because it illustrates the dynamics of talent, attention, money, and exploitation. When the established industry production and distribution methods break down, new ones emerge, that connect talent with fans in ways that not only generate transactions, but shift social norms.

Ironically in this case, the social norm that was shifted was not so much that celebrities would do sex work, but rather that they could take over a platform for sex work and forego any nudity or pornography and still get paid!?

If anything that illustrates how this has more to do with relationships and attention than it does nudity or sex.

Which is where the virtual reality part comes in. I’d argue that OnlyFans is a kind of VR as it enables not just a fantasy, but an interactive fantasy built upon celebrity and monetized via the attention economy that is as virtual as anything but also incredibly real.

Again, I’m curious what you make of all this, and how you think it foreshadows the future of media, entertainment, and the cultural industries.

Finally, here’s a podcast that features the author of the article above the gets into the person who owns OnlyFans and some of what they’re accused of.