OnlyFans and the Cautionary Tale of Scale

an illustration of porn being banned using emoji
It’s hard to look at OnlyFans’s announcement yesterday of their upcoming ban on sexually explicit content without seeing where scale, and companies’ pursuit of scale, played a part in seriously disrupting a lot of creators’ lives.

Follow the Money

First, and probably most pertinent, there’s the issue of credit card processors. There are only a couple, and they are massive. Because a substantial percentage of all internet commerce flows through them, processors like Visa and MasterCard are de facto governments, but without the accountability to voters that modern democracies have. OnlyFans has always been hinting that they wanted to grow beyond adult content, but they specifically cited their banking and payment partners in this policy change. OnlyFans got big enough that they ended up with a huge target on their backs, and they didn’t see a scenario where they could find payment partners that wouldn’t eventually start putting pressure on them.

I’m interested in what kind of pressure consumers can start putting on credit card networks and banks to reverse this trend of caving to evangelical pressure. As a society, we’ve grown increasingly to understand that sex work is work like any other, and that it’s bullshit to try to ban it just because some people don’t like its existence. I’m not sure what that kind of consumer pressure looks like yet, but I think it’s important.

Platforms

But we also need to talk about the role platforms play on the internet today, and OnlyFans’s policy change is a prime example of the existential threat you face when you set up shop on someone else’s platform.

We love platforms for social content overall, both as users and as creators. I will spend hours browsing YouTube because YouTube hosts a truly massive amount of content and they can leverage that catalog to keep recommending me videos I just have to watch, easily turning my intended 11pm bedtime into more of a 12:30am “oh shit I really should sleep now.” And creators love that too! It means that if you put your content up on YouTube, YouTube might recommend your video to some viewer, and it makes it possible to grow your audience a lot faster than you could have with a totally independent site.

OnlyFans had the same network effects for adult content creators. If I have an OnlyFans account and I subscribe to one actor I’m interested in, it’s trivially easy for me to subscribe to more. OnlyFans can recommend me other relevant people based on who I’m currently subscribed to. Creators get more money. OnlyFans gets more money. I get more content and I get to support independent porn creators. Everyone wins!

But in this arrangement, one party ends up with a disproportionate amount of power: the platform. And these platforms have shown time and time again that they’re more than happy to grow on the backs of adult content and the people who create it, but as soon as it’s in any way difficult to stand up for them, these platforms immediately cave and leave the creators in the dust.

If you’re on OnlyFans and your reaction to this is “okay, time to set up shop on another platform,” you learned the wrong lesson from this. If your reaction is “I should set up my own independent site that I run myself and distribute my content in my own way with things like email and RSS feeds, independent of some other platform, and I’ll set up a presence on platforms as a funnel to my independently owned site,” then you’re on the right track.

And don’t get me wrong: when you’re indie, the audience is a lot harder to grow, because the platform isn’t there to lift you (seriously, if you’re reading this I appreciate it, but also I know you’re one of just a handful of people reading it). But that audience you build is yours, and it’s yours to keep. Vendors might come and go, but you will have a home.

Porn tends to be ahead of the curve on internet trends, and I hope that independent creators that previously were on OnlyFans adopt this trend and start to move toward a model where they own their destiny more.

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