OnlyFans, a social media platform that has over 130 million users, made a change to its content guidelines last week. There was swift backlash. OnlyFans allowed users to monetize explicit sexual content, which was what set the website apart from other late-2010s tech properties trying to grab a piece of the creator economy pie. This allowed sex workers to make money online and had the opportunity to benefit from the new cool economics of creator-fan transactions.
OnlyFans’ decision to ban explicit sexual content was not a matter of performance or revenue, but rather a bid for credit card companies to be appeased and potential investors. The company stated that it needed to “evolve” in order to ensure its long-term sustainability. While nudity will still be permitted, actual adult content that was arguably OnlyFans’ whole purpose–to the point of being name-checked last year by Beyonce and becoming mainstream via A-list celebrity account accounts–will be banned starting in October. On Wednesday, only a few hours after the column was published, OnlyFans sent out a tweet announcing that it had suspended the planned policy change.
It wasn’t Cardi Bs or Bella Thornes that would be most affected by a ban on adult content, but OnlyFans’ sex workers. These creators, many of whom have come relying on the website as their primary source of income amid an ongoing pandemic, were not the ones who made the initial decision to endanger their livelihoods. This was clearly a result of tired beliefs about sex work being a third rail in corporate America. OnlyFans’ abrupt reversal and betrayal to sex workers reveals the core mythology that underlies the rise of creator-driven platforms: The flawed belief that you, as the creator, are always in control.
Consider our current digital landscape. The web 1.0 was unable to assign monetary value digital content, and social media allowed only the most viral of the viral to rise to prominence. However, the digital economy of the past decade could be seen as a golden age for “creators”. This is the term that covers anyone who can consistently package a talent or lifestyle for consumption.
And while YouTube and Instagram have professionalized the creator-influencer role in the context of advertising partnerships, a new guard of platforms like Cameo, Patreon, and of course, Substack have appeared, and they’re making a tantalizing proposition: Now that modern payment processors allow fans to directly fund their favorite TikTokker/Kickstarter cause/SoundCloud album, and cultural norms deem it practically respectable to pay for something you can’t actually touch or hold, why not cut the middleman out? You don’t have to kowtow or scale-obsessed advertisers to charge your audience directly.
This alluring promise has been made before. It was back in the 2010s, when the gig economy was just beginning. Companies like Uber, TaskRabbit and Instacart made total employment precarious with their millennial-friendly UX design and copywriting to make them shining paragons for autonomy. However, you could work at any hour, regardless of whether you were a taxi driver or freelancer. It turned out that gig work was a profitable platform, and this was by design.
This brings me back again to the “golden age of creatorship” that OnlyFans was meant to represent. Although it may seem that platforms are now more interested in investing in users who contribute to their success through grants and creators programs, the truth is that the platform still determines the terms. They are not only the point of access for your audience, but they also decide what metrics and what constitutes success. All of this is subject to change in any quarter. This lesson was learned by media outlets with Facebook Video. Now individual creators are subject to the exhausting task of figuring out what a platform wants. Taylor Lorenz, a New York Times reporter, described earlier this year the feelings of disillusionment that affects influential TikTokkers, whose earnings are still subject to an algorithm and the mysterious Creator Fund.
There are also less obvious carrots being offered. Substack stipulates that fellowship recipients publish at least once per week for six months. A spokesperson confirmed that Pro deal recipients are required to publish at a minimum frequency. This seems to restrict the writer’s freedom to Substack to the level of a traditional staff writer. Instagram’s open-secret and industry-accepted theory is that accounts must make full use of all features in order to succeed. This is why your friend who is a chef influencer keeps sharing Reels. House rules, baby!). Worst case scenario: You have been earning a decent living using a platform that allows you to create and monetize content from a specific genre, such as explicit photos, until