As we’ve noted before, the sex industry is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to the future of, well, everything. The incredible(ly) interesting rise of OnlyFans, an online platform that allows users to maintain subscriber lists and sell premium content to fans is a contemporary case in point.
OnlyFans is not a sex site per se, but it does allow, unlike many of its popular competitors, users to post and sell adult content, a concession which has been take up with enthusiasm by amateur and professional sex workers and their fans. OnlyFans has been particularly attractive to sex workers because it enabled them to work around the online porn industry monopoly controlled by the PornHub dynasty; a monopoly that has driven industry wages and profits perilously close to zero as free porn has flourished.
As interesting as that is, the lessons for wider society are more interesting still.
Shifting social norms
Firstly, it is worth noting who is taking up the OnlyFans “work from home” opportunity. It seem like everyone is turning tricks, and with top earners on the platform pulling in millions of dollars within months, it’s not hard to understand why. Celebrities such as Cardi B and Bella Thorn have OnlyFans accounts to keep the fickle public interested. Lifestyle Instagram influencers have OnlyFans accounts to supplement their incomes as COVID-19 cut into brand budgets and travel deals. Girls-next-door have OnlyFans accounts and are out earning their conservative parents. But what Is most interesting is how the new generation porn stars are being received by the public – shame free. OnlyFans stars use their own names and are not embarrassed of their career choice; indicating a massive social value shift towards normalising sex work as just another job. There is no taboo (when it comes sex; money however is now definitely not a polite conversation topic).
OnlyFans fans are happy to pay for premium porn, when they could get similar content for free on PornHub because of the personal service they receive. OnlyFans stars personally message the content to their fans, and often tailor their creative to fan requests and preferences too. This highlights how, in the digital, platform economy, where profit margins in most industries are being driven into the ground by tech aggregators, hyperpersonalisation and fragmentation of services, tailored to a target market of one, can put profit back into the profit margin. Personalisation is worth paying for.
Above: Click the image for more on Only Fans
Virtual girlfriends for the loneliest generation
The personalisation element blurs the lines between porn, escort and virtual girlfriend. OnlyFans subscribers are effectively renting a no-strings-attached virtual girlfriend (or at least the illusion of one). The blurred lines between fantasy and reality point to a future where many people will have more digital connections than real human relationships. The side effects are an increase in loneliness and alienation (millennials have less friends and less sex than other generations do now or did when they were the same age), which in turn point towards reduced social stability and cohesion.
The subscription economy is thriving
From OnlyFans to Substack to podcasts, to the ramping up of pay gates on top news websites, 2020 is the year of the subscription. It seems like everyone is trying to sell a subscription services to regain some of the income security that has been eroded by the twin economic and health crisis of 2020. The question is, how many subscriptions can the market support? And which subscription model will win? – The OnlyFans / New York Times / DisneyTV fragmented subscription model? Or the PornHub / Spotify aggregator subscription model?
The fragility of the platform economy
OnlyFans content creators are still at the mercy of the platform – and what platforms give, platforms can take away. After Bella Thorn joined the platform and make a record million dollars overnight, the platform changed its terms and conditions to limit the amount content creators can earn. Just like Uber Drivers and YouTube content creators, OnlyFans creators are subject to the rules and whims of the platforms that connect them to their clients.
Winners take all when every profession is a rockstar profession
As with most online platforms, the earning outcomes are extremely unequally distributed – the highest earners earn far, far more than the majority of content creators. As in life, as in OnlyFans, inequality is a source of conflict. As celebrities joined the platform and attracted huge pay checks; long-time professional sex resented how celebrities were essentially trading in on fame to steal their market share. In the online economy, every profession is a rockstar economy -few make millions, most survive on crumbs.
In conclusion, if you want to see the future, follow the sex before you follow the money.