van der Nagel's “Competing platform imaginaries of NSFW content creation on OnlyFans” (2021)
[T]he term ‘platform’ does discursive work to situate a digital media intermediary as a neutral, egalitarian structure that facilitates content without shaping it: Tarleton Gillespie argues that the discourse of the ‘platform’ offers ‘a comforting sense of technical neutrality’ (2010, 360), while these technology companies are actually powerful curators profiting from user labour. Platform imaginaries carry underlying norms and ideologies which inform platform experiences.
While the platform’s corporate communication emphasizes a broad range of content creators, the dominant perception of OnlyFans is a platform for women creating adult material. I argue that by contesting this platform imaginary instead of playing into it, OnlyFans is doing real harm to its NSFW creators by refusing to highlight and support the very content creators who sustain the platform.
[T]echnology blogger Thomas Hollands’ (2020) [estimated] that the median [OnlyFans] account earns US$180 a month.
There have been many instances of technology companies strategically allowing sex work and NSFW content on platforms while growing their user base, only to deplatform this kind of content later. Just one example is the ‘TikTok purge’: after TikTok’s community guidelines were updated to forbid sexually explicit content and offering sexual content, the platform banned accounts with links to OnlyFans accounts (Dickson 2020).
Even before FOSTA/SESTA, many payment companies refused to process transactions related to porn, which is classified as a ‘high-risk’ industry because of its high rate of chargebacks when customers try to deny they have purchased this material. This infrastructural exclusion only deepens the stigma associated with sex work: NSFW content creators can be treated as not just engaging in high-risk transactions, but as high-risk people who can be denied all kinds of payment services (Swartz 2020).
Platforms justify deplatforming adult content by claiming it stops the creation and distribution of sexual exploitation. But by making rules against adult content, platforms lose valuable opportunities to challenge dominant representations of sex and sexuality, and deny people enjoyable kinds of sexual exploration and experiences (Tiidenberg and van der Nagel 2020).
As OnlyFans allows for very limited searching, the idea is that subscribers are coming from links on platforms like Twitter: the audiences are already loyal. It is a dynamic that Feona Attwood (2012) was investigating nearly a decade earlier in her studies of altporn: an amateur porn aesthetic aligned with sex-positivity and body-positivity, but also a practice of combining porn with non-sexual content in a way that developed intimacy between creator and audience. Through blending sexually explicit images with blog posts, message boards, and chat rooms, Attwood situated altporn within a broader participatory culture. This altporn logic emerges in the multimodal, multi-platform practices of NSFW content creators who cannot have a successful OnlyFans account without cross-promoting it on other platforms, but are not allowed to post NSFW content on platforms like Instagram. Creators are even having to contend with increasingly restrictive policies around not including direct links to OnlyFans on Instagram or TikTok, having to find a balance between creating content that invites the audience to follow them to OnlyFans and adhering to platform rules (Carman 2020).
[C]ontent creators are performing two kinds of labour that are crucial to the social media entertainment industry: relational labour and aspirational labour. For Nancy Baym (2015, 2018), musicians that use public-facing social media accounts to connect with their audiences are demonstrating relational labour: newly demanded efforts in entrepreneurial self-presentation with the goal of fostering relationships that lead to paid work.
The most successful OnlyFans creators are also the most visible, obscuring the majority of accounts on OnlyFans who have few or no subscribers. Brooke Erin Duffy’s (2016) concept of aspirational labour pulls into focus the disparity between who achieves success in this industry and who does not. Duffy calls aspirational labour a forward-looking form of creative cultural production that is not immediately compensated, but has the potential to be in the future.
On OnlyFans, the top creators I introduced earlier were already popular on other platforms before monetizing this visibility through OnlyFans.
News articles often emphasized how lucrative it was to post on OnlyFans: 39 articles mentioned how much income the content creator made per month, and the figures were often disproportionately high compared with the median monthly earnings of content creators. Almost all money on OnlyFans is made by the top creators: while, as previously mentioned, the median account makes US$180 a month, this is skewed by the top earners (Hollands 2020). The top 1% of accounts make 33% of the money.
I do not mean to set up OnlyFans as an inherently feminist platform or practice, as there are a variety of approaches to OnlyFans. But the agency and control that women have over choosing what content to post, and being paid 80% of their subscription fees, has sparked a misogynistic backlash. Memes often claim that participation on OnlyFans is shameful, that the content is not worth the money, and that content creators must be in service of the male desire for expensive gadgets like the PlayStation 5.
One notable trend involved men with women content creators as partners who were helping them create content, usually by filming or photographing them, in order to use the money to buy a PlayStation 5 or similar gadget. These memes usually included images that expressed reluctance in doing so: one meme, captioned ‘Me helping my girl film for her OnlyFans’, is a photograph of an unsmiling man holding up a phone, staring straight ahead, a tear rolling down his cheek (dopl3r 2021). Many memes referred to content creators as ‘thots’, ‘bitches’, or ‘Instahoes’; implied that children of content creators will be bullied or shamed; and condoned image-based abuse through the PORN STUDIES 9practice of leaking content. The overall inference that OnlyFans memes communicated so often was that women degrade themselves through NSFW content creation on OnlyFans to make easy money – although these creators are also exhibiting agency and control over how they are seen by their subscribers, which is evidence that they are, in fact, active subjects (Paasonen et al. 2021). Men who are making memes that foreground the impact of their women partners’ OnlyFans content creation on them are slutshaming, a practice that aims to control women by pushing them to conform to traditional, heterosexual norms of sexual behaviour – selectivity, controlled desire, passivity, and monogamy (Levey 2018).
Identifying that the platform imaginary of OnlyFans is grounded in a misogynistic, patriarchal framework helps us understand why the corporate communication of OnlyFans seeks to downplay its NSFW creators: the practice of creating NSFW content is not perceived as valuable or even legitimate. Rather than support these creators by promoting their work, the OnlyFans blog strategically highlights its Safe for Work creators.
The vast majority of OnlyFans blog posts – 87 out of 100 – do not mention NSFW content. Instead, they showcase fitness instructors, photographers, artists, actors, gamers, musicians, comedians, and writers. When NSFW content was mentioned in a creator profile, it tended to be downplayed
[A]s Silvia Rodeschini (2021) argues, making porn consumption more socially acceptable does not improve working conditions for porn performance. Another gendered dynamic is at work when men are far less stigmatized for consuming porn than women are for making it.
NSFW content creation is likely to remain a stigmatized form of labour, as long as the news media continue to focus on the worst cases of abuse, and conflate all sex work with human trafficking and exploitation (Weitzer 2018).
The stigma that comes from working in adult industries often comes from a perceived incompatibility between what Viviana Zelizer (2005) calls two ‘hostile worlds’: economic activity and intimacy, which are seen to corrupt each other – but Zelizer instead argues that the economy and intimacy can actually sustain each other. Denying NSFW content creators the chance to be featured, promoted, and supported by OnlyFans denies these creators opportunities to find their audience, and this discrimination can extend to other platforms and contexts as well. NSFW content creators having their Safe for Work TikTok account of dance routines with friends deleted because of the connection with OnlyFans (Dickson 2020) is an example of NSFW content creators not just being invisible to OnlyFans’ branding efforts, but being denied the freedom to represent themselves on social media on their own terms, make content, make a living, connect with others, and live a public life free from stigma and shame.
Attempting to steer the platform imaginary away from NSFW is likely part of a long-term strategy to eventually remove NSFW content. This analysis supported my argument that OnlyFans not actively supporting NSFW content creators means profiting from their labour while minimizing their creative contributions to the platform, denying them opportunities, and further entrenching the stigma of working in adult industries.