When OnlyFans, a social platform with over 130 million users, announced what essentially was a change in the company’s content guidelines last week, the backlash was swift. What separated the website from other late 2010s tech properties chasing their piece of the creator-economy pie, after all, was that OnlyFans famously allowed users to monetize sexually explicit content. That made it possible for sex workers to parlay exclusive access and online content for income, like any other influencer on the internet, and to formally benefit from the newly cool economics of transactional creator-fan relationships that your faves from The Office found on Cameo or indie artists on Patreon.
Apparently, the decision by OnlyFans to ban sexually explicit content wasn’t so much a matter of revenue or performance as it was a bid to appease credit card companies and potential investors; the company said it had to “evolve” in order to ensure long-term sustainability. So while nudity would still be allowed, the actual adult content that has been arguably the whole point of OnlyFans—to the extent of getting name-checked by Beyoncé last year and entering the mainstream via A-list celebrity accounts—was going to be prohibited starting in October. Then on Wednesday, shortly after this column was first published, OnlyFans announced via a tweet that it was suspending the planned policy change.
Obviously, it wasn’t the Cardi Bs and Bella Thornes who stood to lose the most from a potential adult content ban, but the sex workers most responsible for OnlyFans’ success. The initial decision to deprive these creators of their livelihoods (many of whom have come to rely on the website for a primary source of income amidst an ongoing pandemic) clearly stemmed from tired beliefs of sex work as a third rail in the corporate world. But what OnlyFans’ betrayal of sex workers—followed by that abrupt reversal—also makes apparent is the central mythology undergirding the rising class of creator-driven platforms at large: the flawed belief that you, the creator, are ever the one in the driver’s seat.
Consider our current digital landscape. Where the web 1.0 struggled in assigning monetary value to digital content and social media only allowed the viraliest of the viral to ascend to relevance, the digital economy of our recent decade could be read as a kind of golden age for “creators”—that catchall term for anyone able to consistently package a talent, a lifestyle, or even just a niche sensibility for audience 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? Why kowtow to skittish, scale-obsessed advertisers when you could charge your own audience directly, and be your own boss?
That alluring promise is one we’ve been offered before, back at the dawn of the gig economy in the 2010s when companies like Uber, TaskRabbit, Instacart, and Fiverr gussied up the reality of total employment precarity with millennial-friendly UX and copywriting into shining utopian paragons of autonomy. But of course, the ability to work any time meant that you actually ended up working pretty much all the time, whether you were a cab driver or a freelancer. As it turned out, the economics of gig work favored the platform again and again, as if by design.
Which brings me back to this “golden age” of creatorship that OnlyFans was supposed to embody. While it seems like platforms today are more interested in investing in the users responsible for their success via grants and creators programs aplenty, the reality is that the platform still dictates the terms. They’re not only the point of access to your audience; they’re also the ones deciding what metrics to use, and what counts as a success—and all of that is subject to change over any given quarter. Media outlets learned this lesson the hard way with Facebook Video; now individual creators find themselves subject to the same exhausting work of having to divine what a platform really wants. Earlier this year, New York Times reporter Taylor Lorenz described the disillusionment and burnout affecting influential TikTokkers whose earnings remain at the mercy of an algorithm and the mysterious Creator Fund.
But there are the less-visible carrots being dangled too. In at least one instance, Substack has stipulated that a fellowship recipient publish weekly over six months; a spokesperson confirmed that recipients of Pro deals are asked to publish with some minimum frequency—which seems to limit the supposed writerly freedom of the platform to that of, well, a more traditional staff writer role. On Instagram, the idea that accounts should make use of all the features the platform promotes in order to be successful lies somewhere between an open secret and industry-accepted theory. (This is at least partly why your chef influencer friend keeps posting Reels. House rules, baby!). Worst-case scenario: You’ve been making a decent living on the one specific platform that lets you create and monetize content of a very specific genre—say, explicit photos—until one day in August, surprise! OnlyFans pulls the plug. And then changes its mind a few days later. But who’s to say what will happen next quarter, or even next week?