Saturday, 21 August 2021

The Class Politics of the OnlyFans Porn Ban

Banning sexually explicit content from OnlyFans is the 2021 curve ball no one was expecting. According to reports too numerous to count, the company, which has 150 million users and oversaw transactions worth $5bn last year are being forced to dump the porn by banks and payment processing companies. Soft porn content will apparently be allowed when the terms of service change from October, but for the hundreds of thousands of sex workers who've made OnlyFans tens of millions are out.

Is prudishness to blame? Apparently not. According to work done by the BBC, leaked OnlyFans documents showed inconsistencies dealing with illegal content. If posts contravened their terms of service, particularly underage material, then accounts wouldn't face an automatic ban, and leniency was shown to popular users. OnlyFans's client companies have also recoiled at the presence of extreme sex acts, escorting, and the use of drugs. It's worth noting Mastercard and Visa announced last December they would no longer process payments for Pornhub because of the prevalence of stolen content, depictions of sexual violence, and underage videos which Mindgeek, the parent company, has proven tardy at removing. Rather than ramping up its moderation capacity and cracking down on illegal posts, OnlyFans have obviously decided it's too much bother and/or not feasible to police a couple of million performing accounts.

This raises all sorts of issues. By cracking down on illegality, hundreds of thousands of sex workers, most of whom are women, are going to be robbed of their income. Particularly during the pandemic, OnlyFans and, to a lesser extent, similar sites like ManyVids and AdmireMe have provided a livelihood and/or much-needed supplementary income for workers who've had their workplaces shut down. Particularly for those already in the sex industry, it has become a safer alternative to survival sex work. None of this doesn't mean there aren't women manipulated and pushed into performing on the site, but by the same token testimony abounds of the control this affords content creators. They can choose their hours, their limits, their prices, and over what they offer. There is no pimp nor shady owner of a dubious "gentlemen's club" taking their cut. Therefore the anger content creators have at the decision is easily understandable. With an imminent cut to income, they either have to spend time building up a profile on one of OnlyFans's rivals amid the uncertainty of whether they too will get shut down, or run the risks of returning to more conventional settings - now with the added prospect of Covid.

Did OnlyFans have to dump on the workers that made them rich? Of course not, but avoiding their predicament would have meant breaking decisively with the political economy of platform capitalism. As Nick Srnicek persuasively argued, not only does surplus value materialise in plain sight of the worker who generated it (in this case, the 20% cut OnlyFans takes from every transaction on its platform, a feature of advanced capitalist societies more generally), but making money out of the internet depends on monopolising a particular market. As Twitter has cornered microblogging, Instagram photo sharing, Google search, and YouTube video, their continued profits depend on data harvesting and therefore the maintenance of market dominance. Our trendy Silicon Valley friends are distinctly old school when it comes to appetites for mergers and acquisitions, as well as extending the reach of their platforms. For example, it is quite possible - and is certainly the case for millions of internet users - to eke out an online existence entirely on Facebook.

The consequence of this is prickly, authoritarian corporate structures and cultures. Nick talks about the dirty tricks Uber, for example, undertook to drive potential rivals out of business. More recently we've seen eBay accused of harassing critics, reading like the low grade gangsterism of the 1920s as opposed to the ultracool techbro image the 2020s. The people they make money from - the users - are so much bits of data to be manipulated, chopped up, repackaged and sold advertising to. They're somewhat less than individuals, so the default cognitive setting of social media managers towards their service users will be conditioned by this. Which goes some way to explain the disrespect OnlyFans has shown the pool of people who make it its money. It didn't have to be like this.

In the first place, OnlyFans acted like other social media companies, particularly Pornhub, when it came to extreme and illegal content. Their instinct was to indulge it, just as Twitter has long tacitly encouraged racism and fake news on its site for the clicks and attention. In other words, the situation the firm now finds itself in is thanks to management failure, of permitting everything to build its market. Instead of giving illegality the nod, OnlyFans might have democratised their platform instead. Moderators and service users could have been empowered to flag and ban members, albeit with a more robust and accountable appeals process. Allied to this would be moves to cooperatise the platform - no to "enlightened" management - and give performers a real stake in how it was run. Existing management would retain its stake as cooperative members on a one member/one vote basis. But naturally, the choice between running a successful service providing safe sources of income for sex workers versus a reduced service firmly under corporate dictation, management are always going to choose the latter. Happy, empowered workers and improved cash flow always comes second next to the class politics of command and control.

It is to be hoped that from the ashes of the OnlyFans debacle that enough sex workers club together to go down this alternative route, taking back the full value they generate and showing other social media users that platform management is not just unnecessary, but entirely antithetical to their interests.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

The attacks on the porn industry is just sugar coating for control of the internet, just like women's rights are sugar coating for world domination.

It can also be linked to the ambulance chasing lawyer culture that has been created. It was always going to end by simply giving those in power even more power.

You do wonder what will be next in the sights of the lawyers and their money grabbing clients. Unseemly.

Kamo said...

The reality is that policing extreme/illegal adult content is very expensive for online platforms, so a platform like OnlyFans has specific challenges given the sheer volume of content that will skirt this catgeory. You have to remember the bar is very high, the outrage from material that slips through causes huge damage. The sex workers could co-op to create their own platform, but they'd have exactly the same issues, and the criticism currently aimed at OnlyFans would just get copy pasted over to whatever they set-up.

It's easy to spot commentators who don't understand the economics of online platforms; they think the financial value is generated by individual users and contributors who are somehow being cheated of their full value. The economics of online plaforms is based on aggregation and scalability. For platforms that harvest data for marketing like Google and Facebook, the value comes from anonymised profiling of vast numbers of users. The full value of any given individual's data is peanuts, the real financial value is in the anonymised aggregation that no individual can actually offer, the user benefit is basically getting slightly more relevant ads and content. For content creators, it's very similar, platforms need huge volumes of traffic to be profitable; to support costs of 24/7 infrastructure, and only a few content creators are actually going to drive enough traffic to be genuinely valuable to the platform as individuals. Those who offer big numbers are well rewarded, but they rely on the platform to give them them reach, scale and the technical resiliance that wouldn't be possible with a smaller platform. Porn is particularly vulnerable because there is so much free content available.