TechScape: why OnlyFans is pivoting from porn | Technology

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User-generated porn site OnlyFans will become … something else, the company announced on Thursday. From 1 October, it will ban “sexually explicit content”, the material that made it a billion-dollar company and refocus on becoming a more mainstream social network.

For the uninitiated or those who are pretending to be, OnlyFans is, on a technical level, effectively Instagram combined with Patreon. Creators can post photos, videos and text to the service for their followers to peruse, and they can also lock any of those behind a personal paywall, and even charge to send and receive messages.

There’s nothing inherently pornographic about those features, and indeed a bunch of services that are deliberately safe-for-work exist and offer much the same set of tools: Fanhouse, for instance, or Patreon itself. Creators from all fields have a desire to be able to charge their biggest fans for access to extra content, one-on-one conversations, or just to take tips from rich followers who want to support what they do.

But OnlyFans is, also, a site for sex work. The site’s owner, the porn mogul Leo Radivinsky, made his fortune with sex streaming MyFreeCams after buying out the founding Stokely family in 2018. The site’s user base is overwhelmingly people selling lewd or explicit pictures and videos. It is, well, porn.

Until it’s not. Thursday’s announcement, which we’ll get to in a bit, wasn’t the first hint that OnlyFans was considering the pivot. Last Tuesday, OnlyFans announced a new feature, OFTV, which would put the service’s video content on tablets and smart TVs. But rather than offering a service that simply lets users stream from the site to their telly, OFTV was instead a curiously tame affair, featuring “free, original content by OnlyFans creators spanning a wide variety of genres including fitness, cooking, comedy, music, and more.”

“After the resounding positive response from the community, OnlyFans has quickly scaled OFTV to be a rapidly growing content library consisting of over 800 videos from over 100 OnlyFans creators,” the company said in a release. Which is … not that impressive, really.

It wasn’t hard to guess why the limits were in place. OnlyFans is a website, but OFTV had to be an app: there’s no web browser on most smart TVs. And being an app means complying with the rules of the app stores, and those app stores are, by and large, utterly hostile to adult content. For OFTV to exist, it had to repudiate everything that made OnlyFans successful.

But that was just a taster for the news that came a couple of days later:

OnlyFans, the subscriber-only website synonymous with pornography, has announced it will ban adult material from the site after pressure from its payment processors.

The company will continue to allow some posts containing nudity but “any content containing sexually-explicit conduct” will be banned, with the site instead focusing on more mainstream content.

The London-headquartered outlet has exploded in popularity during lockdown, bringing in billions of pounds of revenue as more than 130 million users signed up to subscribe to content or pay to chat with “creators”.

The BBC said it was working on an investigation, which it published shortly after, based on leaked moderation documents from the company, that showed it taking a lax attitude to illegal content:

Internal documents, leaked to BBC News, reveal that OnlyFans allows moderators to give multiple warnings to accounts that post illegal content on its online platform before deciding to close them.

Described as a “compliance manual”, the documents also show that staff are asked to be more lenient towards successful accounts on the British content-sharing service.

… The BBC has seen examples of some of this banned content. In one video, a man is seen eating faeces. In another, a man pays homeless people to have sex with him on camera.

It might be nice to think that this was the result of a company taking action based on press reports of wrongdoing, but the answer seems to be simpler: “These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers,” OnlyFans said in a statement alongside the announcement.

On Saturday, it went further, in a post directly addressing sex workers on the platform: “The OnlyFans community would not be what it is today without you,” it said. “The policy change was necessary to secure banking and payment services to support you. We are working around the clock to come up with solutions.”

“The change in policy, we had no choice – the short answer is banks,” founder Tim Stokely told the Financial Times on Tuesday:

“We pay over one million creators over $300m every month, and making sure that these funds get to creators involves using the banking sector,” he said, singling out Bank of New York Mellon as having “flagged and rejected” every wire connected to the company, “making it difficult to pay our creators”.

Payment processors have never loved porn. Businesses in the sector tend to have a higher-than-usual rate of chargebacks and fraud. But earlier this year, sparked in part by a chilling report from the New York Times about “revenge porn” and child abuse imagery on PornHub, Mastercard announced a new set of policies, updating the requirements for sellers of adult material:

Updated requirements include:

• Documented age and identity verification for all people depicted and those uploading the content

• Content review process prior to publication

• Complaint resolution process that addresses illegal or nonconsensual content within seven business days

Those policies are, basically, incompatible with hosting a site that sells user-generated porn. Age and identity verification for users is, as we’ve talked about before here, hard enough online anyway; a platform verifying the age and identity of every person in and uploading every piece of user-generated content is not going to happen.

I’ll leave the desirability of that to one side, for now. The harms and hopes of open-access sex work on the internet feel a bit large for the tail-end of a newsletter about platform capitalism.

But I’m uneasy, here as with the rest of the tech sector, of the fact that, just as OFTV’s fate was set by a few app stores, so too is OnlyFans being forced into an existential pivot by the fact that two payment processors, Mastercard and Visa, have decided that its business model shouldn’t exist.

If there’s a winner from all of this, it’s the cryptocurrency world, which has leapt on the opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of a decentralised payment technology. And, yes, they have a point: this is almost the perfect example of a situation in which crypto payments have a compelling pitch.

But that community being what it is, some are taking the pitch altogether too far. Decentralised payment technology being used to bypass a censorious duopoly is one thing; putting porn “on the blockchain” is a whole different solution, and one that risks exacerbating every problem the online porn industry faces.

The defining characteristic of the blockchain, the underlying technology for all cryptocurrencies, is that information added to it can never be removed. In a world where user-generated porn providers are already struggling to keep their platforms clear of revenge porn and child abuse imagery, that doesn’t strike me as the best feature to build a site around.

Company scrip, but make it disruptive

Roblox is a game for making games. With a vast audience, of more than 40 million daily active users, it’s one of the most popular games in the world. But unless you have school-age kids – or were a school-age kid yourself fairly recently – you’ve probably not heard of it, because most of the game’s users are under 12.

(My own daughter is still to young for the service, so if you’re in either of the above categories, I’d love to hear from you. What’s interesting about Roblox from the point of view of a parent or a former player? What worries you about the platform? What do you like about it?)

In a way, the success of Roblox is clear: by offering easy-to-use tools for making multiplayer games, the service has become to video games what YouTube is to television (or, in a way, what OnlyFans is to porn). Millions of people making games means millions of awful games, but it also means a quantity of free content like no other service in the world – which is a form of quality itself.

And not just games: you can make almost anything in Roblox, from a single chair to an entire world, and put it on the game’s marketplace for others to work with. But who makes those items, and games, and why?

This video report from Quintin Smith of People Make Games goes into some detail about that question, and the answer isn’t good. Although Roblox is free to play, creators can choose to charge “Robux” for their creations and get paid a cut of what they take. So far, so good: creators should be paid, and Roblox – unlike a lot of other similar services – does that.

But what Smith details is a service that seems to be dangerously close to exploiting its extremely young user base, rather than helping them unleash their creativity. From the educational materials that Roblox hands to schools to distribute among their students to the front page of the app itself, the company promotes the idea that making games and experiences on its service can help “earn serious cash”

In fact, that’s unlikely. Roblox has all the same issues of fame and algorithmic curation as services like TikTok and YouTube, but there’s one extra twist that is stunning: the actual mechanics of getting paid.

All trade on Roblox happens in Robux, which users can buy from the service. The exchange rate shifts depending on how many you get, but it’s about 90 to 100 Robux to the pound.

So if you sell a game for 500 Robux, you get about £5, right? Or at least £4.50? Not quite. Roblox takes its cut first: the same 30% cut that Apple or Google take on their stores. So you receive 350 Robux for your sale. Still – cashing out about £3.50 isn’t bad.

Except there’s a minimum withdrawal amount of 100,000 Robux. Yes, before you can make a single penny from the service, you have to have sold more than £1,000 of digital goods. For a 12-year-old, that’s an unfathomable amount of money to make; even being able to withdraw a tenth of that would feel like a king’s ransom.

If you do earn 10,000 Robux, you can still spend it, of course. Like all the best company scrip, Roblox is happy to let you reinvest your earnings back into the closed economy. And you don’t just have to spend it on fun: you can even invest your earnings into adverts on the Roblox store, to try to get more players, to try to earn more Robux.

It’s only when you finally come to actually cash out that you get the final indignity: it might cost £1,000 to buy 100,000 Robux, but if you’re trying to get cash back instead, the exchange rate is worse. Much worse: 100,000 Robux gets a developer just £350.

Like Smith, I found that a shocking revelation, and I can’t see how to describe it in any other terms than exploitation. Roblox might be a fun game for kids, but it’s not a good workplace for them.

In a statement, the company said: “Building experiences on Roblox teaches the fundamentals of coding, digital civility, and entrepreneurship and has helped many begin their careers in STEM.”

The Wider TechScape

We didn’t have time to talk about this today but the saga of Facebook’s traffic “transparency report” is fascinating. The company pulled together a report on what gets the most views on its site, seemingly entirely to counter a separate measure that it also reports that shows that US rightwingers are dominating. The report Facebook published was context-free nonsense (apparently YouTube is the most linked-to site! This tells us a lot about nothing!). And now, according to the New York Times, it turns out that it’s not even the first report it’s put together – it just didn’t publish the last one because it didn’t like the conclusion:

In that report, a copy of which was provided to the Times, the most-viewed link was a news article with a headline suggesting that the coronavirus vaccine was at fault for the death of a Florida doctor. The report also showed that a Facebook page for the Epoch Times, an anti-China newspaper that spreads rightwing conspiracy theories, was the 19th-most-popular page on the platform for the first three months of 2021.


Elon Musk “unveiled” a “robot” last week by bringing on someone dressed in a onesie to breakdance on stage at a live event. It was nonsense, but it still somehow generated headline news around the world. Don’t bother reading up on it, says Vice’s Edward Ongweso Jr: it’s just the latest real-life shitpost from the billionaire troll.

All of this raises the question of why we continue taking Musk’s trollish pronouncements seriously, even as they get more and more far-fetched. Whatever the reason, be it his cult of personality or simply his immense wealth, Musk knows what he’s doing. During proceedings in a court case defending Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity, Musk admitted that he pulls stunts like proclaiming himself “Technoking” of Tesla because memes are marketing.


OnlyFans isn’t just a story about who gets to post porn on the internet: it’s also about who gets to make money from posting anything online. Monetisation features are spreading across the web like wildfire, and Hussein Kesvani is worried that it’s just the sharp end of the ways the internet continues to reshape daily life:

At the end of the day, you are now subject to vague, changing rules set by unaccountable, abstract platforms who, under the guise of safety, personalisation or optimised user experience, get to decide the boundaries by which any relationship is allowed to be conducted and interpreted.


Newsletters should end with a clear signoff, so,

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