When capital protests workers
The OnlyFans saga lasted a mere week. On 19 August, the service whose 130 million users brought projected sales exceeding $5 billion this year,Dan Primack, ‘OnlyFans Has Tons of Users, but Can’t Find Investors’, Axios, 19 August 2021. announced that it would move to ban explicit pornographic content from its platform. Until then, OnlyFans had been virtually synonymous with personalised pornography, offering a home to creators and consumers for 20% of the fees charged by porn stars for content: explicit videos, photographs, or chat.
In a matter of days, OnlyFans reversed its decision. It had ‘listened’ to the voices of its “diverse creator community” and saw reason. “OnlyFans stands for inclusion”, stated the platform as it announced that it found a way to continue facilitating transacting in pornography. A win for creators, a win for sex workers, a win for OnlyFans, and of course, for the banks.
There has been plenty of speculation over why OnlyFans made this baffling series of moves. The ban was one thing, but its reversal? Among commentators, two views have been prevalent: either OnlyFans understood that its original decision would cost them all their revenue, or the company had indeed listened to the creator community. One was a triumph of capital as reason, the other a win for the workers. But who forced whose hand?
Perhaps we have all been played. The narrative of corporate incompetence is compelling but inconsistent with the company’s fundraising and revenue diversification plans mooted already last year.Lucas Shaw, ‘OnlyFans Is a Billion-Dollar Media Giant Hiding in Plain Sight’, Bloomberg.com, 5 December 2020. That OnlyFans was “forced into U-turn by sex worker revolt” as the journalist Owen Jones suggestedOwen Jones, OnlyFans Forced into U-Turn by Sex Worker Revolt, 2021. sounds better still but is even more fanciful. Who controls the flow of money and surplus labour in social media and the gig economy remains an open question and how the two narratives coexist reveals a lot about the relationship between workers and capital in the content-creator game.
Contrary to the nostalgic view of a worker’s strike, to many now a distant memory of the heady 1960s semi-fictionalised in films such as Made in Dagenham, Nigel Cole, Made in Dagenham (Audley Films, BBC Films, BMS Finance, 2010). the industrial dispute of the 21st century may have little to do with labour itself. While strike action and pickets continue in traditional industries such as steel working or teaching, what does a worker in the more profitable creative economies complain about and how? A pithy example comes in the form of the public tears and anonymous complaints of the staffers at Penguin Random House who last year opposed the publisher’s decision to release Jordan Peterson’s new book on grounds of the psychological harm it would cause. Like OnlyFans, the publisher was “open to hearing [their] employees’ feedback” before carrying on with its plans regardless.Manisha Krishnan, ‘Penguin Random House Staff Confront Publisher About New Jordan Peterson Book’, 24 November 2020. Granted, this event did not have at its roots any threat of loss of livelihoods or of deterioration of working conditions, but it was a direct result of an excess of emotion. As the historian of strikes and riots Joshua Clover suggests, it is a surplus – of danger, information, possibility – rather than a shortage that leads to unrest.Joshua Clover, Riot. Strike. Riot: The New Era of Uprisings (Verso, 2016), chap. 1.
Perhaps for well-remunerated tech bros or media types, the worries of auto workers or contracted-out cleaners are difficult to parse. But the gig creator exists in a liminal space with the promise of autonomy and wealth on the one hand and the risk of exploitative disappointment on the other. With only a small proportion of contributors able to make a living and a mere handful living the dream, how does a workforce come together and what demands does it make of the capital infrastructure that it relies on? With the disparities in the experiences, rewards, and even aspirations of the thousands of creators, it is hard to imagine anything resembling a general strike. Would OnlyFans, having announced an effective end to the sex game, respond with anything other than well-crafted PR even if the talent staged a full-blown walkout?
The relationship between the gig worker and capital is key to this question. When Uber or Deliveroo make material changes to the working conditions of their drivers and riders, the collective bargaining power of the workers is significant because all are likely to be affected. A twist in the pay-calculating algorithm may not affect all workers in the same way, but it will affect them all. For the creative gig worker, statistically most likely to be earning almost nothing from their hustle, the incentive to withdraw labour is marginal.
In a winner-take-all economy, the successful players depend on the sacrifices and turnover of those less lucky, so this is nothing new. But OnlyFans’ decision to stop trading in porn is interesting because it could have inadvertently brought a new degree of equality to its community of creators, albeit by getting rid of those who did not make the grade. Surely, the platform could have found ways to comply with regulatory demands on behalf of its top earners while shedding the bulk of those unbankable, unprofitable contributors.
This may well have been the intention: OnlyFans had signalled its desire to attract a wider variety of creators from fields such as sport or music to match the offerings of competitors but had only limited success. If it accomplished this goal, it would become a respectable media company whose valuation of over $1 billion could easily attract further growth investment and a golden exit for its CEO Tim Stokely. With OnlyFans’ reputation as the web’s peer-to-peer porn merchant, the new capital was difficult to access. Paradoxically, without the revenue from explicit content, the business was far less attractive to investors – a point that most media analysis has overlooked.Alex Konrad, ‘Inside OnlyFans’ Limited Venture Capital Options—And How VC Would Handle An OnlyFans 2.0’, Forbes, accessed 27 August 2021.
So OnlyFans went on strike. It wasn’t the workers who threatened to walk out, it was the factory. And for once, the factory was not even trying to negotiate new ways of exploiting its workers, because OnlyFans’ success does not lie in skimming off excess labour from sex performers. OnlyFans went on strike to demand more capital.
The announcement and its reversal could be simply an elaborate publicity stunt that cost OnlyFans nothing but legitimised its brand name in the world’s news media, turning it into a household name. Like Penguin, OnlyFans is now known as a business that listens to its workers. Its aspirations to serve a diverse community – one that includes porn stars but also, now that you’ve heard of it, musicians, and Instagram celebrities – will win it approval in parts of the investment community that it desperately needs.
What did the workers do? They hardly had any time to act, but even if they did, it is questionable whether OnlyFans could respond differently. Any longer and the platform would have looked like it did cave to public demand: a bad look for a business seeking investment. Had it proceeded with the ban, OnlyFans would likely lose out to its competitors and that it must have understood from the outset. Perversely, that latter sacrifice could well have made its creators’ working conditions better.