The Week: OnlyFans, the Taliban, and stuck culture
And some links.
Again, I’ve been slack with my longer posts this month, but a change is coming. A new era. You must sign up now if you want to be a part of it. Imagine how embarrassed you’ll be if you weren’t part of it when given the chance. Imagine!
Alright, let’s go.
OnlyFans today announced it will ban hardcore porn, starting in October. Their statement:
Effective 1 October 2021, OnlyFans will prohibit the posting of any content containing sexually explicit conduct. In order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the platform, and to continue to host an inclusive community of creators and fans, we must evolve our content guidelines. Creators will continue to be allowed to post content containing nudity as long as it is consistent with our Acceptable Use Policy. These changes are to comply with the requests of our banking partners and payout providers. We will be sharing more details in the coming days, and we will actively support and guide our creators through this change in content guidelines.
The discourse online has largely centred around the injustice of it all. Here we have a company that built a huge brand around sex workers and is now dusting its hands of them as it begins a long trudge to respectability and wider appeal.
There’s plenty of evidence to support that view. There were reports back in June that the company (being valued at over $1 billion) was soliciting help from investment advisors who were counselling a move away from adult content. The company launched a porn-free app named OFTV a couple of days ago which highlighted non-adult creators, and allowed the company to actually get listed in places like the Apple App Store. Very rarely for a platform of its size and popularity, the main OnlyFans service is really only available in the browser, which is a roadblock on growth.
(As is the case with literally any creator industry platform, the notion that they care one iota about the people they extract profit from is obviously suspect from the dot. This is not unique to OnlyFans.)
But their public argument — that they’ve run into banking and payments problems — is credible too. Recent years have seen incredibly effective campaigns by organisations (like the evangelical anti-sex industry group Exodus Cry) to strike porn empires at the payments processing end, and there’s no doubt huge pressure there for OnlyFans too.
But MasterCard and other financial institutions aren’t tetchy about porn not necessarily because of respectability or reputational risk, which is where the discourse gets cloudy. They’re wary of it because they do not want to run afoul of anti-trafficking and child pornography laws in the many jurisdictions where they operate. OnlyFans — which like any startup business angling for profitability runs as lean as is humanly possible — is probably not doing due diligence on expunging that kind of content from its platform.
Gotta say though, I’m skeptical that OnlyFans will actually be able to offer much sans the network effect of being the default platform for porn creators. It’s a marginally different model to something like Patreon and may well appeal to different types of creators with a bit of wrangling, but there’s good reason why the company’s name is synonymous with sex: it’s overwhelmingly why people use it. (Remember Tumblr?) Everything else is window dressing.
Full credit to the boys
Since the Taliban took Kabul, there’s been a bunch of photos and videos posted to social media of what can only be described as The Fellas Running Wild. Some examples:
Aside from the horrible footage from the airport, the images we see on social media of the reclamation of Afghanistan have been strangely bloodless and bereft of open conflict. It has the overall vibe of a corporate handover rather than a coup, which is amplified by the Taliban appearing at bog standard press conferences and projecting a carefully constructed image of moderation.
Contrast this with the media image in the late nineties and early aughts. They were perceived as a scary band of violent mystics with a mysterious, largely unseen leader operating on a logic totally alien to the West. Also compare it to ISIS, which had a social media presence more sophisticated than most global institutions but was largely focused on recruitment on the one hand and projecting fear on the other.
I quite like reading Paul “Lindy Man” Skallas, with varying degrees of irony and agreement, and I’ve been returning a bit to something he wrote last year pontificating on whether culture is ‘stuck’:
If you are under the age of 30 you may think things are normal. But to someone who has lived 3 decades or more you may notice something odd: we haven’t had a shift like we did in the past. Culture is frozen. Throughout the 20th century we had changes almost every decade. Changes in fashion, in music, in aesthetics, hairstyles, style of comedy, television shows and movies. It sort of felt like someone was directing society from the top down, dictating a big shift every 10 years to something new. A director.
He’s obviously not the only person to make this observation. Francis Fukuyama forecasted in his famous essay that the post-historical period would feature “neither art nor philosophy” and would be defined by the “perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history”.
The culprit which often gets the blame is the algorithm, which is said to have destroyed monoculture. It’s very hard to perceive significant changes in cultural trends when everyone’s experience is atomised and subject to personalised recommendations and a virtually unlimited access to any content on demand.
Sometimes my TikTok For You feed will let me drift out of my comfort zone and serve up a bunch of Zoomers who look like complete aliens to me, so maybe it’s overstated. But, as Lindy Man says: “Culture is no longer made. It is simply curated from existing culture, refined, and regurgitated back at us. The algorithms cut off the possibility of new discovery.”
This week’s links
I just read Subprime Attention Crisis by Tim Hwang (who is now Substack’s general counsel, in fact). Its thesis is that the online ad economy is facing a similar crisis as the financial system was in 2008 — driven by an overinflated system which is so opaque that the players don’t realise their assets have gone bad. Might write something longer about this next week.
This interesting piece posits that the creator economy is in crisis due to parallel problems it has with the gig economy — oversupply, volatility, insecurity etc. Byrne Hobart at The Diff has a countervailing view which I also find compelling:
But their situations don't cleanly map to one another. The point of the Uber/Lyft/Doordash/Instacart model is to make individual workers as interchangeable as possible, and to create a deep market for short-term work. But the point of the creator economy is almost exactly the opposite of that: a finance and technology newsletter doesn't compete with a podcast about sports or an indie comic book; there isn't a demand curve for "content" so much as a set of individual demand curves for individual creators' outputs.
I linked this story on the economics of OnlyFans a couple months ago but it’s worth revisiting given today’s news.
Here’s another perspective from last year on Exodus Cry, the anti-sex work group I mentioned.
An older piece in The Guardian about the “staggeringly profitable” world of scientific publishing, which four years later looks like it might be teetering a bit.
A couple of interesting reports on the link in bio companies I wrote about a little while ago, and why they’ve become very popular with the antivax movement.
Brief bit in The Economist [$] which asks a question I’ve been wondering about: how do celebrities figure out how much they’re worth on Cameo?
Depressing read for you: “All work is fraudulent, and nobody cares”.
A three-parter in Wired on the cultural engine of Black Twitter.
A response to the 'stuck culture' section, there are so many alternative arguments to this theory
1. The rise of fast fashion and micro trends shows that there are actually more subcultures and subtrends than ever, moving faster than ever.
2. The algorithm (for all its faults) serves you content you like, so it really is just an echo chamber of what you already like, rather than new trends outside your echochamber being forced into your field of vision, a la what happened when we all watched the same 3 TV channels
3. It could be argued that this era of culture being "curated from existing culture" is in and of itself, a culture? Give it a few more years and I'm sure there will be a strong rebuke of that, a counter culture, and a movement focused on something else. All the art movements we think of as "great" now, were almost always a rejection of the movement that came before them. In this environmental era, why create more when we can reduce, reuse, and recycle the culture that's already there - and (with exceptions) is still within its best before date?