The Internet is for Porn

It always was, it always will be.

Hi. This post is written by a friend of Margins, who happens to be a product executive at a public tech company. He wrote this initially in September 2020, but we were hesitant to publish it anonymously. Nevertheless, our friend turned out to be very insightful and we thought it’d be a shame (hah!) not to share his wisdom. It’s not like we’ve never written about it before. Enjoy!

One of the biggest and most interesting things happening in the consumer web right now is running almost completely under the radar. It has virtually zero Silicon Valley involvement. There are no boastful VCs getting rich. It is utterly absent from tech’s plethora of twitters, fora and media (at least, as they say, “on main”). Indeed, the true extent of its incredible success has gone almost completely unnoticed, even by its many, many, many customers.

I’m talking, of course, about OnlyFans.

OnlyFans, the content subscription service that has come to be dominated by sex workers, has only been around since 2016. It works a bit like Instagram-meets-Patreon, or perhaps Twitch - for porn. Users pay to follow content creators and unlock exclusive material. The applications to porn are pretty obvious, and unlike its more prudish cousins, OnlyFans has openly embraced adult content creators. “OF” gives creators an array of tools for monetizing their audiences, with not only different subscription tiers, but ways to allow paying customers to directly interact with creators. 

OnlyFans was already growing steadily before COVID, but the platform has absolutely exploded during the pandemic in a manner of “hypergrowth” fantasy. According to their CEO, they were adding nearly 200,000 new users and 8,000 new content creators a day back in May, and have only continued to grow since. The platform now has north of 700,000 content creators (!) serving a customer base of over 50 million registered users (!!). Hard stats are hard to come by, but one figure pegged the cumulative total paid out to creators at $725 million as of May. Cardi B joined the platform in May.

In short, OnlyFans is for real. It’s becoming not just the next generation of porn, but it might just represent a quantum leap in fixing one of the world’s most popular industries. 

And Silicon Valley has almost nothing to do with it. The reasons why are worth reflecting on.

No, really - the internet is for porn

Let me stop here and say: if you’re uncomfortable with pornography, it’s better to just stop reading right here. I am unashamed to be a casual porn consumer. In this, I am extremely normal. Volumes of research show that nearly all men - old and young, married and single, straight, gay and everywhere along the spectrum - consume porn on occasion. While a majority of porn consumers are men, a huge number of women are watching, too. Pornhub reports that about a third of its American audience are women.

Giggles, eye-rolls and the occasional moral scold aside, porn is a gigantic industry that serves an equally enormous popular demand. The cavernous disparity between the demonstrably massive popularity of porn and our popular unwillingness to even acknowledge it exists is a truly bizarre facet of American puritanical culture.

While the oft-cited stat that porn is a third of all internet traffic is probably a myth, search engine companies say it represents about 10-15% of all queries. That’s a lot! Pornhub alone received about 120 million unique visitors a day even before COVID forced everyone indoors. By comparison, CNN reported a record-breaking 148 million uniques in the month of January. (Fox News had only 104 million.) No one’s quite sure how large the entire porn industry is, but it’s safely assumed to be in the $5 billion range at least - around a third the size of the global video game industry.

In other words, porn is a huge, popular and extremely mainstream industry - which people insist on not talking about and enjoying in private. (Or maybe in a private browser window.)

The porn industry itself has long been famously problematic. Like many industries that rely on talent that is often young and naive, greedy middlemen (almost always men) who control production and channels of distribution take all the upside for themselves. A perfect example is porn mega-name Mia Khalifa, who was paid a grand total of $12,000 for only a handful of shoots - a tiny, tiny fraction of the value her content has generated for distributors like Pornhub.

Free porn sites - Pornhub chief among them - have done to the porn industry what Facebook and Google did to ad-supported media. By aggregating demand for “free” porn, they vacuumed up all the ad revenue that had once kept studios and distributors (not to mention the stars) in business while demolishing any reason to pay for their content. You can buy a subscription to sites like Pornhub, of course, but that doesn’t really solve the problem; it’s a bit like buying a subscription to Facebook to read the newspaper. While some porn actors/actresses have been able to build personal brands to monetize their content, this is an extremely difficult process. For sex workers must not only face all the normal challenges to creating unique identities online, but they must do it with an openly hostile Silicon Valley fighting them at every step.

That isn’t hyperbole. At almost every turn, the tech industry has gone out of its way to penalize, marginalize and - yes - “cancel” sex workers, the overwhelming majority of whom are women responding to ravenous male demand. PayPal, Venmo, Stripe, Square and almost every other payments service shuts down their accounts. Twitter shadowbans them while Tumblr, Instagram and Snapchat either over-enforce rules or ban adult content accounts entirely. The Big Blue App, of course, doesn’t permit adult content at all - and neither does Apple or Google’s App Stores.

An observer might note that all of these companies are dominated by men, in an industry dominated by men, tightly interwoven with a venture capital industry that is super-dominated by men. So it’s curious why none of these men have shown any interest in addressing the massive and lucrative sex work industry that overwhelmingly serves, well, men; until you consider who pays the real costs of that industry’s brokenness: women.

Silicon Valley’s blind spots

Would more women in positions of power in Silicon Valley’s tech giants and top VC firms ever have funded an OnlyFans service or its like? It’s hard to say. The cultural taboos around porn are powerful - so powerful that they’ve kept an American redoubt of hyper-capitalism from even sniffing at a gigantic industry badly in need of innovation. Also, part of the sexist constructs of femininity that women operate in include ideas of purity and moral rectitude that might have discouraged them from even broaching the topic. Or maybe not. We don’t really know.

Here’s what we do know: plenty of the men who have waged war on sex workers’ livelihoods from positions of enormous power in tech also consume porn and even personally hire those same sex workers. Yet when you combine American prudishness with the tech industry’s obsession with polishing mostly-male personal brands, the Valley’s refusal to consider legitimate sex worker needs becomes easier to understand. It’s unlikely that the engineers, product managers and executives who made those product decisions that upended sex workers’ lives ever understood, or perhaps even considered, their impacts. Or if they did, it seems that sex workers are considered expendable users. (Again, at least in public.)

This has created a large digital underclass of sex workers - including, but far from limited to, adult performers - who live in fear of being banned by the big tech platforms while simply doing their jobs. The vast majority are women serving a heterosexual male audience. Most of them do nothing illegal at all, but they operate in the long shadow of those powerful (and powerfully sexist) cultural taboos and their resulting hypocritical popularity.

It would not have taken a market strategy genius to spot an opening for OnlyFans here: a high-quality digital platform where adult performers can capture the lion’s share of value for their own content. And indeed, there have been other similar attempts to do this (again, ignored by mainstream tech). But what OnlyFans figured out was that to pry open consumers’ willingness to pay for porn again, they needed to offer exclusive content and the ability to interact with performers, as well as a way for creators to brand-build on their platform. 

The popular performer Aella, who makes something on the order of $100,000 a month on OnlyFans, discussed some of her specific monetization strategies in this fascinating (and SFW) interview:

OnlyFans takes off

OnlyFans’ 20% cut of its creators’ revenues might be most usefully compared to Patreon’s 10% take-rate. Despite that big bite (which OnlyFans says really amounts to 12% after merchant fees and processing), OnlyFans has nevertheless scaled to roughly three-quarters of a billion in payouts in not quite 4 years, with no evident external funding. (OnlyFans is not even listed on Crunchbase). By contrast, it took Patreon 6 years, and $166 million (!) in venture funding, to reach $1 billion from 4 million “patrons.” 

Which of these two companies sounds more successful?

To be sure, OnlyFans is not perfect. They are dealing with growth pains like subscriber churn, spam, creators who have trouble getting their payouts and a back tax problem. There are also the usual creator discovery problems that almost all influencer platforms encounter. It can be difficult for adult performers in particular to market themselves, given the strict rules about their content on many social platforms discussed above.

Nevertheless, OnlyFans has distinguished itself not only by helping a very large number of sex workers make an honest living, but by treating them like first-class citizens rather than a scourge. In doing so, it’s not only saving the porn industry, but demonstrating how to make it a better, safer and more equitable place by aligning incentives for consumers and creators.

The breakout success of OnlyFans is laudable, but should prompt some soul-searching in the power centers of Silicon Valley. Why did it take this long? Why would no one else have the courage to address sex work? Why does the same industry that exalts such morally ruinous firms as Palantir, Facebook and Palmer Lucky’s actual next-gen weapons startup get queasy about consenting adults wanting to see naked bodies?

And if they missed this market opportunity, think about how many more are out there - invisible only to the affluent men who run “tech.”

Footnote: Pornhub’s excellent Insights blog (SFW) is chock-full of incredible insights about global porn interests that their analytics team puts together. Yes, people are searching for “coronavirus porn”.