A couple of months ago, a conversation with a friend got onto the subject of 'the gig economy', and he mentioned a BBC piece about OnlyFans, a site where women could earn money selling sex services online. This is nothing new, there have been plenty such sites kicking around for well over a decade, so it struck me as strange that the BBC would even cover it.
What was disturbing at the time was the description he gave, and the tone of what he said. Since he was simply relating the content, I essentially got a summary of its main message. It came across to me like an infomercial, his take-away was clearly the sums of money being earned, with no mention of risks or realistic expectations.
I explained to him that 'gig economy' sites parade 'top earners' as a carrot to attract the long-tail of people who earn very little. I said that the reality is these women will be enticed into doing stuff they'd not normally do, on the promise of earnings that they will never make, competing in a race to the bottom with others trying to do exactly the same.
I also explained that, even assuming they don't outright lie, the site operators can just funnel traffic to a few individuals to provide high-earning showcases for marketing purposes, and that they exert control their user-base and revenue streams accordingly. It's a data-driven game of manipulation, though my criticisms could go much further.
A couple of days ago, I read an article that claims OnlyFans is being investigated for tax fraud, which then goes on to document some bad experiences of content creators, among others. It pretty much reflected my concerns above, and it brought back to mind that conversation I'd had months prior. I looked up the BBC piece on OnlyFans (actually there were a number of search results!).
The program my friend was referring to seems to be Nudes4Sale on BBC3. Let me give you a few examples from the abstract - it was an audio or video piece, I haven't watched or listened to it myself yet, but the abstract is damning enough.
Lauren, 23, is one of the top-ranked Only Fans creators in the world. She has over 2,000 subscribers and over 400,000 followers on Instagram. In one month alone, Lauren earned a jaw-dropping £37,000 - a figure she says is going up every month.
That quote alone I find utterly appalling - even scam emails don't claim you'll earn £37,000+ (~$50,000) a month. It's difficult for me to find suitable words, particularly given that this is BBC programming. The paragraph that followed is even worse.
But not everyone is making a decent living. Some vulnerable people find themselves using sites like these to help put a roof over their heads. Sasha is 20 and earns a few hundred pounds a month on OnlyFans.
What's so awful about the above quote is that it presents itself as a 'balance', but really just establishes, by implication, a reasonable lower bound to earnings. It invokes empathy with financially vulnerable young women, and suggests that 'even they' are earning a few hundred pounds extra a month, in this 'worst case scenario'. This is a recruitment device.
The real lower bound for earnings is zero, while the cost to an amateur sex-worker isn't really measured in money. What's worse still is that the abstract contains wording words that tries to appeal to girls as young as 16.
Ellie meets Hannah, a 17-year-old from Scotland, who has been selling explicit content of herself since she was 16. Hannah set up an account on a site called OnlyFans using a fake ID. She was reported for being under 18 and kicked off the site but managed to set up a new profile and continue selling nudes.
So, in other words, "on you go kids - you can easily beat the moderators", who in all likelihood do not enforce unless they absolutely have to.
In the past, as least as far back as 2009, I have been annoyed at the BBC for what appeared to be paid media ads for Twitter and Facebook - I was concerned at the social-conditioning subtexts of articles back then, but those complaints seem tame in comparison to this.
To be clear, I personally have no objections to sex-work if it is freely entered into as a chosen occupation. However, in this instance, I believe the BBC as been complicit in manipulation to promote sex-work on a dishonest basis.
The harsh reality is that most who fall for the scam will simply have their self-esteem eroded, with little to no net earnings, for an experience that will probably haunt them for years to come. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of work, and anyone who is will seek out their options for themselves, rather than being enticed to do so by the BBC using trivialising and appealing language.
I don't know if this is truly paid advertising or simply careless buying of content. I think it's conveniently the latter, enabling the former, but I'd welcome insights from anyone with some real industry knowledge. In any case, I'm left feeling that this needs more action than an article on my Gemini server.
Shamefully, the BBC region-lock their content, so if anyone wants to watch or listen, but are unable to, then I'd be willing to attempt ripping them and make them available to you (contact info on my index page, or kevinsan on IRC).
The news articles that caught my attention:
At BBC Three we're looking to celebrate what it is to be young and British today, creating content to be enjoyed by a diverse, UK-wide audience of 16-34s, with an editorial focus that reflects the lives of today’s 16-24 year olds.
Fiona Campbell, Controller, BBC Three.
This page was originally taken from my Gemini server. Gemini is an Internet technology specifically designed for simple text publishing, free from intrusive advertising and tracking. You can read more about Gemini here.