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Sinnamon Love was impressed when she started using OnlyFans in 2018 to house her adult content. 

“When I first launched my own website, it wasn’t that profitable,” Love said of her earlier digital forays. “I was paying like, 40% of my income to web hosting, website maintenance, updates, constant editing, and things like that.” 

To find a site that would provide all of that and credit card processing for 20% was a major upgrade, and Love was watching many online adult content creators find success. 

“It really did lower the barrier to entry for people,” she said. 

So when Love learned earlier this year that OnlyFans would be launching an app version of the platform that wouldn’t allow adult content due to app store regulations, the future of adult content on the site looked bleak. 

Around four months later, OnlyFans announced it would remove sexually explicit adult content from its site altogether due to their banking partners’ stringent bans on pornography, leaving adult content producers in limbo. Sex workers were quick to call out the hypocrisy and callousness of the move, in part because they’ve been a significant factor in the site’s success. 

While vocal opposition from adult content producers forced OnlyFans to stop their plans (possibly only temporarily), it is the latest example of an imbalance of power between online content producers and the platforms they use. From different corners of the online gig economy, creators are challenging this power dynamic in different ways. 

Love, for one, has been working with sex workers through her organization BIPOC Adult Industry Collective, which provides education, support services, and mutual aid. A focus of their educational program has been teaching creators how to navigate the often anti-sex work regulations and features that OnlyFans, Instagram, and other digital platforms use. 

“There is a learning curve to working online,” Love said, adding that it’s important for people to know how to market themself since sites like OnlyFans don’t regularly advertise adult content producers or make it easy to search for them. 

On Substack, another emergent platform albeit for newsletters, creators had to deal with a similar dissonance. After inviting trans and feminist writers to help build up the platform’s profile at its inception, Substack began platforming and paying large advances to writers and journalists who have been known to be anti-trans and misogynistic. Many trans newsletter creators asked why the platform’s terms of use regarding hate speech were not being applied to these writers. 

“I was part of a group of trans writers—we all had varying levels of our platforms—who left Substack as a result of Substack’s actions,” said writer and artist T.L. Pavlich. Pavlich says their newsletter was “pretty small,” but others had more substantial (and paying) subscriber audiences that they had to relocate. Some of these writers hoped their larger following would add more weight in discussions with Substack’s co-founder Hamish McKenzie about increasing transparency around the site’s regulations and applying rules more equally.

“People were kind of overwhelmed,” Pavlich said of the call to leave Substack. Pavlich in return created a list of alternative newsletter platforms like Ghost and TinyLetter, using their background in web development and email marketing to vet other options. 

“Different people had different needs, so I had one person who was looking to figure out options because they had a lot of paid subscribers and Substack was a significant portion of their income,” they said. Pavlich organized options in a spreadsheet to show which platforms were best for what. They originally shared the chart on Twitter, but plans to find a more permanent online home for it. 

Decentralizing their work from a single platform is one of the many ways creative workers are establishing their power, but it’s not always feasible to walk away from some of the largest sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. 

“The call to disengage from such digital platforms altogether disproportionately impacts cultural workers whose work is already likely to be made less visible by institutions as a result of structural inequity,” said Mashinka Firunts Hakopian, co-curator of the Encoding Futures: Critical Imaginaries of AI exhibit at Oxy Arts. 

In her work as an artist, writer, and researcher who focuses on the inequities of digital infrastructure, Hakopian has observed some of the tactics cultural workers have used to sustain their work on major platforms when leaving them altogether is not a viable option. On platforms like Instagram and Twitter, the challenges BIPOC and LGBTQ+ creative workers face are much more insidious and stem from algorithms that encode biases. Hakopian cites multimedia artist and educator Mandy Harris Williams’ #BrownUpYourFeed project, which looks at how platforms like Instagram classify and depriotize content by BIPOC cultural producers as one example of challenging algorithmic bias. She also mentions the collective and movement Decolonize This Place as another example. In the wake of Instagram shutting down the Decolonize This Place account and Twitter hiding their work in its search results, the collective has developed backup accounts, encouraged users to manually visit its page rather than waiting for a post to appear in feed, and asked people to share its content. 

“When we see BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ cultural producers have their work shadowbanned or deprioritized, the response is often to label that as a glitch in the system,” Hakopian said. “But as Ruja Benjamin reminds us, glitches aren’t an accident; they’re a signal that shows us how socio-technical systems are actually operating, and for whom.” 

Many online producers, whether the work is adult content or newsletters, will experience this either directly (from executives’ decisions) or indirectly (from algorithmic bias). Ultimately, it’s a power imbalance that leaves people’s livelihoods in the hands of a small few. Recently, Love and her fellow organizers at BIPOC Collective have been surveying clients about their most pressing needs to present to OnlyFans executives.  

“The goal is really to have conversations with companies, like showing them a pitch deck for our therapy program, or getting them to understand the support that people on their platform are looking for. To break bread, basically,” Love said. 

Feven Merid

Feven Merid is a reporter based in New York who has covered the media industry for the Columbia Journalism Review. In addition to her work at CJR, her articles have appeared in Documented NY, Food Bank...