Charlotte Shane, reporting for The New York Times on the adoption of content subscription website OnlyFans by sex workers during the pandemic:
Gia [the Smutty Mystic] describes the environment as a virtual strip club, and as is true in an actual strip club, a majority of visitors aren’t forking over much. The cost of subscribing to an account — often less than $20 — is like the handful of dollars slipped into a dancer’s garter while she’s on the main stage: appreciated, but not why she shows up to work. But some customers spend thousands, or even tens of thousands, on their favorite accounts. Personalized product sales and interactions through messages and cam shows — the equivalent of lap dances and time in the champagne room — are how the real money is made. “Eighty percent of your income comes from 20 percent of your customers,” Gia, who goes by a stage name, told me. “I’ve learned that’s a rule of business across industries.”
OnlyFans has provided a venue for many sex workers to continue making money during this time of social distancing. But the site’s information architecture doesn’t help:
Several performers I spoke with attributed their success on OnlyFans to the site’s traffic, but that’s not exactly true. OnlyFans’ search function is so unhelpful that several third-party websites exist solely to help users thoroughly explore the platform’s offerings. Explicit accounts aren’t showcased among the suggested creators on OnlyFans’ home page or tweeted.
What’s more, this appears to be by design as the company looks to avoid legal complications:
The fragility of payment processing may explain why OnlyFans is so averse to discussing the sexual dimension of its site. (Representatives for the company declined to speak on the record for this article after learning of its focus.) The company must rely on the same deflection, euphemisms and implausible plausible deniability that many sex workers use to minimize the damage of pervasive persecution.
Of course, this won’t go over well with the people who depend on the system’s findability:
Sex workers deeply resent OnlyFans’ absence of a sitewide search function and menu of categories and tags to browse, not only because it makes their jobs harder but also because it seems like proof that the site is eager to jettison them entirely — as so many have done before. But Ashley, the organizer, surmised that this choice is a canny tactic for minimizing legal liability, thereby keeping the site up and running. In other words, adult creators are right that the site tries to hide them.
Information architectures aren’t designed in a vacuum; they’re always constrained by the realities of the context in which they exist. OnlyFans sounds like an example of a marketplace whose architecture is driven more by its regulatory environment than the needs or wants of its consumers or producers.