Instagram is OnlyFan's Freemium (Cafe Society Dinner Discussion #9)

Social Fog of War & Monetizing the Illusion of Community

Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s weekly magazine on the intersection of community and society — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team.

Hey all,

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Today we’re delving into the latest in a trend that we’re noticing - the illusion of community and intimacy to sell products, spurred by the recent press around OnlyFans. If you want the TL;DR, zoom to the bottom and look at our Tweetstorm or just click through here, and feel free to read, follow us and applaud on Medium as well.

OnlyFans is a subscription service where influencers send their followers racy photos for a monthly fee. The NYTimes called it the “Paywall of Porn.

OnlyFans is propagating an illusion of perhaps the most intimate of intimacies in their quest to make money, and says more about the trend towards “community” in business than maybe we want to admit to ourselves.

I was introduced to OnlyFans a few months ago when a friend in a holiday house share was trying to get one of the women he was corresponding with on the platform to come out and visit.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. I laughed and rolled my eyes, just another guy who thought that no, the stripper ACTUALLY liked him. But I knew enough of what the platform entailed that when a friend I follow on Instagram posted an artfully topless photo on Instagram, the latest in a series of kind of scandalous photos she was regularly posting, I texted the friend who used to date her and joked that her feed was turning into an OnlyFans account and posted this status:

Then Bella Thorne launched her OnlyFans account the next day and I realized I had inadvertently pinpointed a trend.

“Thorne announced her plans to launch on OnlyFans in a video montage posted to Instagram on Aug. 19. Since then her earnings from OnlyFans has jumped to about $2 million. Thorne is using OnlyFans to share personal content and never-before-seen photos and videos — available only to paying subscribers. According to her reps, Thorne responds to every DM from her OnlyFans followers.”

First of all, if you are around my age (32) and went “who the fuck is Bella Thorne” you’re not alone - she’s an ex-Disney Channel star, and apparently a pretty popular one with 20M+ Instagram followers.

The next WTF moment though was the idea that she was responding to every DM from every follower. Wow! 🙄

While I’m willing to bet that it’s not really her doing the texting, we’ve been noticing something - brands are getting more and more explicit about promising community and connection and more directly monetizing it, and are shifting a lot of those interactions to platforms where it’s less clear that you are, in fact, not so special.

Alex Danco elaborated on a concept he called Social Fog of War in his excellent piece “Social Capital in Silicon Valley” that I think applies here. I’ll just quote directly.

Imagine you’re in a group of ten people, and group membership is cool and desirable. You might have a sense of who’s the alpha of the group, who sets the tone for why the group is high-status. You might also have a sense of who’s at the bottom, and lucky to be there. But for everyone in the middle, their relative status is illegible: hard to say whether Alice is cooler than Bob, or whether they’re above or below average status. 

If everyone suddenly became aware each other’s relative status, it’d be a social disaster: the group would collapse. The people on the bottom half will be made aware of their inferiority: they’ll feel self-conscious, like impostors. And the people in the top half will become aware of their superiority – they’ll feel pressure to break off from the group, which is obviously bringing them down. Ignorance was bliss.

The illegibility and opacity of intra-group status was doing something really important – it created space where everyone could belong. The light of day poisons the magic. It’s a delightful paradox: a group that exists to confer social status will fall apart the minute that relative status within the group is made explicit. There’s real social value in the ambiguity: the more there is, the more people can plausibly join, before it fractures into subgroups. 

In other words - it’s a bit easier for Thorne to pretend like she’s ACTUALLY going to answer your DMs and for people to delude themselves that they are speaking with Thorne and part of her club that is “getting to know her better” when it’s not clear how many other people she’s supposedly carrying on a similar “relationship” with.

Below is a screenshot from Bella Thorne’s OnlyFans profile - there are some clues to how popular someone might be, the number of hearts for example, but there isn’t a follower count.

In fact they make an effort to show you the last time they showed up, a sort of “she was just here!” kind of an effect. Compare that with the 23.6M followers Bella Thorne has on Instagram.

It’s a bit harder to pretend like Bella Thorne is sitting there responding to 23.6M followers personally, but as long as she can use the social fog of war to lead unsuspecting horny guys to open their pocketbooks, holding up the carrot of community or connection or a relationship with fans, she’ll be able to monetize a slice of those followers on OnlyFans, where those guys can delude themselves that they are actually part of a special few.

If you think that well, these guys are just paying for nude pics, same as always, we’ve had porn since the beginning of time, what’s so special about this, well, you’re wrong. According to one of OnlyFan’s most popular stars, Ms Harwood, it’s all about the relationship:

“You can get porn for free,” she said. “Guys don’t want to pay for that. They want the opportunity to get to know somebody they’ve seen in a magazine or on social media. I’m like their online girlfriend.”

Some may put in more effort to carry on that delusion than others, Ms. Harwood insists that she, “chatted with fans daily, learning their habits, their sexual predilections and their insecurities,” but in reality that’s no different than the stripper who remembers their best client’s children’s names — just like the stripper, it’s fake intimacy, bought and paid for.

It’s easy to pretend like this is an outlier, but less racy brands are resorting to dangling the illusion of intimacy and connection too. Peloton instructors like to call out people’s birthdays and their big milestones, the bare minimum to pretend like you are not just another number to them. gives celebrities phone numbers and a text CRM platform that allows them to mass text their fans, with many of them posting “Text me” on their social media profiles, as if you’d be speaking directly to them.

Intimacy, community & connection are in, and many are realizing that while those elements don’t scale, the illusion of them certainly does.

⛈️ In Tweet Storm Form

Links from Around

Aja Singer’s For The Love on Community Building for future customers, not just current customers and owning the conversation around your entire industry/usecase.

Packy McCormick’s Not Boring does a deep dive on Tencent, part I and part II, the behemoth behind WeChat and much of China’s internet ecosystem.

Sari Azout’s Check Your Pulse on the Participatory Economy. Lucy Mort on the Gen-Z Aesthetic. Sara Wilson of the Digital Campfires Podcast interviews Packy McCormick and Nadia Eghbal of Substack on building online communities through Substack, summary writeup here.

📱Irreverent Instagram Famous

Our weekly dose of irreverent instagrams.

January 30, 2020

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Have a great rest of the week!

David (@dlitwak), Kyle, Joelle