If choice is empowering let’s choose to dismantle capitalism

HAVE you heard the good news? You might not know this if you’re over the age of 30 (and, therefore, woefully past it), but anyone can be a pornstar now. This isn’t really surprising, of course. We already knew that anyone could be a glamour model. And anyone can be a fashion model. Or a comedian. Or a self-help guru. Or an all-encompassing lifestyle brand that seamlessly combines all of these personas into one.

Anyone can be pretty much anything they want to be as long as they have access to a camera, an internet connection, and preferably a conventionally beautiful face and hot body. Hey, things might have changed but they haven’t changed that much!

Through the rise of 24/7 social media and, with it, “influencers” who are able to make money by linking their popular online presence to brands and products, entrepreneurial opportunities have never been so close to hand (literally). This has been a particular boon for young women. Marketing statistics suggest that over three-quarters of influencers across a range of platforms are female, while 31% of Instagram influencers are aged 18-24 and 54% are aged 25-34.

This has paved the way for some positive developments, not least the challenge it poses to the status quo in which a handful of typically white, male, wealthy gatekeepers get to choose whose face, whose voice, whose story will be interesting or appealing to the masses.

When we are all “content creators” and the aim of the game is to attract the most “engagement” from followers or fans, it’s not hard to see these new routes to success or celebrity as more democratic than the old.

This is the professed selling point of “content subscription services” such as OnlyFans, AdmireMe.VIP, JustForFans and others, all of which have sprung up in the past few years. One major difference is that these websites are for over-18s and there’s no bar on explicit content.

Instead, these platforms are largely devoted to sexual content, with creators sharing photos and videos of themselves ranging from semi-nude to full porn scenes. The other twist is that, unlike traditional social networks, these sites make their money not through advertising but by followers subscribing to creators and paying extra charges for “special requests” (OnlyFans takes a 20% cut of the fees).

Nonetheless, the appeal is not all that different to what might attract someone to a career or “side-hustle” as your garden variety influencer or content creator. You get to be your own director, editor, publicist and manager. You can choose where, when and how you work. You can build up a personal fanbase (and nothing is more lucrative or addictive in the digital age than attention). Best of all, you have a chance to make yourself some quick (if not necessarily big) money.

But is it really that simple? As more and more people opt to share and monetise greater and greater parts of their physical and emotional selves online (parts which can never really be taken back when digital footprints last a lifetime and online privacy is so easily undermined) has there been enough discussion or even critical thinking about what the wider implications of these cultural and economic shifts might be?

It seems the twin trends of social media influencing and, now, subscription fansites (which feature a substantial overlap in creators) arise from very similar conditions.

First, there is the relentless impulse of our hyper-consumerist society to commodify everything. It is well documented (yet almost universally ignored) that as users of free social media sites we are all “the product”, being used to perfect highly intelligent, personalised marketing strategies. Small-time individuals making their own money online are just the tip of a gargantuan iceberg, but they do represent an acute example of the obvious: no part of our lives, no moment of our day, is untouched by capitalism.

Where there is a market, money will be made. From the rise of reality TV to the world of social media stars, there is evidently a huge market for content that lets us in on the most personal aspects of other people’s lives. And, clearly, there is a market for all things sex-related. (See: everything ever sold.)

The smartest thing about these relatively new websites is that it combines the two, letting fans feel like they really know the creators. These aren’t nameless blank canvases, they are people who engage in conversation – even if many do charge fans to read their replies. It’s almost like having a real relationship, except you need to pay the person to speak to you (among other things). Do you feel like you are in an episode of Black Mirror yet?

There is something to be said about how the demand for this kind of service (OnlyFans is now a £1.2 billion company) reflects on our society and our ability to make meaningful and lasting connections with other people. This is a pursuit only made harder in an economic and social system which increasingly encourages people to see themselves as individuals in isolation and to strive for productivity and financial gain above all else. The direction of travel in our always-online (and always on-brand) existence suggests this endemic malaise is only going to get worse.

OF course, there is also something to be said about how it reflects on our society’s view of women and the opportunities it offers them. There are plenty of male creators on these websites, but subscribers across the board are predominantly men and there is undeniably a gendered element to the dynamic. Given that women were far more likely than men to be in lower paid, lower hours jobs and zero-hours contracts before Covid-19 and are more likely to have lost income and employment during the pandemic, the urgency for women to make money in other ways is manifestly greater.

Amid lockdown and a surge in unemployment, OnlyFans reported a 75% increase in new sign-ups in May, with 7000 to 8000 new creators joining each day. Among these, 29% were aged 18 to 21 and 33% were 22 to 25 – the same age group most like to have been in precarious work before the virus and to have lost income and employment as a result of it. These connections can’t be ignored.

Often this kind of conversation becomes waylaid by unresolvable debates over what choices are the right ones. The more pertinent question is who has the widest range of choices and who has the smallest. A lack of economic and social power puts women and young people at a disadvantage when it comes to the choices available to them, and these inequalities are only getting deeper.

Meanwhile, people are being asked more than ever to blur the lines between the private and public, between play and work, between creativity and productivity. Is it any wonder we are faced with a mental health crisis beyond the capacity of our public services? We are living through capitalism on steroids and experiencing alienation on an equal scale. Despite (or because of) these developments, consumer culture has so successfully co-opted the language and concepts of social movements that even talking about the need for systemic change in a meaningful way has become infinitely more difficult.

But these are the conversations that need to be had. Not the ones about whether you’d be “devastated” if your daughter took her clothes off on a webcam, as that woman off Birds Of A Feather declared on Loose Women last week. Nor the ones about whether it’s politically empowering to do so. What’s empowering is to create a system where we are all equally able to make decisions unrestricted either by financial hardship or by social censure. We are a long way off from either of those, and pretending otherwise is the surest way to guarantee we never get there.

— to www.thenational.scot

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