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Culture

OnlyFans Is Like A Pyramid Scheme - Almost All The Money Is Made By Top Creators

By Luna Salinas·· 11 min read
bella thorne only fans pyramid scheme

Over the last year, we saw a spike in traction for OnlyFans, with many celebrities joining, and endorsing, the content-creator platform.

Additionally, more and more young women flaunted dream houses and cars on social media, that they purchased with earnings from their lewd OnlyFans accounts. What gets left out is that most money is earned by top creators, leaving many more with less money than “advertisements” would have you believe.

OnlyFans’ notoriety with being a sex-work platform doesn’t come from the platform itself. Sex workers aren’t the focus of its social media promotions, and the interface isn’t reminiscent of the conventional porn site (there are no gratuitous gifs or advertisements). Its notoriety arguably comes from a cycle that we can see perpetuated on social media; famous people join the site, and then reports leak, alleging their earnings are in the hundreds of thousands, to millions, of dollars per month. This leads people to believe they too can make money, especially when some have lost their income during the pandemic.

But the promise of earning even in the thousands of dollars is false, and it’s not unlike a predatory pyramid scheme which leaves most creators with no (or negative) money, and in the case of lewd content creators, a potentially heavy emotional price to pay.

What Is OnlyFans?

Launched in 2016, OnlyFans was not started as a platform that was exclusively for sex workers. If you look at their blog, they highlight many different kinds of creators on their site (not just sex workers) from soap-makers, to skateboarders, to psychics, to business advisors. Frankly, it doesn’t seem like they highlight anyone as a “sex worker,” explicitly.

According to OnlyFans’ ‘how” page, “if you use social media and produce your own content, you should be using OnlyFans.” Similar to Uber, their aim was to monetize something that many people already had — a prominent social media presence and a sizable audience to go with it. OnlyFans isn’t the first of its kind either; Patreon, founded in 2013, works similarly.

OnlyFans onboarded 3,000 new content creators every week and 1,000 users every hour in 2019.

Interest in OnlyFans began to slowly trickle upwards at the start of 2019; in April of that year, OnlyFans’ founder Tim Stokely said there were 60,000 content creators and more than 7 million registered users. Their top creator at that time had 10,000 fans who paid $15 a month for access to her content, and she reportedly made 2 million dollars since joining in August of the previous year. Stokely also reported exponential growth — onboarding 3,000 new content creators every week and 1,000 users every hour. Remember this was back in 2019, so the numbers are much, much higher now.

In early March 2020, there was a significant spike in Google searches for the term ‘OnlyFans’ — shortly after the CDC said that COVID-19 was heading toward pandemic status. Since that first initial spike, OnlyFans has been seeing even more attention, with searches for the platform reaching top interest in December 2020.

To say OnlyFans is popular is an understatement; it’s been fully integrated into popular culture, with prominent e-girls (i.e. Belle Delphine), YouTubers, and celebrities joining, and even Beyoncé giving a shout-out to the platform.

So How Is It Like a Pyramid Scheme?

First, let’s recall what a pyramid scheme is. It’s a sketchy business model, and generally illegal. Not to be confused with multi-level marketing (MLM), since MLM schemes involve the sale of an actual product. Still, an MLM scheme follows the same structure as a pyramid scheme. Let’s use the image below as a reference:

Image Credit: Julie Bang © Investopedia 2019

The scheme begins at the top with one person, the founder (represented in the chart with the ‘1’). The founder then recruits people to work below them (represented by the ‘10’), and each new recruit pays the founder just for the privilege of joining. The new recruits in turn recruit more people (represented by ‘100’, ‘1,000’, etc.), and portions of all earnings the recruits make are given to the founder. The founder and anyone else who got in early on the scheme sees the most profits, especially if they manage to significantly grow the base. Meanwhile, the base doesn’t see nearly as much profit, if at all.

OnlyFans’ similarity to a pyramid scheme is in the “wealth distribution” among creators.

It’s free to sign up for OnlyFans. There are referral programs that allow a referrer to earn up to $50,000 for a referral (if the creator they referred earns $1 million). According to OnlyFans, referring a creator earns you 5% of that creator's earnings for the first year only. Referrals started prior to May 1, 2020 will have one more year to receive earnings from referrals. This is why you’ll see TikToks and girls in videos brag about the house they bought and include their link in bio to get referrals.

OnlyFans’ other similarity to a pyramid scheme is in the “wealth distribution” among its creators. Top creators are paid the most, so if you’re not in the top rankings of creators, you may not be earning very much at all, if anything. This distinction has been made even clearer with celebrities joining OnlyFans: the top creator in April 2019 earned $2 million over the course of a few months, and recently in August 2020, actress Bella Thorne joined the platform and allegedly earned $1 million in 24 hours.

Exact earnings data for OnlyFans creators is difficult to find, so when reporting on earnings we either need to go off earnings reported in the news (like in the article above) or off estimates based on Instagram follower counts. This chart was floating around for a while, but it’s been deemed to be inaccurate.

On this list of top celebrity earners, Cardi B has the largest Instagram following, at 75.8 million. Assuming that just 1% of her following subscribes to her OnlyFans, that’s 758,000 fans on her site. With her subscription cost at $4.99, that’s $3,782,420 in gross monthly earnings, not accounting for any commission OnlyFans takes, nor any tips fans can additionally give. Still, an amount in the millions isn’t chump change by any means. If Cardi B is making that much, how much are the other top 20 celebrities on the list earning? How much are the millions of other creators earning? 

False Promises

With the amount of money top creators make on OnlyFans, it’s hard to stop and think that many more creators will sign up with the hopes of making enough money to bolster, or even replace their income, but then make little to no money.

It doesn’t help that many posts float around social media singing OnlyFans’ praises. One user shared that she was able to buy a house for herself at 22, thanks to OnlyFans. She, in particular, has 78.4 thousand Twitter followers. If 1% of those subscribe to her OnlyFans, that’s $7,840 in gross monthly earnings, with her monthly access being $10.

OnlyFans was created so influencers could monetize their already existing following.

Another user posted in 2018 (prior to becoming an OnlyFans creator) a gif of her in front of a car “[she] won’t ever be able to afford.” In March 2020, after signing onto the platform, she wrote a comment under the 2018 post, saying she “can afford it now.” Similar to the user we mentioned before, she has 88.7 thousand Twitter followers, so if 1% of those follow her on OnlyFans, she’s also looking at very decent earnings.

However, most users won’t see these kinds of earnings, especially if they don’t already have a large following on social media prior to joining OnlyFans. Remember, OnlyFans was created so influencers could monetize their already existing following. Its intention wasn’t to help people grow their accounts and then make money off subsequent growth. With the average teenager in 2015 having 150 Instagram followers, let’s assume young adults have twice that at 300. 1% of those followers is three. At $9.99 per month, that’s only $29.97 per month; this doesn’t account for any commission OnlyFans takes, nor the cost of photography equipment (if they’re modeling or producing lewd content), nor the time it takes to create the content. The estimate doesn’t even work if they create an alternate account starting from zero followers to avoid using their personal account that may include family members or coworkers.

That’s a more meager example. Thomas, from the XSRUS blog, scraped information from OnlyFans that can provide some further insight into how much creators are actually earning.

Image Credit: XSRUS

The top accounts (those that make over $100,000 a month) aren’t included in this sample, and the median account is reportedly making just about $180 per month. The top 1% of creators makes 33% of the money, and those in the top 10% make 73% of the money. This leaves everyone else making little money, if any. While OnlyFans is marketed by the lewd/modeling creators as something lucrative and liberating, it’s definitely not lucrative for everyone, including the majority of non-celebrity creators. And as for liberating, it may not be so for many people, as well.

A Hidden Price To Pay

The distinction between OnlyFans and porn lies in the engagement between creator and user. Many people are confused by the notion that people would pay for something that you can find for free online (porn), but something that people aren’t aware of is that with OnlyFans you’re essentially paying for human interaction to go with it. This reveals yet a different problem with the OnlyFans craze — people are so lonely, maybe even disheartened with the current state of dating, that they turn to OnlyFans to fulfill that role. It also reveals additional, emotional work that content creators need to put in. One OnlyFans consumer explains, “Hardcore porn is easy to come by, but a relationship with a girl is hard to get.”

When lewd creators promote their lucrative OnlyFans careers, they leave out the less-glamorous aspects. In this Vice article, some sex workers on OnlyFans detail their experience. One woman, Tommy Rose, details the amount of work that goes into her content creation. It’s hours of getting ready, taking photos, editing. She wants to feel good about what she puts out, instead of just making quick, easy content, which results in less frequent content, which in turn causes some people to unsubscribe. Seeing people unsubscribe, despite being able to see “everything on [there]” is disheartening and can no doubt affect self-esteem.

The article reports that Rose makes £1,500 (about $2052.23) but £500 goes back into creating content. During bad months, she takes home about £500 ($684). She spends most of her time creating content, saying, “You pay to see my content; that's what you're there for. You're not there to get to know me.” During the time of the interview, she couldn’t remember the last time she had a day off.

Unless you’re okay with it being known that you create OnlyFans lewd content, you’re better off not going into it.

In another article, an Irish OnlyFans creator who goes by Grace became a content creator “in order to pay rent and bills when they didn’t have a guaranteed monthly income.” She says that with the instability and unpredictability of the industry, she could end up with no income the next month, and that’s the case for many creators.

Grace warns that the longer you make OnlyFans content, “the more of a chance your content will end up leaked and there are almost zero guarantees that you’ll ever be able to remove it entirely from the internet.” This is particularly risky and dangerous for those who think they can create lewd content temporarily to help bolster their income. Unless you’re okay with it being known that you create OnlyFans lewd content, you’re better off not going into it.

Closing Thoughts

OnlyFans isn’t a pyramid scheme in every sense of the definition, but in terms of its wealth-distribution among creators, it resembles one. It’s definitely fulfilled what it set out to do: monetize social media presences and follower count. But people need to be wary about expecting to make a lot of money from it, especially if their intention is to create lewd or pornographic content. It’s not just posting photos: it’s interacting with an audience, and there’s an expectation to be almost like an online girlfriend if you’re going to be successful. Aside from the emotional and interpersonal labor that comes with that, there’s a risk of people finding your page who you don’t want to. Even if it’s not your plan to create lewd content forever, there’s always a risk of it being found, since the internet is forever.

There’s a high cost to making OnlyFans content, and it’s not an easy side-hustle, unless you’re already vastly successful like Bella Thorne, Cardi B, or Michael B. Jordan. It can require as much time, if not more, than a full-time job, and the payoff can be minimal — under $1,000 a month. That is, again, if you have a social media presence already and you’re not growing one from the ground up.

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