Influencers turn to subscription-only portals to mint money from explicit content

Updated: 27 September, 2020 09:41 IST | Diwakar Sharma | Mumbai

Down-and-out influencers take to making money by allowing subscribers access to explicit videos and chat, on portal meant for fans

Representational picture
Representational picture

At 4.57 on a Monday afternoon, this writer receives a message on his Instagram profile—a fake one created for this article, with no display picture or posts. "Hi. 11 pm today we talk," messages Priya Sharma (name changed). The message ends with a heart emoji.

Sharma is seemingly an Instagram influencer. While she hasn't been verified, her profile has over 5,60,000 followers, with 717 posts, all of them images of herself as a model. Some even show her on the cover top fashion magazines. You could, as a passive follower, scroll through her page, like her pictures and be among the hundreds who leave a comment. Or, you could, click on the swipe up link on her "stories" and log into ActualFans. Here, for a price—memberships start at R2,200 per month and top at R18,480 for a year—you can get Sharma to text you, have a live video call, or even have her make a personalised dance video for you. While those rates differ, a monthly membership, depending on the plan you pick, will get you videos of her in a bikini, full topless videos and access to live shows "Every Sunday at 10 pm".

Enter the brand new world of fandom, where for a price, a subscriber to a portal can get private, up close and personal access to their favourite influencer/content creator. The original model for this was the UK website OnlyFans, created in 2016, for those who wanted to sell premium content—workout videos, music, recipes—directly to their fans. But, the concept has now taken on a different hue. While on the one hand, celebrities such as Beyoncé and CardiB have accounts on OnlyFans, and India too is seeing a rise in apps that will allow you to pay up for a personalised message from your favourite celebrity, OnlyFans is also popular for its explicit content.

A report in New Statesman, a UK based newspaper, says, "It very quickly, however, became evident that the platform satisfied a need for both sex workers and consumers of sexual content. It rapidly became news: people were selling nudes, and making tens of thousands a month doing it."

ActualFans it seems is not very different. On the surface it appears to be a portal that aims at helping the average influencer build their brand value, create a large fan base and of course meet the ultimate goal—monetise their content. However, the five-month-old site doesn't list any influencers it has on board. Subscribing to the site is not a quick pay-up-and-join process.

Subscribers are first screened and then onboarded as "fans"—a process that took this writer 14 hours. However, the site is not fan-friendly. You are allowed access only to the creator you have subscribed to. And, it is up to these creators to promote the site on their social media handles.

The content manager for ActualFans, Ravish Kumar, who says he operates out of Odisha, says, "We are a start-up company and are providing a platform for people to exhibit their talent and monetise it. We are in an experimental phase. While social media has made influencers famous, they have few options to make money from it. Influencers like dancers, fitness experts, singers, etc can get themselves registered with our website and exhibit their talents. And, if the audience likes their work or any other exclusive content and are ready to pay them [influencer] they can monetise it. For now, registration is free, but we will charge if we realise that the model is successful."

A key team member of the portal, Aditya Agarwal, says, "For creators, who have an active social media following, ActualFans is an online platform that helps them grow and monetise their loyal fanbase'. So, the registered influencers are coming to our website to create their own page to earn because these influencers don't get paid by Instagram. We have rescued several people from unemployment during the lockdown."

On the sexual content on the website, he says, "We are an intermediary and I don't care who is doing what on my platform. Even if someone comes and tells us that our platform has some illegal stuff, I will not take it down because I believe we are giving creative season to the people who are within limits and are monetising their content. If the influencers are not adhering to the terms and conditions while signing up with us, they will face the consequences. Suppose if someone sells a gun or a 'call girl' on e-commerce websites, the sellers will have to face the law. When an influencer sells anything on this platform (ActualFans) to the audience, we take 20 per cent commission and remaining share goes to the influencer."

A Mulund-based businessman, who did not wish to be identified for the story, says, one day early during the lockdown, he received a message on his Instagram profile from an "influencer". "When I checked the message, there was a link which drove me to the subscription-based platform of ActualFans website. I returned to check the profile of the sender and was surprised to see that the girl was from my neighbourhood." He adds that his friends have also subscribed to these pages for live sex video chats and have even paid for customised nude videos.

The question here is also of exploitation and age. With no one asking a subscriber their age, or checking how old an influencer might be, chances of abuse are high.

Entrepreneur Laxmikant Shetty recently tweeted about the site, tagging Mumbai Police, saying, "What's really shocking is the number of teenagers who are involved in this in order to make a quick buck. Some of the teenage girls on this are from my neighbourhood and belong to affluent families."

Social media platforms, says cyber security consultant Govind Ray, have given rise to accounts where for a price people will provide sexting, sex chats and nude video calls. A quick search for specific hashtags will lead you to such profiles. "Virtual sex, aka a glorified version of masturbation, is so popular that even predators utilise structured business models where individuals with a large follower base are usually involved. Here, there are websites, where the influencers can provide the same set of services in the garb of exclusive content, which they provide only to their hardcore fans. One of the reasons for this could even be the lack of work. Influencers, who don't get the brand endorsements they desire, could get attracted to business models such as these."

He adds that several such Instagram users have been arrested for luring individuals online, blackmailing and extorting money from them. "There is an urgent need to take action taken against the portals that support dubious operations."

Legally, as well, such sites—some promise live shows with their female models at midnight or later—are in violation of laws against pornography. Cyber lawyer Puneet Bhasin says, "India has banned all pornographic websites. So, people have resorted to new modes… The promotion of porn content is an offence under Section 67 of Information Technology Act. So, it is definitely prohibited by law. The punishment for such an offence is imprisonment or fine or both."

"If, an influencer is not aware of what is happening without her consent, then she can sue the website for promoting the pornographic racket. If she is aware, both are liable to be prosecuted," he adds.

Across the world, sex work has seen a boom on OnlyFans during the lockdown. India is no different. mid-day tried to reach out to the influencers who have registered themselves with ActualFans, but most did not respond. One influencer who did respond stands apart, in that she has a verified Instagram profile and has been seen on reality television. The link to her ActualFans page, where she promises explicit content is available on her public profile. She says the site, and the money that's coming in from the videos, has helped her survive the lockdown, a time when other sources of income have dried up. "I am not indulging in physical activity. I am showing my body to make money and run my house," she says. And, there is money to be made. The Internet is rife with reports of women, and men, on OnlyFans minting money, with one US citizen, Amanda Martin raking in $2 million a year.

Clinical psychologist Varkha Chulani says this is not a moral issue at hand, rather an economic one. "Times have been so bad economically for so many that unfortunately they are resorting to this. This is a moral financial issue. And, I think we have underestimated the effects of the lockdown on a large section of the population."

"It is very well for us, who sit in ivory towers, to make judgements. If one will go hungry for a significant period of time innovations like this are bound to come up. I am not endorsing porn, but I think we forget 'real' issues about what the pandemic has done in actuality to people's incomes and living. And, these people have invented methods to keep their stomachs full. I am not sure this is only be about validation. It's about real 'needs'. Payment of rents, basics necessities, etc," she adds.

Rs 2.2K - Rs 18.4K
Range of membership fees on ActualFans

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First Published: 27 September, 2020 06:47 IST

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