Touched Through a Screen: Digital Intimacy on Twitter and OnlyFans
By Wen Hsiao, Rachel Steele, and Louis Weber
Keywords: Affordances, Algorithm, Digital Intimacy, Digital Sex Work, and Platformization
On the internet, everyone and everything is just a click away. In the times of coronavirus, there is more of a need to connect with people online than ever before. While we are robbed of physical intimacy, this is replicated online in the form of digital intimacy.
This leads us to our research question: How is digital intimacy presented on Twitter and OnlyFans? This question suggests that that digital intimacy is presented differently on the respective platforms, namely OnlyFans, in the form of digital sex work. We hypothesize digital intimacy is being performed with immediacy and show of humor on Twitter, and in nudity and through reimagining interpersonal relationships on OnlyFans. Through the platforms’ respective affordances and algorithms, this is displayed differently. This is further explored in our research.
After the sexual revolution of the 20th century and in light of technological developments in contraception, sex was freed from its merely biological role. We see the role of feminism in driving sexualization and sexuality in the personal sphere and beyond, self-sexualization is displayed on the respective platforms: OnlyFans and Twitter (Hobbs et al. 2017). The concept of “plastic sexuality” (Hobbs et al. 2017, 273), referring to the sexual freedoms that resulted from modern society, helps to describe the shift to somewhat liberated sexual culture and its manifestation in our online digital environments.
With sexual freedom, technological developments in our concept of sexuality and intimacy have shifted and led to a new concept of intimacy — digital intimacy. Intimacy and the pertinent digital intimacy, are now largely defined by individualization. Technological change is exemplified through the rise of sexual content platforms such as OnlyFans, and other social media platforms that also reinforce digital intimacies such as Twitter. The concept of intimacy has been dependent on or synonymous with presence, the physical intimate presence or closeness of human beings. However, digital media scholars argue psychological and digital non-physical “presence” is shifting our new sense of intimacy. Mobile devices and technologies have created a sense of proximity, so users can feel connected to content creators online despite the physical distance (Lambert 2019, 300).
This change in the collective conception of intimacy is particularly relevant. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital has been emphasized at the cost of physical relationships. OnlyFans saw a 75% uptick in model sign-ups in early April 2020 and became more widely used to replace lost income (Lopez 2020).
We will perform a literature review and walkthrough method, the latter on Twitter’s and OnlyFans’ feeds, and explore features. In our literature review, there is a deliberate balance of news articles and academic journals, this is to better accommodate and illustrate the nuance of digital intimacy and digital sex work, on a relatively new platform — OnlyFans. While we implore the walkthrough method to investigate both platforms’ interfaces and examine their technological affordances to better understand how it guides its users and tailors their experiences (Light, Burgess, and Duguay 2018, 882). The method entails a namesake ‘walkthrough’ and documentation, preparing them for analysis (882).
The navigation of platforms’ user interfaces, features, and everyday uses is key in the walkthrough method to understanding the visual cues that guide the users’ experiences on the platform and ultimately how they contribute to the concept of digital intimacy. The method acknowledges the significance of platforms in reflecting our socio-cultural and political values (896-897) and representing and manifesting digital intimacies and digital intimate publics.
3.1 Literature Review
As early as 1997, when the internet was “the cyber world” the idea that intimacy could be developed online was already emerging. In Virtual Spaces: Sex and the Cyber Citizen, anthropologist Cleo Odzer describes non-commercial sexual experiences online, delving into the interests and motivations behind such practices. The early considerations of digital intimacy as an object of study assumed a strict mutually exclusive dichotomy between an actual real-world and another abstract virtual one.
In light of the subjects discussed in this essay, such views seem archaic. Later works such as Rheingold (2000) took a turn in this regard. Their work recognized online communities as real communities with connections, commitments, and territory embodied through digital platforms. Such work can be considered as a meaningful contribution toward acknowledging the concreteness of the implications of digital intimacy in an environment that is in no way divided between the real and the cyber but made of deeply complex interconnections. This idea, strongly resembling the developments made by cybernetics in the 1950s, is taken into account by the more recent considerations of digital intimacy.
In the study of this field, it is important to note the focus on sexuality. As online communications became the norm of communication practices, platforms offered spaces of relative privateness for dating and finding sexual partners. McGlotten (2014) shows that some of these spaces, notably for many LGBTQ+ persons, felt freer of discrimination and allowed for more convenient ways of meeting other people. However, the field is not limited to sexuality. Authors including Chambers (2013), or Andreassen (2017) among others contribute to widening the study’s scope by introducing new media trends such as online friendships or the expression of grief as forms of digital intimacy.
In the early developments of digital intimacy, many saw this new trend as a sign of the growing individualization in society. In the book Liquid Love, Zygmunt Bauman (2003) argues life-long partnerships provide security where these new “liquified” forms of love are unstable, and drawing away from a sense of community. More recent works are less pessimistic on accounts of modern romantic practices. Shedding light on the positives of ‘networked intimacy’, Hobbs (2016) explores how participants enhance their abilities to find partners for life-long or ephemeral relationships. According to Hobbs, platforms act more as intermediaries to find partners matching goals and preferences than they encourage inauthentic behavior.
As digital intimacy was democratized, academics became aware of the strong trend of monetization within this particular field of study. Helmond (2015) notes the rise of platforms has been largely fed by a profitable economic model. By conceptualizing platforms as markets, she explores how the evolution of platform architectures and affordances can be understood through economic theory or management literature. These different perspectives taken to understand the evolution of digital intimacy and its ties with platforms help to better perceive this study as an evolving one, resulting from a myriad of influences. Finally, Rouse and Salter’s (2021) study of OnlyFans, recognizes the necessity of interdisciplinary work. They elaborate on “fantrepreneurs” and their struggle for economic viability, describing a trend toward a patronage economy, where creators engaged in intimate fan and creator relationships find themselves dependent on the consumer-controller power.
3.2 Walkthrough Method on Twitter
Using the walkthrough method on Twitter, we’re taking an up-close and personal look at its design, verbal and visual cues. Investigating the platform’s interface, and examining its technological affordances, will help us understand how digital intimacy is presented on Twitter. Platforms desiring to create digital intimacy often address the user directly to give the impression of a personalized user experience, which helps build our idea of digital intimacy. On Twitter, there is a culture of self-commodification and self-branding (Hobbs et al. 2017). Twitter’s users are capable of curating their image, showcasing their desired characteristics to put out into the Web. This is often showcased through immediacy and humor on Twitter.
When users return to Twitter, they are greeted by their home page. The Twitter home page is made up of four parts: the sidebar, the feed, the recommendation, and the messages. The feed is a stream of content users chose to opt-in to (See figure 1). The feed presents users with Tweets: whether it be text, image, or video-based content, from users they follow. Advertisements are tailored towards the user’s interests.
On the right, Twitter prescribes users trending current topics, whether it be a recurring keyword or popular hashtag (See figure 1). ‘Trends for you’ also has its dedicated section under the search tab (See figure 2). Twitter explains that trends are “determined by an algorithm”, and “tailored for you based on who you follow, your interests, and your location” (Twitter Help Center 2021). The touch of personalization helps curate a more intimate user experience for its users, with topics predicted by Twitter that would intrigue them and extend their screen time.
(Figure 1. Home.)
(Figure 2. Trends for you.)
Moving forward, Twitter’s messaging system maintains an ominous presence throughout the platform on the bottom right, as a floating window (See figures 1 and 2). Once users access the messaging system, appropriately titled ‘Messages’, they are presented with an instant messaging platform that resembles other social networking sites and platforms such as Instagram (See figure 3). Instant messaging on the platform further consolidates the immediacy and intimacy Twitter is known for. Users are only a click away from communicating and sharing with any one of Twitter’s other users.
(Figure 3. Messages.)
The following is an example of a Tweet and a ‘retweet’ on the platform (See figure 4). When users follow other users, the followed user’s retweet will appear on their home feed too. Figure 4 presents a retweeted Tweet, showcasing the platform’s collective sense of humor that may be out of the ordinary and less conventional in comparison to other mainstream platforms. Users can interact with a Tweet through replies, retweets, and likes. Through replies, users can provide their reaction to said Tweet; through retweet, users can share the Tweet with their own audience; through ‘Quote’ Tweet, users can add their commentary and spin to said Twitter; through likes, users can qualitatively present their agreement with the Tweet. In their interactions with Tweets and Retweets alike, users are enabled by the platform to present and be presented with content they identify with and are interested in. The act of self-disclosure to the public, even strangers they have never interacted with, may create a sense of familiarity and intimacy.
(Figure 4. Example of a Tweet and a Retweet.)
3.3 Walkthrough on OnlyFans
OnlyFans, founded in 2016, can be classified as a “digital patronage platform”, through which content creators or users can gain financial compensation for “creative expression”, with the platform taking a percentage from these earnings (Rouse and Salter 2021, 1-2). OnlyFans and similar patronage sites encourage developing a direct relationship with fans through the membership business model, which breaches the fan-creator relationship and is a crucial foundation for how digital intimacy manifests on the platform (Rouse and Salter 2021).
(Figure 5. OnlyFans homepage for sign in or sign up.)
Upon entering the OnlyFans homepage, it prompts the user to sign in or sign up for the platform without providing any visual indication of its content yet. The cross-platform optimization allows for potential new users to sign in through Twitter or Google.
(Figure 6. OnlyFans user main feed.)
After easily registering for the platform, users are brought to the main feed or user homepage of the platform which immediately starts suggesting a range of content and OnlyFans suggested verified users to subscribe to. The content is surprisingly varied as the platform has attempted to stray from its often most popular sexual content. In a walkthrough and thorough stroll we found food and cooking-related content, fitness, and lifestyle content to be most saturated on the platform (See figures 7, 8, and 9). The platform is therefore making life’s rather mundane activities into content, and reinforcing the interpersonal relationship between users and creators, making it seem as if user and creator are sharing their intimate daily lives. These particular content and interaction features of the platform interface make the user’s interactions seem ordinary and intimate. Similarly to Twitter’s interface, OnlyFans keeps user options on the left-hand side of the page similarly to most social media platforms or messaging layouts which are familiar to the user.
(Figures 7. and 8. OnlyFans suggested users.)
From fitness content to cooking, and lifestyle podcasts the platform takes on an almost Instagram-like media-rich approach to paid content creation, except with more (paid) interaction.
Looking at this compilation of screenshots below (see Figure 9.), the platform focuses on lifestyle and allowing the user into the content creator’s world.
(Figure 9. Compilation of OnlyFans creator content and posts.)
(Figure 10. Messaging interface.)
The messaging features on OnlyFans further amplify the intimacy of the creator-user relationship similar to other messaging models on other social media platforms, by displaying users’ “last seen” time, online “available now” status, and allowing for instant message notifications with the bell icon. This gives an impression of proximity, as often exemplified by digital environments and technologies and their instantaneous features which mimic instant communication in real life.
The platform also allows for direct conversations between users and content creators, audio messages, videos and pictures, as well as tips to be given with messages to boost your contact with creators. Gaining direct communication by paying encourages intimacy and suggests exclusive or special treatment and interactions with the content creator and gives users financial incentive to achieve this. The user feels as if they are gaining their way to closeness with creators through mutually beneficial online relationships which the platform affords with its suggestive and casual environment — subscribing to and supporting content creators is quick and easy.
(Figure 11. Messaging interface.)
Digital intimacy is redefined within the OnlyFans platform metaphor of patronage. Rouse and Salter (2021) argue that “rather than offering meaningful content creator freedom”, such platforms and especially OnlyFans’ system of patronage can “potentially perpetuate the influence of the entitled fan as consumer-controller” and give fans an unfair sense of power (11). The format of these platforms imposes a sense of intimacy within the fan-creator relationship. Creators engage in effective conversation, treating patrons as friends or even romantic interests as suggested by OnlyFans’ messaging and tipping features. Digital intimacy becomes defined as social capital and labor “through the constitution of digital intimacies on social media platforms as intertwined processes of human socialization, subjectification, algorithmic sorting and machine learning” (Dobson et al. 2018, 9).
As demonstrated by the walkthroughs of Twitter and OnlyFans, the platforms have their own respective digital intimate expressions. Twitter presents digital intimacy through its highly individualized and user-focused interface that allows for immediacy and often comedic interactions between users that together build familiarity and a sense of intimacy. Similarly, OnlyFans also creates a sense of immediacy with the affordances of its messaging system, which prompts users to interact intimately while motivated by a reciprocal relationship, thanks to the embedded payment features. Digital intimacies on Twitter and OnlyFans are therefore achieved in different ways––through individualized and immediate, often humorous intimate interactions, and financially incentivized exclusive access to mundanity and intimate life of creators through an often sexual lens, respectively.
The practices of digital intimacy often go unpaid, OnlyFans now as a frontrunner of a paid service model is reimagining our digital intimate relationships. The invisible emotional labor and platform labor that goes into maintaining a brand and creating the impression of intimacy on these platforms come to explain how digital intimate publics can be seen as part of larger historical shifts toward the publicization and monetization of “intimate life, emotions, care, and social relations, into private capital” within a capitalist digital media economy (Dobson et al. 2018, 18). Digital intimacy and intimate publics reinterpret social interactions and relationships into data thus transcribing digital intimacy into data. These data which come to represent digital intimate publics feed into the platform economy and may become exploitative when they become integrated into the frameworks of platforms. Consequently, when we enact digital intimacy through social media platforms such as Twitter and OnlyFans, we render our digital intimacies available to these platforms.
The digital realm of intimacy is becoming the norm and demonstrating the dichotomy of the concept of digital intimacy as a connective vehicle for individuals and communities to have new, freer experiences online, and alternatively as a potentially exploitative means of financially motivated digital labor and skewed creator-user dynamics. However, the pandemic amplified the dependence of some workers on these platforms and how digital intimacy may be presented in different ways depending on the given platform’s interface affordances and ease of creator-user relationships.
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