So far, Elon Musk seems to be running a spaghetti strategy at Twitter—throwing a bunch of it at the wall to see what sticks. Except a lot of that spaghetti is pretty rancid.
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s chaotic tenure has driven away advertisers, while his plans for beefing up subscription revenue by selling blue checks had to be paused within days because of a flurry of hoax verified accounts. (It’s supposedly coming back.) And although daily usage is up, according to a recent analysis from MIT Technology Review, at least 1 million users have deactivated their accounts since Musk took over the company. Musk has culled Twitter’s staff to a skeleton crew, shedding, among other specialties, many of the people who worked on content moderation. Through all of this, Musk has used his own Twitter account to keep the public’s attention on him and his new toy, issuing pronouncements, sharing conspiracy theories, and making a show out of restoring banned accounts like Donald Trump’s.
One leaked Twitter development disappeared quickly from the news, however, and it merits more attention: the one where Twitter starts making money from porn.
On Nov. 1, the Washington Post reported that the newly Musk-owned Twitter was considering adding a feature that would allow users to charge their followers to unlock video, with the company taking a cut. According to documents obtained by the Post, the social media company saw the feature as potentially high risk because of the copyright, user-trust, and legal-compliance issues it might create. It was also clear that the feature’s most obvious use case would include charging for adult content.
Porn has been on Twitter for a long time, setting the platform apart from its competitors. But all that porn is free. If Twitter were to allow users to charge for it, it would mean entering a very different, and very risky, business. But Musk is desperate for revenue after kneecapping his company’s ability to sell ads and failing to make waves with paid verification. (Wedbush forecasts the product would be only a fraction of what Twitter once made in advertising revenue.) Musk needs a big change to happen, and Twitter Blue isn’t it.
So, the question is worth taking seriously: Could—and should—Twitter pivot to porn?
To understand where Twitter could go with paywalled video, it’s worth revisiting its “Super Follow” concept, which it introduced in September 2021. The feature allows users to put a paywall on some of their tweets, but it’s available only to certain members who meet vague and subjective eligibility criteria, like this creator, who offers sports analysis, and this one, who offers skin care advice. According to Twitter, a user needs at least 10,000 followers to even qualify for consideration. Now the platform is considering adding video to this feature.
Super Follows on Twitter have not been successful. Even amid all the hype Twitter built around the feature in the weeks following the launch, it generated just $6,000 in U.S. iOS revenue. By February, the feature had brought in only $530,000 in revenue.
The appeal of paywalled tweets may be thin, but paywalled video is another story. There is demonstrated interest for consumers to directly subscribe to their favorite individual creators for videos. Or at least there is in the adult entertainment business. Platforms like OnlyFans, where creators sell subscriptions to access photos they post and then sell additional content like videos for one-off fees, have proven this business model can work for both creators and the larger company behind them. The model has its problems, though. There is a constant battle with mainstream investors and banks that are uncomfortable being associated with porn. Meanwhile, any platform for porn will attract bad actors who want to post underage content; it’ll risk facilitating sex trafficking as well. But OnlyFans has also been credited with allowing legitimate adult performers to reach audiences without going through the traditional pornography industry.
The market OnlyFans has tapped into is fairly unique because of the mix of content. Yes, it’s mostly porn, but that’s not the only thing you’ll find there, with some users paying for less-risqué content. Late last year, OnlyFans said it would ban sexually explicit content to appease banks and payment providers. After an uproar from its users and customers, the company quickly backtracked. It’s a tightrope that the presently wobbly Twitter may be unable to walk. But to vie for a chunk of OnlyFans’ more than 100 million users, it just might be tempted to try.
It is arguable that posting sells, as Musk has already been learning, but sex definitely does. Allowing users to subscribe to individual creators will likely bring in a lot more revenue for the company. OnlyFans’ finances suggest that: It brought in $4.8 billion in gross revenue in 2021.
Allowing longer, paywalled videos opens up a lot of doors for Twitter, even as it creates some problems. For the adult industry, it would mean yet another place where performers can distribute content, one with a huge built-in audience. It’s also an easily transferable model for other creator-heavy industries, like journalism.
For sex workers, another source of revenue is important because the online platforms they rely on are always at risk of disappearing. Pornhub is a key example. Visa and Mastercard pulled out as payment processors amid a New York Times investigation into child porn and revenge porn, among other troubling categories. No one had cracked down on the platform, so these payment processors stepped in as a kind of regulator. The blanket move, however, also undermined legitimate sex workers who followed the rules and produced legal, ethical, and consensual content on the platform. “One does have to be concerned that if a platform isn’t doing well, they could lose access to the revenue they’ve earned on that platform. It’s important not to put all your eggs in one basket in that sense,” Alison Boden, the executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, a pornography industry trade group, told me. Still, Twitter could be a pretty big basket.
Obviously, any commitment to porn on Twitter would require beefing up content moderation—and that’s one of the areas where Musk has cut costs since taking over the company. Specialized teams devoted to stopping child porn and trafficking would be a must.
But Musk made massive cuts to the team that tackles child sexual exploitation on the platform despite a belief, cultivated by Musk’s right-wing fan base, suggesting the opposite. It will also be important to help creators prove they are who they say. So far, the news isn’t good on that front either.
When Musk’s Twitter unleashed a wave of paid-for blue checks on the platform in early November, it underlined the risks inherent in throwing identity verification out the window. It’s also an issue porn performers already know well. If Musk wants to tap into pornography as a revenue stream, fixing verification—or coming up with a bespoke verification process just for adult content—will be key.
“I always find new profiles with my stage name and pictures, but I can’t really report them because I can’t prove I am Valentina Bellucci because … it’s my stage name,” adult film star Valentina Bellucci told me.
Even quickly removing fake verified accounts—as Musk promised to do when he started selling blue checks—wouldn’t be good enough. It takes seconds for an imposter account to post the work of a creator for free on a sham account. That makes it easy for ill-intentioned consumers to save a screenshot or grab a video rather than pay for content. Which is lost money for creators.
So porn performers, particularly well-known ones, would need to be assured that they wouldn’t have to compete with their own impersonators.
“I just feel like, if you’re in this industry, it’s just so normal because it happens to all of us,” adult performer Kendra Sunderland said. “And there’s not really much you can do. We get these accounts reported to try and get them down for impersonation, but they’re [scammers] always constantly making new ones. You’ll get one down, and they’ll make a new one right away. And people actually believe it, which is kind of crazy to me.”
Sunderland, who, like many professional porn performers, has an OnlyFans but has also worked through the traditional industry, said she would welcome another platform, even a new product from Twitter. But she’s seen how things can go wrong when impersonators run rampant.
“I think the worst one is definitely when some person came to see me. I was feature dancing in
his city, and he came out to meet me in person because he thought he’d been talking to me [online] for years,” Sunderland said. “This person thought that I had a sick mom or something and that was something that we bonded over. And I was like—first of all, I felt really terrible about it because of the situation. And on top of that, he actually—they told him that I was kidnapped and that in order to give me back, they needed money.”
If Twitter is a place where you can sell porn and pay for verified status without actually being verified, you can see how it would go awry. Fix one, though, and the other just might work—not only for the pornography business but for all kinds of creators.
There are two other big obstacles to a Twitter that embraces pornography more fully: Google and Apple don’t look kindly on much sexual content in their respective app stores. Twitter, meanwhile, wouldn’t be viable as a social network or a business without its mobile app.
Sunderland is an example of the Catch-22 for tech giants. She has a history of stirring the pot on social media—doing things she very well knows are against the terms of service, like when she jokingly said she’d had sex with Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, and got banned from the Meta-owned app.
“There’s times where I’ve definitely deserved it. I was intentionally breaking the rules, but a lot of times people suffer without even breaking the rules,” Sunderland said.
But at the same time, she brings in traffic, interest, and money directly from subscribers.
Under Twitter’s current policy, porn is allowed as long as content is consensual, legal, and marked as sensitive. That sets the platform apart from major social networks like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok, where pornography is banned.
The Apple App Store’s policy is murky. Apple outright bans pornographic apps but does not appear to ban apps that allow consumers to access adult content as long as this is not seemingly the primary role of the app. Google’s policy is comparable but much more definitive. It explicitly bans porn from the Google Play Store. Yet both of them still have quite a few apps with pornographic content available, like Reddit. On the other hand, Tumblr has previously been in hot water amid concerns of child porn and other nonconsensual sexual content on the platform. Apple pulled Tumblr from the App Store in 2018 after it was discovered that child porn got through the platform’s content filter.
As long as Twitter aggressively filters out child porn—given the precedent Apple and Google have set at this point—it would be very surprising if the tech giants suddenly pulled the app for legally produced adult entertainment. But it’s a risk. Recently, Elon Musk teased what might actually happen when he claimed that Twitter was under review in the App Store—it appeared that Apple might be concerned about Twitter’s newly looser stance on content moderation. Apple CEO Tim Cook later met with Musk at the tech giant’s Silicon Valley campus. Musk said that the “misunderstanding” was resolved.
It’s unclear how much revenue a Super Follow program focused on porn could generate, but Musk is clearly willing to try anything. It might not be enough to save Twitter on its own, but there are clearly lessons he could take from the porn industry, whose willingness to try out new models and approaches has helped it earn a reputation as an unlikely technological innovator. At the very least, it might offer something Twitter users will actually pay for.