White brick wall painted with a red X.

By Trevor Pyle

The world of online influencers — especially those who trade in sexual content — is an economic behemoth that’s often-murky and often-mocked. But Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell used his remarkable story on a pair of OnlyFans content producers to treat the subject as worthwhile as any other economic engine — one that demands strict discipline, a grueling schedule and attention to detail as exacting as a statistics final.

“Inside an OnlyFans empire: Sex, Influence and the new American Dream” is part of series of stories about the creator economy. Harwell profiles Bryce Adams and Brian Adam, a Florida couple who produce sexual content for an army of online fans. Overseeing employees on a central Florida compound known as “the farm,” the couple has a keen grasp of the business’s relentless demands. Bryce Adams’ scantily clad bottom may be featured on a banner at the property, but behind the scenes it’s the financial bottom line that’s the real star of the show.

“This was, at its core, a labor story,” Harwell told me.

Washington Post reporter Drew Harwell

Drew Harwell

Harwell is a former business reporter who put his background in real-estate reporting to use for the OnlyFans story. He told me that the orbit of online influencers deserves serious attention:

“I’m a huge proponent of applying all the classic old-school techniques of journalism — immersive, investigative, data-driven reporting and narrative storytelling — to this new age of social media and the internet. Just because these stories are playing out online doesn’t make them any less important or illuminating.”

Harwell’s story probes OnlyFans not as a salacious sex site, but as a business. While Harwell doesn’t skirt around the online account’s sexual content, he’s more interested in the site’s calculated nature, grueling pace and ambitious staff of owners and employees.

“Don’t be afraid of stories involving sex, porn or other topics of legitimate inquiry we often pretend, out of journalistic comfort or convenience, don’t exist,” Harwell said. “These are real people and they deserve to be understood, just like anyone.”

His story on OnlyFans also holds lessons in how to use jargon to immerse readers in the story’s world, where to find thriving and useful subcultures online, and a nod to the swoop-in reality of reporters as vampires.

Harwell answered questions for Storyboard about the genesis and development of the OnlyFans story, and annotated the text. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about your background at the Post, and your current role there.
I joined The Post in 2014 after half a decade at my hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. It was a writer’s paper, and I got to play around with lots of different story forms in a local-journalism environment in Florida, where the records are very public and the news is always weird. I covered cops, courts, city government and then, around the time of the housing crash, real estate, where I did news and investigations.

When I joined The Washington Post, I wrote about business, then Trump’s businesses, and then in 2018 pitched a new beat for the financial desk covering artificial intelligence. I’ve been lucky to have a very wide-open beat that allows me to chase all the things I find especially fascinating or creepy or weird: social media, AI fakes, digital surveillance, etc.

This is part of a larger series at The Post; what are the aims of that series?
Our main goal of the series (“The Creator Economy”) was to get people to take seriously the fact that creating content for all of us on social media is a real, legitimate job, even if adults think it’s silly kid stuff and regulators and lawmakers don’t regard it as valid work. This is one of the most popular aspirational industries for American kids. The big influencers are creating jobs and changing towns. Yet the industry is still totally unregulated and the job protections are basically zero.

What was your goal for reporting on a sex-content site like OnlyFans?
There were two big topics I wanted to get into. One was the gender dynamics of this business. A lot of the people I talked to noted how porn had historically been exploitative of the “talent,” mostly women, who performed in it, and that those women rarely benefited from the work, and that OnlyFans and the creator economy had helped shift that power balance in a way where the women were more in control. It didn’t create this utopia and it still has many problems, but I knew I wanted to spotlight that side of it: that the women who once would’ve been totally disenfranchised by this work were now gaining or regaining their influence, and they were taking it very seriously, and the result was this new kind of business that most people know nothing about.

The other was that this was, at its core, a labor story. I try to make that the centerpiece of all the creator stories I do: the tension of trying to make a living on the internet, between lots of anonymous customers and a big tech company that can change your rules and wages on a whim, without the basic safety net and support infrastructure that most workers can count on, in an industry where the competition can sometimes seem infinite.

Despite pornography’s significant financial footprint, it can be difficult to report on because of creators’ privacy concerns. How did you gain the impressive access you got for this story? What did you agree to leave vague for privacy, safety or sensitivity reasons?
I didn’t use their real names or location for their protection, but basically everything else was fair game. I always tell sources that their privacy and safety is way more important than any story and that nothing will appear in print that comes to them as a surprise — and I mean it. To report something like this, you have to build a mini-relationship, and that starts with trust. I try to be very clear that I’m a journalist, not a friend, and that I’ll be asking a lot of weird, dumb and uncomfortable questions, but that I’m also going to be totally honest with them because I care about their lives and want the story to be as rich and truthful as it can possibly be.

Was there any aspect of this story that was uniquely challenging? If so, how did you approach that challenge?
Just the balance. I knew it was a topic that would be hard to speak plainly about, because so much of it is raunchy. I wanted to be candid and honest, but not prurient. I wanted to treat their work like a regular business and take them as seriously as they take themselves. I knew some readers would want us to be moralistic and intervene with how sick and depraved it all was, but that’s not our place as journalists. We’re capturing real people in America doing something totally legal. It’s a phenomenon totally worthy of journalistic exploration. We’ll tell you what we learned so you can think about it and come to your own conclusion. Even if you don’t like what they’re doing, isn’t it better to understand how they got here, and how it all works?

What has the reaction from readers and subjects of the story been like?
I was really encouraged by the reactions. There were a few people who thought we were basically just peddling smut or that the story was frivolous. But a lot of readers told me this was a kind of story they’d never read before, about people building an unconventional life out of our weird internet era in a novel way, doing it on their own terms, and that however they felt about the subject matter they were glad to have learned more. That’s the best part — telling a story that surprises people, wakes them up a little, but is still human and relatable and real.

THE ANNOTATION: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Harwell’s answers in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS button in the right-hand menu of your monitor or at the top of your mobile screen.

Inside an OnlyFans empire: Sex, influence and the new American Dream

The fast-growing platform represents the creator economy at its most bluntly transactional, where sex is just another unit of content to monetize

By Drew Harwell

SOMEWHERE IN FLORIDA — In the mornings, the workers of Bryce Adams’s OnlyFans empire buzz in through a camera-wired security gate, roll up the winding driveway that cost $120,000 to pave and park outside Adam’ss $2.5 million home-office-studio complex. I like that you open with financial details in a story largely concerned with business. Why did you choose to include the cost of the paving and overall complex? As a business reporter, I covered real estate, and people loved mansion stories — all the ostentation and big numbers. But I also hoped these details would very quickly affirm some important points without overt exposition: that these characters make good money, that their business is more sophisticated than most people would expect from an OnlyFans model; and that they’ve invested in building their own little empire.  A large American flag waves from a pole above their office door. So does a banner depicting Adams, in tight shorts, from behind.

On OnlyFans, subscribers pay for monthly access to feeds of creators’ videos — many of them sex videos, known as “collabs” — as well as pay-to-watch clips the “fans” can buy a la carte. “Collab” is just the first of several times you define industry-specific terms for readers; how much thought did you give to providing that kind of context as you guide them through this unfamiliar world? I try to write simply but never want to dumb stories down; I want to talk up to readers and reflect how smart and curious most of them are. Part of that involves introducing a few select new words to define the central concepts so the reader can leave feeling more familiar with a weird new world. Journalism 101 says not to use jargon, which I mostly agree with, but sometimes a piece of jargon tells a story all by itself – like ‘collab.’ In this case, it means sex, maybe the most intimate thing there is. But ‘collab’ renders it into the lingo of online content, obscuring that intimacy, making it feel like just another commodity. Any time I can pack the background theme of the story into a single word, I go for it. And as one of the platform’s most popular creators, Adams runs her business like a machine.

Inside, a storyboard designer opens the day’s publishing plans for not just OnlyFans but all of their customer feeder sites — Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube. Editors start splicing video into short looping clips, optimized for virality. Collabs are sent to paying fans.

Brian Adam, Bryce’s longtime boyfriend (who, like Bryce, uses a stage name for privacy), stops at each employee’s desk to review the day’s assignments, vetoing any posts or captions that seem “cringe” or “off brand.” In an office loft, four young women start texting with Adams’s paid subscribers, who talk about sex and their personal lives in conversations that often exceed a thousand messages a day.

This being a sex business, their workdays are filled with what others might see as debauchery, but which they see as just work: Two (or three) people will slip into a bedroom next to the kitchen or the gym with a cameraman, or just their cellphones, to record a collab or start live-streaming themselves exercising in the nude. Turning sex into business is, of course, not new. That said, it’s not often covered by journalists as a business. How did the idea develop to devote this story to that idea? Porn is one of these businesses that most of the world experiences and very few know anything about. People don’t talk about it or seek out stories about it, but they’re fascinated by it. It’s the core of an unregulated industry that’s full of problematic and complicated people — and, now, with OnlyFans, it’s basically being created everywhere. So it has all the elements of a great business story. I also just think it’s not worth being squeamish about stories like these; it’s real life. I hadn’t really done any digging on it until earlier this year, when we did a story on some investors linked to former President Trump’s social media company that led me to reading through old back editions of this trade publication for the live webcam model industry. (You have to read that story to understand the connection.) This magazine was like a portal to this giant unseen world, with all of these people and side businesses and technical components you’d never even think about, all in this impressively polished product that suggested there was a lot of money and time involved. It was all just so professionalized. I figured there had to be a story there. How did this story get off the ground, and what was the reporting and writing process like? I’ve been wanting to do more stories on the business of online influencers for a long time. So much tech journalism is about the companies, but the most interesting stories are really about the everyday people who use these tools – and who shape our culture; who work in this very competitive environment, where there’s no real guidebook; and who stand to become incredibly rich and successful from their work, or have their lives ruined, or both. My editor, Mark Seibel, who’s amazing, also edits Taylor Lorenz, who’s like a robot designed in a lab to report out the best internet-culture stories: She’s very fast and thoughtful and knows everyone. Mark said the two of us should draft up a project that would get into this issue: the rise of this massive online-influencer industry. So we started jotting down ideas for what a series could look like: a main story to introduce the idea; some big-picture stories about themes: creators’ effect on children, on the news, etc.; and some side-dish stories that were more clearly targeted to specific people or places, to give the project color and life. I’d done a story on a Twitch streamer in 2021, staying up all night with him in his house in Missouri while he played video games and screamed and made a lot of money. After that I met a bunch of other influencers and creators who liked that we’d taken their work seriously and wanted to share more about their life. A few of them streamed adult content on OnlyFans and other places. They weren’t “porn stars;” they just needed to pay off student loans or had graduated in a pandemic and couldn’t get a job. They faced all the same challenges as other influencers, with an added layer of social stigma. But I didn’t really know how we could get it into a family newspaper, until we got approval to push this series along.

Then they’ll head back to their desks to resume chatting or drive to the beach to make TikToks. After a few days, the video editors will upload the files to the OnlyFans servers with names like “Bryce & Holly Shower” or “Sex on a Jungle Trail,” retailing for $25 a scene. What was the reporting and writing process like? To report this piece of it, I called up all of the adult-content creators I’d met, plus some new ones I met from Googling around, and did pre-interviews with them so I could assess what a story would look like with them at the center. I like to do stories where there’s a big idea as the backbone — an industry, a problem, a societal shift — but with a real person as the face. I want to get across big ideas but not have it read like a term paper. Readers want emotion, personality, stakes. From my first video call with them, Bryce and Brian seemed like a great fit: They were candid and unguarded; their business was incontrovertibly huge, and they were knowledgeable about every step of their operation. They were a business with spreadsheets and whiteboards and invoices and customer retention strategies. At the end of that first call, Brian said I was welcome to come by anytime, and I think he was surprised at how quickly I said yes. Reporters are like vampires; once you invite us in … I spent a long day on their “farm” in Florida. They gave me a tour of the house and offices, and I spent some hours with the advertising and chat teams, getting full walkthroughs of their workflow. I did lots of walk-and-talks with Bryce and Brian, but I also spent a long time just talking to the employees without them present. One of the best parts was after lunch, when I was just chatting with the employees on the picnic tables outside about what it was like being in the business, what their high-school friends thought, etc. I stayed into the evening and left sometime during Bryce’s nighttime workout, around the time of that closing scene, after I’d become part of the wallpaper and figured I needed some time to process. I did lots of post-interviews over phone and video calls with Bryce, Brian, their employees, their family members, researchers, OnlyFans employees, industry analysts, etc. With the younger employees, there were a  lots of texts for fact-checks and catch-ups. (I hate texting for reporting — the answers are too lifeless and austere. But sometimes you have to meet sources where they are.)

Adams’s employees call their headquarters in central Florida “the farm.” Bought last year with OnlyFans money, the 10 acres of pastureland once held a grove of pecan trees. I liked this detail. How did you learn about the pasture’s former use as a farm? Here, again, my real estate background paid off. I looked up the property records, the site’s old real-estate listings and the land maps. I love colorful details like these because they’re golden nuggets that keep people moving and engaged. And I also just loved the juxtaposition of this bucolic Florida nature scene with these merchants of online porn. If only those old farmers knew how this land would end up …

Its only cash crop now is attention, and Adams’s business out-earns most American farms. “Its only cash crop now is attention” is my favorite phrase in the story, and seems like one that could be deployed often in a wired world where attention is so powerful. Do you remember how you landed on this phrasing? In the early drafts, I was more circumspect and was stumbling a bit on how to succinctly make the case that this is a real business that readers should take seriously. I’d already introduced that Bryce & Co. called their compound ‘the farm,” and Mark Seibel, my editor (who deserves about 95% of the credit for anything good I’ve done in the last five years), suggested: Why not connect the two? He said I should find out how much money American farms make and see how they compare. It was genius, because it helped connect these two wildly different businesses in a way that shows they’re maybe more similar than we think. I wrote that specific phrase because I always try to think of these stories as being about our attention. In the internet business that’s the only way you can make money, stay relevant, survive. The company brings in roughly $10 million annually in revenue, and many of her two dozen workers get paid more than the average farmer; her total corporate payroll exceeds $1 million a year.

“People don’t understand the scale of the opportunity. I mean, really: You can make your own world,” said Adams, 30, as she walked the grounds in jean shorts and a tank top. “This is our business. This is our life.”

In the American creator economy, no platform is quite as direct or effective as OnlyFans. Since launching in 2016, the subscription site known primarily for its explicit videos has become one of the most methodical, cash-rich and least known layers of the online-influencer industry, touching every social platform and, for some creators, unlocking a once-unimaginable level of wealth.

More than 3 million creators now post around the world on OnlyFans, which has 230 million subscribing “fans” — a global audience two-thirds the size of the United States itself, a company filing in August said.

And with help from a pandemic that isolated people at home, fans’ total payouts to creators soared last year to $5.5 billion — more than every online influencer in the United States earned from advertisers that year, according to an analysis into the creator economy this spring by Goldman Sachs Research. Brian Adam and Bryce Adams are the focus of this story, but you do a thorough job pushing out wider for context about OnlyFans’ reach. How did you think about how much to include about the company overall? By this point in the story, I wanted readers to know that if you stick with the story you’ll learn not just about these two strangers but about this giant business with a monumental impact. That’s the zoom-out moment where I want to establish the scope and scale of the issue, so people know it’s not just any old profile, but there’s some financial rigor and authority here, too. I didn’t want to make it an OnlyFans profile, though, either, so I tried to select the details that built out the financial and social ramifications or connected in some way to the Bryce story.

If OnlyFans’s creator earnings were taken as a whole, the company would rank around No. 90 on Forbes’s list of the biggest private companies in America by revenue, ahead of Twitter (now called X), Neiman Marcus Group, New Balance, Hard Rock International and Hallmark Cards.

On the surface, OnlyFans is a simple business: Fans (mostly men) pay to scroll through feeds of photos and videos (mostly of women), with a few perks offered at additional cost, like direct chats with the creator or custom-made videos by fan request. Most, though not all, of its content is risqué, or “spicy,” and company executives joke that they are often misconstrued as “sexy Facebook.”

But as OnlyFans’s pool of influencers has grown, it has also professionalized. Many creators now operate like independent media companies, with support staffs, growth strategies and promotional budgets, and work to apply the cold quantification and data analytics of online marketing to the creation of a fantasy life.

The subscription site has often been laughed off as a tabloid punchline, a bawdy corner of the internet where young, underpaid women (teachersnursescops) sell nude photos, get found out and lose their jobs.

But OnlyFans increasingly has become the model for how a new generation of online creators gets paid. Influencers popular on mainstream sites use it to capitalize on the audiences they’ve spent years building. And OnlyFans creators have turned going viral on the big social networks into a marketing strategy, using Facebook, Twitter and TikTok as sales funnels for getting new viewers to subscribe.

America’s social media giants for years have held up online virality as the ultimate goal, doling out measurements of followers, reactions and hearts with an unspoken promise: that internet love can translate into sponsorships and endorsement deals. But OnlyFans represents the creator economy at its most blatantly transactional — a place where viewers pay upfront for creators’ labor, and intimacy is just another unit of content to monetize. These three paragraphs are striking because they lay out a straightforward premise — one that portrays OnlyFans’ mode as a platonic version of so much of influencer culture. Can you tell me anything about how you decided to make the statement this clearly and directly? Also, how much work went into crafting it? This is the “nut graf,” where we have to get to the point about why we’re telling this story, so I wanted it to feel very authoritative and persuade people that this story wasn’t going to be this salacious pulpy thing, and would be worth their time. I knew from the jump that these three points were important ones for the kind of story I wanted to tell: 1) that the people who do OnlyFans are not caricatures, they’re real people, and it’s worth understanding why they do it; 2) that this is not just a sideline little porn story, but says a lot about how the incentives of the internet have changed how we interact with people and experience the world; 3) that OnlyFans is this potent microcosm for all of the issues we talk about in the creator economy, in which people get paid to share the most intimate parts of their lives. Here, I also had lots of help from my Post colleague, Nitasha Tiku, who’s an amazing writer and journalist. I’ve asked her now on a lot of stories to read through my drafts, and she always comes back with these incredibly thoughtful notes that are so clarifying. A writer’s dream.

The fast ascent of OnlyFans further spotlights how the internet has helped foster a new style of modern gig work that creators see as safe, remote and self-directed, said Pani Farvid, an associate professor and the director of the SexTech Lab at the New School, a New York-based university, who has made interviews with digital sex workers a major topic of her research. How did you find Farvid? I always end up talking to more smart people than I can quote, and I think I ended up interviewing about a dozen expert-y types, some from industry but a lot from academia. I stumbled across Professor Farvid’s research during reporting and found it pretty enlightening. She didn’t just spend the time to interview workers at length; she treated the topics as worthy of deeper analysis, trying to understand the sociological and psychological factors that had shaped their decisions.

Creators’ nonchalance about the digital sex trade has fueled a broader debate about whether the site’s promotion of feminist autonomy is a facade: just a new class of techno-capitalism, selling the same patriarchal dream. And even some OnlyFans veterans have urged aspiring creators to understand what they’re getting into: pressures to perform for a global audience; an internet that never forgets. “There is simply no room for naivety,” one said in a guide posted to Reddit’s r/CreatorsAdvice.

Farvid acknowledges that the job can be financially precarious and mentally taxing, demanding not just the technical labor of recording, editing, managing and marketing but also the physical and emotional labor of adopting a persona to keep clients feeling special and eager to spend. I was impressed with how the story established the OnlyFans’ operation as grueling, complete with content that must be created at a ruthless pace. Was that idea in your head as something to look for, or did it emerge with the reporting? Thank you! That’s something that just becomes very apparent when you’re reporting on people working at this level in social media. It’s something I try to drive home in every story for anyone who just thinks, ‘Oh, these whiny young people talk into their phones and computers all day; how hard can it be?’ They all work extremely hard. They get no time off; they compete with the entire internet; they’re all anxious about sinking in the algorithmic rankings or getting replaced. I find that anxiety really relatable, because a lot of us in the internet era feel that to some degree — the pressure of all this connectedness, how always-on we have to be.

But many creators, she added, still find it uniquely alluring — a rational choice in an often-irrational environment for gender, work and power. “Why would I spend my day doing dirty, degrading, minimum-wage labor when I can do something that brings more money in and that I have a lot more control over?” she recounted some telling her. “Does an accountant always enjoy their work? No. All work has pleasure and pain, and a lot of it is boring and annoying. Does that mean they’re being exploited?”

The attraction of financial freedom and the challenge of standing out have led many OnlyFans creators to run themselves like tech start-ups. Adams’s operation is registered in state business records as a limited liability company and offers quarterly employee performance reviews and catered lunch. It also runs with factory-like efficiency, thanks largely to a system designed in-house to track millions of data points on customers and content and ensure every video is rigorously planned and optimized.

The strategy is working: Adams and her employees, who spoke with The Washington Post on the condition that their real names and location be concealed and stage names be used to reduce the risk of harassment, have ascended to OnlyFans’s highest echelon of earners, which the platform calls its “top 0.01 percent.”

Since sending her first photo in 2021, Adams’s OnlyFans accounts have earned $16.5 million in sales, more than 1.4 million fans and more than 11 million “likes.” She now makes about $30,000 a day — more than most American small businesses — from subscriptions, video sales, messages and tips, half of which is pure profit. I was surprised by how much financial information regarding the Adams’ business was made available to you. Did they require any persuading to share it? I told them in our first reporting call and every interview after: I want to see everything you can show me and to understand every part of the business. I said they should basically try to bury me in paper and that I would be grateful for it. I’m like this on every story, dating back to the first big investigative projects I did on real estate, where I’d have thousands of property records in a giant Excel spreadsheet. I want the whole cache. You just never know what you’ll end up finding. Most sources, when I tell them this, pat me on the head and ignore it, but Bryce and Brian lit up, because they’d devoted a lot of their time to optimizing this business and no one had really asked them for that level of detail before.

Adams’s team sees its business as one of harmless, destigmatized gratification, in which both sides get what they want. The buyers are swiped over in dating apps, widowed, divorced or bored, eager to pay for the illusion of intimacy with an otherwise unattainable match. And the sellers see themselves as not all that different from the influencers they watched growing up on YouTube, charging for parts of their lives they’d otherwise share for free.

“This is normal for my generation, you know?” said Avery Leigh, the 20-year-old head of Adams’s advertising team, who made $150,000 in two months from her work with Adams and her own OnlyFans account. “I can go on TikTok right now and see ten girls wearing the bare minimum of clothing just to get people to join their page. Why not go the extra step to make money off it?” You speak not only to Brian and Bryce, but several of their employees. How much time did you spend interviewing the employees? Can you describe how you prepared for those interviews? I did a couple pre-interview calls with Bryce and Brian before going over for a full day on the farm, where they let me walk around and talk to everyone and ask everything. It was overwhelming, because there were a couple dozen people, and they were working, so I asked everyone for phone numbers and called some of them back later for longer interviews. I ended up including only a couple employees in the story, though there were others with fascinating backstories and motivations of their own, because I didn’t want the story to feel too flabby or unfocused. So all told it ended up being hours of interviews, not including what ended up being a 10-to-12-hour day on the farm. I always read everything I can to prepare for interviews, but the most helpful piece for this, funnily enough, was that I listened to hours of (unofficial) OnlyFans-related business podcasts, where models and creators talk about how they run their companies, what upsell strategies they’ve tried, marketing and promotion techniques, etc. Those taught me the lingo and helped drive home how legitimate this was as a business — that there was this whole consulting and educational layer most people would never think about.

‘Cry in a Ferrari’

When Tim Stokely, a London-based operator of live-cam sex sites, founded OnlyFans with his brother in 2016, he framed it as a simple way to monetize the creators who were becoming the world’s new celebrities — the same online influencers, just with a payment button. In 2019, Stokely told Wired magazine that his site was like “a bolt-on to your existing social media,” in the same way “Uber is a bolt-on to your car.”

Since then, OnlyFans’s popularity has skyrocketed. In financial filings in the United Kingdom, where its owner, Fenix International Limited, is based, the company said its sales grew from $238 million in 2019 to more than $5.5 billion last year. Its international army of creators has also grown from 348,000 in 2019 to more than 3 million today — a tenfold increase. (And its leadership has made a fortune: The company paid its owner, the Ukrainian American venture capitalist Leonid Radvinsky, $338 million in dividends last year.)

The United States is OnlyFans’s biggest market, accounting for a large portion of its creator base and 70 percent of its annual revenue. The site has fans in 187 countries, the filings show, and a company executive said recently that it is targeting major “growth regions” in Latin America, Europe and Australia. (The Mexican diver Diego Balleza said he is using his $15-a-month account to save up for next year’s Paris Olympics.)

Before OnlyFans, pornography on the internet had been largely a top-down enterprise, with agents, producers, studios and other middlemen hoarding the profits of performers’ work. OnlyFans democratized that business model, letting the workers run the show: recording their own content, deciding their prices, selling it however they’d like and reaping the full reward.

The platform bans real-world prostitution, as well as extreme or illegal content, and requires everyone who shows up on camera to verify they’re 18 or older by sending in a video selfie showing them holding a government-issued ID. Beyond that, OnlyFans operates as a neutral marketplace, with no ads, trending topics or recommendation algorithms, placing few limitations on what creators can sell but also making it necessary for them to market themselves or fade away.

Many OnlyFans creators don’t offer anything explicit, and the site has pushed to spotlight its stable of chefs, comedians and mountain bikers on a streaming channel, OFTV. But erotic content on the platform is inescapable; even some outwardly conventional creators shed their clothes behind the paywall. The company plugs itself as the only social network that is “openly inclusive of all creator genres.”

OnlyFans creators are categorized as independent contractors of the platform, which offers basic tools for content publishing and customer acquisition and keeps 20 percent of creators’ revenue. OnlyFans sends 1099 forms to the IRS and all U.S. creators who earn more than $600 a year to confirm they are paying taxes on all income. (Adams said her business paid roughly $1.3 million in taxes last year.)

Enticed by the promise of wealth, an influx of new creators has begun paying for OnlyFans mentors and coaching programs that teach marketing strategies and techniques of the trade. For those overwhelmed by the logistics, agencies and account managers offer to handle administrative tasks, write captions and manage social accounts in exchange for a cut of the proceeds.

On Reddit’s r/onlyfansadvice, an unofficial “educational space” with more than 300,000 members, creators share tips on how to secure a bank loan with OnlyFans income, handle fan disputes or cope with dramatic swings in pay. “I took one week off social media and have never recovered,” one creator there recently said. I love that you thought to include information from the larger OnlyFans-creator community, most of whom are presumably trying to be more efficient, like the Adams are. What made you think to visit that particular subreddit as part of your research? Reddit is maybe the best-kept secret of modern reporting, and certainly of internet reporting. It’s amazing the breadth and diversity of conversations that are happening there. I’ve found a lot of sources from going into different subreddits, finding people talking about things I’m interested in, direct-messaging them, interviewing them, asking who else they could point me to. So I always poke around there when I have the time on a story. I spent a while going through this subreddit, looking at the things people were asking about. It’s basically a giant support group for the very unusual challenges of trying to make money on OnlyFans. And what became pretty obvious, beyond just how complicated the work can be, was that these people had no one really to turn to; they’re independent contractors in a wild-west industry. That’s a big point of our creator stories: how precarious and lonely the work can be. So when they have a major problem to work through, their safety net is strangers on Reddit.

Like most platforms, OnlyFans suffers from a problem of incredible pay inequality, with the bulk of the profits concentrated in the bank accounts of the lucky few. In 2020, the independent researcher Tom Hollands scraped the website’s payment data and concluded that the top 1 percent of accounts made 33 percent of the money, and that most accounts took home less than $145 a month. (OnlyFans declined to provide its own analysis, and Hollands said the company has since made it harder to access this data or conduct new research.) This seems like a crucial bit of context to make clear to readers that OnlyFans hasn’t necessarily been a path to large-scale financial success for everyone. Any story on creators making it rich must include the reality that it’s a huge 1% game. It’s journalism malpractice to leave that out. It’s just such a challenging industry to break into, and yet so many people go for it anyway. I don’t think that’s a disqualifier for doing these stories – look how many actors fail out there, and we still write about Hollywood – but it’s an important reminder because it highlights that the stakes are very high and that the glamour can be a trap. For most people the grind will not pay off. I’d come across Holland’s work while scouting around for economic analyses of the industry and ended up talking to him a bit, just to make sure I understood the findings. I wish OnlyFans, and every platform, would be more open about their pay breakdowns so people know what they’re getting into.

For those who do make it, however, the rewards can be life-changing. When the OnlyFans creator Elle Brooke was pushed during a TV interview in June to explain how a future child of hers might feel about her work, her response — “They can cry in a Ferrari” — became an OnlyFans rallying cry. Stella Sol, a dominatrix, tweeted, “It’s always so funny how mad people get at beautiful Women happily winning the game of life.”

‘Dream girlfriend’

Bryce and Brian first met 13 years ago in high school, in a class on career development, and the two were an instant match: driven, competitive, a little obsessive. He played baseball for eight hours a day, and she attended every practice and game, sitting in the bleachers with a logbook to record every ball and strike. How open were Bryce and Brian about their personal history? Very open. In the first draft I went into their upbringing and love story in a lot more detail. I asked a lot of questions and they basically ended up as a single paragraph, but I don’t regret it because it helped me be a little more authoritative about who they were. As I started going through it with my editor, he and I would be trimming it and the profile bits just began to seem like the least important, especially so high in the story. Besides, what made Bryce and Brian special was not these relatable romance bits, but the business they’ve built, so I tried to be much more strict on what I used. I preserved that baseball anecdote because you can visualize it and it conveys a lot of amount of information in a sentence: their devotion to each other, their obsessiveness, this sabermetric way they’ve worked to optimize their lives.

 Adams had spent her teen years selling her old clothes on eBay and became thrilled by making imaginary money become real. So after she dropped out of college, the couple devoted themselves to a small internet business, buying baseball bats and gloves from local mom-and-pop shops and reselling them online. They hired their friends, and the company expanded until it became self-sustaining, and they got bored.

One Sunday night in January 2021, as the couple halfheartedly watched a movie on the couch, Adams created an OnlyFans account with a fake name and posted a photo of her butt. The couple had an open relationship; it was, she said, kind of a joke. Then a guy who found her account messaged her, and they started texting, and he asked for more. She had no clue how to price the photos, but the guy just kept paying. After two hours and five photos, she had made $62.

Her boyfriend saw a major business opportunity. Other creators’ OnlyFans accounts looked underproduced, he recalled, and the market of paying schmoes seemed limitless. I must ask if it was you or Brian who landed on the word “schmoes,” which is, I assume, a rarity in The Washington Post. Bryce and Brian didn’t explicitly call them schmoes, at least with me; they were always, y’know, fans, customers. But they did talk about their excitement to take candy from babies and that the demand was so huge. I just loved the scene of the two of them doing this mental market analysis and thinking about just how many guys there were out there who would pay for this sort of thing, and so I felt like, in that moment, it’d make sense to have a little lighthearted moment and call these gentlemen schmoes. It’s not that they’re dummies; a schmo is just an ordinary guy – a Joe Schmo. The porn business would be nowhere without schmoes.

“There is a huge demand, and the vendors’ ability to meet that demand is awful,” he said. “It’s like taking candy from babies.”

For Adams, the experience was also energizing. She could snap a selfie in two seconds and some stranger would give her cash. She felt wanted, maybe even a bit powerful. A few nights later, her boyfriend walked into the bathroom around 3 a.m. and Adams was sitting next to the bathtub, sexting.

“She was like, ‘I made $400 so far,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘That’s actually really cool.’ Then I peed and went back to bed.”

They began studying OnlyFans like a puzzle, tracking what fans wanted, what they’d pay to get it and what to say to keep them hooked. They started logging a collection of data, from video sell-through rates to subscriber conversions. And they conducted what they called “micro-tests” on everything in hopes of gaining maximum engagement: the most lucrative seductive poses, the perfectly sized video-title length.

Every week, they competed with themselves to beat last week’s revenue, gradually pushing the boundaries in hopes of standing out in a porn-filled internet. They moved from selling individual photos to “picture packs” to full videos. They started recording in new places, involving each other and bringing on new partners. And their fan count continued to grow.

Watching their partner have sex with someone else sometimes sparked what they called “classic little jealousy issues,” which Adams said they resolved with “more communication, more growing up.” The money was just too good. And over time, they adopted a self-affirming ideology that framed everything as just business. Things that were tough to do but got easier with practice, like shooting a sex scene, they called, in gym terms, “reps.” Things one may not want to do at first, but require some mental work to approach, became “self-limiting beliefs.” This is one of my favorite paragraphs in the story, because it seems to home in on Brian and Bryce’s skill for using language to change how they thought about what they were doing. Do you remember how you came to observe that, and how you wrote the graf devoted to it? I remember perking up hearing those phrases while I was spending time with them. A lot of the employees used them, and they flowed so naturally, like everyone was saying them all the time. I’m always on the lookout for stuff like that — little quips and eccentricities that give you a portal into someone’s thinking. In any organization, the leaders encourage these euphemistic phrases that are designed to help the worker bees turn their brains off and just do the thing. You see this in cults but also in companies (and newsrooms!). So it just felt like another great connector for this story back to the main theme: You have this business that, to oversimplify, sells sex videos, but they’re doing it with help from these aspirational, business-ified, semi-cheesy self-help phrases, as if they were just selling car insurance. Which goes to show how established it’s all become.

As Adams’s popularity exploded, so, too, did the workload for her and Brian, who became her “chief executive”; each worked about 90 hours a week. There was always a new sext to respond to, a new piece of social content to publish, a new collab to record. In the evenings, the couple would take long walks, strategizing about content, how to “take Bryce up a level.” Afterward, they’d pick up Starbucks to have caffeine through the night.

They started hiring workers through friends and family, and what was once just Adams became a team effort, in which everyone was expected to workshop caption and video ideas. The group evaluated content under what Brian, who is 31, called a “triangulation method” that factored their comfort level with a piece of content alongside its engagement potential and “brand match.” Bryce the person gave way to Bryce the brand, a commercialized persona drafted by committee and refined for maximum marketability.

“One of the things we do communicate is: ‘Hey, this is your dream girlfriend. She’s down to go to all your baseball games, you know?’ The fans like that,” he said. The “Bryce” character that Adams presents to her fans, “We’ve all always looked at it as if it’s an amalgam of all of us here. It’s not actually her.”

‘What the hell are we looking at?’

The sprawling main house on “the farm,” which they bought with a mortgage last year, is still mostly unfurnished, largely due to their all-consuming schedules. There is a guest room with tripods and ring lights for shooting sex scenes and an office where Adams chats with her “VIPs,” who pay $30 a month. One unused room has been claimed by their cats.

The house is sprinkled with mementos of the couple growing up and falling in love in Florida, including thousands of chunks of sea glass they’d gathered over hours-long walks on the sand. They also own 15 guns, including a .22-caliber long rifle and a pink pistol they keep in the mudroom and take on late-night walks; wild hogs are common here and legal to hunt year-round.

Adams’s mom, a former substitute teacher, comes over twice a week to tidy up the house and fix up the flower beds for $25 an hour. In a story about monetization, I was tickled that you included Adams’s mom’s hourly salary. Crisp details are always the seasoning in long stories like these. But more than that, the idea that Bryce had not only included her mom in this business but also become her employer — it just drove home both how unconventional and utterly traditional it all was. And on a more basic level, if I’m noting that the mom is doing work, I have to say she’s getting paid. This is a story about capitalism, after all.

Last Father’s Day, Adams told her parents and younger sister, a doctor who just had her first child, that the “new business in the content space” she’d told them about was actually OnlyFans. She’d intended to tell them at breakfast but got too nervous, then called them all later that day.

Her sister was supportive but didn’t say much, she said. Her parents, who had expected she would grow up to be an architect, nevertheless encouraged her to do whatever makes her happy.

“The world has changed so much … but she’s an adult. She has to do what makes her wheels move, what she finds fulfilling,” Adams’s mom said. “When you’re a parent, you want to support your child. And that’s what I do.”

The heart of the company is in the backyard, a cavernous office and gym space they built in a barn once used for storing boats. Most of their employees work in this building, including their video editors, social media managers, chatters and advertising staff; an accountant and a few others work remotely.

The team is trained in the basic software of the modern office: Slack for workplace communication, Google Docs for spreadsheets, Trello for managing team projects. Every Monday at 4:15 p.m., Bryce and Brian lead a company meeting where they review all of the content, captions and publishing plans for the week on a big-screen TV. At lunchtime, an assistant brings everyone Chick-fil-A.

The farm is wired with a server closet, two parallel internet connections, a whole-house generator and a battery backup to ensure they’re never offline. They hired an IT guy who moved from Missouri with his wife, an OnlyFans creator herself.

One of the operation’s most subtly critical components is a piece of software known as “the Tool,” which they developed and maintain in-house. The Tool scrapes and compiles every “like” and view on all of Adams’s social network accounts, every OnlyFans “fan action” and transaction, and every text, sext and chat message — more than 20 million lines of text so far.

It houses reams of customer data and a library of preset messages that Adams and her chatters can send to fans, helping to automate their reactions and flirtations — “an 80 percent template for a personalized response,” she said.

And it’s linked to a searchable database, in which hundreds of sex scenes are described in detail — by price, total sales, participants and general theme — and given a unique “stock keeping unit,” or SKU, much like the scannable codes on a grocery store shelf. If a fan says they like a certain sexual scenario, a team member can instantly surface any relevant scenes for an easy upsell. “Classic inventory chain,” Adams said.

The systemized database is especially handy for the young women of Adams’s chat team, known as the “girlfriends,” who work at a bench of laptops in the gym’s upper loft. The Tool helped “supercharge her messaging, which ended up, like, 3X-ing her output,” Brian said, meaning it tripled.

For efficiency, the chatters use keyboard shortcuts to quickly send common phrases (“I want to know the real you”) and a feature that displays, across a fan’s profile picture, how much he has paid in tips. On a recent day, one girlfriend was talking with “Ryan” (lifetime tip value: $321.60) about a trip he took to Texas while “Kev” ($46.40) was saying he’d travel “any distance” to find his “right person.” One of their longest-paying subscribers has given $10,000 over the years, Adams said. None of this is identifying, but did it take any extra discussion to get the OK to include customer information? Not really. They’re so vague as to be basically anonymous, and I like reminding the reader that these are real people. I also just found the dollar amount label so perfectly revealing for our era. We’re all some dollar amount in a database somewhere.

Keeping men talking is especially important because the chat window is where Adams’s team sends out their mass-message sales promotions, and the girlfriends never really know what to expect. One girlfriend said she’s had as many as four different sexting sessions going at once.

“There’s not 10 minutes that go by that we’re not like: ‘What the hell are we looking at right now?’” said Zoey Hill, a chatter on the team. “But for the most part, it’s kind of just like you’re having a regular conversation with someone until they’re like, ‘Hey, I’m horny.’ And then you give them what they want.”

Adams employs a small team that helps her pay other OnlyFans creators to give away codes fans can use for free short-term trials. The team tracks redemption rates and promotional effectiveness in a voluminous spreadsheet, looking for guys who double up on discount codes, known as “stackers,” as well as bad bets and outright fraud. Another instance where you let readers in on industry-specific language. How much thought did you give to how much to include? My feeling is every new introduction of a term — every sentence, really — has to strengthen the thesis. Here, we’re showing that a corner of the business that seems simple and that no one ever thinks about, like discount codes, is actually just one small facet of a complicated system that requires investment analyses and anti-fraud measures. So, again, this isn’t just someone with a phone; it’s an intricate machine.

After sending other creators’ agents their money over PayPal, Adams’s ad workers send suggestions over the messaging app Telegram on how Bryce should be marketed, depending on the clientele. OnlyFans models whose fans tend to prefer the “girlfriend experience,” for instance, are told to talk up her authenticity: “Bryce is a real, fit girl who wants to get to know you”; “If you’re looking for real, deep and personal connections ….” Creators with a more hardcore fan base, meanwhile, are told to cut to the chase: “300+ sex tapes & counting”; “Bryce doesn’t say no, she’s the most wild, authentic girl you will ever find.”

Avery Leigh, who runs advertising, was working as a server at a local pizza place, saving up for college in hopes of becoming an obstetrician, when a high school friend told her last year that Adams was hiring chatters. Leigh was later promoted to the ads team and, though she’d never touched a spreadsheet before, she now spends 40 hours a week coordinating with agents and managing an ad budget of more than $900,000 a year.

The $18 an hour she makes on the ad team, however, is increasingly dwarfed by the money Leigh makes from her personal OnlyFans account, where she sells sex scenes with her boyfriend for $10 a month. Leigh made $92,000 in gross sales in July, thanks largely to revenue from new fans who found her through Adams or the bikini videos Leigh posts to her 170,000-follower TikTok account. Adams takes 20 percent.

“This is a real job. You dedicate your time to it every single day. You’re always learning, you’re always doing new things,” she said. “I’d never thought I’d be good at business, but learning all these business tactics really empowers you. I have my own LLC; I don’t know any other 20-year-old right now that has their own LLC.”

‘Cult of you’

By most measures, the Bryce Adams content machine is running at extreme efficiency.

The team is meeting all traffic goals, per their internal dashboard, which showed that through the day on a recent Thursday they’d gained 2,221,835 video plays, 19,707 landing-page clicks, 6,372 new OnlyFans subscribers and 9,024 new social-network followers. And to keep in shape, Adams and her boyfriend are abiding by a rigorous daily diet and workout plan: They eat the same Chick-fil-A salad at every lunch, track every calorie and pay a gym assistant to record data on every rep and weight of their exercise. This is a vivid detail, particularly the brand name of the salad. The reason you spend time with people during reporting is you see all the little things they wouldn’t think or want to offer up on a phone call. I ate with them and walked around with them and saw them tapping away at their phones, so I’d just be my annoying self and ask what they were doing, and they seemed happy to answer because this stuff is always on their mind, and people love being asked about themselves.

But the OnlyFans business is competitive, and it does not always feel to the couple like they’ve done enough. Their new personal challenge, they said, is to go viral on the other platforms as often as possible, largely through jokey TikTok clips and bikini videos that don’t give away too much.

In a podcast last year on OnlyFans sales strategies — titled “How to Get More Simps,” using the internet slang for someone who does too much for someone they like — the host told creators this sales-funnel technique was key to helping build the “cult of you”: “Someone’s fascination will become infatuation, which will make you a lot of money.”

Adams’s company has worked to reverse engineer the often-inscrutable art of virality, and Brian now estimates Adams makes about $5,000 in revenue for every million short-form video views she gets on TikTok. Her team has begun ranking each platform by the amount of money they expect they can get from each viewer there, a metric they call “fan lifetime value.” (Subscribers who click through to her from Facebook tend to spend the most, the data show. Facebook declined to comment.)

The younger workers said they see the couple as mentors, and the two are constantly reminding them that the job of a creator is not a “lottery ticket” and requires a persistent grind. Whenever one complains about their lack of engagement, Brian said he responds, “When’s the last time you posted 60 different videos, 60 days in a row, on your Instagram Reels?” One of the facets of this story that was so striking is how relentless and exhausting the creation of explicit content can be. We often talk about things going viral as if it’s this magical one-step process, and it can be, but a lot of it is hard work and experimentation and failure. It looks easy— They’re just wearing bikinis! They’re just playing video games! — and that’s partly why this work is treated as frivolous. But many of the creators at this level grind themselves into a pulp, never taking weekends for fear some other creator will rise up and take their place. A lot of readers will never try to make it as social media influencers, and even fewer, I assume, will try to do OnlyFans. So I want to help them understand just how much labor goes into these little video files we scroll past mindlessly on our screens.

But some have taken to it quite naturally. Rayna Rose, 19, was working last year at a hair salon, sweeping floors for $12 an hour, when an old high school classmate who worked with Adams asked whether she wanted to try OnlyFans and make $500 a video.

Rose started making videos and working as a chatter for $18 an hour but recently renegotiated her contract with Adams to focus more on her personal OnlyFans account, where she has nearly 30,000 fans, many of whom pay $10 a month.

One recent evening this summer, Adams was in the farm’s gym when her boyfriend told her he was headed to their guest room to record a collab with Rose, who was wearing a blue bikini top and braided pigtails.

“Go have fun,” Adams told them as they walked away. “Make good content.” There aren’t many on-the-scene quotes, but the ones you choose to include — such as this one — are vivid. Why did you include this particular comment by Adams in the story? In my first draft, this was the opening scene, but it needed too much setup, which slowed it down. So eventually we ended up trying this as something resembling a pre-kicker. I love using candid scene quotes because that’s how people really talk to each other, but there were so many systems to get into and people to introduce and concepts to discuss in this story that I wanted to be extra discerning about what we used. We talked about cutting this passage a few times but I kept protecting it because it’s so evocative, and I wanted to make sure the reader got to stand inside this environment, even for just a quick exchange. The quote was eye-opening to me for obvious reasons — that’s her boyfriend! —but it’s the “content” part that really stood out. You see the word “content” everywhere now, which makes sense, because we need a grab bag for all of the pictures and videos and news articles and podcasts we give our money and attention to on the internet. But it’s also just such a lifeless, commodity word that obscures everything it describes. And yet that’s how they think of what they do: It’s not sex, it’s content.

The 15-minute video has so far sold more than 1,400 copies and accounted for more than $30,000 in sales.

The women in Adams’s business voice some uncertainty over how long this all can continue. They’ve seen how other creators have struggled and know that, on the internet, nothing lasts: audiences shrink, bodies change, people burn out and move on.

Adams said there may come a time when she wants to spend fewer hours on the work but that she has no plans to change anytime soon. “For as long as OnlyFans is around, Bryce Adams will be there,” she said. “But there may be some point where I have a family and that becomes more of a primary focus than my pages, at least for a little while.”

She and the others worry, too, about how friends and family might react, even though they feel they’ve done nothing worthy of being judged. Rose said she has lost friends due to her “lifestyle,” with one messaging her recently, “Can you imagine how successful you would be if you studied regularly and spent your time wisely?”

The message stung but, in Rose’s eyes, they didn’t understand her at all. She feels, for the first time, like she has a sense of purpose: She wants to be a full-time influencer. She expects to clear $200,000 in earnings this year and is now planning to move out of her parents’ house.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And now I know,” she said. “I want to be big. I want to be, like, mainstream.” What do you think is said by ending the story with this wish that Rose expresses? I didn’t want this story to end in this perfect moment, with everything resolved. I wanted it to feel a little unsettled. At this point, we’ve said a lot about Bryce, who’s established, so I wanted to gesture toward this next generation that is following Bryce’s path and learning to adapt their lives to this economy that’s grown around them. Rayna felt like a way to get at the uncertainty and uncomfortable logic of everything we’ve laid out. She’s young, she’s making these decisions people might disagree with, and yet they’re her decisions. And, in this system, they’re not irrational ones, considering all the money she’s making before she even leaves home. Her dream is to just keep doing it on a bigger and bigger scale, because that’s what a lot of young people want now. She was doing all of this to achieve a standing most people take for granted — to be mainstream. With this story ending the larger series, I wanted it to serve as a poignant little finishing note, given everything people have learned about the industry up to this point. It’s risky, it’s life-shaping, it’s a huge experiment. And yet here she is, thinking about this dream.

* * *

Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.

Further Reading