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The exact details remain sketchy. All we know is that at some point on 3 April 1996, a young American student by the name of Jennifer Ringley ushered in a new phase in the then nascent Internet revolution. Supposedly, Ringley didn’t really know what to do with the small web camera she bought at a local library. Bored and curious, she eventually decided to hook it up to her computer and open up her private life to the public. In the years that followed, her website, JenniCam, would end up attracting millions of viewers who would pay to watch Ringley act out her life in real-time: from the mundane to the sexually provocative to the outright explicit. By the time JenniCam went down in 2003, lifecasting, or webcamming as it would later become known, had become a thoroughly established Internet phenomenon.

Credits: Alexander Drumming (Unsplash)

Fast forward 17 years. Today, the webcam sex industry is one of the most profitable descendants of Ringley’s early movement. While exact numbers are difficult to come by, it is widely believed that ‘camming’ is a multibillion-dollar industry, providing a source of revenue to performers and sex workers across the globe. Over the last few years alone, the number of ‘webcammers’ have ballooned as a result of the emergence of the platform economy, with major sites like LiveJasmin, Chaturbate and CAM4 allowing sex workers easy entry to a global consumer market. The growth of these webcam platforms has in turn stirred fierce debate between those who see them either as tools for exploitation or as safe havens for revenue generation. These debates, however, take place against the backdrop of almost no empirical knowledge of the webcam sex industry itself. To fill this gap, two researchers from the University of Amsterdam, Olav Velthuis and Thomas Poell, recently received funding for a five-year interdisciplinary project that seeks to throw light on the working conditions within the industry and the competition between mayor platform operators. 

When two disciplines intersect

The idea for the project arose after Velthuis and Poell came into contact through the Amsterdam Center for Globalisation Studies, an interdisciplinary research institute for researchers from the humanities and the social sciences. ‘As an economic sociologist I am deeply interested in the ways different kinds of precious goods and services get commodified’, says Velthuis, who is professor of Sociology at the UvA’s Faculty of Behavioural Sciences. ‘Thomas’s research focuses, among other things, on the rise of digital platforms and their societal consequences. In our conversations, we realised that these disciplines dovetail quite well on the subject of the platformisation of sexual services. It is of course common knowledge that the scale and transactional speed of platforms have completely disrupted traditional industries. But what they’ve also done in some sense is fundamentally remould the relationship between consumer and contractor and the way society perceives the value of certain goods or services. Sex work, or at least the many sectors that make up this industry, haven’t been immune to the economic changes unleashed by the platform economy. Webcamming is a major example and yet we know curiously little about the inner workings of this profession and the people who form part of it.’

Entrepreneurship or exploitation? 

An online investigation seems to confirm the lack of impartial, fact-based knowledge on webcamming. Do a Google hit on webcamming and one is immediately peppered with articles either praising it as an easy road to riches and entrepreneurial ‘confidence’ or accusing it of delivering vast profits to platform companies through the exploitation and impoverishment of sex workers.[1][2]

Which is why the project’s first priority is to investigate how the industry is structured and the risks and opportunities those within it face, says Velthuis ‘In previous research I carried out with Niels van Doorn, a fellow researcher from the department of Media Studies, we clearly saw a tendency to what one may call a race to the bottom. The relative ease of entering the market – basically all you need is a computer, a webcam and a good internet connection to get started – means the competition is incredibly fierce. To stand out in such a crowded market, performers often have to outdo competitors by engaging in ever more extreme acts and by showing more nudity much quicker in order to attract an audience and generate an income. That said, this is just one side of the coin. Webcamming is a large and diverse industry with many players and personalities. We want to produce research that demystifies this industry, deals with the stigma that online sex workers often have to endure and can help people who consider this work assessing what the risks and opportunities are. Moreover, it could serve as a basis for lawmakers to decide what kind of, if indeed any, platform-specific regulation is required.’

The importance of listening

So how are the researchers planning to gain first-hand access to an industry that, like other platform businesses, owe their success to the growth of new technologies, low transparency and the absence of government regulation? ‘Our approach to webcamming and to other new forms of sex work is that you first need to understand it well, speak extensively to sex workers and familiarise yourself with their life histories and perspectives before you can even start to have an opinion about if and how to regulate it’, says Velthuis. ‘Our aim is to bring systematic, empirically grounded knowledge to these debates by covering the entire business chain and all of the stakeholders.’

‘It is actually amazing how little research has been conducted – not just relative to how large the industry seems to be, but also to all the opinions that are floating around’, adds Velthuis. ‘We’ve already been conducting interviews with performers, who we reach out to, among other ways, through social media. And then there are the platform companies themselves, who we hope to get in touch with through industry conferences and other means. The initial signs have been encouraging – even before our project kicked-off we received a message from a Dutch company which processes payments for the industry and enthusiastically invited us to come over to their office. We did and had a very pleasant and insightful conversation.’ 

Similarities and differences 

Despite the limited knowledge on the webcam sex industry, it is fair to say that it shares some similarities with other platforms’, says Velthuis. ‘Like other platform companies, webcam sex platforms are part of the gig economy and as such grapple with the same issues. The work carried out on these platforms is hyperflexible and highly precarious and demands a huge level of entrepreneurship. Moreover, platforms make it difficult for gig workers to organise and collectively bargain for better wages or working conditions with operators. As a result, the revenues seem to be very unequally distributed. A problem that is compounded by the opacity of the algorithms that these platforms use, and which ultimately determine who gets the best spot on the viewing list or crashes down in the rankings.’

According to Velthuis webcam platforms do differ from other platforms in one key respect: the absence of monopoly or oligopoly players. ‘Yes, some of the platforms are more popular than others, but not a single one seems to have the market power of say Airbnb for holiday rentals or Uber for taxi rides. This could potentially be a good thing, since it means that sex workers at least have several options to choose from, although, unfortunately all of these platforms take a huge cut – usually more than 50 percent – of workers’ earnings.’

All of these aspects highlight the need for a granular analysis that advances public understanding of webcamming, the researchers conclude. Velthuis: ‘On the basis of our findings, we’ll use the second phase of our project to think through regulatory questions. Whatever the answers, it is crucial to involve sex workers themselves in regulatory debates and decision making – something which usually doesn’t happen.’

Webinar

Interesting in learning more about this project? Join the webinar 'Digital Sex Work in the Age of Corona' on Friday, 18 September. See here for more information.

[1] 'I became a cam girl during lockdown. I’ve never felt more confident' in Huffpost August 2020: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/cam-girl-coronavirus_uk_5f3e94f0c5b663461581d2ad

[2] 'Cam girl reality: an enticing illusion leaves many models poor and defeated' in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jan/14/cam-girl-webcamming-porn-industry