FetLife’s Best Customers

Posted: April 30, 2015 in Uncategorized

In May of 2013, feminist collective blog Disrupting Dinner Parties posted an in-depth five-part series called “Got Consent?” describing the epidemic of sexual violence and abuse taking place in the contemporary BDSM Scene. The centerpiece of this project, written in close collaboration with Maymay, was a nearly 6,000 word exposé of FetLife’s contribution to this culture of widespread consent violation: Got Consent? III: FetLife Doesn’t Get It.

In the linked piece, author M. Lunas speculates about FetLife’s (profit) motives for failing to provide users with privacy protections (not even so much as granulated privacy settings on their own posts) and for maintaining a corporate stranglehold on users’ personal data (making it effectively impossible to remove postings or photos from the site):

FetLife is a private For-Profit Canadian company. Among other sources, it receives funding from members who opt to pay a fee for added features–what is known in the tech world as a “freemium” model. What sort of features do these “supporters” get? Along with a number of pretty useless things, they get community status in the form of a badge on their profile, the ability to view over 5,000 of each day’s most popular pictures, videos, and writings, and the ability to upload and watch videos. There are over 80,000 such videos–mostly amateur porn–currently on the site. In other words, the benefit of paying is the ability to perv endlessly on other users’ amateur porn. And FetLife’s ability to provide the maximum amount of porn to paying members depends on other users not giving much thought to the security or privacy of what they’re uploading and sharing. And a rich database of amateur porn attracts more paying members. In other words, it is in FetLife’s direct financial interest not to provide security and privacy features.

In short, Lunas suggests that FetLife’s business model is, effectively, to be a porn site in “social network” clothing. Instead of hiring models and performers and charging for membership, the adult content is provided for free by some “community members” and consumed by others. (Ironically, because of FetLife’s shoddy security, the “premium” video content offered exclusively to paid members is actually available to anyone with the URL.)

It’s an oft-repeated truism in discussions of “free” social media: If you’re not the customer, you’re the product. We know who the “product” on FetLife is. Much has been written about how the “Kinky & Popular” feature primarily displays photos of young, conventionally attractive, scantily-clad, submissive women. Who is the customer? Clearly, those who support FetLife financially. In his post, Lunas muses about who this paying userbase might include, and the influence that vocal minority might have on FetLife’s notorious policy of siding with “community members” who are accused of rape and against survivors of sexual violence:

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 10.02.39 PM

[C]ould there be a profit motive here too? While disturbing, it makes sense. We know that predators (especially repeat abusers) are often community leaders, often older, and often male. Such people, I would hypothesize may be more likely than the average FetLife user to be a paying supporter of FetLife, either as a signifier of community status, or because they are better off financially (having had more time to rise in their careers and accumulate resources). […] In short, paying supporters are likely over-represented in the set of users who have allegations against them in [Predator Alert Tool for FetLife database]. Therefore, were FetLife to adopt a policy of removing members who were accused of consent violations, they would be targeting a group that disproportionately supports the site financially.

At the time, Lunas and Maymay were unable to test this hypothesis because, “Unfortunately, we can’t know for sure, since when I asked, FetLife told me that the total number of paying members is not publicly available.” However, since FetLife has no real privacy settings, technically all the information on the site is publicly available; it just took some time to get…

A few days ago, in response to the release of the FetLife “Meat List” (a database of female-identified FetLife users under 30), Maymay published the FetLife “Creep List” of 3,700+ male- and dominant-identified paid subscribers to FetLife, drawn from a dataset of 1.5 million FetLife user accounts. Further data analysis showed that “a total of 15,495 accounts were identified as having premium FetLife memberships” and that “Male doms make up far and away the largest proportion of FetLife’s [paying] customer base, accounting for 3,452 (22.28%) of the total customer accounts identified.” (Not to mention that 72.89% of FetLife’s total paying customer base identify themselves as male, further confirmation that FetLife is a porn site, not a social network — which research shows are almost universally dominated by women.)

Analysis of this huge dataset, which comprises demographic information for nearly half the total member accounts on the site, is ongoing. There is great potential for cross-reference with demographic information drawn from the PAT-FetLife database. It’s unknown yet what kind of questions we might now be well-placed to answer about the FetLife userbase and BDSM Scene membership in general. (FetLife offers a functional microcosm for suggesting broader research, since it makes a point of monopolizing online “social networking” space for the national and international “kink community.”)

One of the most striking early findings to come out of the data, however, is the correlation between FetLife users who pay for premium accounts and FetLife users who have been reported for violating a partner’s consent:

From a dataset of over 1.5 million FetLife accounts (1,517,103, to be precise), a total of 15,495 customers were identified, showing that FetLife’s customer base is approximately 1.02% of its total user base. In contrast, out of 652 unique users reported to the Predator Alert Tool for FetLife, 86 of those users are paying customers, which is a whopping 13.19%.

This indicates that paying FetLife customers are 13 times more likely to be sexual predators than the average FetLife user.

As Maymay says in their original Creep List post:

If you ever wanted a clear idea of why FetLife.com (BitLove, Inc.) continues to insist on the protection of rapists time and time and time again ad nauseum, here’s a big clue.

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