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The Coronavirus Is Making Us All Camgirls

For millions of newly remote workers, doing your job now involves looking the part, figuring out your angles, and performing for the camera.

Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images

For millions of newly remote workers in the United States, doing your job in this pandemic now involves looking presentable on camera, in a relatively pleasing setting at home. With bedrooms and basements doubling as offices, the line between work and life has more deeply fractured, maybe permanently. Even when we aren’t strictly working we are just doing different things in the same place with the same technology. I can “log off” from an editorial meeting on Google Hangout to make dinner while FaceTiming a friend or watching a Facebook livestream of an Angela Davis lecture.

The internet speeds may be better, but the work-life blur is not that different from the camgirl era of 20 years ago, when some of the only people inviting the internet into their homes were young women with webcams, sharing still images every 30 seconds, sometimes for money. At the time, this was considered an unseemly thing to do, especially for a living.

Yet in recent months, many more people know what the minimal viable makeup for a video chat looks like, have angled the cam away from the laundry, learned to perform their job in the frame while life goes on outside it. Now the coronavirus is making them work like camgirls, too.

The defining platforms of the coronavirus connect us with cameras across millions of private homes, and all that moves is the website or app we’re on. The space between home and work is as minimal as the one, on the same laptop screen, separating OnlyFans from Zoom. OnlyFans, a platform where theoretically anyone with a fanbase can charge them for access to their content, is now Beyoncé-famous after she named the website in her remix of Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” released late last month (“hips TikTok when she dance / on that Demon Time / she might start an OnlyFans.”) Scammer–famous writer Caroline Calloway has set up shop there, using the platform made relevant by dancers and porn performers to offer “emotionally poignant, softcore cerebral porn.” Adult content creator Heather Jana responded on Twitter, when Calloway attempted to distance her brand of content from sex workers’: “since we’re not your competition i’m sure you won’t mind if we promote our pages here, thanks babe!”—and then dozens did, a cross-platform promo on a high-profile verified account, doubling as a deserved ratio.

At the same time that OnlyFans moves closer to the mainstream, the pandemic has launched pop-up strip clubs on Instagram Live where fans (customers) can tip dancers via CashApp. The most reported-on one operates under the smirking purple emoji-inspired brand Demon Time. But even as more of our jobs go virtual, and the remote nature of that work becomes normalized, media outlets have puzzlingly described the women performers who are reportedly earning thousands of dollars an evening on Demon Time as “out of work.” What they may mean is, they no longer make a living at the jobs they held before the pandemic. But is performing on cam their job now? The performers themselves sometimes aren’t quite sure, either. “I’m not a dancer in real life, I guess I just … have a nice body?” one of the women told The Daily Beast. What is real life anymore, though?

Whether out of professional deference to career strippers—and some of the women in the IG pop-up clubs were working in strip clubs before this—or to skirt the stigma that comes with dancing, the women now stripping online perhaps for the first time have some good reasons to position themselves apart from “real” dancers. This isn’t to insist, out of some kind of sex-work identity or labor politics, that they call themselves workers. More, it’s just a fact of how so many of us working from home, working online, labor in that same in between. Is this a job? Is this just how I make money? Am I at work now?

While it’s the pandemic now pushing even more life online, these questions about what we’re doing when we’re living so much of our lives online are not new. Before Facebook (a website hatched when the web was already in its second decade), before social media generally, camgirls were some of the first people to live online. Global social media researcher Theresa M. Senft coined the term “microcelebrity” more than 20 years ago to describe these emerging ways of living and/or working online, after her study of (and becoming part of) the online community around camgirls.

To be microfamous, as Senft argues in her book rooted in this time, Camgirls: Celebrity and Community in the Age of Social Networks, is a twist on Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” dictum: It is to be famous to 15 people at a time. It was also a much smaller internet. At that time, in the 2000s, before the internet became available in our pockets, people also hadn’t yet defaulted to using their real names online, as Joanne McNeil observes in her book Lurking. Once any laptop might have a webcam built in, once any mobile phone did, too, technically, anyone could be a camgirl. What killed the camgirl era wasn’t driving them off-line, but getting more people online—people with cameras of their own.

Now many, many more of us must go to work by cam, go to school by cam, get therapy by cam. While not all of these activities demand the maintenance of a public-facing brand, they end up incorporating many of the markers of one, rewarding what works best for the cam. Tutorials advise on proper lighting without pro gear; stylists recommend simple looks. While the experience of working from home by webcam is the new normal for workers previously unaccustomed to such labor conditions, that doesn’t necessarily improve the conditions for the workers who have been doing so for decades.

A website like OnlyFans, for example, only exists because social media platforms like Instagram routinely suppress sex workers’ accounts and original content and because payment processors like PayPal have a history of closing sex workers’ accounts. Denial of service is what creates opportunities for third parties like OnlyFans, which can charge sex workers excluded elsewhere a premium for their services. The “adult” platforms aren’t even reliable: When PayPal abruptly cut service to Pornhub last year, it was performers whose pay disappeared. More people might be working like camgirls now, but they probably don’t want to be treated like camgirls.

Pandemic or not, they are, though. Before the coronavirus, nearly one-third of full-time employed workers in the U.S. depended on a side hustle to survive, according to one 2019 survey. “The platform economy has further blurred the lines between who’s employed versus underemployed, unemployed or out of the labor market,” wrote E. Tammy Kim in The New York Times earlier this year. As more workers are expected to shoulder the costs typically carried by corporations, as the W-2 economy drains into one 1099 gig after another, even “professionals” will find what they once called their offices resembling something more temporary. Work may threaten to spill out all over our lives, but it’s also shrinking, down to the size of a screen.