The Great Experiment: Nine Months In

As difficult as it is to imagine nowadays, The Great FMBN Experiment started nine months ago. Let’s check in on progress.

First, though, recall the history:

  • In early August 2019, a California-based amateur bodybuilder named Cap launched a Discord server he called FMBN, which stood for Fitness Model and Bodybuilder Nudes. The name was a play off a large generic bodybuilder thread at the Large Penis Support Group website. He seeded LPSG with invite links to the Discord group, which quickly grew to more than 100 active participants. The Discord was a hoppin’, lively place—until Discord itself discovered it and administered the BanHammer to the server and to Cap himself. Part of FMBN Discord’s attraction—beyond unfettered open access—was the idea of group promotions based on user role. To get “better” content you had to prove yourself through a series of promotions from Fitness Lover to Gold to Platinum to Diamond. Diamonds also served as quasi moderators and the server’s elite membership. That structure offered a reasonable amount of esprit d’corps; what a pity it lasted less than a month.
  • JSL launched a Rocket.Chat replacement for the Discord within a few hours of the Discord’s termination. We continued a form of membership tiers—Platinum and Diamond. We stayed on Rocket.Chat in September and October. Most of the membership consisted of Discord exiles plus a handful of new recruits, mostly from ad hoc Telegram groups.
  • By November, we migrated to a social-stream system based on the open-source HumHub environment. This framework functions a lot like Facebook, with a post-and-comment chronological stream, internal private messaging, and a series of public and private groups to sequester various forms of content. Significantly, HumHub did not carry forward user tiers.
  • At the end of December, we adjusted the HumHub group system and tweaked the rules a bit. That infrastructure persists through today.

The FMBN Logic Model

The bad news for FMBN members is that their humble administrator and server-space sugar daddy, JSL, also happens to be interested in the philosophical and economic logic around this specific market dynamic. So, as people settled into Rocket.Chat, JSL reflected long and hard about ways to develop a community that avoided the inevitable decay into unwieldy toxicity that so often afflicts the porn-adjacent world. Subsequent policy changes derived, in part, from an experimental ethos—if incentive A were tweaked by degree B, would outcome C become more or less achievable?

JSL’s initial thinking circled around two ideas: Game theory and infrastructure alignment.

Game Theory

One reason the online-porn space is so toxic is because the ecosystem of the sharing economy is fundamentally disordered. The people who place value in trading and acquisition are generally not the same people who generate the content. Yet the people who generate the content have a vested interest in protecting their intellectual-property rights and to monetize that material as they see fit, which means limiting access to people who illicitly trade in that content.

Inevitably, a quasi-disreputable third-party ecosystem arises where the incentive among traders is to minimize acquisition cost and creator ire while maximizing the value of the acquired material. The Tragedy of the Commons proves endemic; there’s a strong generic incentive to leech content from others without sharing anything of significant value in return on the theory that no one’s policing the leeching. In fact, the very small number of people preternaturally inclined to share tend to set a (low-status) baseline of content that spreads like wildfire thanks to the “porn photocopier” problem of people in one group reposting it to a different group, and through that reposting thereby gaining some degree of reputation enhancement. FMBN itself experienced this problem with the infamous “Hoeyz,” who lifted links from protected FMBN groups and pasted them to open-access Telegram groups the very same day, then reacted with anger when this behavior was pointed out as being against the rules.

At a 50,000-foot view, this ecosystem looks biological. A genus of content creators arises hoping to derive value from their net-new content. A new predatory species of trader emerges, eager to claw some value from that material, and the content creators adapt. Then the predators adapt to the adaptation, and so on.

For example, early Snap baits dried up as better screenshot technology emerged; OnlyFans and JustFor.Fans emerged as next-generation paywalls given camsite leaks; InstaGays started using locked-down alt accounts for hookups instead of their mains; lawyers and agents send DCMA takedowns to the major forum sites alleging underage content despite that such claims are rarely proven and usually considered false. Of course, the trader community adapted, too—with Telegram groups, private networks based on a well-placed insider, quasi-anonymous trading through the Google Drive platform, and automated OnlyFans scraper software. This give-and-take persists, and will persist, but it leads to shifting contexts for traders that prove hard to instantiate in a High Theoretic model of community organization.

Infrastructure Misalignment

The Tragedy of the Commons arises in part because the custodians of the commons deploy technology frameworks misaligned to the purpose of both creator-friendly and trader-friendly communities.

A common structural form—ephemeral chat groups like Telegram—are good for anonymous, emergent content transmission but abysmal for classification, long-tail discovery and peer networking. And for content creators, these tools suck unless they’re tightly regulated, as with people who use Patreon to connect paying users.

Another common form—forum systems, like LPSG or MG—promotes long-term discoverability to a broad swathe of the Internet but suck at generating cross-user community. At the scale of the open Internet there’s no meaningful check on new-user registration, such that forum admins must either enforce a quasi-open-access model offset by rigorous post-hoc moderation to limit copyright infringements, or close the site to the Internet and accept the front-end burden of registration management. In fact, one reason LPSG and MG prove so popular is because anyone can join and obtain full access, pulling content without sharing it. It’s low-friction work. And if you log in daily, you often can pull higher-value material before the moderators attend to takedown notices. It’s not by accident that many content creators appear on those sites and actively engage with members and administrators—they are, in a sense, protecting their own investment.

(Places like Reddit, with large subreddits filled with dudes posting their own nudes, are a special case. They’re voyeurs, offering free content. Free content often proves valueless, thus limiting the utility in the trading community, until those voyeurs get the bright idea to create an OnlyFans, in which case that material becomes “vintage” and acquires a new economic status.)

Community?

A few other ideas percolated among FMBN leaders, too. One of them revolves around community as a concept. In an ecosystem of illicit content trading, what does that idea even mean? Could it be a group of friends who happen to like looking at dirty pictures? Or does it resemble a country club with different levels of status? Or even the camaraderie of a motorcycle gang, where everyone’s smiling in public but everyone also knows that every other member has a boot knife at the ready?

In early iterations of FMBN, a members-only group based on Discord roles offered a hierarchy that fostered intimate chat and private content sharing for a select few, but the practice soon became an exercise in elitism: Questions like “Is that person worthy of being a Diamond?” arose frequently even when many Diamonds themselves weren’t worthy of the status. Most of the problem stemmed from Cap’s initial decision to make “Diamond” the people who posted something early in the server’s lifecycle, even if that person wasn’t retrospectively a good candidate for elite-content trading over the long haul.

As such, FMBN focused on community at the Diamonds’ request, even though this idea and the structures it demanded didn’t align well with the typical profile of a trader—one that wanted to acquire content with minimal transaction friction.

Audit Regimes

One approach to solving the structural problem—or so we thought—related to thinking through every friction point and then addressing it by policy enforced through audit. Thus, FMBN in its early HumHub days didn’t host content (and it still doesn’t) but rather encouraged people to post lockers to GDrive, Mega, WeTransfer and related file-sharing services. Those lockers included built-in time limits, to mostly eliminate the incentive for new members to game the system by scraping a rich library of old content then disappearing. It set participation standards governed by rigorous retrospective review, such that if people didn’t meet posting requirements, they were put on probation with access to new content restricted until probationary requirements were satisfied. Together, time-limited lockers plus time-boxed participation standards should have led to the give-and-take we hoped for.

Likewise, the social-stream approach of HumHum solved the problem of content discovery through a mix of public and private groups. Content proved easily discoverable through serendipity as well as through site search, and a consolidated stream meant users could easily get caught up with content and comments in groups they joined.

The trick with building a community of traders that doesn’t devolve into the Tragedy of the (Leeching) Commons is to enforce a reciprocity mechanism. Torrent sites, for example, require certain upload/download ratios. But it’s impossible to enforce ratios in a chat server, a forum or a social-stream community absent manual audits. And even when people know they’re being audited, the quality of the material diminishes. People tend to satisfy posting requirements through reposts or low-value scrapes (often, not even curated for duplicates or non-germane content).

But despite applying bleeding-edge socioeconomic theory on the target market, our efforts to build a robust sharing community ultimately proved—well, inconclusive. You can take the pirate out of the ocean, but you can’t take the ocean out of the pirate.

Where and Why the Model (Likely) Failed

After all this effort, JSL concluded that there’s no optimal model for a specific long-term community based on reciprocity, in the context of a broader market that deliberately promotes free ridership. The trader mindset is too mercenary—too eager to limit transaction friction and to maximize benefit—for social communities to persist without eventually devolving.

Although there may be some benefit for content creators to join a locked-down network where they may safely share and monetize their material, such a framework only works when it’s leakproof. And given the incentive to acquire rare/elite material, the content will inevitably leak. The fact that a dozen people can attend an InstaGay orgy on a boat in Lake Michigan then clips of that orgy leak within 72 hours is proof that a large-scale content-creator community is as improbable as a large-scale content-sharing community.

Although content creators enjoy an economic and moral right to the material they generate, people who generate content that’s intrinsically pornographic face a curious market dynamic. FMBN and its admin team are sympathetic to creator rights, yet we’re also aware that porn is essentially a low-value commodity. In a sense, the market itself has determined that pornographic content is fungible and effectively free, so creators who attempt to monetize this material face a steep headwind. Monetizing porn through sites like OnlyFans for JustFor.Fans isn’t really about the content—because the content is largely fungible and valueless—but rather about being paid to grow a brand that can later be leveraged for modeling or acting gigs or other insertions into the D-list celeb file. A certain theory of the case suggests that many of these creators aren’t, in fact, good-faith actors (a problem evidenced by scammy OnlyFans sites), which is why a certain cadre of active traders seeks to de-legitimize the income stream. FMBN and its admin team don’t take a position on this question, but we are aware that monetizing porn is like selling apples next to a public-access orchard. The product being sold isn’t really the value that accrues to the creator, and in fact, the creator often benefits from the notoriety of the apple stand moreso than the coin that comes from bushel basket.

Economists lump porn—licit or illicit—into the virtual goods category. In themselves, they have no intrinsic value. But as the trader marketplace assesses each new batch of goods, they obtain a cultural value not tied to how the creator values those virtual goods. It’s not an accident that most traders don’t care about most OnlyFans pages. It’s not an accident that most traders don’t care about most of the InstaGay circuit fuckers. So crafting a market that predicts supply and demand and therefore sets stable market parameters is ultimately a fool’s errand. As is trying to craft a community guided by those ethereal parameters.

The early desire for community based on the Discord Diamond ethos proved hollow, too. Ultimately, a small in-group cannot sustain itself, or a larger ecosystem, when it jealously protects its own prerogatives to the extent of outright hypocrisy. The problem in some ways sources to the fact that the early entrants to the privileged class often cannot justify their ongoing rank in the same manner that new entrants are expected to display. Thus, a “Diamond” who was promoted merely for showing up early in the community’s lifecycle views his status as sacrosanct, whimsically denying access to others while not engaging in the conduct that objectively justifies that ongoing level of access according to the established rules of the game.

The challenge with FMBN is that, in a purely academic sense, we built a calibrated environment that truly limited free-ridership. Time-boxing limited the value of new-member scrape-and-dumps; contribution audits meant people couldn’t hide and leech and post garbage forever; external audits meant the “porn photocopier” problem received at least some visibility and administrative sanction; clear community standards and rigorous front-end screening meant that obvious bad actors never made it in at all. But instead of complying with local rules, people eager to maximize their leeching relative to their contributions merely found other venues (often, Telegram groups or other Discord servers) where the effort-to-reward calculation proved more favorable. In other words, people weren’t willing to invest the time in building personal relationships with others to gain access to genuinely “elite” content, because they could get good-enough content elsewhere with significantly less effort. Our system proved too good; we couldn’t obtain a critical mass that played by the rules when other venues offered what appeared to be offer nearly-as-good benefits without the ongoing good-faith demonstrations that FMBN required.

FMBN’s structure offered a painful degree of friction for casual collectors who’d rather download content than upload it. And we saw this phenomenon play out at audit time. At one audit in early 2020, half of the entire membership failed to meet a clearly defined standard that everyone had already already agreed to. Some recovered after a friendly warning, but others just vanished after being (finally) confronted with their lack of conformance to our agreed-upon standard. The “price” of reciprocity proved too high, and we suspect that some people believed that they wouldn’t actually face audit sanctions and even if they did, they could game the system long enough to derive additional incremental benefit before they were forcibly removed from the community.

The Problem of Hoarding: Keeping Your Aces Up Your Sleeve

Yet another challenge reared its ugly head: hoarding. It turns out that if one spends enough time in the ecosystem, one discerns certain tiers of content. Most of the common stuff, often traded in Telegram groups or on forums like LPSG or MG, constitute the lowest tier—most anyone who tries can get this stuff, like the latest Derek Martin jerkoff clip, where seeing it one week before 20 billion people see it on MyVidster is, bizarrely, accounted as some sort of coup.

Above that are folders of content scraped from paid sites like OnlyFans, the more obscure the creator better so as to beat the torrent aggregators. Above that are folders of content baited from individuals—many of whom, alas, don’t know that they’ve suddenly become currency in an international gay-porn market. Above that are various photos and videos custom-commissioned (i.e., paid) by someone, from the creator, but traded as “1337 güdz” by the recipient.

Above that are certain high-profile leaks that inevitably include three- or four-figure dollar signs—often sourced from inside, as with the slow dribble of content from the InstaGay circuit-party sex scene sourced from two or three of the people habitually participating in the orgies. At that point, content leaks to traders directly from the source, and often with a price tag. Many traders don’t even acknowledge that they possess such material until long after they’ve built a relationship with a potential trading partner adjudged to be of relatively equal status.

So even when people trade in an environment that enforces some sort of reciprocity, “elite” material almost never makes its way into the common parlance. Thus, the same old content folders keep recycling through the community, with the genuinely rare, vintage or elite content reserved to a private network of more engaged traders. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that a community in which people share what most people already have, but which has a high engagement cost, isn’t worth ongoing membership. Too few are willing to play the game long enough to establish their sincerity and thus get invited to the private groups where rare material genuinely lies.

As part of the FMBN Social signup process, for example, propsective new members must demonstrate that they actually have a collection worth sharing. So they provide screenshots of folder structures, and in many cases, those folders shows interesting content. But when they’re admitted, in most cases those interesting folders never seem to get posted. Instead, it’s the same-old stuff that meets posting requirements but doesn’t come at the potential cost of sharing something “valuable” that, if leaked broadly, would then become “worthless” for trading. In a low-trust environment, no one wants to be the first to play a high card.

Another reason people sometimes limit trading of “elite” content relates to their own investment in the final package. This part of the ecosystem demonstrates the structural misalignment of creators versus traders. Consider the case of a model who puts out an OnlyFans stream. A trader scrapes it—but he also curates the stream, removing duplicates and low-value content generated by the creator, and augmenting it with other content like Instagram images or biographical data. At that point, the trader has created his own asset, albeit one based on illicitly used source material. But the trader perceives an ownership stake in the complete curated package he’s developed and often guards it jealously. This instinct isn’t necessarily right, but it’s surely both natural and prevalent. Perhaps the closest, albeit imperfect, analog lies with people who remix songs or stitch others’ videos together to create a final product that’s different from the creator’s original vision. To the extent that people monetizing their own porn view themselves as artists, this creative re-use by curator-traders creates an interesting First Amendment question.

FMBN Social has seen its fair share of elite content, though. The tripartite Diamond, Black and Broadway lists we host reflect four-figure investments in the private trading market for members who bought in early, and the few who did buy in enjoy access to material that most of the “trading community” doesn’t even realize exists. In fact, the Broadway List is primarily sourced from a single person who sells pictures and video clips he’s personally obtained because he himself is a well-known Broadway figure who participates in that scene. He made his personal recordings of orgies or his personal scrapes of Grindr/Scruff content available at a cost to a very small number well-connected traders, who share that content with people who cost-share the initial investment. This stuff doesn’t leak because the people who trade at this level are too “pro” to play that game. Thus, even as some sources (like the InstaGay circuit fuckers) dry up because of leaks, other sources arise that don’t leak because—in the eternal biological arms race of creators versus traders—people adapt to existential crises with a certain degree of prudence.

But this “elite” content doesn’t even trade on the main FMBN site; it resides mostly in private groups and private messages among a small cadre of participants in the community. Access to that cadre isn’t intrinsically closed, but because so few new entrants bother to demonstrate bone fide credentials as elite traders, they never get invited to the layer-beneath-the-layer ecosystem of content trading.

In the end, the experiment with FMBN revealed an important bit of data: The vast horde of people looking to leech tend to seek the lowest-friction, highest-payoff market dynamic, but there’s a ceiling to that payoff equation that most of them fail to apprehend. The more that a given community seeks to address game theory head-on through targeted policies, the less likely it is that people will will engage sincerely—but, paradoxically, the more likely it is that the rump of good-faith participants will form a genuine nucleus of community that persists across time.

The Future of FMBN

The early phase of FMBN, wherein we explored ways to address the free-rider problem, suggest that optimal anti-free-rider policies lead to diminishing member ranks because the cost/benefit ratio for members focused on low-friction acquisition proves unworkable. But a community can’t survive with a dozen members. So where does the balance lie?

In mid-April, 2020, FMBN Social elected to adjust its participation standards. Some of the anti-leeching protocols were lifted, with a focus on minimal audit conformance in a choose-your-own-adventure construct.

We think FMBN is viable long-term as a community of traders committed to sharing collections. We believe there’s a space where people can interact with a small, known group of like-minded people while enjoying reasonable assurance of privacy.

Ultimately, it’s a balance game. FMBN must allow a certain percentage of free riding to remain viable, so as to reduce engagement friction. But to lower the bar too much threatens to undermine the very safety and stability that a certain class of member finds valuable.

So, as they say, we persist. We’re optimistic. But we’re also confident we learned something important about the community and how it functions.

The experiment is over; go in peace to scrape and share the porn.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *