In the quest for authenticity, influencers are curating a new type of aesthetic. Today, trendiness is no longer measured by the number of likes on your avocado toast pictures and hyper-posed selfies but instead by the relatability of your content. Realism has replaced aspiration. Recently, sites like Instagram and Pornhub champion content creators who’ve managed to perfect this amateur aesthetic. 

Through ad revenue, brand deals and sponsorships, “influencing” has established itself beyond Gen Z speak, garnering attention as a legitimate — and highly lucrative — career. These revenue streams exist not only on YouTube, Instagram and other social media giants but in adult entertainment as well. Being an influencer is equal to being a modern-day entrepreneur. 

Undeniably, one of the titans in the new wave of mainstream pornography is Pornhub. Conservative estimates value the the porn industry at around $2 billion, due in part to porn’s stigma and the secretiveness surrounding the industry. Less conservative estimates stipulate that porn generates more annual revenue than both the NFL and Netflix. With these monster profits, the porn industry directs the spotlight toward pornography’s creators, who are no longer puppeted by major corporations and studios. Instead, business is created and managed by the film stars themselves. This shift in the porn business model has enabled anyone to become an adult-film star overnight. Welcome to the world of amateur pornography.

Breana Lepe / Daily Nexus

Last year, more people took the time to vote for their favorite videos on Pornhub than the number of people who voted in the last U.S. presidential election — with Pornhub receiving 141 million votes, to be precise. People not only watch porn but feel just as invested in the lives of amateur porn stars as they do with their favorite influencers. 

This year, Pornhub celebrated the 10th anniversary of their Model Program, which hosts over a hundred thousand amateurs on their site. Isla Summer is just one of them. The account is run by a young, college-aged couple in the Isla Vista community. After creating their account and posting their first video over spring break this past school year, they’ve become a household name among the community, with their content having been featured on Pornhub’s home page multiple times. To date, their account has received 20.2 million views and counting. 

Isla Summer’s popularity is due to the recent demand for amateur porn coupled with their ability to strategize as influencers: They’re curating content that their audience wants to see. Summer, who wishes to remain anonymous, explained that “most of them are very absurd concepts and simple, easy-to-follow but absurd storylines,” because “it just catches the eye when you see that type of title online. You just have to click it.” They added that their “most popular video is where me playing 2K is the main focus of it.” The brand they’ve created — young, attractive and, most importantly, average college students — is not the only reason they’ve been hugely successful; it’s also because they are aware of their brand and viewership and have utilized the amateur aesthetic to their advantage.

Featuring shots of the UCSB Library and local places in Santa Barbara, their content is starkly different from the manufactured look of a studio-produced film. In an article on the meaning of amateurism in porn, Susanna Paasonen discusses why amateur work’s higher sense of realism is attractive to consumers. It’s because amateurism is about mimicking reality: it’s truthful. While the ring lights of a professional studio and glamorous facades used to dominate the porn industry, it’s now all about the opposite. People want to see representations of sexual acts as truthful and authentic — the imperfect bodies and blemishes that make it feel, as one consumer of porn puts it, “like you’re in that setting or you’re that person.” This increased interest in involving the audience is the most crucial aspect of creating content that is both real and relatable, and above all, what young audiences want to see — whether it comes to amateur pornography or Instagram models. 

Being unfiltered is the new status quo. As Summer puts it: “People expect our lives to be, like, wildly different now, because they view us as porn stars but we’re exactly the same.” It’s this sameness that has launched them into fame. It is this transparency, in a clandestine industry, that blurs the lines between consumer and creator, average joe and porn star, which has established amateurism as culturally significant.

This increased interest in involving the audience is the most crucial aspect of creating content that is both real and relatable, and above all, what young audiences want to see — whether it comes to amateur pornography or Instagram models. 

The monetary value of relatability is mirrored in other influencer industries. Take Emma Chamberlain, an 18-year old high school dropout turned multimillionaire business mogul. Her minimalistic, carefree aesthetic sets her apart from the hyper-produced, staged look that is popular among big YouTubers like Jake Paul and Bethany Mota. With 8.53 million YouTube subscribers in just under two years, her channel and record-setting rise to fame are evidence of how the pendulum of popularity has drastically swung in relability’s favor. Her editing style, filled with frequent jump cuts and superzooms, reflects the “quirky girl” personality that has earned her millions of followers. Her content production’s lack of professionalism and willingness to embrace her suburban American roots are qualities with which fans clearly engage and relate.

On social media, Chamberlain frequently pokes fun at herself. Her fans say, “Unlike those other YouTubers living in mansions with perfect hair and expensive clothes, she’s just an average teen.” Identically, Isla Summer’s “average teen-ness” is a huge point of profit. More and more, it seems, the value and impact of an influencer can be measured by how accessible they are to their audience. The commodity is no longer the aspirational value; it is the personality, and most importantly, the person or people behind the camera. 

Kim Kardashian and her family may be the best example of this. Her sex tape — the trailer, a six-minute preview leaked in 2007 — still holds its title as Pornhub’s most watched video of all time. It is undeniable that her rise to fame and multibillion dollar empire and influencer career stemmed from the film’s release. Whether it was leaked or not — which is still widely debated — the Kardashian family revolutionized the idea of the celebrity, capitalizing on the transition from the public to private sphere. 

Thanks to Kardashian, the idea of a celebrity was no longer an untouchable, aspirational figure, seen on Photoshopped magazine covers and commercials, but a personalized, profitable brand that highlighted the creator’s relatability. The influencers of today owe it to the Kardashians for creating an industry career out of thin air. 

“I just feel like I’m hanging out with my friends. My camera is my friend,” said Summer McKeen, one of Chamberlain’s friends and an influencer in her own right. At the heart of influencing is the connection with a fanbase that pays for the glorified influencer’s career and lifestyle under the guise of realism, as if you too can be friends with Kim — only after paying for her new contour palette. 

The popularity of realism in porn, it seems, is not an isolated event: The culture has shifted, the tide has changed and content creators like Chamberlain and Isla Summer are leaders of this creative counterculture. 

Daily vlogs, “day in the life”-style videos that are popular on YouTube, can be viewed as parallel to Pornhub’s Model Program, which has the same objective: increase the consumer’s access to the creator. Reese Blutstein, a 22-year-old influencer with a quarter of a million followers, puts it simply: “For my generation, people are more willing to be who they are and not make up a fake identity,” she said. “We are trying to show a real person doing cool things as a real person, not trying to create a persona that isn’t actually you.” This candidness and creator-to-consumer relationship is then monetized for profit.

Because of Pornhub’s Model Program, creators like Isla Summer can offer exclusive, customizable video and photo content, as well as profit from private conversations and texting via Snapchat. This direct-to-consumer distribution method is the reason why Summer said, “In terms of the ad revenue perspective, you get taken care of pretty well being on one of the biggest websites in the world.” It’s all about “trying to get as many eyeballs to see your link as possible, because the more people that click your link, the more advertisers want to use your link to put up their ads.” 

The couple went into further detail regarding the ease with which they started their career on Pornhub, saying, “It was so easy. Literally, all we had to do was send them pictures of our IDs and a couple of pictures to verify that we were actually in possession of this account.” Making porn, to Isla Summer, was not with the intention of becoming the next Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee. It was about earning an income, as is the objective of nearly all other content creators. The stigma surrounding porn wasn’t evident at all in Isla Summer’s comments or demeanor. As content creators, the sexual element is removed from their titles, with their focus devoted to reaping the benefits of the cash cow that is amateur porn. “Until the internet as we know it dies, this is gonna keep making us more and more money, so we’re just going to try to keep doing what we’re doing,” Summer said.

Overlaps between mainstream influencer culture and amateur pornography are becoming more and more frequent. In the premier of the new season of the YouTube show “The Reality House,” a reality competition show in the same vein as “Big Brother,” Kian and Jc, two big names in the YouTube world, welcomed internet personality and amateur pornstar Lena The Plug into the new cast. Lena The Plug was also nominated for Top Celebrity at the 2019 Pornhub Awards, along with Tana Mongeau, Cardi B, Kim Kardashian and Stormy Daniels. 

With the technological revolution came the graduation of porn from magazines and VCRs to our phones, just a finger tap away. Today, porn occupies the public, private and even political domain. However the monetization of realism, while economically lucrative and seemingly innocent, is concerning. Without being critical of our content, it’s easy to be unable to decipher when a photo or video has gone through rounds of editing or seen the desks of producers and managers when it’s posed — and branded — as organic. The amateur aesthetic is dangerous in deceiving its audiences and arguably equally as dangerous as the blatant Photoshop fails and hyper-edited magazine covers. Where professionalism connotes skill and quality, amateurism embodies spontaneity and truthfulness. However, both are representations of reality that have been deliberately manufactured. Who’s to say what lies underneath the facade of an #unfiltered post? Regardless, what is not up for debate is the cultural impact of the amateur. 

Pei Ja Anderson supports YouTube influencers, amateur porn stars and Instagram baddies everywhere. 

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