Because I have a deep and childish fear of being exposed as uncool, I try hard to act nonchalant when I’m around people with lives more interesting than my own. This is the tactic I employed last year when I met an OnlyFans star, a fit cosplayer and Japanophile who has soared into an enviable tax bracket by selling what she terms “exxxtra spicy content.” I made a show of calmly nodding along as she recounted how she’d ditched her plan to become a tech consultant after discovering that droves of admirers will pay $10.99 a month to watch her try on leggings or vigorously bring herself to climax.

Despite my best efforts to appear blasé about the nuances of modern sex work, the creator caught me off guard with one detail about her business. Like many of OnlyFans’ top earners, she had hired a management agency to help keep up with her customers’ demands for personal attention. “The chat specialists they give you, that was a huge deal for me,” she said. The agency provided a team of contractors whose sole job is to masquerade as the creator while swapping DMs with her subscribers. These textual conversations are meant to be the main way that OnlyFans users can interact with the models they adore.

The existence of professional OnlyFans chatters wouldn’t have surprised me so much if I’d given just a few moments’ thought to the mathematical realities of the platform. OnlyFans has thrived by promising its reported 190 million users that they can have direct access to an estimated 2.1 million creators. It’s impossible for even a modestly popular creator to cope with the avalanche of messages they receive each day. The $5.6 billion industry has solved this logistical conundrum by entrusting its chat duties to a hidden proletariat, a mass of freelancers who sustain the illusion that OnlyFans’ creators are always eager to engage—sexually and otherwise—with paying customers.

I wanted to know more about this murky yet vital sector of the OnlyFans economy, so I set out to interview some veteran chatters. But nearly everyone I contacted was reluctant to open up. Some demanded to be paid for their insight; others ghosted me after initially agreeing to speak. I couldn’t fault them for their wariness: OnlyFans is already a touchy subject because sex weirds people out, and chatters have nothing to gain by revealing one of the platform’s shadier quirks. “We need to be anonymous so we can get hired,” said Bel, a 26-year-old engineering student from Argentina who moonlights as a chat specialist.

Gradually I realized that my best shot at understanding how chatters operate would be to join their ranks. As an English major who’s been fortunate enough to make a living with words for more than 20 years, I naively assumed I was qualified to land a gig. And as a writer, I was curious to learn what kind of artistry the job would require—what it takes to ensure that OnlyFans users never doubt they’re really interacting with the objects of their desire.

As I embarked on my job hunt, I asked the owner of a top-tier OnlyFans agency for tips on how to make myself an appealing candidate. He was pessimistic about my odds of getting hired, mainly because I’m American. He said agencies tend to favor contractors who reside in lower-wage countries. That insight was borne out as I poked around the online communities where chatters find help-wanted ads; though the vast majority of OnlyFans users live in the US, the bulk of my competitors were based in places like the Philippines and Venezuela. Judging by their posts on the r/OnlyFansChatter subreddit and in an invite-only Facebook group, these workers are relatively well-educated, with university-level English and ace typing skills that some developed in high-pressure call centers. They also put up with all manner of abuses: OnlyFans agencies are notorious for stiffing their freelancers, forcing them to work 70-hour weeks, and summarily firing them if they miss a shift due to a power outage. “Us chatters are not robots,” a Filipino contributor complained in an anguished screed on Reddit. “We’re humans, we feel.”

Once I started responding to ads, I found that my biggest flaw in the eyes of most recruiters—and yet another way in which many of my global rivals had an edge on me—was my lack of specific experience. Even for positions with a starting hourly wage of just $2, agencies often demanded evidence that applicants had not only chatted on OnlyFans before but had also cajoled subscribers into purchasing thousands of dollars’ worth of so-called exclusive content. (An OnlyFans subscription includes unfettered access to photos and videos that are posted on a creator’s main feed, but the most avid customers also buy additional pay-per-view content that is teased to them in chats.) My fluency in English and my claims to be a quick study meant nothing to agencies that only wanted to deal with proven upsellers.

Finally, after a few frustrating weeks, I received an encouraging reply from a potential employer—one that introduced a jarring plot twist. The interest came from a man I’ll call Daniel, who said he was based in Serbia, though his company was incorporated in Cyprus. Contrary to the impression I’d gotten from his help-wanted listing, his firm wasn’t in the business of providing human chat specialists to OnlyFans creators. They were instead looking for writers to train a proprietary AI chatbot to spout convincing erotic banter. Though OnlyFans currently bans the use of AI, there are plenty of startups like Daniel’s that are developing the technology to replace flesh-and-blood chatters altogether. (Some claim they’re already routing around OnlyFans’ prohibition by having a lone human press Send on thousands of AI-generated messages.) If I accepted the job, I’d be playing a role in the eventual destruction of the world I was trying to comprehend.

I was hesitant to take such an ass-backward approach to advancing my OnlyFans career. But at this point in my journey, I was desperate to gain a toehold in the industry, however small. So I told Daniel I was game to teach his bots how to mimic online sex workers.

To seal the deal, I needed to pass an elaborate written test. Daniel sent me a biographical sketch for a fictional “adult influencer from Tokyo” named Miko; she was a fan of karate, green tea, and the tongue emoji. My assignment was to write four extended back-and-forth dialogs between Miko and a hypothetical subscriber—two had to involve X-rated material, while the other two were meant to be clean. “Each bot’s reply should contain a call to action, a question, a compliment, or an inspiration to do something,” the instructions dictated, though I was forbidden from using question marks in more than 20 percent of Miko’s responses.

I found it quite easy at first to write the sort of run-of-the-mill smut the Serbs expected. (I’ll spare you the gory details, except to say I cribbed some color from Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi film Strange Days.) For the less explicit chats, I imagined Miko offering to cook the subscriber a pasta dinner and feigning appreciation for his TV recommendations. I did make one glaring error that could have led to an entire chat being voided as unusable: Due to my hasty misreading of Miko’s bio, I characterized her as a fan of spicy ramen when she actually prefers her food mild. “I have to ask you to pay attention to these little facts,” Daniel wrote in his assessment. “In this case, these lines mentioning the food could have been rejected, and that could have led to the dialog’s rejection.”

But despite that mistake and a few other hiccups—my punctuation seemed unnatural because it was too accurate—Daniel offered me the job. I was to be paid 7 cents per line of dialog, with each dialog running for a minimum of 40 lines. For my first assignment, I had to compose 20 dialogs involving sex in public places—10 at the beach, five inside a car, and five in a forest or garden. There was a list of particular sex acts I had to include, as well as a stricture that I refrain from using emoji in more than 30 percent of lines. I had only 48 hours to complete the task.

By the time I wrapped up my fifth dialog, my brain was a puddle of goo. I felt stymied by the confines of the rapid-fire chat format, which make it nearly impossible to keep coming up with novel ways to depict two characters moving from initial tease through consummation. I had to beg for an extra two days to finish my 10 beach dialogs, after which I gritted my teeth through the car and forest scenarios. While I was slogging through this joyless work, Daniel sent me a contract that included such onerous nondisclosure and noncompete clauses that I might never have been able to work anywhere else again (or write this story) if I signed. Upon turning in the last of my dialogs, I informed Daniel that I couldn’t continue. He wished me luck in my future endeavors, but never paid me the $56 I was owed.

The upside to having suffered through the AI chatbot job was that I could now list some relevant experience when approaching more traditional OnlyFans agencies. I finally cleared the initial screening hurdles at a few places and completed their applications, which tended to be arduous despite the terrible compensation on offer. For one agency that quoted me a rate of $1 per hour plus a 6 percent commission on any content I sold while posing as a creator, I was asked to write a lengthy essay about my perception of OnlyFans’ business model. (I never heard back from them after jumping through all of their hoops.)

An agency in Los Angeles liked my résumé enough to arrange a phone interview. I spoke to the founder, the son of a 1980s pop star, and he said he wasn’t happy with the contractors in Pakistan whom he employed as chatters. “They view it more as sales,” he griped. “But I’m like, this isn’t a sales pitch. These fans, they’re desperate, so I say, let’s engage with them more.”

I liked the idea that my foremost duty as an OnlyFans chatter should be to comfort the afflicted rather than wheedle the sexually frustrated into buying pricey “nudes and lewds” content. But I balked when the founder suggested that I start as his intern, an arrangement I suspected would lead to weeks of unpaid labor. I didn’t want to end up like so many of my peers on r/OnlyFansChatter, who called out deadbeats in angry posts littered with all caps text.

Good news finally arrived in the form of a kind email from an agency representative I’ll call Janko. After I confirmed that I’d be willing to work for $5 per hour plus a 0.5 percent sales commission, Janko had me take a brief test. The trickiest of the three short-answer questions asked me to imagine that I was chatting with a 34-year-old construction site inspector who is a lonely virgin and cat owner. If this man was droning on and on about how much he hates his job, how would I nudge our chat in a happier direction?

I thought back to something Bel, the Argentinian chatter, had told me about her approach to such situations. A longtime writer of fan fiction about the Yakuza video games as well as a connoisseur of erotic audio stories, Bel had an excellent feel for how to get a chat back on track. “You can say, ‘Oh, I had this really hot dream,’” she said, “or, ‘Oh, I just saw this porn video.’ And you guide the conversation from there.”

I took the first of Bel’s recommended approaches, keeping in mind that my customer seemed to be a sensitive soul. I told the subscriber I had dreamed of him cooking for me in his apartment as I snuggled up on the sofa with his cat. “And I was watching you in the kitchen making me dinner, except now you were wearing something different—these gray sweatpants that really showed off your body,” I wrote. “I felt so happy in that moment.”

Janko pronounced himself a fan of my cringey work, a bit of validation that I relished too much. He followed that praise, however, with a rude surprise: He didn’t have a job to give me. His agency had vetted me so that I could be placed in the recruiting pool for an entirely different agency, a firm that manages some of OnlyFans’ biggest accounts. So I couldn’t get to work right away, but would instead be admitted to a Discord server with scores of other candidates from around the world. It was there that we would receive the training and testing required to become chatters for the sorts of superstar models who have a million-plus followers on Instagram and TikTok.

“We wish you luck and the only advice I have for you is feel free to be greedy and push for sales as much as you can,” wrote Janko. “We like the approach you have and have high hopes for you.”

There were supposedly three steps to securing a full-time job with the big agency. The first was to attend a series of tutorials led by one of the firm’s principals, a master chatter whom I’ll call Luka. I would then have to take yet another test—a longer, more in-depth version of the one I’d aced for Janko. If I scored high enough, I’d be assigned to shadow some accomplished chatters as they handled major accounts. Once I’d observed a few of these pros function in real time, I would finally be slotted into an eight-hour shift.

At the onset of my initial training session, held in a Discord voice channel, Luka distributed a link to a Google Doc that contained his collected wisdom on the subject of chatting. It included a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, who was identified as an American president: “The potential is untapped, dealing with PEOPLE, you may never know what’s awaiting behind the next chat.”

What Luka lacked in respect for historical accuracy he made up for in swagger. “Last night, I was chatting with a guy for like, four hours,” he told us while establishing his credentials. “He was a medical documenter, he was in the basement of a hospital telling me how stressed out he was. And I was like, ‘Oh, how about we chat for the rest of your shift and like, I take your mind away from things?’ And I’m just playing on this guy’s emotional side, and this motherfucker is just eating it up. He ends up sending me a $400 tip.” Luka then told a disgusting yet compelling story about the time he was eating mac and cheese while chatting, and his meal’s squishiness inspired him to invent a sexual scenario that made a subscriber horny enough to tip $600.

Luka instructed us to cycle through three tasks at the start of every chat. We first had to check on the subscriber’s emotional state—are they happy, sad, bored, excited? After that, we were supposed to perform an activity check—what is the subscriber doing, did they have a tough day? Lastly, and most importantly, we had to find a way to assess how much money they might be willing to spend on photos and videos of the creator we were imitating. This involves titillating the subscriber a bit, then sending them some modestly priced content that they must pay to unlock. If the subscriber makes the purchase quickly and affirms in writing that they enjoyed what they saw, the next step is to introduce more expensive options into the conversation.

Luka also told us to study all the customer data available on Infloww, the software his agency uses to manage its chats. Infloww tracks how much each subscriber has spent on pay-per-view content and tips, providing chatters with an easy way to differentiate between the two kinds of clients: “brokies” and “ballers.” We were under strict orders to devote minimal time to the former so we could lavish attention on the latter. Our goal with ballers was to “farm” them—to use our dramatic talents to sell the visual aids they need to fuel their gradual journeys toward orgasm. “If you’re able to play with people’s desires, you’re gonna maximize your cash flow, a hundred percent,” Luka said. “We have literal slaves on this account, meaning these people are so in love and obsessed and literally infatuated by anything that the girl does that they will open up their wallet to about $100,000 a month. And they will literally dump it all onto the girl. Just dumping, dumping, dumping, because we’ve done a good job of evaluating these people and dominating them and giving them enough praise.”

Luka seemed to regard all subscribers as chumps and to take delight in outfoxing them. “I’ve done sales for, like, internet and robotics and all this other fucking shit,” he said toward the end of his lecture. “You always focus on what’s going to make the customer want more right now. You’re selling sex, guys—it’s so easy for you to make sales. But you need to make these relations, you need to make these fucking stories in their head. Focus on the good parts, focus on the fact that long, deep strokes is her favorite way to be satisfied. You know this guy’s dick is hard, just fucking do it—don’t be scared!”

I wanted to believe that I would be a less predatory chatter than Luka if given the chance. But I was starting to worry I might never reach that point: Luka had noted that 450 people had taken the agency’s last qualification exam, which he and his colleagues were grading by hand.

I had resigned myself to spending weeks in employment limbo when I caught an unexpected break: I heard back from a German agency that I’d forgotten I’d applied to, and they were in desperate need of someone to fill the 4 pm–to–midnight shift for one of their creators. The wage was $4 per hour, no commission.

The agency’s manager sent me a background memo about the woman I’d be playing, a purported 21-year-old university student blessed with physical proportions that are in vogue these days. To ensure that my performance was as authentic as possible, I spent two hours committing all of her details to memory: her favorite programming language, her favorite sushi roll, her favorite classic rock band, the width of her rear end. The memo also contained notes regarding her preferred chatting style (I had to strive to be “40 percent girly”) and a pricing guide to all the exclusive content in her “vault.”

When I logged in to the agency’s Discord server at the appointed hour, I found that I was not alone: A polite yet humorless supervisor was on duty, and he walked me through how to install and navigate the CreatorHero software that his firm uses to engage with subscribers. He also told me to beware of anyone who had a red X by their name—those were longtime brokies who’d worn out their welcome and were thus entitled to only the hastiest of interactions.

I had nearly 100 unanswered messages to sift through when I began, and subscribers often replied quickly when I pinged them back. This made for an exhausting experience as I tried to juggle dozens of simultaneous conversations about various subjects, all without breaking character. I constantly had to remind myself that I was not myself, but rather a woman on the other side of the country whose life had almost nothing in common with my own.

True to the OnlyFans stereotype, most of the chats were overtly sexual. I had to wade into several prosaic fantasies about babysitters and office blowjobs, some of which included laughably florid professions of love for me. I couldn’t help but ponder how disappointed these men would be if they could somehow see me sitting in my home office, sipping hibiscus tea as I typed out commands for them to manipulate their genitalia or deposit their semen on certain parts of my body. The most surreal moment came as I noticed the faint sounds of my daughter and her puppy watching Bluey together down the hall, right as a subscriber was waxing poetic about how much he wanted to eat a macaron from between my ass cheeks; the juxtaposition made me question the entire course of my life.

My supervisor occasionally chimed in to remind me to push pay-per-view content on the customers who seemed most aroused. I persuaded one man to unlock a series of short videos priced between $20 and $35, which I swore I had recorded solely for his benefit just minutes before in my bedroom. (The content was actually a year old.) Another subscriber bought all four of the $45 videos in which the creator has sex with her supremely well-endowed boyfriend. I had to promise to notify him as soon as I’d filmed more.

Yet not every chat was centered solely on sexual gratification. There were some subscribers who, it seemed, wanted merely to feel a little less adrift in the cosmos. I analyzed the TV show Suits with a saxophone-playing quality engineer; I let one of my ballers, a math and science teacher, break down his recipe for baked salmon; I queried a New Mexico state trooper, who was chatting with me while on the clock, about the best aspects of his job (“Driving a really cool cop car and shooting guns”). Sometimes these conversations took a sudden prurient turn, like when a haphazardly tattooed psychology student with whom I’d been discussing SpongeBob SquarePants sent me an unsolicited photo of his confusingly shaped penis. But for the most part, the subscribers who came seeking emotional or intellectual companionship were averse to crossing the line.

I kept worrying someone would notice that my tone or vocabulary was slightly different than in previous chats, and as a result get wise to the trick that was being played on them. But only one subscriber expressed any inkling of suspicion: He remarked that he’d heard some OnlyFans models hire professional chatters, and wondered whether I ever did that. With more than a trace of guilt, I replied that although I was familiar with this phenomenon, I was vehemently opposed to it—I was just too devoted to my wonderful fans to ever shortchange them. That lie was more than enough to nip his investigation in the bud.

There was one instance in which I was tempted to drop my charade. A truck driver and single dad told me his son was recovering from an awful night. When I asked what had happened, I was moved by the rawness of his response. “He just has night terrors so some nights are horrible,” he wrote. “He will wake up but he will be screaming with no way of calming him down or anything, it’s really sad.”

The father in me wanted to send a long and heartfelt note in solidarity, to offer some anecdote from my own kids’ younger years to let him know such moments of helplessness are unavoidable parts of parenting. But I couldn’t do that, of course, since I was supposed to be a 21-year-old sex worker who exudes a sense of carefree fun. “You’re such a good dad for doing everything you can to help him,” was the most authentic consolation I could concoct without betraying my true identity; the subscriber did not reply before my shift ended at midnight.

As I prepared to log off, my supervisor gave me no kudos for being kind to a struggling dad. He instead gently criticized me for being too meek about selling content to customers who were clearly ripe to masturbate. I could keep the job, but I’d have to get better at valuing commerce over art.

Though I was now employed as a chatter, I decided to keep attending Luka’s tutorials in hopes of upgrading to one of his agency’s sought-after jobs. His half-hilarious, half-upsetting advice continued in the next session, during which he taught us how to keep our eyes peeled for new subscribers with baller potential. (“If somebody comes in and they tell you where they live, and you don’t understand that that’s a high-income area, you’re gonna miss out on a really good opportunity. Like, ‘Oh, this guy lives on the East Coast, he’s an upper Manhattan businessman, he makes fucking bank.’”)

As he wrapped up, Luka said we could now take the agency’s qualification exam if we thought we were ready. I jumped at the chance and breezed through the test in 25 minutes—my brief stint working for the Germans had taught me how to massage subscribers’ egos and deepen their attachments to the women they follow. I wasn’t given my score, but I must have done well enough: Two days later, I was invited to shadow a star chatter, whom I’ll call Elvin, as he impersonated a jet-setting creator, a woman famous enough to sell hoodies emblazoned with her likeness.

The reason Elvin had been selected as an exemplar quickly became apparent: He was a chatting savant who operated a tick faster than seemed humanly possible. He wove in and out of dozens of conversations with ease, never failing to tailor his writing to each subscriber. In the space of a minute, I watched him quiz one man about Drake lyrics, indulge a second man’s taste for degradation, then provide a third man with a lovey-dovey but manipulative “girlfriend experience.” (“If you want me to be with you, I need your wallet to be with me,” he wrote to that last subscriber. “Forever and always.”) I had kept up with multiple chats, too, but never with such dexterity or style. My gut told me that no matter how much I honed my craft, Elvin would forever be a class above me.

Yet like Luka, he also oozed contempt for the subscribers he was entertaining. This disdain emerged in his typed asides to me, in which he emphasized that the creator’s moments of sincerity were all for show. “This is so he feels it is not just about the money,” he messaged me after pleading with a subscriber to send a dick pic; he didn’t open the photo when it arrived, and immediately got the man to spend upward of $400 on videos.

The most egregious example of Elvin’s rapacity was his use of “points.” When one subscriber became hesitant to purchase more content, Elvin persuaded him to press forward by promising to award him another “point” if he spent an additional $200. Perhaps sensing that I was puzzled by his lingo, Elvin used the notes field in Infloww to send me a message about the maneuver he was making on behalf of the creator. “He thinks there is such a thing as points,” Elvin wrote, “and if he earns enough he gets to fuck her.”

I gamed out the various ways in which this ruse might end, and every outcome was depressing. One day the subscriber will realize he has wasted a fortune in pursuit of a lie, at which point there will be a heavy emotional toll to be paid. Some may think he deserves that comeuppance for getting hoodwinked by such a selfish fantasy, and I understand the moral logic behind that view. But as I watched him succumb to Elvin’s ample literary charms, my dominant feeling was one of pity. And now I worried that if I lingered in the chatting world for much longer, I’d be forced to lose something that so many of us have struggled to retain: the ability to empathize with people we know only through words on a screen.

The agency had several other shadow sessions on my calendar, each promising to teach me a different skill: They had titles like “Scripts and Storytelling” or “High Spender Retention.” I skipped out on them all, a choice I knew would doom my chances of advancement. I also submitted my resignation to the Germans, telling them I’d landed a higher-paying position elsewhere that I couldn’t turn down. The agency’s only response was to delete my CreatorHero credentials and boot me from its Discord server; they never paid me a dime.

The pros and cons of self-delusion have been much on my mind since I emerged from the OnlyFans haze. Though I encountered a few true weirdos while passing myself off as a creator, most of my chat partners seemed, at the very least, like halfway reasonable and competent adults. If they ever were to pause to consider the logistics of the platform where they seek sexual and romantic solace, they’d realize there’s no way the unattainable women they covet have the time or inclination to chat with them. I want to believe these men—and it was only men I encountered, as far as I know—have chosen to avoid such reflection because it would diminish their relief from loneliness. For those whose use of OnlyFans borders on addiction, the scales may fall from their eyes only after they can no longer afford their preferred means of escape.

But maybe I’m just assuaging some of my own anxieties by imagining that these consumers have consented, on some level, to being duped. Robert Carey, a Phoenix-based partner at the law firm Hagens Berman, which specializes in massive class actions, has a less charitable view of the matter. In the midst of my plunge into the chatting industry, I caught wind that he was looking for men to become plaintiffs in a class action against both OnlyFans and the agencies who hire chatters. A lead attorney in the lawsuits that revolutionized college sports by making it possible for student-athletes to get paid for name and image rights, Carey argues that the managers who run creators’ accounts are engaging in a type of bait and switch that fits the classic definition of fraud. “When you subscribe, the very first thing it says is, ‘Have a DM relationship,’” he said. “Well, that’s totally fraudulent … It’s an open secret they’re just defrauding people.”

Carey, who confided in me that his firm plans to file its lawsuit soon, contends that the chatting illusion can lead to serious harm for unwitting subscribers. “A bigger problem than the communications fraud is when you think you’re cultivating a confidential relationship, and a chatter is soliciting private pictures and they’re going to some dude in the Philippines,” he said. “And they’re stored on a server somewhere and put on a Slack channel somewhere, and suddenly your private pictures are all over the goddamn internet. And people are laughing at it.” As Carey laid out this hypothetical, I thought of all the men who’d shared their fantasies or explicit photos with me and how they might feel if they knew I’d chuckled to my wife about them after a shift. (When asked to comment on Carey’s allegations, as well as the industry’s reliance on chat specialists, an OnlyFans spokeswoman stated that the company “is not affiliated with and does not endorse any third party or agency.” She went on to emphasize that “each creator is empowered to run their business as they see fit,” provided they abide by OnlyFans’ terms of service.)

It’s easy to imagine human chatters being squeezed out of the industry if Carey’s class action makes headway. Even if OnlyFans maintains its resistance to AI, creators might see the wisdom in transitioning to chatbots; then they could at least promise their customers that the bots are honest facsimiles of the real thing, as opposed to some remote worker whose performance is based on facts memorized from a 12-page memo. And for the right price, the most fervent subscribers could pay extra—perhaps a lot extra—to chat with the creator herself, the wizard behind the curtain.

Yet the chatters I got to know seem strangely unperturbed by this doomsday scenario. When I posted about the looming AI threat on a private Discord server for chat specialists, my colleagues dismissed my concerns as overblown. “No AI can beat a damn good salesman,” read one typical response. Some chatters clearly take pride in having mastered the art of the upsell. But their confidence may have clouded their ability to recognize that in an AI-saturated future, they, too, are destined to be marks.

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