What you need to know
SWAG’s situation calls to mind recent high-profile scandals, concerning the rights and safety of content creators on online platforms, the lasting environmental impacts of blockchain technology, and moderation of online communities.
Taipei-based adult content platform SWAG is entrenched in controversy, facing investigation by Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau. Calling themselves the “OnlyFans of the East” and “Asia’s Largest Adult Private Platform,” SWAG specializes in providing explicit content via live broadcasts and one-on-one chats between creators (“Swaggers”) and viewers.
Like other popular apps such as Uber and Airbnb, and fellow adult content-friendly site OnlyFans, SWAG is a member of the “platform economy,” with an emphasis on user-generated content and facilitating digital interactions between individuals. SWAG offers in-app currency (“diamonds”) for the purpose of direct tips to performers, and the platform’s tagline aptly boasts “zero distance from your idol.”
SWAG’s genealogy can be traced to the streaming app 17 LIVE. Founded by media mogul and hip-hop artist Jeffrey Huang in 2015, 17 LIVE set out to be an all-ages music broadcasting platform. Shortly after its debut, however, the app was temporarily banned from the App Store and Google Play due to explicit content. The company complied, adjusting its content moderation and user registration system.
Spinning into a new venture, parent company 17 Media (now the 17 Live Group) introduced SWAG as a private messaging platform in 2016. SWAG is currently not publicly listed as a product on 17 Live Group’s website and since 2017 has been run by Sam Liu, who claims “A good adult website can let you conquer the universe.”
SWAG garnered public scrutiny from the start. Like its predecessor 17 LIVE, reports of explicit sexual content arose soon after the platform’s launch. This time, however, the app’s direct messaging format protected it from app store bans, and the company leaned into the raciness rather than comply with the pressure — 17 Media’s public relations team announced “Users privately sharing erotic photos, suggestive texts, and the like, is not at all illegal.”
The site continued to flirt with the legal gray areas of sex work, employing dinner date tactics to evade in-person prostitution charges, and a gift-based rhetoric for its paywalled private chats. It now openly identifies itself as an adult content platform and is listed with a “Mature” rating on app stores.
In another echo of 17 LIVE’s early days, SWAG recently shut down while under investigation by Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB). On April 2, the CIB searched SWAG’s offices, retaining 35 employees for interrogation and arresting 5, including Mr. Liu and his spouse, on the grounds of damaging public morals. The site for a brief time displayed a static homepage alerting users of the investigation.
SWAG’s social media accounts remained active throughout the site closure. A brief statement on Instagram explained that they were cooperating with authorities to implement more rigorous content moderation and user registration processes in the name of minor safety. SWAG tweeted a similar statement as well, adding “We will not run, we will not fall. Again, the rights of SWAG users and Swaggers will not be affected.”
This recent investigation follows an incident earlier this year, in which SWAG came under fire for a series of videos shot on a set that closely resembled a Taipei Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train car. The Taipei Rapid Transit Corporation (TRTC) condemned the platform’s content, accusing SWAG of disseminating misinformation and exploiting MRT imagery for a publicity stunt. But since the videos were shot on fabricated film sets and only shown to site members, TRTC was not able to press charges. On April 13, however, the actor in the film Arielbb was brought in for questioning by the CIB, apparently for an unrelated issue of whether she provided sexual services to fans, which she denied.
The site has been restored, ostensibly having implemented the aforementioned rigorous policies called for by the authorities. SWAG’s public relations team has not responded to requests for comment from The News Lens.
Decentralization in content and currency
SWAG has been notorious for its disruption and decentralization of the adult content industry. Instead of the traditional studio-based model of pornography production, SWAG joins fellow “platform economy” companies in giving agency to individual creators to produce their own content and interact directly with viewers.
The platform is also making strides in other forms of decentralization, specifically, in the financial realm. In 2020, the $SWAG token was introduced as a form of cryptocurrency uniquely intertwined with SWAG’s adult content business. Through investing in these tokens, users earn votes in community proposals and are rewarded with digital diamonds for use in the SWAG.Live app.
Down 77.1887% from an all-time high of US$0.3244, at the time of writing $SWAG is valued at US$0.0740 according to Coinbase. Save for a sudden dip on the day of the CIB investigation, $SWAG’s value has held relatively steady for the past several months.
Although Jeffery Huang is ostensibly no longer involved with SWAG in a leadership role, $SWAG tokens are available to trade on his Ethereum-based platform C.R.E.A.M. (“Crypto Rules Everything Around Me”). Huang has long been active in the blockchain world, describing a goal of creating “WeChat for the crypto generation” in a 2018 interview with The News Lens.
SWAG.Live and $SWAG’s common thread of disruption mirrors Huang’s personal ideology (“‘fight the power’... that’s the whole blockchain thing”) and nationalistic dreams (“Blockchain really represents Taiwan well… China banned it so it’s a weapon for Taiwan”), according to his 2018 interview and subsequent moves in the fintech sector. The marriage of the two ventures is an interesting experiment to watch.
SWAG joins an international zeitgeist
SWAG’s situation calls to mind recent high-profile scandals such as PornHub’s reckoning and South Korea’s Nth Room Case, both of which involved abuse of digital explicit content and spurred public outrage. Wider conversations concerning the rights and safety of content creators on online platforms, the lasting environmental impacts of blockchain technology, and moderation of online communities have colored almost every corner of the digital world, putting SWAG in the middle of an international discussion.
Explicit content platforms exist in not only a legal but a moral gray area: too much moderation may infringe on user’s rights and privacy, but too little moderation leaves room for abuse and minor safety violations. Some believe that consenting adult performers have a right to use their bodies as they wish, while others would argue that it is impossible for true sexual consent to occur under capitalistic pressure. Cryptocurrency complicates the issue further. What does it mean to invent a currency that hinges on monetizing mostly women’s bodies, is uniquely accessible to the technologically literate, and introduces irreversible environmental consequences? Others might claim that traditional financial institutions are not any better.
Without more information, it’s difficult to characterize the CIB’s intervention as either baseless moral panic or legitimate move towards the abolition of abuse. Either way, SWAG stands as an intriguing experiment in various modes of decentralization, and its story seems to be far from over.
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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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