Are Paid Subscriptions The Future Of Social Media? The New Members-Only App Sunroom Thinks So

Sunroom’s glowy app icon beams, its loading screen inviting users in with a futuristic animation of an arched acrylic vase encasing a flower — that’s all to say, it’s very Gen Z.
With its launch last week, the new social media platform is pegged to give the Meta and TikTok monopoly a run for its money. But it’s not numbers that Sunroom is seeking, instead aiming to facilitate genuine connection between creators and their followers.
“We're not about like getting you to a million followers and making sure we're showing you to all these people,” co-founder and ex-Hinge product designer Lucy Mort tells Refinery29 Australia over Zoom. “That's not what Sunroom’s about; it's about intimacy.” 
Sunroom is a self-described “creator app where women and non-binary people make money” and its manifesto encourages its users to “do whatever the hell [they] want, however [they] want to do it, and [to] stack [their] cash.”
It’s unapologetic, open-minded, and unabashedly open about wealth and monetisation — a difference from its competitors who continue to run into ad disclosure issues. 
Alongside co-founder and ex-Bumble Associate Marketing Director of Asia-Pacific Michelle Battersby, Mort became fascinated with subscription-based platforms like OnlyFans and Patreon and their models of monetisation. But even with their rising popularity, both Battersby and Mort quickly realised that there was a hesitation and brand perception issue for creators that was inhibiting many of them from joining.
It’s an area that Instagram is also paying attention to. In January, the tech giant rolled out a test run of its own ‘Subscriptions’ feature, following the establishment of its Facebook counterpart in 2020.
In walks Sunroom — a bright and bold alternative to the existing members-only spaces. “We really wanted to choose a name that encapsulated the feeling we were trying to create, one [that’s] warm, transparent, [and] really sort of welcoming,” says Mort. 
While its competitors’ platforms are free to use, Sunroom is trying to cut through the idea of free social media content, where users expect content to cost nothing. 
“There's still a fear of putting a price tag on your content or on your DMs because a lot of our creators are worried that their following will judge them for asking to be compensated,” says Mort. “We’re really trying to celebrate the fact that making money like this is really legit [and] it's really cool.” 
The app was built in collaboration with nine creator advisors to solidify the platform’s commitment to monetisation, sex positivity, safety and inclusivity. 
Alyssa Ho, a Vietnamese-Australian anti-racism advocate and writer, spoke to Refinery29 Australia about her experience as one of the advisors. As an important voice in the Asian Australian community, Ho is a stern believer in creators being compensated properly. 
“I don’t think people understand the amount of time, emotional labour, energy, education, and emotional and mental toll it can take on creators to pour themselves into their work, especially when it comes to the advocacy realm, without any sort of recognition, gratitude or compensation… It’s very much a ‘take’ approach rather than a meaningful one,” she says.
As someone who prides themselves on being sex positive, Mort is proud of the content Sunroom champions. “The content really makes me smile, going through the discovery feed yesterday, I was just beaming… We are more open with how women can be more expressive with their bodies or talk about sex and sexuality without being moderated,” she says, sharing her hopes for Sunroom acting as a safe alternative for those who haven’t previously felt comfortable enough to share more intimate parts of themselves on Instagram or TikTok.
Sexologist Chantelle Otten echoes this. “Sex positivity is really important across every aspect of our daily life… I am a firm believer that sex positivity comes from confidence and this only comes from exposure… at school, in your friendship circles, and on social media,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
“I want [my Sunroom community] to feel more confident and empowered, and for us all to have these conversations in a setting without fear, judgement or concerns around moderation.”
This concern of moderation is only fair. With OnlyFans causing outrage for its mistreatment of sex workers — the very people who built up its platform — there’s speculation about what the future of sex workers on social media looks like. 
“I think it is inevitable that Sunroom will offer a safer online space for sex workers, given they are both supportive of sex workers and consulting with sex workers directly in the development of the app,” sex worker and writer Tilly Lawless tells Refinery29 Australia.
“Sex workers may finally have an income that they can rely on as ongoing and a following they can feel confident in pouring their time and energy into.”
To do so, Sunroom has taken a hands-on approach to moderation. There are currently four human moderators for the 100 creators they have launched the app with (creators currently have to go through an application and approval process to be on the platform). 
“We've been hearing stories of people having their accounts removed because they were really open about childbirth, menstruation, breastfeeding, sexual wellness, pleasure — all these categories are really important to the creators that we're now serving,” Battersby shares. 
It seems almost counter to a traditional business model that's typically obsessed with growth and numbers, but sustainable and long-term progress is what Sunroom has its eyes set on. 

There's this casualness to [Sunroom], and you're a part of the creator's friendship circle, and they’re being really open with you. It feels really authentic and real, because it is.

Michelle Battersby
“It feels right,” says Battersby. “We’re really trying to use this period right now to get it right, to set a really good standard, and then scale with care… We're never going to be at the scale of like an Instagram or a Tiktok [where] a billion people are creating.”
Another interesting feature the duo has implemented is an anti-screenshot and anti-screen recording technology called ‘SunBlock’.
“Piracy and content leaks are really troubling on OnlyFans and some other monetisation platforms… When [our creators] post something on Sunroom, it stays on Sunroom,” says Mort. 
“[Creators will feel] safe in knowing that the people a part of their Sunroom community have chosen to be there, they’re not hate-following or there just because they can be,” Ho says. “Safe in knowing they can be vulnerable in a judgement-free space. Safe in knowing that the content they’ve shared on other platforms won’t be shadowbanned or removed.”
While Sunroom has been built with the mission to protect and compensate its creators, it's also a fun platform where women and non-binary creators can experiment. 
Battersby points to the rise of ‘casual Instagram’ that’s been popularised as a direct criticism of Instagram’s heavily curated aesthetic. But even that, she says, can still feel performative.
“On Sunroom right now, it feels like there's this casualness to it, and you're a part of the creator's friendship circle, and they’re being really open with you," she says. "It feels really authentic and real, because it is.”
Mort’s design background intellectualises this. “The design really takes up the whole screen so people are just getting on and chatting to their camera. You don't lay on music like you do on TikTok, there isn't a 30 second time limit, you don't have to make it entertaining,” she says. “There aren't 85,000 filters,” chimes in Battersby. 

No one wants to grow resentful towards working on the things they truly care for or feel like what they put out into the world isn’t genuinely valued.

alyssa ho
“It’s really, really raw. I think it means people can whip up content without this sort of burden of feeling like it has to be really good,” says Mort.
The battle of algorithms and reach on TikTok and Instagram keeps creators in a constant loop of creation, with their engagement numbers punished when they pause and come up for air. 
“No one wants to grow resentful towards working on the things they truly care for or feel like what they put out into the world isn’t genuinely valued,” Ho agrees. 
For Gen Z and Millennials, the loneliest yet most well-connected generations, true connection often feels out of reach; and we know that the constant barrage of social media content might be fuelling it, rather than helping. Sunroom hopes to be a space creators and users alike can walk into, bask in the glow of community, and walk out again.
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