NEW DELHI (Reuters) – An Indian trade group representing 150,000 mobile phone stores on Monday urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to investigate Amazon’s business practices in the country and impose a daily cap on a single seller’s online smartphone sales.
In a letter sent to Modi, the group cited a Reuters special report published last month that revealed Amazon has for years given preferential treatment to a small group of sellers on its Indian platform, using them to circumvent the country’s strict foreign investment regulations.
The report was based on internal Amazon documents dated between 2012 and 2019. To read the special report click reut.rs/2OCOT2W
“We were already aware of Amazon’s thought process and strategy,” the All India Mobile Retailers Association (AIMRA) wrote in the letter. The documents, the letter said, “have revealed that Amazon is doing business in India with the strategy of deftly dodging the regulators and politicians”.
AIMRA urged the government to “suspend all Amazon activities in India” until there is an investigation into the company’s practices.
Amazon says it doesn’t give preferential treatment to any seller on its marketplace and has always complied with Indian law.
Amazon and Modi’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Indian retailers, a crucial part of Modi’s support base, have long alleged that Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart flout federal regulations and that their business practices hurt small traders. The companies, which run the two biggest e-commerce platforms in India, deny the allegations.
The Amazon documents reviewed by Reuters showed the company helped a small number of sellers prosper on its website, discounted their fees and helped one cut special deals with big tech manufacturers such as Apple Inc.
Some 35 of Amazon’s more than 400,000 sellers in India in early 2019 accounted for around two-thirds of its online sales, the documents also showed.
AIMRA said in its letter the government should cap a single seller’s daily smartphone sales on Amazon and Flipkart at 500,000 rupees ($6,829).
The group also alleges the U.S. firms promoted sales on their platforms through preferred sellers, asking the government to investigate tie-ups between smartphone brands and these sellers.
Flipkart did not respond to a request for comment. In the special report published last month, Amazon said in a statement that it was helping small businesses in India and that it “treats all sellers in a fair, transparent, and non-discriminatory manner”.
Brick-and-mortar retailers have said they’re struggling to compete with the tech giants as online smartphone sales boom. By 2019, 44% of smartphones in India were being sold online, with Amazon and Flipkart dominating the sales, according to Forrester Research.
(Reuters) – In October 2020, Miami-based art collector Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile spent almost $67,000 on a 10-second video artwork that he could have watched for free online. Last week, he sold it for $6.6 million.
The video by digital artist Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was authenticated by blockchain, which serves as a digital signature to certify who owns it and that it is the original work.
It’s a new type of digital asset – known as a non-fungible token (NFT) – that has exploded in popularity during the pandemic as enthusiasts and investors scramble to spend enormous sums of money on items that only exist online.
Blockchain technology allows the items to be publicly authenticated as one-of-a-kind, unlike traditional online objects which can be endlessly reproduced.
“You can go in the Louvre and take a picture of the Mona Lisa and you can have it there, but it doesn’t have any value because it doesn’t have the provenance or the history of the work,” said Rodriguez-Fraile, who said he first bought Beeple’s piece because of his knowledge of the U.S.-based artist’s work.
“The reality here is that this is very, very valuable because of who is behind it.”
“Non-fungible” refers to items that cannot be exchanged on a like-for-like basis, as each one is unique – in contrast to “fungible” assets like dollars, stocks or bars of gold.
Examples of NFTs range from digital artworks and sports cards to pieces of land in virtual environments or exclusive use of a cryptocurrency wallet name, akin to the scramble for domain names in the early days of the internet.
The computer-generated video sold by Rodriguez-Fraile shows what appears to be a giant Donald Trump collapsed on the ground, his body covered in slogans, in an otherwise idyllic setting.
OpenSea, a marketplace for NFTs, said it has seen monthly sales volume grow to $86.3 million so far in February, as of Friday, from $8 million in January, citing blockchain data. Monthly sales were at $1.5 million a year ago.
“If you spend 10 hours a day on the computer, or eight hours a day in the digital realm, then art in the digital realm makes tonnes of sense – because it is the world,” said OpenSea’s co-founder Alex Atallah.
Investors caution, however, that while big money is flowing into NFTs, the market could represent a price bubble.
Like many new niche investment areas, there is the risk of major losses if the hype dies down, while there could be prime opportunities for fraudsters in a market where many participants operate under pseudonyms.
(Graphic: Crypto asset sales surge, )
CHRISTIE’S ‘EMBRACES TERRIFYING’
Nonetheless, auction house Christie’s has just launched its first-ever sale of digital art – a collage of 5,000 pictures, also by Beeple – which exists solely as an NFT.
Bids for the work have hit $3 million, with the sale due to close on March 11.
“We are in a very unknown territory. In the first 10 minutes of bidding we had more than a hundred bids from 21 bidders and we were at a million dollars,” said Noah Davis, specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s.
His division has never seen an online-only sale top $1 million before, he added.
In a decision that could help push cryptocurrencies further into the mainstream, the auction house that was founded in 1766 will accept payment in the digital coin Ether as well as traditional money.
“I think that this moment was inevitable and whenever institutions of any kind try to resist inevitability, it does not work out very well,” Davis said of accepting crypto payment. “And so the best thing you can do is embrace the terrifying.”
$208K FOR LEBRON JAMES SLAM DUNK
NFTs could be benefiting from the hype around cryptocurrencies and blockchain, as well as virtual reality’s potential to create online worlds. The growing interest also coincides with a surge in online retail trading during lockdowns.
The start of the rush for NFTs has been linked with the launch of the U.S. National Basketball Association’s Top Shot website, which allows users to buy and trade NFTs in the form of video highlights of games.
Five months after its launch, the platform says it has over 100,000 buyers and nearly $250 million in sales. The majority of sales take place in the site’s peer-to-peer marketplace, with the NBA getting a royalty on every sale.
The volume is rapidly rising: February has seen sales totalling $198 million as of Friday, heading for a fivefold increase from January’s $44 million, Top Shot said.
Each collectible has “a unique serial number with guaranteed scarcity and protected ownership guaranteed by blockchain”, the site says. “When you own #23/49 of a legendary LeBron James dunk, you’re the only person in the world who does.”
The biggest transaction to date was on Feb. 22, when a user paid $208,000 for a video of a LeBron James slam dunk.
One major NFT enthusiast, who goes by the pseudonym “Pranksy” told Reuters he had invested $600 in an early NFT project in 2017 and has now built that up to a portfolio “worth seven figures” in NFTs and cryptocurrencies. He asked to be anonymous to protect his family’s privacy.
Pranksy said he has now spent more than $1 million on Top Shot and made about $4.7 million by reselling purchases. Reuters was unable to independently verify the figures, although NBA Top Shot confirmed he is among the site’s biggest buyers.
“I see them as investments really, much like any other collectibles and NFTs that currently exist,” he said in an interview conducted via Twitter. “I’d never watched a game of basketball before Top Shot launched.”
‘EMERGENCE OF THE METAVERSE’
Nate Hart, a Nashville-based NFT investor who, like Pranksy, has been involved in the market since it first developed in 2017, has seen some popular digital art NFTs such as Autoglyphs and CryptoPunk surge in value.
Hart said he bought a LeBron James Cosmic NFT on NBA Top Shot for $40,000 in January, then sold it for $125,000 in February.
“We’re in awe, it just doesn’t feel real. We were in the right place, right time, got lucky, but we also took that risk,” he said.
“The space has been growing a lot. I do think that this is a little bit of a bubble. It is a bubble,” he said. “It’s hard to predict what the top will be.”
Andrew Steinwold, who launched a $6 million dollar NFT investment fund in January, warned that the majority of NFTs could become worthless in future.
But, like many backers, he is confident that some items will retain their value and that NFTs represent the future of digital ownership, paving the way for a world in which people live, socialise and make money in virtual environments.
“We’re spending a lot of our time digitally, always online, always plugged in. It makes sense to now add property rights to the mix and suddenly we have the emergence of the metaverse,” he said.
“I think it’s going to reach into the trillions of dollars one day.”
Stockholm (Reuters) – Virtual work parties? You can’t really mingle with colleagues, or dance with them, and it’s tough to get in the disco mood in your home office. On the other hand, you can’t spread disease, you don’t have to traipse home and there’s no chance of an ill-advised amorous encounter.
Entertainers prepare for an online work Christmas party organized by events firm Hire Space, unknown location, December 10, 2020. Hire Space/Handout via REUTERS
In the COVID-19 era though, gala options are limited. Companies are turning to events organisers to create virtual social events for staff. And with working-from-home here to stay, some expect demand to continue even after the pandemic.
After almost a year of doing her job from home, fintech worker Catharina Gehrke was finally able to get some proper office gossip in the virtual bathroom and smoking area at her company’s online Christmas party.
The event she attended included a (virtual) taxi ride and dance floor, a Queen Elizabeth II impersonator, a cocktail-making class, plus (real) food and drink hampers delivered to the 200 party people – the staff stuck at home.
“Although I was sitting alone in my living room, I really felt like I was at a party,” said Gehrke, who heads up the Swedish arm of online pet insurance company Bought By Many.
Gehrke sampled everything the “venue” had to offer but said the highlight was getting some juicy office gossip in the privacy of the (virtual) bathroom – where, with a click of the mouse, she could decamp from the dance floor with a select group of friends.
She said the event was one of the best work socials she’d been to, but added: “Maybe you just had to be there.”
As work habits shift, the worldwide virtual events market is expected to grow from just under $100 billion in 2020 to $400 billion by 2027, according to data from Grand View Research.
“Virtual socials are 100% here to stay, but combined with in-person events” said Rachel Haines, director of organisation and development at Swedish payments firm Klarna. “After all, I’d rather go yoga on the roof of our HQ than in my living room.”
Klarna has made virtual socialising a core part of its corporate culture during the pandemic.
“Many of our people are young and live alone,” Haines added. “Online socials are very important and we’ve pushed several big initiatives to make sure people are connected.”
These initiatives include virtual Friday drinks, weeknight cookalongs and morning yoga. Klarna has even done a team-building activity where staff solve puzzles in order to break free from a virtual “escape room”, Haines said.
‘A DOZEN SHOCKED FACES’
The work-from-home experiment has been so successful in some sectors, like finance, that many people have no intention of reverting to type. Half of finance workers in Britain, for example, do not want to return to the office after COVID-19, according to consultancy firm KPMG.
Edward Pollard, chief operating officer of events organiser Hire Space, said the surge in demand for online events during the pandemic had forced his company to innovate.
“Clients now ask us for everything from virtual horse racing to cookery classes and networking events,” Pollard said.
Yet, some workers aren’t quite so comfortable with the new order.
“I was put on the spot with a solo verse at our virtual carol,” said Jake, a London-based charity worker. After warbling a few terrible notes, he turned off his camera and pretended the internet had cut out.
“But the damage was done. I just remember a dozen shocked faces in a grid across my screen.”
Or take the case of Sebastian Woods, who works for a machine learning company in Stockholm. He was somewhat thrown when his wife, who like him has been working from their flat, took part in a Friday night work social event.
“I couldn’t concentrate on my excel spreadsheet because she was doing the Banana Dance at the kitchen table.”
Scam attempts by fraudsters masquerading as the UK’s tax authority surged as potential victims completed tax returns while staying at home.
Con-artists attempted to take advantage of the self-assessment filing deadline at the end of January to flood people with fake texts, emails and calls.
They posed as HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) officials and attempted to steal personal financial details.
Phone scam reports to HMRC tripled compared with December, it said.
There were a total of 33,053 reports in January, in addition to 46,210 phishing emails, and 26,643 suspicious text messages during the same month.
The number of bogus text message reports was twice the next highest level seen during any month of the last year.
Types of scams
Most of these scam messages offered bogus tax rebates, fake support or grants, or threatened legal action over unpaid tax.
A new scam involved criminals calling people saying that their national insurance number had been used fraudulently. This was a lie.
An HMRC spokesman said: “If someone calls, emails or texts claiming to be from HMRC, saying that you can claim financial help, are due a tax refund or owe tax, or asks for bank or other personal details, it might be a scam.
“If you can’t verify the identity of the caller, HMRC recommends that you do not speak to them.”
Mastercard and MTN today announced a strategic partnership to enable millions of consumers in 16 countries across Africa to make global e-commerce payments safely and securely.
Through a Mastercard virtual payment solution linked to MTN MoMo (Mobile Money) wallets, consumers and merchants can engage with brands and businesses abroad through digital commerce, extending their reach to an international marketplace and unlocking a host of opportunities.
Partnership will enable millions of MTN customers to pay on global online platforms with a Mastercard virtual payment solution linked to MTN MoMo wallet
Mastercard’s technology will enable new digital commerce opportunities for consumers and merchants with or without a bank account, through a simple and secure payment experience
Collaboration underpins a new wave of financial inclusion through mobile devices, unlocking opportunities for millions of people across Africa
Across Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile devices are the primary channel used to connect to the internet. According to GSMA, by 2025, it is estimated that there will be 300 million more people using their devices to access internet services. In light of this significant growth, mobile financial services have become the dominant form of digital payments, with twice as many mobile money accounts as bank accounts in the region. As a result, consumers increasingly expect to have access to a broader range of digital financial services.
However, consumers and merchants are mostly restricted to a local base of online and offline businesses, therefore curtailing customers’ ability to engage in global commerce. Through this strategic partnership, MTN customers with a Mastercard virtual payment solution linked to their MoMo wallets can make payments to global online merchants through a seamless and secure digital payment experience on websites and mobile applications. The service is available regardless of whether or not the customer has a bank account.
The solution will enable consumers to explore and shop at well-known global e-commerce brands and pay quickly and securely for leisure shopping, travel, accommodation, entertainment, streaming services and more. It will also allow small business owners to purchase from suppliers abroad and pay with the virtual payment solution.
“We are very excited about this partnership with Mastercard, which is another step in realizing our ambition to build Africa’s largest fintech platform, accelerating economic and social development through digital innovation to the benefit of citizens across the continent and beyond,” said MTN Group Chief Digital and Fintech Officer Serigne Dioum.
“This noteworthy partnership is another step to enable our customers to participate in the global economy. We are resolute that accelerated financial inclusion is a potent enabler of socio-economic development that empowers the most vulnerable in society,” he concluded.
Amnah Ajmal, Executive Vice President for Market Development, Mastercard Middle East and Africa, said: “This significant milestone will enable millions of MTN customers to benefit from global digital commerce and drive digital and financial inclusion across Africa through easy and secure access to financial services.
“At Mastercard, our innovation strategy is based on partnerships and collaboration. This agreement with MTN shows that we can deliver innovative digital solutions that have a far-reaching impact and realize the true potential of inclusive growth across the continent. Partnering with MTN allows us to accelerate our global pledge to connect 1 billion people to the digital economy by 2025, bringing us closer to a world beyond cash.”
MTN and Mastercard first launched the digital payment solution in 2018 for MoMo customers. MTN, the largest mobile network operator, is the ‘Most Admired African Brand’ based on spontaneous consumer responses in Brand Africa 100: Africa’s Best Brands 2020 survey and the most valuable telecoms brand in Africa by Brand Finance Africa.
The company will extend the virtual payment solution offering throughout its Fintech footprint. The expansion of this payment solution will play a significant role in driving the growth of digital inclusion and e-commerce thus increasing MTN MoMo customer inclusion into the global economy.
Initially designed to facilitate the transfer of cash between mobile users, MTN’s MoMo offering is now much broader – including loans, insurance, remittances and payments.
Raising the price of music streaming services could lead to a rise in piracy, MPs have been told.
The music industry has been keen to increase prices for some time, saying it could help artists earn more money.
But Spotify told MPs it was wary of tweaking its monthly £9.99 subscription fee, which hasn’t changed in a decade.
If music becomes “unaffordable to consumers”, warned chief legal officer Horacio Gutierrez, it could end up “pushing them back into online piracy”.
Gutierrez was giving evidence to a digital, culture, media and sport select committee inquiry into the economics of streaming.
It was set up last year to investigate whether musicians are being paid fairly by services like Spotify, Amazon Music and Apple Music.
All three appeared before MPs on Tuesday, but much of the talk was about one of their rivals – YouTube.
‘They pay less’
Apple Music’s Elena Segal said it was difficult for streaming services to compete with the music available on Google’s video-streaming site.
“Competing with free is very difficult,” she said. “It’s challenging to compete on an un-level playing field.
“They don’t necessarily have licenses for all the music that they use, and they don’t need to,” she said, referring to the “safe harbour” laws that protect YouTube from legal claims when users upload copyrighted material.
“Even when they do have licenses, the amount they pay… is less.”
Segal added that the mere fact of YouTube’s existence prevented other streaming services from raising their prices.
Another factor, she explained, was that the same songs are available on almost every music streaming service, unlike Netflix and Disney Plus, which can lure customers in with original films and TV shows.
“Those things do make it challenging to just put prices up in a vacuum… because people can just opt to go to free or to another service that will have the same music,” she said.
However, both Amazon and Spotify conceded they would not end their free, ad-supported services if YouTube was to disappear.
‘Threatening the future of music’
It is not the first time that the DCMS inquiry has heard accusations against YouTube.
The company was accused of “making an absolute fortune from other people’s work” by committee chair Julian Knight MP, after being told that YouTube paid UK record labels £35m in 2020, about half what they earned from selling vinyl records.
By contrast, Spotify said they generated £474m for the UK music industry last year.
However, Katherine Oyama, director of government affairs and public policy at YouTube said the company’s payments were “absolutely on a par” with Spotify and other streaming platforms.
Earlier this month, she told MPs YouTube had paid $3 billion (£2.1billion) to the global music industry in 2019.
Pressed on the BPI’s claims, Oyama said record labels were pointing fingers at YouTube “to alleviate hard questions about their own industry”. She also called for more “transparency” on how the money paid to the industry was divided up before going to artists and songwriters.
Earlier sessions of the inquiry saw testimony from Chic’s Nile Rodgers and members of Radiohead and Elbow, as well as executives from all three major labels.
Elbow frontman Guy Garvey said the way artists are paid for audio streams was “threatening the future of music”.
“That sounds very dramatic,” he told MPs, “but if musicians can’t afford to pay the rent… we haven’t got tomorrow’s music in place.”
By contrast, Universal Music UK’s chairman and chief executive, David Joseph, told the inquiry that artists were “very happy with the investment, very happy with advances” they currently received.
He was interrupted by SNP MP John Nicolson, who said: “I think you’re living in cloud cuckoo land here if you really believe that.”
Much of the discussion has centred around whether artists receive a fair share of the £1bn generated in the UK when their music is played online.
New models considered
At Tuesday’s session, all three streaming companies said they were willing to investigate new ways of distributing money.
One such suggestion is the user-centric payment system where, if you only listen to Dua Lipa, your entire subscription fee would go directly to her.
Under the current system, all the money earned by streaming services is pooled before being distributed according to market share – so if Dua accounts for 1% of all streams on Spotify, she and her label receive 1% of the money.
“We would definitely be open to looking for alternative models and considering them,” said Spotify’s Horacio Gutierrez. Paul Firth of Amazon Music agreed, saying, “we should take a look at a number of these approaches” to see whether they really benefit the artist.
Segal, however, cautioned that a new approach would need to be agreed by everyone who supplies music to the streaming services before it could be implemented.
How much does streaming pay?
At present, Spotify is believed to pay between £0.002 and £0.0038 per stream, while Apple Music pays about £0.0059. YouTube pays the least – about £0.00052 (or 0.05 pence) per stream.
All of that money goes to rights-holders, a blanket term that covers everything from massive record companies to artists who release their own music. The cash is then divided up between everyone involved in making the record.
Often, the recording artist will only receive about 13% of the revenue, with labels and publishers keeping the rest. Songwriters and studio musicians receive even less.
Independent labels tend to make more equitable deals, with some offering a 50/50 split of the profits. Artists who self-release their music stand to receive more – but may find it hard to compete with the promotion and marketing a major label can supply.
Why Harry and Meghan are ‘box office’ for Spotify
Tuesday’s hearing was the last session before MPs write their report on the streaming economy.
It featured a brief cameo for The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, who recently signed a lucrative deal to produce and host podcasts for Spotify.
“Can Harry and Megan save the music business?” asked conservative MP Steve Brine.
“That seems a little bit premature,” laughed Gutierrez, who conceded that the duke and duchess had been signed because they were good “box office”.
“At the end of the day, it goes back to attention economics,” he said.
“The product is valued on the bas[is] of how many users it can attract, how many streams it will attract, which in turn determines how many advertisers are willing to advertise on the podcast.
“There is a market that is emerging for talent in that regard”.
However, the couple’s podcast won’t generate any additional revenues for musicians on Spotify, unless they play licensed music within the show itself.
(Reuters) – Video-streaming device maker Roku Inc reported quarterly revenue above market expectations on Thursday, thanks to an influx of cord-cutting subscribers dropping their cable packages for streaming services.
A pandemic winner, Roku’s aggressive push into original releases on its own app, Roku Channel, and subscriber boosts to the streaming platforms it hosts including Netflix, Prime Video and Disney+ have not only bolstered its device sales, but also its ad income.
Roku added 14.3 million active accounts in the year, bringing total active accounts to 51.2 million.
Sales of its devices, which connects televisions to streaming services, rose 18% to $178.7 million in the fourth quarter.
Platform revenue, which includes ad sales, surged 81% to $471.2 million, beating estimates of $416.07 million.
Total net revenue rose 58% to $649.9 million in the fourth quarter, beating analysts’ average estimate of $617.25 million, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.
Excluding items, Roku posted a surprise profit of 49 cents per share, while analysts expected a 5 cents loss.
For the first quarter, the company expects total revenue between $478 million and $493 million, while analysts expect it to be $461.89 million.
T-Systems today announced its qualification to offer transformation packages based on multi-cloud landscapes in support of RISE with SAP, SAP’s newest offering that brings together what customers need to transform their business, helping customers take their business-critical elements into the cloud, accelerating their digital transformation and value realization of their investments in their journey to an intelligent enterprise.
T-Systems and SAP are working closely together to help customers transform their business, improve transparency, become more resilient, improve experience, innovate and digitalize their business processes.
T-Systems is ready to deliver critical value added-services that can accelerate the journey to an intelligent enterprise with RISE with SAP.
Both partners have been closely collaborating for about 20 years, providing customers around the globe and from all industries with sophisticated end-to-end SAP® services. Together, they took the journey across on-prem services to private cloud environments to comprehensive public and multi-cloud landscapes.
T-Systems is also strongly engaged in the digital transformation of customers supporting them in adopting new business models, always listening closely to the clients’ needs and optimizing their business value over the whole stack based on their individual requirements.
Taking the next step with RISE with SAP, T-Systems supports clients with consulting, transformation, implementation, integration, DevOps and application management & modernization (AMM) services.
This also includes the migration that is necessary to move to RISE with SAP. The clients profit from T-Systems’ long-lasting experience with complex migrations, also on global scale.
Furthermore, T-Systems acts as multi-cloud orchestrator for heterogeneous SAP landscapes including non-SAP systems leveraging its recently expanded partnerships with Microsoft and AWS. This provides a seamless ecosystem, and reduced risk and complexity for new and existing customers.
Regarding industry expertise, T-Systems’ cloud and SAP experts managed countless projects for clients in various industries, for example in the automotive, manufacturing, transport industries and the public sector. This includes the transformation based on SAP software for BR Matozinhos, a Brazilian foundry.
“We are committed to a successful outcome each time we engage in a customer’s transformation journey to the cloud with SAP S/4HANA,” stated Elena Ordoñez del Campo, Head of T-Systems’ SAP business. “We are a proud partner qualified for RISE with SAP.
We will work together with SAP from the start to address a customer’s unique needs and customer success.” Additionally, a joint transformation team from Deutsche Telekom IT, T-Systems and SAP have started working on a pilot project to evaluate a partial migration of Deutsche Telekom’s SAP landscape to a new SAP S/4HANA® environment. according to the methods and principles of RISE with SAP.
“The RISE with SAP offering helps simplify and accelerate our customers’ move to the cloud and will help deliver continuous innovation throughout their journey to become an intelligent enterprise,” said Dr.
Uwe Grigoleit, senior vice president and general manager, SAP S/4HANA, SAP. “Together with our strong ecosystem, we will help customers chart a course for their business transformation.”
With the support of SAP partners, RISE with SAP provides customers with a holistic and cohesive experience with SAP applications by delivering a complete and comprehensive business transformation as a service to help customers in their transition to an intelligent enterprise.
T-Systems is global platinum partner in the SAP PartnerEdge® program. As such, it has access to tools, training, resources and benefits that partners need to deliver the solutions and services customers demand.
Social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for people keen to explore physical intimacy. Is virtual sex enough – or do we need to be touched?
About three months into lockdown in the UK, 26-year-old student Emma signed into a Zoom meeting with a group of people she’d only ever met through online chats. Organised by Killing Kittens, a company that, pre-Covid-19, hosted in-person sex parties with an emphasis on women’s empowerment, the “virtual house party” kicked off with drinking games. It was unlike anything she’d ever attended.
“We played ‘Never Have I Ever’,” she says, “and [the organisers] asked us questions like, ‘Which celebrity would you most like to see at a Killing Kittens party?’.” It got attendees talking about their fantasies and preferences – a smooth segue into the less structured part of the evening, during which some participants “removed clothing”, says Emma. “It was just a really good, quite sexy interaction with other people.”
It was the kind of connection Emma had been craving. With her one housemate staying with family, and having lost her job in March, Emma has spent much of the pandemic physically isolated. “There were points at which it got quite lonely,” she says.
Though she’d attended sex parties in the past, Emma had only just joined Killing Kittens in November 2019. “I was a little nervous to get properly involved,” she says, and when the pandemic hit, she worried she’d missed her chance. Instead, she joined one of Killing Kittens’s singles chat groups and started making close friends, which made her feel comfortable enough to try a virtual party on for size.
During the pandemic, social isolation has also meant sexual isolation for both individuals and couples hoping to explore physical intimacy. While recreating the tactile experience of sex online isn’t straightforward, virtual experiences – from dirty-talk Zoom workshops to sex parties like the one Emma attended – have helped fill the intimacy-shaped void felt by so many. To a certain extent, at least. For attendees and organisers, online sexual encounters can ‘mimic’ in-person experiences and offer much-need psychological relief, but there’s no direct replacement for physical touch.
However, beyond just acting as a stand-in for sex during the pandemic, these virtual experiences may also be showing us what’s important in intimacy writ large – both while we’re in isolation and once we can touch each other again.
Discovering digital intimacy
Almost a year into the pandemic, many have found ways to date and form relationships online. Dating apps such as Bumble now let users indicate “virtual only” or “socially distanced” dating preferences. According to a Bumble representative, in-app video calls were up by 42% in May 2020 compared to pre-lockdown March.
But replicating a first date via video chat is a far cry from recreating sexual experiences over the web. Key elements – physical touch most prominently – don’t have a straightforward, online substitute.
Still, people are getting virtually intimate. In October, hard-seltzer company Basic surveyed 2,000 single under 35-year-olds in the US, and found that 58% had had virtual sex during the pandemic. Of those, 77% did so with someone they’d never had sex with in person. Per a Bumble survey of 5,000 UK singles, 32% said “digital intimacy” was important in a relationship “both during lockdown and when measures lifted”.
There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched – Emma
For Emma and others who’ve dabbled in online sexual encounters in the past year, things like virtual sex parties, educational Zoom workshops, remotely controlled sex toys and simply engaging in sex-positive communities have proven to be both sexually fulfilling and antidotes to physical intimacy. “There’s a big sexual gratification in being able to watch and be watched,” says Emma, who describes herself as an “exhibitionist”.
Plus, watching real couples have sex is different from watching pornography. It’s personal – and the connections Emma’s made in these sex-positive spaces are, too. She and other single attendees have formed “tight bonds”, she says, “because we’ve all shared this experience on a very similar level”.
In London, David runs the brick-and-mortar adult lifestyle club Le Boudoir. In October, when he started hosting virtual sex parties with other London lifestyle clubs such as Purple Mamba, he noticed first-time attendees behaving like they would in physical spaces. Instead of huddling in the corner, they’re initially hesitant to virtually chat with others, but “you can literally see them warm throughout the evening”, says David.
Like Killing Kittens, these events start with icebreakers and performances (i.e., erotic dancers), which help get people in the mood. The progression of the parties looks a lot like it would in real life. “That’s technology mimicking real life,” he adds.
The element of safety
The online nature of these events also expands attendee demographics, so they span more locations, age ranges and experience levels.
People attend Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s events from Israel, South Korea, Australia and the US. A party that starts on Saturday evening, UK time can roll into evening on the US’s East Coast and across America. Sayle has also noticed virtual events attracting younger attendees – not only because they’re more online and “that’s how they communicate”, says Sayle, but also because online events remove the financial barrier to showing up at a physical party. Online Killing Kittens parties cost £20 ($27), while in-person ones can cost £350 ($480).
Emma, who doesn’t live in a major city, likes that she doesn’t have to spend money on travelling to an event in London, which would include putting up for a hotel, meals and new clothes. “As a student, that’s quite nice,” she says.
Boudoir and Purple Mamba’s virtual sex parties now attract around 150 attendees on a given Saturday. About half are first timers. Sayle sees a similar split at Killing Kittens’ events. “A lot of [attendees] are totally new people who would never have thought about [attending a sex party] before,” says Sayle. There’s a “safety element” to showing up via video chat, she adds: “You can close the screen at any point.”
That’s exactly what made UK-based couple Matt, 31, and Emily, 29, feel comfortable about going to their first-ever sex party during the pandemic, with Boudoir and Purple Mamba, online. “You’re in your own house,” says Matt. “It’s the safety of it.” Though they would have likely gone to an in-person event eventually, “it would have taken longer,” says Emily.
Just because you’re separated by distance doesn’t mean the activity you’re doing… is somehow less than if it was in person – Megan Stubbs
So far, the online events have let them explore their sexuality and relationship. Everyone’s “different styles” come through, says Matt, which creates a real, shared experience with another couple – one they didn’t think they’d want to experience before the pandemic. They’ve since changed their minds. Virtual encounters have also helped Matt and Emily put language to their desires. Because they’ve had to clearly communicate with others remotely, they’ve learned certain terms that describe their preferences.
This fits with a trend Michigan-based sexologist Megan Stubbs has observed. “I see more avenues of communication being open. People are talking more and getting more specific about their needs.” Distance necessitates this. When you’re not in the same room as your sex partner(s), you can’t rely on body language and subtle cues. But, she adds, “Just because you’re separated by distance doesn’t mean the activity you’re doing… is somehow less than if it was in person.”
Still, experts and people having virtual sex agree nothing can completely substitute for physical touch. As Sayle puts it, “You can’t recreate an orgy online.”
This is, in part, because of the cellular processes that take place when a person is touched. Tiffany Field, who heads the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, explains that “moderate pressure touch” stimulates pressure receptors under the skin. “That sets off a chain reaction,” she says, that slows the nervous system. “The heart rate slows down, blood pressure slows, and brainwaves change in the direction of theta, which is a relaxation state.”
Levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that kills immune cells, also decrease when we’re touched, while natural killer cells (which kill bacteria, viral and cancer cells) increase, according to Field’s research, which specifically examines massage therapy. “It’s ironic, during this time when there’s a lot of touch deprivation going on,” she says, “that we don’t have the protection of the natural killer cells killing the viral cells.”
Based on her research of “moderate pressure touch,” Field says people living alone can still help stave off touch deprivation through “self-touch”. That even includes simple activities such as stretching and walking, which stimulate pressure receptors on the bottoms of our feet. Engaging in virtual sex surely falls into that category, if participants are willing to get active.
A deeper appreciation
Of these online-sexual-experience organisers and participants, all say they’ll likely continue with virtual experiences even when it’s safe to mingle with strangers. Digital intimacy offers something unique – the ability to stay at home but still engage in a fulfilling activity, with a geographically wider array of people, for minimal or zero cost.
In-person events, though, will likely boom. “Thousands of years of history of what happens post-pandemics and post-war show that people start shagging,” says Sayle. “It’s going to happen.”
The pandemic could also have another effect – it may make us all realise how touch-deprived we were to begin with. Before Covid-19, touch expert Field and colleagues were conducting a study in which they observed how much people were touching one another at airport departure gates. People were touching, says Field, only 4% of the time. Sixty-eight percent of the time, they were on their phones. Online platforms and social media were driving us physically apart pre-pandemic. Now, they’re facilitating people being together.
“I think what Covid has done has exacerbated [touch deprivation],” says Field. “Maybe [people] are beginning to appreciate that they’re missing the touch they did have.”