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Storytelling community Wattpad embraces adult content with new personalization tools

Sarah Perez

Wattpad, the online storytelling community that's home to some 80 million monthly users, has successfully tapped into the power of crowdsourcing to help uncover the next potential hits for media companies, including Netflix, Hulu, NBCU, Sony Pictures Television and others worldwide. It even launched its own YA book line to bring its online stories to a wider audience of young adults. Now, Wattpad is making a change to its app to better embrace its adult readers. The company is adding an option to toggle on "mature" stories -- meaning those meant only for a 17-and-up crowd, according to Wattpad's policy, as well as customize what kind of content they’re shown.

As you may imagine, a story is given a "mature" rating for explicit sex scenes. But stories also can be labeled mature if they include self-harm themes or scenes, like those focused on suicide or eating disorders, for example. Depictions of violence -- including sexual, verbal, emotional and physical abuse -- will give a story a mature rating, as well.

Up until the end of 2018, Wattpad had siphoned off its "sexier" stories into a dedicated app called After Dark. But that app has since been shut down. Given the huge demand for mature stories -- a search for Wattpad stories by the keyword "mature" led to 155,000 results, for example -- the company was failing a significant portion of its readership by not making it easier to surface and filter for this content.

The Wattpad update will allow readers (ages 17+) to gain access to these adult stories from the main app. Underneath the Home Feed carousel, readers will be able to soon find a new "Settings" section that will allow them to personalize their Home Feed.

Here, they can also take advantage of a new feature to block specific story tags so they won't encounter any genres or themes they don't want to see. (This is particularly helpful in the case of erotica, as readers have specific preferences and often don't want to even see stories from other categories.)

Readers can also turn on the "Include Mature" option, which will deliver adult content to their Home Feed.

These features will come to the Wattpad website, too, the company says.

The "mature" toggle isn't yet live today. Instead, Wattpad says the new setting is just now rolling out to all users across the web, iOS and Android. The rollout should complete in the next couple of weeks. Blocked tags, meanwhile, will roll out starting next week.

According to Wattpad, the addition of the new options is just another step toward personalizing its service for its users. Already, the company leverages machine learning technology to offer better recommendations for readers and to increase reading time and engagement. But it had heard from readers that the Wattpad Home Feed was often filled with stories and genres that didn't match up with their interests. The new toggles and filters are meant to give those readers more control over which stories are shown and which are hidden.

However, like most online services, Wattpad doesn't make it difficult for minors to bypass age restrictions. The company collects users' birth dates at signup in order to deliver appropriate content -- and those under 17 won't have the option to turn on "mature" content, Wattpad explains. But Wattpad's age-gate only asks users for their birthday. Today, most kids know that all you have to do is fill in a different year to get access to restricted content. (This is why there are still so many tweens posting to TikTok, for example).

The majority of Wattpad's readership isn't underage, the company tells us. Only around 30% are under 18;  90% of its users are young, though, meaning millennial or Gen Z.

If parents aren't taking stock of which apps their kids have installed, Wattpad's mature content could find its way into their kids' hands. But for parents who use the parental control settings on iOS and Android, it's easy enough to block the Wattpad app, as it's appropriately rated 17+.

Wattpad also says it worked with Media Matters to develop educational resources, including its Safety Portal, that helps parents ensure their kids aren’t exposed to mature content. It also will label any mature content that isn't appropriately marked and remove any stories that violate its guidelines.