There are fewer and fewer places for sex workers, sex educators, and adult content creators to find a home online.
Lips, a new social network geared towards free sexual expression, aims to provide that space. Founder Annie Brown and her team want users — sex workers, erotic artists, queer people, activists, and more — to post without fear of censorship or harassment.
It’s a much needed alternative to mainstream social networks. While Facebook was busy splitting hairs about nipple photos in 2015, it took insurrectionists storming the Capitol for Mark Zuckerberg to ban Donald Trump, who spouted misinformation on the platform for years. But Facebook is far from the only network that bans basically any type of adult content like (gasp!) an uncensored nipple.
Regardless of the flavor, these actions by social networks silence marginalized voices and hurt them financially.
How Lips is different from any other social network
While some statistics of social media shutting out certain voices are public — such as how 73 percent of neutral or positive LGBTQ news from LGBTQ publishers is incorrectly flagged due to brands’ blacklisted keywords — it’s difficult to get a true sense of just how far it goes. Trying to tease out quantitative (and qualitative) measures of censorship and its impact is part of Lips’s community manager Val Elefante’s role. This includes deleting posts, shadow banning, and removing accounts and hashtags totally.
“A lot of these issues…are hard to understand and wrap your head around just how grave they are,” said Elefante. “The number of accounts that are shadowbanned — you can’t just Google that.”
In her research, Elefante is trying to prove something many adult content creators already know: Censorship is rampant on social media.
Gabrielle Alexa, author of the upcoming How to Live With the Internet and sex-positive content creator, said she’s had posts removed from TikTok and had her Instagram account banned (though unlike others, hers was quickly restored).
TikTok has been the most aggressive in Alexa’s experience. As an example, she described a video she made for online sex shop Honey Play Box. As a part of the “old fashioned” TikTok trend, Alexa kneaded dough and said it was like how she feels using her hands to masturbate instead of a toy. TikTok removed it.
“It was only sexual verbiage. It wasn’t even sexual in the action I portrayed,” she said. “I didn’t realize it was such a conservative platform that even [that video] would be removable.”
Honey Play Box, like many adult brands, isn’t able to advertise on Facebook or Instagram. This means that they rely on influencers and organic posts for social media marketing. When platforms like TikTok remove their content, it hurts their livelihoods.
“We always have near-constant fear that our platform can be removed at any second,” Alexa said.
Tech giants may be quick to blame FOSTA-SESTA legislation as the reason for their puritanical guidelines. FOSTA-SESTA is anti-sex trafficking in theory, but has hurt sex workers and others in practice.
“[FOSTA-SESTA] has caused so much collateral damage onto sex workers, women, LGBTQ people,” said Elefante. “‘We can’t differentiate this type of content expression from exploitation and therefore we need to just ban it all.’ That’s been the policy most of the platforms have adopted.”
Nudity, sexuality, queer love, kink, body positivity — platforms like Instagram remove it all in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA, seemingly lumping sexual exploitation with anything sexual.
“Reducing all of that as equivalent to illegal trafficking and child porn…It’s not fair or right. It’s not healthy or helpful,” said Elefante.
Brown attributed these mass deletions to laziness on the part of huge platforms. “It’s easier just to delete everything,” she said.
What’s more is that these companies don’t value certain voices. “Playboy’s account never suffered shadowbanning or deletion,” said Brown. “Kim Kardashian has never suffered those things. Trojan or male erectile dysfunction medications don’t suffer the same shadowbanning.”
People and brands with deep pockets, it seems, get different treatment than everyone else.
“Instagram thinks it’s in their best interest monetarily to ‘clean up’ their feeds, that more mainstream brands will advertise on Instagram if it’s more ‘family friendly,'” Brown said.
“Playboy’s account never suffered shadowbanning or deletion.”
FOSTA-SESTA is providing cover to do things these platforms would’ve done anyway, according to Brown. “There’s a combination of bias that FOSTA-SESTA increases,” Brown explained, “because it gives those who want would already rather have this stuff off their platform justification to do so.”
The UX helping to achieve free sexual expression
Of course, deplatforming isn’t just limited to sexual content or FOSTA-SESTA. Barbara Bickham, founder and CTO at Trailyn Ventures and Lips’s technical advisor, was partly attracted to the platform because she witnessed people in the blockchain and cryptocurrency worlds be deplatformed and demonetized in late 2018 and early 2019.
“It didn’t matter if you weren’t selling anything, didn’t matter if you were just trying to educate people,” Bickham explained.
She later met Brown at a blockchain summit in Los Angeles in 2019 (where Brown was trying to understand how to utilize blockchain in creating a new social network) and learned about her mission to help marginalized communities who had also been deplatformed. Knowing deplatforming was already happening in other spheres, Bickham knew how much of a problem it was.
“She was visionary in that way,” Bickham said of Brown.
When Bickham came in, she suggested that Lips be a progressive web app. The site’s functionality matches one of an app, and when opened on a phone a pop-up tells the user how to add it to one’s home screen. Once downloaded and onto the home screen, it opens like any other app.
The reasoning was multifold. For one, creating a progressive web app is more cost effective than an iOS or Android app. For another, thousands upon thousands of apps release on the App Store each month. Bickham wanted Lips to cut through all that noise — to not even deal with the App Store.
Even if Lips had decided on an iOS or Android app, though, they may not have gotten past the stores’ approval processes. Apple banned sexual content from the App Store in 2010, so the team knew early on that spending resources on creating an app may be for nought.
“This is our way of circumventing the Apple Store and Android Store monopoly,” said Brown.
The progressive web app is just one way Lips’s mission has seeped into its backend. The team held co-designing sessions, such as with queer youth, to discuss what features were important to them.
Julija Rukanskaitė, UX designer for Lips, said, “What seemed simple at first — having a main feed, an explore page, and a profile and a way to post became more and more complicated the more we worked on it, in a good way,” she said.
One feature Rukanskaitė said is unique to Lips is their consent-based pre-defined tag system. When using the platform, a user can autogenerate their photo-based feed or they can choose tags themselves. The first option is pretty typical: picking what topics you like. Then, Lips asks the user what they don’t want to see.
Further, trolls aren’t allowed on Lips. In theory, they’re not allowed anywhere, but Lips has taken steps to assure this in their UX. Everyone who wants to post on Lips needs to be approved, and the application process is meant to “scare off” some of the trolls, according to Rukanskaitė.
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“We want people to submit examples of what they’d like to post and why,” Rukanskaitė explained. “Otherwise they can’t do anything but follow and ‘lips’ (like) other people’s content.”
As of now, Lips doesn’t have comment or messaging features which makes direct trolling not possible, but Rukanskaitė and the rest of the team has a plan for when it is. “We do hope that through approval, the content on the platform, reporting and possibly hate-speech detection we can discourage trolling as much as possible in the future,” she said.
In terms of mass trolling — such as many people reporting one account to get it banned — Rukanskaitė said that the backend of larger platforms (i.e. Instagram) doesn’t seem to differentiate between trolling efforts to remove an account and a genuine effort to remove harmful accounts.
To that, Rukanskaitė said, “We hope that through distinguishing troll reporting versus reporting done by, for example, approved accounts, and informed human moderators on the other side, we can prevent such attacks from happening as we grow.”
What Lips users are saying so far
In the face of Instagram’s new terms, Alexa, the sex-positive content creator, saw that peers were building private servers to house their content. That route didn’t appeal to her — but Lips did.
“When I saw that people were actually frolicking to Lips, that felt like a safer bet,” said Alexa, than starting from scratch with a private server. “I can create content over there and lift people from my Instagram as a, ‘if you want the full version of this, you can check out Lips.'”
Lips allows Alexa the freedom of being able to post what she wants while maintaining her Instagram audience of almost 30,000.
Other users have expressed a similar feeling of freedom. “This space to create and express in such a creative and empowering community is like a breath of fresh air,” said one user. “No explaining, no shame, no second guessing or feeding harmful constructs about my body or [its] expression. Unapologetically Me.”
“A chronologically feed-based app that has one goal and achieves that — I think that’s really nice,” said Alexa. As a user, she hopes that more people of color start utilizing the platform, and for more features in the future.
The Lips team has similar hopes. Elefante said they will continue to build with users’ feedback at every stage; users are already sending ideas for the future. Brown said that they’re aiming to do a marketing push, as well, which will hopefully introduce more people to the platform.
Now is the time for a niche social network like Lips
“At this point in time and history…this is a grand opportunity to be rolling out a new social network,” said Bickham.
For so long, companies like Facebook have focused on growth, on getting as many people as possible on the platform. This has been detrimental in terms of content moderation, as evidenced by the very reasons Lips now exists.
Bickham believes niches are the way moving forward, citing the success of Facebook groups and Clubhouse rooms as well as Substack and Patreon, where people pay for specialized content.
One takeaway Elefante has gotten in working with Lips is similar: A social network for everyone isn’t realistic. Instagram has its value — like connecting to old friends, for example — but Elefante believes people want a digital community like their small, safe communities in the physical world.
“In terms of the ‘next phase’ of social media, at least what I’m envisioning, is one where people are taking care of themselves better and looking after each other,” she said.
“This is a grand opportunity to be rolling out a new social network.”
Going into 2021, Brown and her team want Lips to be a space where its community thrives. They’re currently fundraising, something that has historically been a challenge for sex tech entrepreneurs such as Cindy Gallop. Considering that toy brand Lora DiCarlo and audio erotica platform Dipsea secured millions in funding in recent years, however, the tide may be turning for sex-driven startups.
In terms of features, Brown wants to launch a Lips marketplace. As with the platform itself, they want the marketplace to be where shops that Instagram has stymied can find a home. They’ll also implement a machine learning system that Brown hopes will collect smarter data about online sexual content.
Overall, however, they just want Lips to be a respite for those who’ve been shut out of other social networks.
“We hope for 2021 is to see Lips go from this infant stage to an Instagram alternative,” said Brown. “If someone’s being deplatformed, or before they’re deplatformed, or they feel like social media is a mental strain on them, that they’ll know the name Lips and that they’ll be able to come to us and have this space where they can finally be themselves without fear of trolling or bias censorship.”