This week I’m interviewing the team behind Lips, a new social network the founders define as “a community-designed social media platform where women, non-binary folks, and the LGBTQIA+ community can express ourselves without discriminatory censorship or harassment.” Why? Well, “Go On AnOtHeR pLaTfOrM tHeN,” is a type of unsolicited advice that those of us posting nudity and sexuality on social media know far too well. But is there such thing as a platform where our ass is welcome? Lips claim to be that platform, and they got my attention.
I’m very reluctant to advocate for or promote social media platforms big and small. This is because, more often than not, a lot of (bad) decisions platforms make aren’t just down to their evil ways. Sometimes, if they don’t moderate, people get hurt and/or companies may lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal expenses if found in violation of specific laws – which is no joke for anyone, not even big corporations.
Take FOSTA/SESTA. While we hating on Zuck-owned platforms has become a global pastime, social media companies and, really, any internet service provider can go through serious trouble if found in violation of this flawed, uber-conservative exception to Section 230 of the United States Telecommunications Act, which makes platforms legally liable for facilitating sex trafficking. Naturally, then, platforms covered their backs and over-censored their users. And while we can all agree that the ways in which many platforms censor us – from Instagram’s shadowban and account deletions to TikTok’s “implied nudity” ban – is discriminatory, flawed and confusing, well… the law isn’t exactly helping them to do better. This means that even a small platform can make mistakes, discriminate or over-censor to protect its earnings.
As a researcher, I don’t want to be seen as promoting one platform instead of another one. However, I have given Instagram and TikTok quite a platform on this blog – if through negative publicity – and it’s time to hear about something else. Plus, what I do believe is that we need better alternatives to the moderation we are seeing and experiencing from mainstream social media platforms. So this is where my interest in Lips lies: how are they dealing with the most 2021 problem of them all, a.k.a. governing online content? And can they teach mainstream social media platforms something about improving their moderation? Read on to find out.
The founders of Lips define it as “like Instagram, but sexier, more queer, and informed by intersectional feminist and queer theory.” At the moment, the platform has grown organically to host just over 20,000 users.
Before social media, Lips was a print zine. It was founded on a college campus in 2008 in response to the mainstream media’s representations of female and queer sexuality – which, the founders believed, was filtered through the paternalistic, patriarchal lens also known as the “male gaze” (from Laura Mulvey’s theory arguing that heterosexual male voyeurism informs the way most visual media artefacts are made).
Lips invited folks to mail in (or anonymously drop into a P.O. box) stories, poetry, and artwork, including sexuality, for the publication, and over time it grew into a community-led space for safe, open and honest self-expression.
Over time, the zine moved online. However, it faced so many obstacles including stigma, digital censorship, whorephobia, and harassment that the team behind Lips eventually decided it was time to build their very own social media platform. Lips.social was born.
“In reality, Lips is much more than a social media platform,” the founders say. “It’s a bundle of advanced (AI and blockchain-enabled) technologies that will make the internet more secure, inclusive, and ethical.”
The making of Lips.social
To make their app, Lips hosted co-design sessions with groups of artists, sex workers, sexual health and wellness educators, and LGBTQIA+ young people to bring the community’s ideas together for what Lips.social should do and be.
The team co-wrote their Community Guidelines with their own community, making sure they reflected their values and “not the values of the mainstream society we aimed to resist,” they say. These values include: respect, inclusivity, empathy, growth, purpose, consent, and support.
With the help of a small grant from a youth mental health accelerator, Lips were able to build and launch the first version of their app on December 31, 2020.
Who’s behind Lips?
Lips is made of a small team of multi-disciplinary artists, activists, sex workers, engineers, tech policy experts, and developers, all women, non-binary, BIPOC, and/or LGBTQIA+, who are deeply passionate about making the internet a safer space for marginalised people.
Their founding team consists of:
- Annie Brown (CEO), a social algorithm researcher & Forbes contributor with 10 years technology development and marketing experience, as well as a member of the LGBTQ community, an abuse and eating disorder survivor.
- Barbara Bickham (CTO), who has over 25 years’ experience in technologies ranging from IoT, Blockchain, Augmented Reality, and Artificial Intelligence and who was on the first Women of Colour in Blockchain Congressional Briefing in D.C.
- Val Elefante (Head of Community), a sextech newsletter writer and erotic filmmaker who studied intersectional feminism and queer theory at Harvard.
- Julija Rukanskaite (Head of Product), an interaction designer and artist based in Malmö, Sweden, she is also the UX designer of Arttice.com, a platform for networking and mapping cultural players and artists.
- Developers HellBait and Raj Sanghvi.
However, the main perk of the Lips social network is that it is owned and operated by the Lips community at large, which has been growing since its early zine days.
How the app works
The community-centered aspect of Lips manifests throughout your use of the app, through a set of unique features that, to me, seem to have been specifically thought through to make up for the harms, issues and annoyances arising from mainstream social media platforms’ moderation.
One of them is the approval process. Lips wanted their community members to reach wide audiences from around the world, so anyone can browse public content on the app. However, in order to contribute to the community – posting your own work, sending Lips love (liking a post), and eventually commenting and messaging – you need to be vetted. This means that not everyone can just create a Lips account and start posting right away, like you can on most other mainstream apps. Lips say: “We must be able to ensure that you understand why Lips was built and come from a personal experience or deep understanding of the marginalized experiences of women, non-binary, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, disabled groups online.” If, somehow, you go against the app’s values, you’re not allowed to post.
Like Tumblr, Lips also has a Reblog feature: you can repost another community member’s post to your own profile/blog (if they have enabled this feature on their post). This allows your followers to discover artists who you admire, or perhaps who inspire your work and thinking.
One of users’ main bugbears on Facebook/Instagram – and, incidentally, the reason why conspiracy theories and misinformation started to thrive on those social networks post-2016 – was the change from a chronological feed to an algorithmically sorted feed. This meant that mainstream news organisations suddenly weren’t the main thing you saw on platforms, and that and that your friends and family’s content would get priority. Great, right? Wrong! This reduced views for many users and automatically sorted unverified, fictitious news content within the “friends and family” bracket, allowing the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories that built up support for, say, Brexit and Donald Trump’s election win (I explain this below and in this paper).
On Lips, things are different. For enhanced discoverability, Lips’ explore feed is set chronological and constantly changes to allow you to see all types of new posts from all different creators.
Mainstream social media platforms have a paternalistic, un-inclusive and top-down approach to moderation: they insist on hosting ALL sorts of users, from children to survivors, from companies to influencers, and often over-moderate to make the space “safe” for all users (and to avoid pissing advertisers off). This, however, results in certain users mass flagging others simply because they do not like their content, or in sets of accounts – mainly by sex workers – being censored and de-platformed to “tHiNk oF tHe ChILdReN”. Cleverly, Lips leave the possibility to choose what they see up to the users with a pre-set hashtag system, which makes it easier to search for the type of content you’re looking for and see everything that has been posted with less error. If you don’t see a hashtag and want to use one, you can also suggest one and the team will consider approving it for future use.
Unlike Instagram, Lips doesn’t penalise you for linking to other platforms. The app offers more profile customisation beyond a profile picture and cover photo: for instance, you have more room in your bio to give the community background into who you are, and you are permitted to link to other sites where other content might live; you can also choose to hide or show your follower/following counts.
Last but not least, public versus private profile settings give creators the option to have their content viewed only by their followers or everyone in the Lips ecosystem. This gives users more control over who interacts with their content. At the moment, this is possible through report, block, and privacy features, but once commenting and messaging are introduced to the app, creators will be able to customise their audience interactions even more. “This is how we protect them from harassment, bullying, and other abuse,” Lips say.
Long-term moderation challenges
While Lips’ settings are a much-needed breath of fresh air in moderation land and seem to hint at a platform who listens to users’ woes, it’s all well and good to be so inclusive and community focused when your community doesn’t feature billions of different users from around the world. Plus, looking back at the history of technology, built on the back of sex workers, my main concern is that once platforms go big – through ads, investment and just in terms of audience – they become more restrictive due to the exponential content they have to moderate. So what is Lips’ plan for long-term moderation?
The founders seem to plan to stay (relatively) small: “Lips is different from many of these mainstream apps in the ways we prioritize community safety and wellbeing over large, rapid scale.” This allows them to keep vetting their creators, who want to feel valued and welcome even if they post nudity and sexuality, but who must “understand their obligations not to harm others in the community, and to take precautions (such as tagging their posts properly) to protect all other Lips community members.” They hope that this approach will make it easier to moderate and maintain the nature of the community even as they grow. They add:
“Our team and surrounding community/support network is composed of highly knowledgeable and experienced leaders working at the forefront of the ‘responsible technology’ industry. Additionally we have former and existing sex workers on our founding team.
We are practitioners of Design Justice, students of Feminist Internet and AI Justice, and have expert advisors committed to ensuring that Lips is at the forefront of harm reduction technology, safety, privacy & security, and legal terrain our app navigates including sex work online. This network is ready and equipped to help our community defend ourselves from challenges we’ll face along the way.“@lips_zine
Nevertheless, there will be challenges Lips will have to face in moderating as they grow, particularly as they cater to marginalised communities. For this, they have instituted intentional structures and policies to stay coherent. For example, they fundraised through an equity crowdfunding campaign which allows their own community members to become investors and therefore their future shareholders, shaping the direction of the app it grows.
The team also plan to institute a decentralised decision-making body made up of elected community board members, moderators, and others with representatives from many of the communities the app caters to, such as artists, activists, sex workers, sex-positive brands, and more.
But how about outside factors, like payment providers, advertisers’ or investors’ support or being able to use online stores for people to download the app?
Lips are promising to only take investments from their community members or people who have a deep understanding of their vision and purpose, and who care about the wellbeing of our community. They say:
“Our investors must understand that, unlike many mainstream platforms, Lips is not simply a profit-seeking business – we are a social impact organization just as well. And our impact is just as important of a metric as our revenue or growth.”@lips_zine
Lips add that they are “committed to avoiding any situations where we are subject to jurisdiction from outside of [their] own community.” As such, they claim that unlike OnlyFans, Lips will not be subject to the “conservative, right-wing and paternalistic jurisdiction of Big Banks or payment processors,” which they will fight by implementing their own decentralized payment processing system using blockchain technology. Lips have also decided not to put the app in the App Store, to avoid being subject to “Apple’s monopolistic and conservative forces” as well. Instead, Lips can be accessed via computer or Smartphone: to download it, you can use any internet browser, then save Lips to your homescreen as an app your phone.
As for ads, Lips is not a primarily ad-based business model, therefore their monetisation structure is not subject to advertisers’ whims. They say: “We have a business model similar to Big Cartel, which charges creators who want to use our marketplace, analytics features, ads, etc. to sell their work for a (reasonable) monthly fee.”
Keeping sex workers safe on the app
As The Obscenity Lawyer Myles Jackman once told me, once you post a naked picture of yourself on the internet, it’s out of your control. Lips themselves are quick to stress that while their platform may be safer for sex workers than other apps…
“There is no such thing as a completely safe space on the internet. Any content uploaded can be screenshotted or photographed by anyone. We try our best to keep our community as safe as possible by reminding them of this reality often.”@lips_zine
This lack of safety became very real during the initial marketing of the app earlier this year, when a journalist outed a sex worker through screenshots from Lips in an article. Initially, this resulted in massive community backlash: to some sex workers, it seemed like Lips was quick to forego their protection in exchange for press mentions. However, Lips dealt with it swiftly.
“A publication based in France – with absolutely zero contact with anyone from Lips – published an article with a screenshot from the Lips app featuring a community member’s face who is a sex worker,” they say. The user was not “out” as a sex worker to their family/friends, and the article was very damaging for her. Lips say that:
“The article was a re-published, French translation of an article written about the launch of our app in an American publication which is why the journalist did not reach out to us directly. They simply translated the entire article – quotes and all – from another publication and added the screenshot as the visual.
When we saw that this had happened, we immediately tried to get the image taken down by contacting the publication on Twitter, IG, Facebook, and various email addresses. We were Instagram messaging with the community member letting them know that we were working as fast as we could and providing support to her through this traumatic time. We sent at least 20 messages to various accounts associated with the journalist and publication but due to the time difference between the USA and France, it took them around 8 hours to get back to us to remove the image from the article.
Even when they removed the image from the article, however, the image was still visible on social media as it had been embedded into the post so we had to continue to send the publication messages to delete their social media posts. Finally, after about 12 hours, they removed the image and wiped all remnants of it throughout social media. We told them that their practices were extremely harmful to a member of our community and made sure they recognized their breach of responsible journalistic ethics. We told them to always reach out to the organization to ask for permission from anyone they are featuring in the article and never to use an image, photo, piece of art, or anything made by someone else without the creator’s permission.”@lips_zine
Lips seem to have learnt from this situation. Now, every time a journalist reaches out to cover the app and the community, they connect them directly with community members for quotes, testimonials, permissions to use their art/posts from the app for their article. “We would never knowingly allow a publication to use anything from Lips without explicit creator consent,” they add.
This situation could be prevented with anti-screenshotting technology, which Lips at present does not have (although it’s something they are working on and plan on implementing before the end of 2021). But for now, this means that posts made on any public Lips profile – which was the case for this creator – are visible by anyone on the internet and can be screenshotted. “We warn creators of this fact immediately as they’re setting up their profiles and choosing to make theirs public or private,” Lips say.
Despite this traumatic event, sex workers have been part of the Lips team and community since their earliest days, so much that they have former and existing sex workers on their founding team. Therefore, they claim that their “commitment to sex worker safety and rights in digital (as well as physical) space is unwavering.” Either way, Lips define their close-knit community as their “strongest line of defence”. Everyone on Lips – including sex workers – is looking out for each other, and according to the team: “Community relationships are not something that other sex worker inclusive apps have prioritised.”
Lips, safety and “the children”
As someone happily child-free, I firmly believe that there should be spaces where adults do not have to think of what’s appropriate for a child to see ALL THE DAMN TIME. Lips have, for now, excluded children from their spaces too:
“Lips contain explicit nudity therefore you must be at least 17 years old to browse and at least 18 years old to post nudity. We decided to target this age range (17-35) most intentionally because these are the years that often tend to be most challenging on our mental health yet also incredibly formative for identity, confidence and sexuality. 17 is also the age restriction for adult apps in the Apple/Android stores.”@lips_zine
Lips also only allows creators older than 18 to create profiles and to comment on the app. This process, they argue, creates a direct line of communication with the individual where they must acknowledge that they will abide by the laws and community guidelines that govern the platform.
“Often, we will email a creator who has applied to post on Lips to request even more information – including how they ensure that every person (besides themselves) featured in their work is of legal age (+18) and has consented to the distribution of the work,” they say, arguing that this vetting process “ensures that no illegal activity (child porn, sex trafficking, etc.) will be distributed on Lips,” protecting the integrity of the Lips community and every creator on the app from wrongful accusations and prosecutions they might face on other social media.
“It’s time we shift power away from Big Tech (cis het white male-operated) monopolies and towards the creators who actually bring digital platforms their value – almost always women, LGBTQIA+, and BIPOC creators. These mainstream tech companies are stuck in a constant tug-of-war between the financial interests of investors vs. the wellbeing of users. We (as the users) suffer at the expense of them (the investors) getting richer.“@lips_zine
Towards this, Lips are raising funds through an equity crowdfunding round on Wefunder, which is an alternative source of fundraising (from the traditional Venture Capital model) for early stage companies. Here, anyone can invest – you don’t have to be wealthy, nor “accredited” in any way. You just have to care about and believe in what Lips are building. They say: “Our goal with Lips is already to redistribute wealth to marginalised communities through our app and its functions. However, we can double down on our impact by also expanding ownership of the technology itself to the community as a way to further elevate our [it].”
What’s next for Lips.social?
Lips’ team see the app existing alongside other platforms:”We believe our community should decide for themselves where their content lives and where they spend time online.” However, as they grow, Lips will be co-designing features to add to the app to cater to the needs of the community unmet by other platforms such as:
- Safe and innovative commenting features with protections against hate speech, harassment
- Marketplace, advertising, and analytics tools with better, more favorable pricing models for creators
- Improved feed and profile customisation
- Improved user safety & protections against plagiarism
The team also plan to build spaces for younger audiences with content and community better catered to younger ages – with similar art and candid discussions of bodies, identities, and sexualities but more age appropriate. “We have formed partnerships with organizations such as the Trevor Project and the Future Perfect Project that already have curriculum and programming catered to these younger audiences – especially marginalized, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and disabled youth,” they say.
My thoughts on the app
Now this is where I come clean: I do have a profile on Lips.social, under @bloggeronpole, but I haven’t had the chance to upload anything yet. This is not because I don’t like the app – it’s great – but because I’m incredibly fatigued by the social media game. I already have tight-knit communities on mainstream social media (which is a privilege, as I am not as in danger as other users) and I’m trying to save my energies.
Still, I am really blown away by Lips’ approach to moderation. It’s not just how community-informed and run it is: it can actually teach mainstream social media platforms a thing or two about improving their spaces.
Of course, there are a few caveats: is there such thing as a completely not-for-profit platform? And will Lips really manage to stick to its ethos as it grows?
As an online harms and algorithm bias researcher, I’ve seen first-hand how the biggest threat, the biggest danger and damage users can face on social media and on the internet is the one no one has foreseen yet. While Lips are doing an amazing job at reacting to the flaws users hate on mainstream social media, and while they have reacted swiftly to traumatic and damaging events, we can’t yet know how someone or some groups may exploit loopholes within the app to do harm.
But this doesn’t mean we should give up on trying to create better spaces, right?