Tell me a bit about how the Lips Zine started in 2007 when you were in college.
Lips began in 2007 as a university campus zine at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA. We created a P.O. box where women-identified and LGBTQIA+ artists would drop their submissions to be published and distributed in a monthly printed magazine.
The zine quickly became a beloved campus publication, with creators across the SouthEast reaching out to us with overwhelming gratitude for creating a space where their voices were finally allowed, acknowledged and valued.
How did you transition from a zine into a now fully-functional interactive and inclusive social media app?
When I was growing up in the early 2000s, women’s magazines were the primary source of information about gender and sexuality. Lips was an alternative to mainstream media publications. For many young people today, social media is the main source of information about gender and sexuality – how we should present ourselves, what is “normal,” what is “beautiful.” So the transition from print to a social media platform was an obvious one. As a zine, we were met with resistance by campus administrators. As a social media app, we are being met with resistance by large corporations who control what is considered “acceptable” forms of expression online.
I know the community guideline updates to IG back in Dec 2020 was a major change in censorship, and a wake up call for some, but when did you first become aware of the problematic and targeted censorship that we were dealing with on these apps?
I believe the first real shock to us was the Tumblr ban in late 2018. It was then that we understood 1) It was going to be an uphill battle for Lips to fight for our community’s right to be seen online, 2) building as a traditional iOS or Android app was not in the cards for us within the current climate (because of the monopoly these apps have, they can control what apps are approved - instead of fighting that fight, we built a progressive web app, which means you can download Lips to your phone directly from lips.social) and 3) Lips was needed as a leader in the discussion surrounding free expression of gender, sexuality and marginalized bodies online.
Despite outcries from users and organizations like Lips, the problems with social media censorship of marginalized communities have only gotten worse. Currently, mainstream app algorithms and their human moderators lack nuanced understandings of sexuality and sex work, hence why content by intersectionally marginalized creators [women, non-binary, lgbtqia+, biopic] is so often misunderstood and censored. At the same time, hate speech and exploitation continues to flourish on mainstream apps. The root of the problem lies in top-down “community guidelines,” biased moderation algorithms, and a lack of thoughtful barriers against hate speech and harassment.
I think a lot of people are curious about the expansion of Web3 and NFT’s and it’s mysterious to many. Are you venturing into this space at all and do you see any room in this space for sex workers to benefit?
Goals of incorporating blockchain technology and cryptography have been a part of Lips from the very start, because it presents us with the opportunity to have honest discussions on the Internet, rather than carefully crafted/photoshopped distortions of reality. I think it’s a shame that most VC-backed Blockchain/Crypto companies have been founded by white, cis, hetero, men, and I hope there is still time to have more diverse technology leaders ensure that Web3 does not repeat the same mistakes as Web2. Diversity in tech matters because technology is political, and who makes decisions in technology matters.
For direct implementation of this technology into Lips, you can expect crypto enabled payment options (to ensure that religious/political influenced payment processors will never impact business on Lips), NFT sales included as part of our marketplace plans, and immutable proof of authorship for anonymous creators (Artists wish to stay anonymous for now for safety reasons, but may want to claim ownership later.)
Read this blog post for a deeper dive into our product roadmap and upcoming features.
I think a lot of people, myself included, are interested in the process of not only starting your own business, but also starting your own app, and breaking into the tech space. Can you walk me through a day in your life in terms of Lips operations?
Yes! So my advice to anyone who has an idea they are passionate about is to pursue it, no matter how scary. Don’t quit your day job right away, but do it when you have the time. You’ll find out quickly if it’s something you simply can’t give up on. It’s going to be hard no matter what, but if this project is your calling, you will stick with it until it succeeds. Lips takes a lot of time, energy, and money to manage. But the knowledge, confidence, and community I have gained from it has been priceless.
A typical day for me involves attending to all of my nine-to-five job responsibilities first, unless there is a lipsmergency. I prioritize this way because currently I do not get paid for Lips, and if I’m not in a stable place, or without food and shelter, then Lips doesn’t exist. I’ve been homeless before, and I will tell you not a lot got done during that time, as I was very preoccupied with staying safe and alive. I have also learned a lot about running an organization and leadership through my experience as a startup and non-profit Communications Director over the years.
Once work is attended to, I typically work on moderation for Lips for a while alongside our Head of Community, Val Elefante. This includes making sure the app is safe from trolls, educating new users on our community-determined guidelines, and approving new accounts for posting. Then I catch up on emails, work on fundraising (outreach to funders, pitch deck work, updating our data room for due diligence), and finish any outstanding operations tasks like paying our team members, ensuring Lips is compliant on all fronts, and very boring but necessary paperwork. Then I usually work with Lips Frontend Developer, Hell and the rest of our software engineering team to make sure we are on track for product development and fixing bugs.
The most fun parts of my day are 1) chatting with Lips community members and getting their feedback, 2) researching issues at the intersection of gender/sexuality and technology, and 2) co-designing new Lips features and a better internet with my teammates and Lips community members
When you’re not working on Lips, what are you doing?
I love curling up on the couch, playing animal crossing, and listening to true crime podcasts. When I’m not at home, I’m usually at a local metal show, or napping on the beach.
What value do you think the sex-work community brings to digital spaces that most civilians undervalue, or miss completely?
So much of popular culture and technology has been deeply influenced by the creativity and genius of the sex work community. Spanning from the fashion we see on TV, makeup trends online, and our musical tastes to the proliferation of the Internet and social media platforms - sex workers, especially sex workers of color have been unappreciated for their cultural and technological contributions.
I think a great example of this is art muses. For centuries, the naked body and sex have been the driving motivator of human societal contributions, especially in art. Then and in the modern day, we see the muse and the art they inspired being separated. One is marginalized, the other exalted. Take for example Instagram’s community guidelines. Now, they don’t necessarily always adhere to their own guidelines - as the majority of erotic artworks are removed- but according to their rules, a drawing modeled after a sex worker would be allowed, but not the sex worker themselves. If our society appreciates art inspired by sex workers, why would we not appreciate the sex worker muses equally?
Beyond art, the sex worker community is, for the most part, smart, innovative, and supportive. Lips would not be the positive, inspirational, and healthy place it is if we removed sex worker voices. Honestly, one of the scariest possibilities we are facing is an Internet without sex workers, or activists.
What sort of challenges does Lips face being a sex-positive, pro-sex-work, all gender, race and identity inclusive platform when manuevering in the predominantly-white-male tech space?
I think this article does a good job of summarizing the challenges we face externally. We aim to get more involved in national discussions about the future of Internet policy and venture capital so that we can make it easier for future sex-positive tech companies to get started.
Internally, we at Lips also set a high bar for ourselves to deliver for our community. As a white, bi, gender-fluid person, my highest priority is ensuring that our community is especially welcoming to members of the BIPOC community who are often exploited and misrepresented when it comes to issues of sexuality.
As our team grows, I am dedicated to making sure that our leadership team continues to be racially diverse, and that BIPOC users are encouraged to take (and supported in taking) leadership roles within the community in regards to moderation, features development, and feedback. We are excited for the opportunity to work with Black led investment funds, and Black researchers who will be key in ensuring Lips achieves its potential. Additionally, while we also currently have sex worker representation on our small team, I would like to see this increase as we grow.
As a platform, y’all are doing so much for the community. How can the community support you and your team as you work to create this safe space?
Aw, I love this. We get so much support from our community already, and it truly keeps me motivated to keep going even when things seem difficult. This next year is going to be big for us, so what I will ask is twofold. First, please use and post on the app. We currently have 10,000 monthly active users, but always want to see more folks on the app. While it is important to speak out about Instagram and its injustices, it is equally important (if not more so) to support and use alternatives. It’s also just good for you. When I use my personal Instagram account less and post on Lips more, I see a significant improvement in my mental health. This has been echoed by other Lips users as well. Second, let us know what we can do better. If you see a bug, report it to us. You can find the link to report bugs and chat directly with our team in the bio of the @lipscommunity page on Lips.
There’s so much that goes into forming, funding, and creating a platform or business from the ground up and it can take a huge toll on your mental health. What do you do personally to take care of yourself, protect your energy, or just not completely lose your mind?
I have a history of chronic pain and illness, so I follow a very strict vegan diet and take a lot of herbal supplements that allow me to work on the projects I love and exist without discomfort. Maintaining that diet and taking supplements daily takes time and effort though, and it’s not always easy to keep up with. I’m working on getting better at it, and making good progress. I also take medication and work with a cognitive behavioral therapist to help manage my depression and obsessive/intrusive thoughts. My cat Ozzie is also a very important part of staying happy, as she is my forever love nugget.
Experiencing chronic pain and homelessness has helped me to appreciate the simple things in life, like going for walks in my neighborhood and feeling warm and safe in my bed. I feel and express immense gratitude throughout my day.
For me, it’s incredibly important to remember that I am enough, I’m more than my projects, and I’m a good person despite (but also because of) my imperfections.
Final question, and one I always like to ask: Do you have a fantasy, or maybe a version of Utopia, you can picture where we live in a sex-positive, as well as sex-work-positive society? What does that world look like to you?
What we are trying to do with Lips is create that society online, so that we understand what it might look and feel like in the real world. When I go onto the Lips app, I instantly feel happier and more capable of being my full self without judgment. To see this in the real world, I would like to someday form a Lips zine shop where when you step in that space, you feel safe, welcome, and seen.
We have to start small and build towards the societal level. It’s sort of like trying to be in a happy, healthy relationship when you’ve never had examples of that in your childhood. We need to start with creating examples of what a society with a healthier understanding of gender and sexuality would look like, and use that to show the world how lovely it could be. This is very possible, attainable, and microcosms of this already exist all around us.
Photos by Palma Wright
Interview by Erika Flynn