Discover more from Link in Bio
Let’s Talk About Shadow Banning
Featuring an interview Amy Johnson, owner of Nox.
When I texted my newsletter editor Aliza Abarbanel (subscribe to her newsletter here!) that I would be interviewing Amy Johnson, owner of sex toy shop Nox, she immediately went to look the store up on Instagram.
Aliza quickly replied, “Just looked and I couldn’t even find them. Maybe I’m not searching right?”
But she was. Weird. I had trouble searching for them too, even though we both had multiple friends who follow the brand and Instagram typically ranks accounts in search that are followed by people you know. But they didn’t. (Try looking them up yourself and let me know what happens in the comments.)
If you read my last newsletter on the algorithm, you’ll remember that there are certain topics that continuously (and wrongly) get flagged as inappropriate, which accumulate to put an account into “low visibility mode” (a.k.a. shadow banned). By the end of my interview with a former Instagram employee, it was clear that accounts that post sex-positive, queer-positive, and body-positive content could put all of the algorithm advice to use—and still end up stunted by the regulations that Instagram has in place (and the users who weaponize them).
Instagram has a long history of unequal “regulation,”—at one point, “#curvy” was banned —and many people/organizations have been bringing awareness to this issue way longer than I have. Salty, a newsletter for women, trans and non binary people, created social ads featuring fully clothed BIPOC, disabled, plus-sized and trans women that were rejected by Instagram for “promoting escorting services”. Nyome Nicholas-Williams actually got Instagram to update their nudity policy after they removed a photo of her cupping her breasts. The new policy works to ensure all body types, specifically Black plus-sized bodies, are treated fairly on the platforms.
For this week’s newsletter I sat down with Amy Johnson, the founder of Nox, an online sex toy shop based in Montreal—and someone who has dealt with shadow banning first hand. We talked about what it’s been like building her digital business through social media, specifically Instagram, and how regulation and ad policies have played a role.
Rachel Karten: Hi Amy! I am really grateful for you taking the time to chat about this with me. First, can you tell me a little bit about Nox?
Amy Johnson: We refer to ourselves as an online sexual wellness shop. No different really than a sex shop, except that we sell more than just sex toys—we also sell puzzles, books, slippers, underwear, and bath products.
It's about creating a moment and carving out that time for yourself. When we started Nox in 2017, we didn't know if people would really get that—if the candles and puzzles would just be stuff that people wouldn’t buy. But then we saw people were placing orders for, say, a candle, a bath oil, and a vibrator. They really got it.
RK: That’s awesome. And what social media platforms are you currently on?
AJ:. We are on Twitter and Facebook, but they're not our focus. Instagram is obviously the big one for us, but it's difficult to have the main platform of your social media strategy be a place that essentially doesn't want you. So we also put a lot of focus into our email strategy and Google ad spend (Google files sex toys under Adult Content and restricts ads based on age rather than prohibit them entirely), so that it doesn't feel like all of our eggs are in one basket.
RK: What are some of the limitations or roadblocks you've come up against as a sex toy shop on Instagram? I had some problems finding your handle...
AJ: Some of it's very obvious and then some of it's more insidious.
In terms of obvious, it’s the idea that you had a hard time finding our account by using the search bar. I mean, we knew before starting the company that we weren't gonna be able to advertise on social media. That was fairly clear. But we were less informed about having content just straight up deleted or buried on social media.
It's always frustrating when you have a post deleted or denied or flagged in any way, but the more it happens, the more frustrating it becomes because you start to see the really obvious patterns. Larger bodies, non-white bodies, body hair—you start to realize these types of images get flagged and deleted much more often. We've had content deleted where the person in the photo was no more naked than the Kardashians or whoever, but it still gets flagged and deleted and that gets increasingly frustrating.
RK: And do you think that it’s people reporting these images?
AJ: I mean, I think occasionally if something does really well, it might end up on the Explore page and it's possible that people are reporting it. Regardless though, we aren't actually typically breaking any real rules. So it is frustrating when you see things from big influencers or big brands that are doing the same thing and seemingly getting away with it.
RK: Can you talk a little about Instagram’s terms of service and policies that affect you as a brand?
AJ: To be honest, it varies and they make it very vague. For example, they just updated their policy around showing bodies. Initially, you couldn't show nipples at all. And then you couldn't show cis female nipples. That meant they were discerning if people were non-binary or not—and that can get really tricky. (ed. note: Instagram’s current policy on “female nipples” states, “Photos in the context of breastfeeding, birth giving and after-birth moments, health-related situations (for example, post-mastectomy, breast cancer awareness or gender confirmation surgery) or an act of protest are allowed.”)
But whenever there’s a lot of pushback (specifically public pushback), they do make small adjustments. Sometimes it doesn’t really matter though, because, for example, you are technically allowed to show sex toys. There's nothing on Instagram saying you can't show sex toys. But if an Instagram user thinks someone's motioning in a way that's considered vulgar with a sex toy, then it's flagged and often taken down.
RK: And how has this changed the way you think about the content you post? Are there things you want to be posting but just know that it will get flagged?
AJ: Yeah, absolutely. If you just look through our Instagram, it gets increasingly less naked than from when we first started posting. We don't show bodies very often anymore, and instead focus a lot more on the products we use. But even the language gets flagged sometimes, so you have to be really careful about using sexual language in your description, because it can get flagged as solicitation content.
I think we were a lot more fast and loose with it at the beginning, because we had less to lose and more to build. And now we're a lot more careful about it just because there is so much more to lose and Instagram is such a steady stream for our revenue that we can't afford to lose it. (ed. note: The shopping feature on Instagram is banned for “adult” products so Nox isn’t able to take advantage of it—all their Instagram traffic comes from the link in their bio.)
RK: Speaking of revenue, what is the policy on sex toys in terms of advertising on Instagram?
AJ: Basically you can’t advertise anything that “speaks to sexual pleasure or enhancement,” even if you’re targeting it to an 18+ audience. For example, you can talk about condoms in terms of safer sex, but you can’t talk about how they feel or how they stimulate. Some companies have gotten around these rules by insinuating certain things (like Hims using a limp cactus to sell ED medication, for example) but sometimes those still get taken down.
Unfortunately our entire URL has been flagged as “adult”, so I can’t even run an ad for a candle to our website, for example. We did a test last year where we built a parallel store on a separate URL that hadn’t been flagged as “adult” to host all of our non-sex toy products. We stitched them together so that the shopping experience wasn't confusing...and it lasted about three months. Instagram flagged it, even though it was a completely different website that didn't sell sex toys.
RK: In terms of those advertising policies, you mentioned some brands getting a pass. Can you talk about that?
AJ: I really do think it has a lot to do with money. Currently Masterclass is running an ad for a “sex and communication class” with Emily from Sex With Emily, which is awesome, but they can only do that because they're Masterclass and they are a big spender. (ed. note: In last March alone, Masterclass spent over $1M in online video advertising.)
I've also recently gotten sex toy ads from both Nasty Gal and Urban Outfitters. Just because they're seen as a non-adult website and because 99% of what they're stocking is clothing, they are able to get away with advertising the exact same sex toys we sell.
There’s just definitely a double standard when it comes to how much money you have to spend and how Instagram perceives your store. You can buy sex toys on Amazon, Walmart, etc.—yet we can’t even advertise a candle that we sell?
RK: And so what are some of the things that have worked for you? I see you have almost 45K followers; clearly you are doing some stuff that’s breaking through!
AJ: I mean, if you can't pay to advertise, then you need people to do it for you. And word of mouth is absolutely everything for us. Nox is very much about the feeling of shopping with us, even if it’s online—I really want people to feel very comfortable, empowered, and informed. I want them to feel like they are part of a community. I think bringing those qualities to our organic social media has been so important.
We focus a lot on educational content for our shop. We’ve found that people are a lot more likely to share an educational article on touch in the time of Coronavirus than they are to share what their favorite vibrator is (but we love when they do that too!). That’s been helpful in terms of people spreading the word about us.
Transparency has also been really key for us. I really lean into the fact that we are a small business and we talk to our audience in a really personal way. For example, if we stop selling a bestselling product because they changed manufacturers and now the charger doesn’t work well, we will tell you. And we’ll also ask you to give suggestions of what we should stock instead. I think that that allows people to feel like they are helping build this company too.
RK: What are some changes you’d like to see made in terms of Instagram and its policies?
AJ: I think in an ideal world, when you sign up for something like Instagram or any other social platform, it would ask you your age and if you were interested in seeing ads for alcohol, sex toys, or any other age-restricted content. You could either opt in or opt out.
RK: Any other final thoughts?
I really think all small business owners would benefit from challenging themselves to think, If I couldn’t build my audience through paid, what would I do to grow? It really makes you think differently and allows you to focus on the long game and really nurture your community.
Salty recently wrote about a study conducted by Hacking//Hustling, a collective of sex workers, survivors, and accomplices working at the intersection of tech and social justice, about the impact of shadow banning on sex workers and activists. I think their proposed harm reduction recommendations for platforms apply here and I’d like to close out with them:
We’re calling for social media and financial technology platforms to:
Make internal content moderation practices public. There should not be a difference in the rules, terms of service, or community guidelines provided to users and content moderators.
Give users more choice in what they see: Instead of relying on the labor of content moderators, overly broad content moderation algorithms, and automatic settings that restrict what users see, users should be able to determine for themselves what content should be prioritized and/or hidden from view.
Hire sex workers to conduct competency trainings for staff: The inclusion of sex workers in the development of technology needs to be thought of as a diversity issue. Academics, journalists, legislators, and people who create technology should not build it without consulting the communities that are most impacted by their creations. The only way to ensure that new and emerging technologies don’t cause more harm is by listening to the expertise of the communities most impacted by poorly designed technology, legislation, and infrastructure.
Tech is not neutral. Tech policy is not neutral. Silence is not neutral. All tech is political, all tech impacts human rights in a variety of interconnected ways. If you work in tech, open your wallet and share this report with colleagues. It is your personal responsibility to make everyday decisions that reduce the harm tech causes to marginalized communities.
This week, a white gunman targeted Asian women working at spas in Atlanta. It was a horrifying hate crime. Today I am thinking of Delaina Ashley Yaun, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, Paul Andre Michels, and the rest of the not-yet-named people who lost their lives. I hope to learn all of their stories soon.
I want to acknowledge the AAPI social media managers reading this whose jobs don’t allow them to log off or step away from the news. That’s an added trauma that isn’t talked about enough. My inbox is open if you need help finding mental health resources, navigating how to ask for time off, or anything else. If you are reading this and manage a social team, please check in with them, make mental health resources available, and proactively offer to give them paid time off.
In light of this, I wanted to share a few resources and organizations that I have been engaging with and donating to:
White Sexual Imperialism: A Theory of Asian Feminist Jurisprudence (a resource shared by Jenny Dorsey in this IG post)
The National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association has a mental health and behavioral services database for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders
Organizations to support:
Red Canary Song is a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers, organizing transnationally
The Georgia chapter of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, an organization working to build a movement for social, political, and structural change for Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women and girls
Heart of Dinner, an organization combating food insecurity and isolation within NYC's elderly Asian American community
The AAPI Journalists Therapy Relief Fund is providing AAPI journalists with funding for mental wellness resources needed to process trauma resulting from both their work in the media industry and their daily lives—you can donate here and apply here
That’s all for this week. As always, thanks so much for reading and please send any feedback you have.