Hello and good morning lovely authors and welcome to another #writerwednesday where we talk shop, industry, and more. So, after covering that multi part series on the traditional side of the industry, today we are doing something a little different and talking about something that has become intrinsic in the current indie industry in particular.
You've seen it on Tik Tok and Instagram reels. Possibly rolled your eyes at the intentionally misspelled words. But have you ever wondered why 'spicy', 'steamy' 'seggsy' and the infamous vegetable emojis have become so common place in author reels and ads? There is actually a very legitimate reason for this particular language.
Spice, Steam & Vegetable Emojis: The Resurgence of Sexual Censorship
Censorship has always been a point of contention, but as early as 2017, there were murmurs of censorship for sexual content in social media. This came to pass in 2018 with FOSTA-SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act & Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) during the Trump administration. This set of laws and bills allowed authorities to go directly after platforms that 'allowed' sex trafficking on their site and penalize websites that 'promote or facilitate prostitution.' The problem was the wording here was very vague and while the intention was to prevent illegal sex trafficking online, the previous protections companies (large and small) had from the unpredictability of users had been stripped away. Larger companies might afford a lawsuit or two, but smaller companies would be up the creek. As a result of these laws, to protect themselves, companies created new policies, with far reaching parameters to avoid penalization.
The crackdown was so wide spread that it effected several facets of sexual content across the board. This wasn't something that only swept away dating apps, only fans, and predatory ads. The crack down also came for media, books, companies that sold products for sex, and even organizations that promoted sexual health. The current model of censorship created a shadow ban that made certain words unsearchable or automatically blacked out the content that included certain trigger words. To subvert this crackdown, users began using everything from suggestive emojis, to intentionally misspelled and altered words, and finally the now oversaturated use of 'spice' and 'steam' in place of 'sexy' 'naked' etc. The alternative wording allowed companies, organization, and authors to continue promoting their products without having their posts blacked out.
The Book Dungeon
Not all censorship is entirely due to 2018 laws. I would be remiss not to mention the infamous Book Dungeon that operates through the Amazon algorithm. The aptly named 'book dungeon' was discovered by authors roughly around 2013 when they noticed something odd about their books after publication.
If an author noticed their book wasn't selling, they could enter their name or the book title into the Amazon search bar and discover neither came up. Their book was in the dungeon and there was no warning for this sudden status. However, most books that ended up in the dungeon had a certain genre in common.
“Books with adult content will not surface in general product searches”
This has been Amazon's policy for about a decade however, like the censorship laws above, the wording here is extremely vague and opens the door to a wide crackdown of language. Now, books in the dungeon do come up in kindle searches if users choose to allow adult content but there is no obvious check box for this option. The default for Amazon, and many sites is to hide mature content until proof of age is given. The problem with these the policies is they target authors in inconsistent fashion, hammering down for books that use certain wording in their description and ads, or provocative covers rather than the actual content of the books. Even books that don't necessarily have prevalent sex scenes or content might trigger the rating due to certain word usage.
The current systems in place are highly problematic and imperfect in design. For authors, navigating these policies in order to give their book visibility can be tricky and the consequences of failing to do so can effect their livelihood. The next time you see an eggplant or sweating face emoji in a sponsored ad, you can thank the extremely vague policies and laws that have made those emojis a necessity.
Resources & Further Reading