Gen Z teens are sharing their screens on Squad, an app that lets them hang out while scrolling memes, watching TikTok videos, or whatever else they might be doing on their smartphones. Will social media continue to shift towards exchanges between close friends, and where do brands fit in? We asked…
The latest trend sweeping social platforms is a shift towards fostering close friendships, rather than racking up likes from acquaintances and strangers. While headlines opine that teens who spend too much time online are hurting their social lives, our Friend Request trend finds that the platforms are actually fundamental for modern friendships: The majority of teens (67%) say that technology is extremely or very important in helping them stay close to friends. Facebook clearly know this, implementing recent initiatives designed to narrow down who users interact with. Instagram created a “Close Friends” list for Stories, letting users curate a small list to share their 24-hour content with—and The Verge reports they’re planning to expand upon the feature with an app called Threads. YPulse data shows that 66% of 13-17-year-olds would rather use a social network that only allows close friends to see their posts than one that allows anyone access. Both Instagram and Facebook have also rethought the performative pressure of their platforms, with TechCrunch reporting that Facebook is considering nixing Like counts altogether.
But are big platforms’ attempts to reel back their reach just acting as “band-aids to a much bigger problem”? Esther Crawford thinks so. The founder of Squad—whose own experience as an early YouTuber made her realize that women, especially young women, don’t have many safe spaces online—argues that a platform should have users’ best interests in mind from the start. Her app Squad aims to do just that. The friendship-building app taps the co-viewing craze and takes it a step further, allowing users to screenshare with friends on any platform, whether they’re messaging, scrolling memes, editing photos, or viewing TikTok videos. TechCrunch reports that in just eight months and with no marketing, the app has registered over 450,000 users—and 70% of those are teen girls. So far this year, users have spent over one million hours on Squad calls. We spoke to Crawford to learn more about her innovative app, how it’s creating a safe space for teens, whether social media can have a positive impact on Gen Z, and where brands can responsibly make a play on more private platforms like Squad:
YPulse: What demographic uses Squad the most?
Esther Crawford: The vast majority of our users are teen girls. It definitely skews very heavily towards Gen Z. That’s who initially found us, and we really doubled down on that demographic. It’s not super surprising given the idea for the app came from my daughter, who is herself a 14-year-old [and] just started her freshman year of high school. Given that she was the person advocating so hard for this, it’s not surprising that it became her peer group that uses it.
YP: Why do you think Squad appeals most to teen girls?
EC: I think that there’s still for girls not a lot of safe places where you can hang out instead of perform. Most social media is incredibly performative. You want to put your best photos out, you want to post interesting stories and things that make you look funny—that’s what social media is mostly about—and so [it’s important to] have places that you can just hang and chill. The live piece of [Squad] is what’s so powerful—there’s no performing; you’re being yourself in your room. There’s not a stage and a whole bunch of people you’re sending out to. As a result of that, I think it’s inherently social because you have to [use Squad] with somebody else, and I think that appeals really strongly to teenage girls and young women who are naturally more social than boys their age. That’s one core piece of it—like what do you see when you go to middle schools? If you look at boys [my son’s] age, you see them walking around alone or in groups of two. In contrast, you see hordes of groups of girls; they really do travel in packs. Girls are very social at this age and get a lot of value and meaning from their friendships. So the fact that more kids are spending time alone at home and a lot less time hanging out socially outside of the home, more of that’s going to have to happen on our devices. Squad just allows you to keep doing the thing you were doing at school with your friends, like watching funny YouTube or TikTok videos together, and you can just continue that same exact activity even though you’re home.
YP: A trend in social media that we’re seeing is platforms focusing more on close friendships (like Instagram’s “Close Friends” feature for Stories). Do you think social media will continue to move away from being performative and more towards close friend interactions?
EC: It’s clear that the big players are starting to realize that it’s very anxiety-provoking for humans to be on 24/7 and that’s effectively what social media has done to us. Even though I think that with pretty good intentions we’ve connected the world with these giant social platforms, there were these accidental side effects. [Some] data shows that people are more depressed, more anxious, and even more suicidal as a result of spending all of this time performing for the rest of the world. I think there will be a really big shift to figuring out, “How do humans naturally communicate, and how do we build technologies that are more aligned with that?” That’s something that the bigger platforms are catching onto; however, their business models are completely tied to the old approach of using algorithms to feed you content in order to have you stick around—because your eyeballs are what pay the bills. It doesn’t matter if that content is good for you as an individual or even good for society.
I think without actually changing the business model, these smaller changes around giving you access to “close friends” lists are really just band-aids to a much bigger problem. We’re coming at it from that perspective at the very beginning. We believe you can build social products that are actually in line with humanity and can still be massively scalable.
YP: If Squad is rethinking the business model of getting as many eyeballs as possible, how does the app plan to monetize?
EC: Our whole thesis is that we want to do a non-advertising business model. The reason for that is because then our incentives that we create in the product [will be] more aligned with users. It’s not just about getting you to stay hooked to use Squad endlessly because that’s how we make money. Instead, we want to build things into the product that you will pay for. So, we have a lot of ideas around what that looks like; it’s a lot more like a gaming model than a traditional social model. The gaming model is more like, “What can we do and build into the product to actually have this be a more fun, interesting level of your experience of the product?” versus “Here’s an algorithm that gives you content that you can’t look away from.” Because if that content is a train wreck, for instance, it turns out that people don’t like to look away from train wrecks.
We’re really excited about the opportunity to build a social platform with that in mind from the very beginning. It’s not going to be something that we worry about anytime soon, but our plans are actually next year to start doing some tests around paid features and functionality. That’s way sooner than any other social platform has done before because traditionally the idea is you scale to millions and millions of users, and then you monetize based on the traffic. And we think that this is actually a solved problem, games have done it, they’ve inverted the model, and we think that that’s a better model for us to follow.
YP: How will brands get involved in Squad?
EC: We’re happy to bring brands into the experience through things like paid upgrades [and other] cool ways to get brands involved that are not a traditional ad model. You see that even in Snapchat where some of the content you’re consuming is created by brands but it’s not a traditional advertisement. It’s branded content. So, I think that’s very interesting. But what’s not interesting to us is getting you to have longer [Squad] calls in order for us to throw up ads in the middle of your calls.
YP: You referred to Squad as a safe place for teen girls. How do you maintain security and privacy on the platform?
EC: I think it really has to be baked into the values of the company from day one in order for you to take care of users. I was an early YouTuber; how I transitioned into tech was building a YouTube audience. One of the things I experienced as a YouTuber is that the comments were a cesspool of harassment. It was acceptable in that community, on that platform, to talk to women in a really demeaning, degrading way. But this is true of the internet at large. That’s the experience of women on Reddit, that’s the experience of women on Twitter, it’s the experience of women [on Instagram] with people sliding into your Direct Messages you don’t want to talk to. I get this on LinkedIn of all platforms; you would think that would be the one place where no one would ever think of sending me some message about how I look, and it happens anyways.
The thing that all of these platforms have in common though is that men started them, and safety and security features weren’t built in or thought about for years afterwards. It was just assumed that they would inhibit growth, and you don’t want to do anything as a venture-backed company that would inhibit your growth. But actually, what I think they missed is that what happens on those platforms is that girls and young women in particular don’t feel as safe and don’t stick around as long as they otherwise would. For us, literally every single new feature that we launch, we’ve put through the litmus test of, “Would I be cool with my 14-year-old daughter Emma being on Squad and having this feature accessible?” If the answer is no, then we figure out how we can alter that feature in order to make it viable. For instance, the reason we haven’t launched public calling and live functionality yet is because we’re working on really deep, thoughtful functionality that prevents abuse and that also has human moderation from the very beginning. That’s something that typically hasn’t happened on other platforms for years. For us, [safety] not an afterthought, it’s the very first thought. How do we keep our users feeling good about being here and that they’re not going to be harassed in the same way that they’re harassed on other platforms?
YP: How does Squad moderate content and calls?
EC: All of the private calls we don’t do moderation on, just like it would be weird if you were having a phone call with your boyfriend and we interrupted. But anything that’s public facing, so anything that anyone else could find—whether that’s your profile, information about you as an individual, or that’s a public-facing call that you could invite other people who don’t know you—that’s where the human moderation is important. And yes, we literally will just shut the call down. Again, none of this functionality is publicly available yet; this is all the stuff we’re testing in beta right now, and the reason we’re being so thoughtful about it is because we don’t want it to devolve into an experience where you come in and you see content from people [that’s] either really misaligned with the values of this company and/or creates an environment that’s unsafe for teen girls to hang out in. I think that if you go to any of the live platforms today, that’s the experience. It’s very challenging to be a female Twitch broadcaster, for example, because you get harassed off the platform pretty quickly.
YP: Overall, do you think that social media is having a more positive or negative impact on teenagers?
EC: I’m a techno-optimist, so I actually think a lot of these [issues] are design challenges and design problems. I don’t think that social media and social products are inherently negative or bad for people, but I do think that the days of product designers and developers feigning ignorance and saying we don’t know how they affect people—that’s over and that needs to end and should end. These things matter. The values and the community vibe that you create matters and what you allow to occur on your platform matters—for individuals and society.
This interview has been edited and condensed.