If you’re a millennial, there’s a good chance you remember Myspace in its heyday.
In the mid-2000s, there was no talk of algorithms or echo chambers—just the drama of ever-changing top-friends lists, glitchy on-page media players and the constant struggle to out-curate friends. Even Facebook, the controversial colossus, felt personal and full of choice in its infancy. Perhaps most notably, the app was actually enjoyable.
The 2022 social media landscape looks a little different. What began as exhilarating is now compulsory to many users, and checking feeds doesn’t yield the same joy as it used to. Although most platforms claim to promote conversation and exchange, researchers say that they increasingly cultivate isolation.
Isa Watson is changing that. A chemist-turned-social-scientist, Watson is using her tech prowess to build the next generation’s social tool: a voice-only app called Squad. Through thoughtful design and relentless experimentation, she is determined to give us a social media platform that actually delivers on its promise to bring us closer.
A highlight reel of loneliness
Have you ever felt worse about yourself after scrolling through Instagram? We’ve all been there.
It’s easy to forget that all your friends’ filtered photos don’t reveal the whole picture. Many platforms, and perhaps Instagram in particular, reflect a skewed version of reality by incentivizing users to only post highlights and completely omit the mundane, less desirable aspects of daily life.
“So social media was created, let’s say 10 years ago, with the purpose of ‘connecting with others,’ but what it morphed into was this personal branding tool,” explains Watson in a recent interview with Brilliant Thoughts’ host and editor Tristan Ahumada. “It became this highlight reel that just amplified the loneliness that we were already experiencing.”
Watson is speaking from not only research but also from personal experience. After her father died, she spiraled into unprecedented loneliness and depression, which Instagram only exacerbated. Although her social media accounts showed the world a popular person with many friends, she craved more meaningful connections. She wasn’t the only one.
“When I started to actually talk about that, my experience with that, I realized that I was far from the only person that was experiencing this,” says Watson. “And so it became clear to me that social media was at an inflection point, where we were moving away from wanting to stunt online and posture for likes all day, to actually wanting to experience joy in our everyday friendships, but in a fun and easy way.”
This realization inspired her to start developing an alternative.
Misguided social intentions
So how did social media get so off track? Wasn’t its original mission to connect people? Watson isn’t so sure.
“The thing with social media platforms is that when you’re venture-backed and you’re so focused on growing at all costs, then you’re just growing, growing, growing without a lot of intentionality around the habits that you’re creating,” she explains.
Her assertion isn’t just supposition. As a high-profile executive who handled multibillion-dollar initiatives at JP Morgan Chase, Watson is acutely aware of how funding influences development. And although she too has to pursue funding, she is committed to taking her cues from Squad users, which has changed the trajectory of the platform.
“When Squad was first created, it was to help people get together offline, so it was about finding groups of people in your locale to hang out with or go to events with,” she explains. “We were positioning Squad as more of a discovery tool to find the friends that you want to hang out with and want to experience life with.”
However, through user interviews and app analytics, Watson’s team found that most people weren’t pursuing new friends; they were trying to create deeper connections with their existing ones. As a result, Watson’s development team moved away from discovery and toward maintenance, searching for ways users could deepen connections with their existing friends.
Taking connections deeper, not wider
“As a human today, we are inundated with discovery tools,” says Watson. “I can find 300 million people on Twitter, a billion people on Facebook, but what I learned was that we were kind of neglecting our actual relationships for the sake of being able to say I met this new person, I did this new thing.”
The result, according to Watson, is that we live in a perpetual state of exhaustion. However, there is another way.
“Ninety percent of social media users are complete lurkers, they don’t engage with any content and just consume the content,” she says. “So they’re not going to show up as their true authentic selves in that static group chat where it is a fixed, finite set of members.”
With Squad, users can engage in up to 12 one-on-one relationships. Here’s how it works: When you invite someone into your squad, you also join their squad. However, you don’t see or interact with the other people in their squad—only those in yours. The result is that every user has a group of 12 people dynamically built around them.
“It’s the only system right now that exists that is truly, truly participatory because you have to in order to build your squad,” she says.
Escaping the doom scroll
“If Michael Jordan compared his full career to Kobe Bryant’s highlight reel, he would feel really shitty about himself,” says Watson. “That’s just facts.”
Watson isn’t saying that social media is all bad; it undeniably has its benefits. However, for people who tend to feel as though they are not enough, overconsumption can be extremely detrimental to mental health. She offers traditional social media users three easy ways to escape the doom scroll:
- Elevate your state of awareness. Take notice when social media usage affects your mood and be cognizant of the way it influences your perception of reality.
- Take advantage of the right features. If you’re going to use big social media platforms, make sure you’re utilizing the ones that actually allow for conversation, like direct messaging.
- Practice separation. Heavy social media users may feel a lot of anxiety when they don’t have their phones, but time away is critical to stay grounded. Watson encourages people to stay off of social media for the first hour after they wake up and the last hour before they go to bed.
Or, if you’re sick of your current apps, give Squad a shot. As a privately curated platform, it has no public feed; the only stream you see is the conversation between you and your cohort, which disappears 24 hours later. Squad is currently moving toward becoming a voice-only platform, which Watson believes will cut down on miscommunication and add an additional level of authenticity.
“We are evolving Squad into kind of an audio world-building tool,” Watson explains. “Building in those kinds of customer reactions from our friends, building in the vibes via music and allowing people to customize their world in a very auditory way, that’s fun and easy. That’s where Squad is heading.”
But ultimately, the thing that makes Squad different from other platforms is the emphasis it places on nurturing the relationships you already have. Rather than the compulsive search for more novel, exhilarating interactions, this app provides a safe place to give and receive the care we all desperately need right now.
“A true friendship is one where you pour in and receive,” she explains. “When you’re in discovery mode all the time, all you’re doing is pouring out because people don’t know you well enough to pour into you.”
Visit Watson’s website to learn more about her work, publications and research. You can sign up for Squad here and start experiencing a more intimate, connected relationship with your loved ones today.