Move over FB, Squirrel has arrived

I recently had a press release pop up in my inbox and instead of putting it off like I tend to do (sorry, but my inbox is overflowing and I always forget to go back to read press releases) this one immediately grabbed my attention.

South African-born Pastor and IT expert, Brenton Phillips, is set to launch Squirrel on 24th July, 2020. Squirrel is the new social media network, unmanipulated and completely free from data-mining, advertising and censorship. Squirrel is built for individuals and organisations, and will never sell a user’s data.

Squirrel is designed for real engagement. A person using Squirrel with 200 friends will have up to 80% more quality interactions on a post than someone with 2,000 friends on current social platforms. Squirrel automatically pulls photos and videos from the streams of your connections in order to catch up on posts quickly and easily. What makes Squirrel unique is that it is an invite-only system via an existing member with a unique access code. “By doing this and having credit-card authentication, we believe this will eliminate online trolling, fake accounts and users with ill-intentions from entering the platform,” says Phillips.

Brenton believes our dominant concern is that, as long as advertising dollars fund social media, social media will be built to serve advertisers. His objective is to educate people on exactly what it means when a platform mines your data. He explains, “On platforms funded by advertising, each person or organisation is there to be sold to. Ads themselves are only the tip of the iceberg as far as the issue is concerned. It is all the information collected about an individual that should make our skin crawl. ‘Free’ social media platforms collect data about your every movement. Every posted detail of our lives becomes a product, called consumer data. The platform can then sell your data to commercial as well as political advertisers. Along with this issue, there is a growing censorship of Christian content. Christian content is being removed from networks and users are helpless to stop it. The majority of social media is filled with uncontrollable garbage, fake news and manipulation that we as adults and our children are exposed to. Since we don’t have a way to defend ourselves, other than quitting completely, it is time to take ‘the garbage out’.”

Having JUST finished watching Silicon Valley the night before (they set out to launch decentralized internet which is uncensored and ad-free) and paired with my love for all things social and digital, I jumped at the opportunity to chat to Brenton about the launch of Squirrel. They believe they’re fixing the broken parts of the internet, and hope to make social media what it was originally intended to be – a place to connect with those who matter the most to us.

Of course, for someone who works in digital marketing, I am always sceptical, and while I know this isn’t a technical argument, I do think that Silicon Valley shared an important perspective that in the world of digital, we’re constantly learning that more and more platforms are mining us for data and selling it. I mean, just in the case of the show, Richard had the best of intentions for his decentralized internet and even though he had a strict policy of no data mining, one of his devs went ahead and did it anyway with the hopes of “improving the end-user experience”.

So, I will admit that my scepticism sometimes gets the better of me and perhaps I came across a bit hard in my interview, but Brenton handled his answers with complete grace and gave me hope that this truly is the change we’d all like to see in social media marketing.

We’ve had a few social media platforms attempt something similar, one that comes to mind is Vero, how is Squirrel different and how will it combat the challenges Vero has faced?

Yes, there have been many attempts, as with many who try to disrupt an industry. Vero specifically, I think they could have worked, and if anything, Vero proved that people are wanting alternatives. Vero’s failure was not in concept but in model. People turned against Vero because of mistrust and false promises. Any app not charging will eventually have to resort to selling data or ads.

There is no guarantee that Squirrel will work but we didn’t build it to start a business, we built it because we believe the mission is worth the risk. It should be on every person’s heart to want to leave the world better than we found it, even if it costs us everything. That I believe is a life well spent. People, more than ever are desperate for authentic community and connection. This was the promise of social media and why people flocked to it before it became about selling products.

Squirrel is user-supported and so there are no algorithms to mine peoples data in our source code. We are like an organic, free-range, no GMO product. Yes, it costs more than the regular but long term effects are night and day different.

We have priced our monthly fee at a cup of coffee (R35 or R100 for a family of five), a small price to pay for security & privacy with no fine print.  There will be absolutely zero ads and absolutely zero selling of anyone’s data. I also believe our difference in how we handle conversations will be so refreshing for everyone.

Current platforms are like sitting at a restaurant with your friends at a table talking and the rest of the restaurant keep interrupting your conversation with their opinions. Squirrel is like being in your home with those same friends. Closed community. Current communities on Facebook see an average of under 1% response for organic posts because they want you to pay to reach your community page. Squirrel will be 100% exposure for free to reach your community on Squirrel.

You mentioned that Christian content has been censored on social platforms – I haven’t heard about this myself, but I find it interesting and would love to know if you have examples or any idea why this has happened in the first place? Censorship on social media is becoming a growing concern, but I have not ever considered religion to be one of the “flagged” topics, unless it comes to hate speech.

Well, yes it is happening. The most recent mainstream one was this and there are countless stories of people without as big of an audience reporting strange occurrences of their posts being removed, like here, here and here.

How does Squirrel plan on monitoring users and the way they use the platform? While credit cards and invite codes is a brilliant start, it’s inevitable that someone will find a way to take advantage of a good platform, especially one built on Christian values – will there be options to report posts, and how will this be managed and monitored, at the risk of someone saying you’re censoring them?

We have built Squirrel to function as normal groups of friends. Just as someone can invite people over to their home and use the opportunity for good or bad, it is the same on Squirrel but the difference is, because it is private, no one else has to be exposed to it. On current platforms, innocent bystanders are hit all the time. Squirrel is a platform for fostering authentic connections and so by nature, it limits those who want to be on it. At the same time, Squirrel does offer the ability to report posts which are covered in our Terms of Service.

Is there room for small businesses and local creatives to benefit from using the platform? Can you elaborate the opportunities available to them?

Absolutely. One of the features of Squirrel is Communities. Communities allows businesses, social groups, or people with a following to have their own social area for collaboration, community, and more. The biggest win is when it comes to communicating with that community. Everyone who is part of that community will receive the posts, no filtering down for ads! Up to 1000% more interactions with communities on current platforms.

What is the minimum age allowed for users on your platform? Will there be kids’ accounts, which are linked and monitored by parents accounts?

We built it with kids in mind. Specifically with my kids in mind. I want my children to be able to be part of the discussions and enjoying our family that is distributed all over the world, while still being in a safe place. Squirrel provides that, just by the nature of how it is designed and also with the parent drop-in feature. I can log in into my kid’s account to monitor.

How will you market your platform, besides relying on word-of-mouth?

Initially, we are keeping marketing efforts small. Obviously we are excited about Squirrel but it is extremely important to us to build with our community. We want this to be like a community garden, we have bought the land, prepared the soil and bought the tools needed, but it only works if we build together. Our first adopters are very important to us, as we will be building features and ideas with them. In time, we will ramp up our efforts.

Squirrel is free to try for the first 30 days. Because Squirrel contains no adverts, and won’t sell a member’s data, the platform relies on a user subscription of only R35 per month or R100 for the family plan of up to 5 members. “I’ve subsidised 50% of the fee for anyone in South Africa. I’m proud of my roots and am believing that, as increasing numbers of South Africans adopt the platform, we will in time create more jobs within the country,” concludes Phillips.

 

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