Spill, New Black-Owned App, Aims To Shake Up Social Media Landscape

‘We want to fundamentally change the paradigm of what people think social media can be,’ Spill co-founder says.

A lot has changed since Alphonzo “Phonz” Terrell and Devaris Brown first met four years ago at Twitter. Terrell told that they “became fast friends” because of their mutual love for music and being two of just a handful of new Black employees at the social media giant.

“We also realized we had very complementary skill sets. Devaris is an incredible technologist, builder, entrepreneur, and multiple-time company founder. And my background is more marketing and content and online community development,” Terrell said. “So we were like, hey, we might want to do something together one day.”

Over the years, Brown and Terrell brainstormed ideas about what was missing from the social media landscape. They came to focus their attention on the negative experiences of Black, LGBTQ and other marginalized communities on social media platforms. The result was Spill, a Black-owned microblogging app platform.

Since Tesla billionaire CEO Elon Musk bought Twitter in October, White supremacist and neo-Nazi content has proliferated on the platform, reported. Musk reactivating the accounts of known neo-Nazis coincided with racial slurs targeting Black people increasing from 1,282 times daily to 3,876 times a day just two months after the purchase, according to The New York Times.

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Under Musk’s leadership, Terrell was in the first round of mass layoffs at Twitter on Nov. 4. “That night I called Devaris and said let's do it. And he was like, ‘I'm down.’ And so we've been running ever since,” Terrell recalled.

Terrell, 40, said he was all in.

“When I set out to do this I was prepared for anything. I was like, we're going to build this no matter what. So I made some changes in my own life. Knowing that startup life is very unpredictable, I reduced my cost of living significantly, liquidating the 401(k),” he said.

In December, the team announced that Spill was in the works and about 25,000 people joined the waiting list in less than a day, with that figure doubling by the end of the week, Terrell said, adding that Spill raised almost $3 million within the first three months on the clear evidence that there’s a huge demand for what Spill offers.

Black-Owned App Surges To No. 1 After Elon Musk Imposes Daily Limits On Twitter

By early July, Spill became the top social networking app in the Apple store. The site is still in the beta stage, which means it’s in test mode but is available in Apple’s app store and has a skyrocketing waiting list of more than 175,000 people. spoke with Terrell about the new platform that has the Black socialverse humming. What does the name Spill mean, and where does it come from?

Alphonzo Terrell: Spill comes from Black queer culture: spill the tea, spill your truth. This has been around for decades.

At this point, I think it migrated into popular culture through things like RuPaul’s Drag Race and other incredible cultural forces that have impacted the broader lexicon in the world.

But obviously, it comes from us. It’s something that, especially on the West Coast, like in the Bay, when you're putting someone on game, when you're passing on really important information that can help someone, that's a real spill, like your real truth.

And so we wanted to add that element to it, like spill the tea. It's a little gossipy, like, ooh, let's have a little chit-chat.

But the idea of putting people on the information, especially in Black communities, queer communities or other underserved groups, where we don't necessarily get that information very easily, where can we find not just the hot party but some resources, like Black therapists?  That's real spill to us and what we're focused on too. Some have described Spill as the new Black Twitter, which is more of a community of Black people on Twitter than its own platform. What’s your reaction to the idea that Spill is a type of Black Twitter?

Terrell: Well, our intention was always to create a safe space for Black folks, for queer folks online that's more fun, that's more engaging and more rewarding.

So, in my having worked at Twitter, I don't think there's the idea of Black Twitter predicated on having a space that’s ours -- but we have to make ours. This is a very common experience for Black folks, queer folks, and other marginalized groups on all social platforms.

Spill is a space that centers on Black folks and queer folks from the beginning. We don't have to carve it out. It starts with us. And so we absolutely have intended to build a place that's safe and fun and engaging and again, rewarding for Black folks and queer folks and other marginalized groups for sure. What are Black social media users looking for that they can't get on Twitter?

Terrell: Well, I would say a couple of things. I think first we've seen hate speech, which was always a problem way before the leadership change. But it has metastasized because the intentions of the people who own, who build, who run these platforms matter a lot.

This is something that we're really passionate about as young founders – folks who take our responsibility as leaders in tech very seriously.

There's a huge thing nobody wants to deal with: having to scroll past racism and worry every time about getting a bunch of negativity from your comments if you're just expressing a genuine thought. That's taxing. It's emotionally draining. It can be mentally damaging, especially over time.

I think the second thing is that people are really looking for a place to find their tribe, find their community. Black Twitter was a thing. It wasn't a structured thing, like, let me type in Black Twitter and I can subscribe to it. It's something that you had to hunt and follow, and really spend a lot of time searching for.

So could we make it easier, not just for Black folks exclusively but for anyone, to come and find their tribe in a safer, more rewarding environment? And so that's something that we're absolutely being mindful of, and we have a lot of things coming out to help with that, too.

And then I'd say the third thing is: can we innovate, can we push forward the medium of social media? When you're on Spill, you'll see it's not just a clone of the other things that previously existed. It looks different, it's more colorful, it's more visual, and you can put text over an image, over a GIF, 90 characters, and really have fun expressing yourself and sharing it with friends more easily than on other platforms. You can pull down the Spill board, which is the little tab at the top to see the hottest spills for the last couple of hours and what's trending and what people are talking about. Can you talk a little bit more about some of the specific things you're doing to block hate speech on Spill?

Terrell: It starts with our mission as a company. Many people may not think this matters, but I think, in light of what we've seen, the difference in leadership makes a huge difference in what people feel they're empowered to do on these platforms. If you read our community guidelines, we have the clearest guidelines about what we stand for out of any platform out there.

That gives us the ability to enforce those rules as we build out our technological solutions. We're building the first large language model AI for moderation that's trained by Black folks and queer folks. So it's going to be more sensitive to the terms that matter. And that's huge.

Number two, we're building in some tools to actually reward positive behavior. A lot of social media platforms use a stick – I'm gonna punish you if you do that again. And of course, people love that challenge. They're like, oh, I'm gonna break the system.

We want to reward the people who are contributing positively so there are going to be some things we'll be announcing in the coming weeks and months that are going to show the benefits of consistently creating positive posts and engaging with other people in really great ways. You’ve mentioned the importance of leadership. How are you different from Elon Musk?

Terrell: I don't think we could be more different. As individuals, I think it starts first with the why. I am in this space because of lived experience with the problems that are facing the community that we set out to build for, number one, that's why we're doing this. It's not purely a profit motive. Obviously, we are starting a business and so we have our goals there. We're very ambitious with that.

But I think it starts with the why. I think the problems that we're trying to solve require technical competency and cultural competency and understanding how social media is tech and its people. You've got to care about folks and understand both to be successful in this space. You're clearly very enthusiastic about Spill and its potential. How has the journey been for you?

Terrell: I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. This is the hardest thing, by far, I've ever done. And it's been absolutely the most challenging.

I've faced so many things. We don't have time to get into all that has happened in eight short months. But I'm so happy, so proud of the team that we have assembled, who are majority Black folks, queer folks – most of our vendors, same thing, and most of our partnerships.

It's so exciting to see people interested in the work that we're putting out. And so I'm kind of over the moon with this whole thing every day. In addition to building a successful business, what do you hope to accomplish?

Terrell: I think we want to fundamentally change the paradigm of what people think social media can be. I think that people think it's fundamentally, at this point, a negative, nasty, mean place. And I don't think it has to be that at all. I think it absolutely can be incredibly powerful.

I think it's proven to be incredibly powerful from all the movements that we've seen over the last 10 years that have been empowered by these technologies. But I think we just need to learn from the last 10 or 15 years to be able to unlock that next wave so that it is way more beneficial and far less toxic and negative and exploitative than it's been before.

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