In the increasingly contentious world of social media, Griffith University graduate Dr Ashley M Berge has high hopes for her rising social network, Topicthread.
Dr Berge says Topicthread is the first social network developed in Australia and is also the first to be curated by a female. Her goal is to attract 10 million subscribers in the next five years.
Topicthread is being promoted as a safer, simpler and more secure network in which users enjoy far greater control over their personal data and social media activity. Mobile and web-based, Topicthread went live in January and was born in response to two events.
The first was the 2015-16 Cambridge Analytica data scandal that saw the private details of millions of Facebook users – including tens of thousands of Australians – sold and allegedly used to influence the 2016 US presidential election won by Donald Trump.
The second event was more personal for Dr Berge, arising from the trauma endured by a close friend who found herself powerless in the face of social media trolling.
“It just went on and on and she was simply unable to have the posts taken down. It was a terrible situation and one that confirmed just how little control we have over our personal data, and how little protection we have from the behaviour of others,” says Dr Berge.
Topicthread’s zero-tolerance policy means it can act quickly and decisively against harassment, abuse, cyber-bullying and even bad language.
“Topicthread is about engaging positive connections,” says Dr Berge. “We don’t run ads, so there is no collusion or conflict. Furthermore, the security of our members is only heightened through our observance of the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation, a law which currently applies in the European Union and frankly should apply everywhere.”
A former international tennis coach, Dr Berge grew up on the Gold Coast and was identified early as a promising Australian tennis prospect. She won a tennis scholarship to Holy Family University – using a competitive Harvard-scaled system – in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, until constant bouts of injury led her to focus more on study.
She completed a Bachelor of Communications at Griffith University in 2009, followed by a Master in Sports Coaching, also at Griffith, in 2011. She went on to receive her PhD in the dual research disciplines of Health (Sports Science) and Education.
Dr Berge has written several books around sports coaching and performance, putting the latest scientific findings into practical language for the wider community, and challenging old views around coaching, performance and injury.
While Topicthread is still in its infancy, Dr Berge says momentum is building as people are encouraged by the platform’s promise of a positive and genuine social media experience.
“We are adding new components all the time. For example, our users can filter what they see based on preferences including friendships, groups, posts, updates and more. They can opt in and opt out of their own volition,” says Dr Berge.
“We also have Sprooke, a facility for posting job ads and job applications; publishing on the platform; and both health and education initiatives. Looking ahead, we’re very keen to publish educational courses that people can complete for free.”
Dr Berge believes the combination of product confidence, personal protections and controls will far outweigh the small cost of a Topicthread membership. To that end, Topicthread is encouraging users to make the switch from the major social networks, with the initial two months completely free.
“Thereafter it costs less than the price of a cup of coffee per month to stay with Topicthread,” says Dr Berge.
“People are becoming more and more disillusioned about the lack of control they have on social media. With Topicthread, they can be part of a platform that is a positive, safe, valuable and offers a clean user experience.”
Meanwhile, Dr Berge is definitely practising what she preaches. She has deleted her Facebook and WhatsApp accounts and is in the process of leaving Instagram.
“With Topicthread, we are applying the best features of the big social media platforms while avoiding the pitfalls. I’m hoping that people will come on board, change their social media experience and revel in a safe, fun and better digital environment.”