Lena Dunham puffs on a cigar, Cara Delevingne brandishes a set of nunchucks and Karlie Kloss adjusts her boxing gloves, while Ellie Goulding and Gigi Hadid shoulder some heavy artillery. It might sound like a star-studded fever dream, but the music video for Taylor Swift’s ‘Bad Blood’ – which has been viewed more than 437 million times on YouTube – is actually a contemporary depiction of girl power.
Headed up by Swift – a fearless frontwoman – this collective of celebrity sweethearts embodies the term ‘squad goals’, which has been proliferating across social media among a predominantly female Gen Y and Z audience. But what are squad goals? And what can they tell us about the way relationships are formed and maintained between digital natives?
A quick search on Urban Dictionary returns the definition “an inspirational term for what you’d like your group of friends to be or accomplish.”  In its most popular hashtagged format, it’s attached to everything from group photos of adorable animals to The Last Supper to behind-the-scenes shots of the Game of Thrones cast. Burger King even used it in reference to a selection of burgers on Instagram, in celebration of National Burger Day. 
The usage of the word ‘squad’ in this context has been tracked back to rappers Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame, who’ve been using the term to refer to “their brothers in crime and hardship” since 2007.  But as it grows increasingly prominent in mainstream media – buffered by Swift – it’s also become a battleground for the racial debate. “White people of the middle and upper class have always wanted in on our slang and dance moves,” writes Judnick Mayard in a critique for The Guardian. “The cultural appropriation of ‘black cool’ seems more blatant and egregious than ever.” 
But as it continues to spread across social media – searching for ‘squad’ on Instagram returns almost six million results, while ‘squadgoals’ pulls up around 600,000 – the term is sticking. Simultaneously epitomising empowerment and loyalty, what is it about the squad that aligns so perfectly with the way young people form relationships? Is it really as simple as Swift-flavoured, girl-centric communities?
Swift could be considered a connoisseur of both music and friendship
YouTube (2015) ©
Friendship is important. A life enriched by strong friendships is proven to be longer, happier and less stressful – loneliness is literally bad for your health.  "Having few social connections is equivalent to tobacco use,” says Professor Cheryl Carmichael, who authored a study on socialising among 20-somethings. “And it’s worse than drinking excessive amounts of alcohol, or suffering from obesity." 
This fact is magnified for teens, since friends take place alongside – and sometimes, over – family in the formation of an adult identity. “Growing up is no time to go it alone,” says psychologist Carl E. Pickhardt. “The companionship of peers makes the passage more confident and less lonely.”  As people grow less like their family, they seek out a ‘family’ of friends who help them explore this new identity, he adds. Even as we get older, friendship is central; it’s so important to Gen Yers, they’ll choose a job just to be with their friends. 
So it makes sense that (alongside gluten-free food or high-fashion) friends are a part of the identity people curate for themselves online. Of course, popularity has always been a status symbol in the realms of social media. Look at the coveted ‘number 11’ on Instagram; the number of likers it takes on a picture for the list of followers’ handles to change into a number. “The number 11 represents when your Instagram image has hit a certain level of credibility,” says Ian Chee, chief strategy officer at digital agency MRY. 
Down with girl hate, long live the girl crush
Confetti Crowd (2014) ©
But now it’s about more than metrics – #squad and #squadgoals are telling of the fact friends themselves can be status symbols. In celebrity culture it takes the form of the Kardashian clan’s endless sets of group selfies or Cara Delevingne’s affectionate use of the word ‘wifey’ to caption photos of A-List besties. Whether it’s Kendall, Kylie and Gigi lounging in the back seat of a convertible or Taylor, Karlie and Cara giggling together on the red carpet, it’s not dissimilar to the way the original supermodels conducted themselves, albeit with a little more accessibility. And given that studies have shown people are perceived as more attractive in groups – broadly termed the cheerleader effect – who wouldn’t trot out their own squad? 
The fashion blogger community has similarly clocked on to the fact there’s safety – and power – in numbers. In Brazil, 26-strong blogging collective F*Hits has seen huge success, while in Sweden, Victoria, Fanny, Lisa and Caroline form style collective IM NEXT. Flitting in and out of each other’s blog posts, they exude a flawless image of long-limbed, well-groomed perfection that any fashion follower could aspire to. Meanwhile, in the UK, Confetti Crowd – comprised of five previously established fashion bloggers – have dubbed themselves ‘the UK's first official girl gang of creatives’, using their collective force to land collaborations with the likes of Adidas, Schuh and Lulu Guinness.
It’s part of a new wave of female empowerment that slams ‘girl hate’ and champions the ‘girl crush’. Look no further than the uptake of the word ‘flawless’, more recently popularised by Beyoncé. “Women apply it tenderly, reverently to one another,” writes journalist Parul Sehgal. “And triumphantly to themselves.”  A study from JWT Intelligence saw Emma Watson’s UN speech cited as an inspiration time and again, and headlines like ‘7 Reasons Why Jennifer Lawrence Would Be An Amazing Best Friend’ and ‘21 Reasons Lizzy Caplan Is The Perfect Girl Crush’ have become commonplace.  It’s hardly surprising given that Gens Y and Z are the most socially progressive generations to date when it comes to gender equality. Over a third of Gen Yers are thinking about feminism more than they used to, while 81% of Gen Zers believe gender doesn’t define people the way it once did.  Celebration of the fellow woman is in full-swing.
Are squads the new subcultures?
UN Women, Creative Commons (2015) ©
Insights and opportunities
The world of social media has evolved, and for digital natives who grew up on the internet, the image you craft for yourself online – that shining reflection of your offline world – has far exceeded what you look like. Whether it’s the millions of people who used Facebook’s rainbow filter on their profile picture in the name of LGBT rights or the three million people that’ve tagged Instagram posts with #fitnessmotivation, social media is a space in which to project values, tastes and attitudes; not just aesthetics.
And it’s broadly reflected in celebrity culture, where people are increasingly judged not only by what they wear or how they look, but by the way they conduct their lives more broadly. “We live in a time where you’re not just a fan of a model because you like her picture in the magazine but you like her sense of humour,” agrees model and Instagram sweetheart Gigi Hadid. “You might have the same style or like the same pizza and were able to share those things through social media.” 
In a world of radical visibility, one needs one’s armor more than ever. The squad has simply figured out – as war tacticians have known for ages – that sometimes the best armor is other peopleKaty Waldman, journalist
In some ways, the squad is an evolution of the subculture. “I think the biggest difference between today’s youth cultures and previous generations is the widespread embracing of pluralistic identities,” says youth anthropologist Andrea Graham. “Previous generations were subject to much more rigid subculture hierarchies. You picked your tribe (or it was picked for you) and your interests, style, language and attitude fell in line with the expectations of your group.”  While you were able to identify with Sporty and Scary in the ‘90s, and ‘jocks’, ‘burnouts’ and ‘art freaks’ formed the bread and butter of high school tropes, the squad represents a less rigid social structure.
The use of the term squad is inclusive; attaching that word to the people in your life is symbolic of friendship in terms of camaraderie and loyalty. And online, where people can be cruel and altercations between strangers are rife, those bonds are necessary. “In a world of radical visibility, one needs one’s armor more than ever,” writes journalist Katy Waldman. “The squad has simply figured out – as war tacticians have known for ages – that sometimes the best armor is other people.” 
Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy commissioning editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. Since joining Canvas8 she’s investigated youth tribes and media consumption for brands like Guinness and MTV.
‘Taylor Swift, Waka Flocka, and the roots of #squad’
‘#squadgoals is just the latest example of 'whitesplaining' black culture’The Guardian
‘What are friends for? A longer life’The New York Times
’ The secret of happiness: family, friends and your environment’The Independent
‘Best friends can help you beat stress, study finds’
‘Social 20-somethings are happier at 50’
‘Parental adjustment to the adolescent's 'family' of friends’
‘Is Gen Y becoming the new ‘lost generation’?’
‘The Instagram rule of 11’
‘The cheerleader effect: how you can look good in a group’The Guardian
‘How ‘flawless’ became a feminist declaration’The New York Times
’Generation Z: how to connect to a teenage audience’The Guardian
‘Millennials and feminism’
‘What does a cool kid look like?’