Almost two weeks ago, while scrolling through my Twitter feed on a Friday afternoon, I came upon the thought processes of a recently-added friend/follower. The words leapt off the screen and grabbed me. That’s the only way to describe it. I had been keeping an eye on her timeline, watching with growing concern as the images and language became ever more desperate. She had recently undergone an operation, and was in considerable pain; this, and bipolar disorder, made her feel vulnerable and frightened. Though she had support from real-time friends, her use of Twitter as an outlet for thoughts and emotions meant she had gained a network of followers – many of whom are in similar situations with regards to mental health – who were ready and willing, at any time, to talk back.
I must admit, I had little to say at first. When we suddenly arrive into each others lives on social media, it’s like dropping into a chapter midway through a text. Flipping backwards, to move forwards; reading what we can, to gain context. So I stayed silent and still for a bit, watching her tweets scurry through my feed. There didn’t seem much I could do, except offer Favourites by way of acknowledgement / agreement, and the occasional tweet in response to subjects that hit home. Things I could relate to.
That is, until the Friday afternoon when it became clear that her words might progress into actions. Without going into too much detail – a crisis point was hit, one I recognized and remembered all too well. The language, I’d heard it in my own mind once, circling like ravens.
I attempted suicide twice, in 2003. Both times, I “chickened out” – my words, then – and phoned for an ambulance.
(You could say that anorexia nervosa, which I’ve had since age 16, is also a form of slow suicide. It’s the long fall before the drop, but it has the “safety blanket” element of offering security and control to the sufferer. I didn’t want to die, with this illness. I just wanted to be strong. But when holding those packets of pills in my hands, I didn’t want to be here. At all.)
So when scrolling through my friend’s tweets, finding more and more references to death and ending it all and despair, I knew this wasn’t just a “bad day”, or black humour. I’d witnessed the downward trend, as had others who follow her, and we sought to keep her online by tweeting replies wherever and whenever possible. Just to keep her talking, and to offer advice and encouragement. She responded, and – though clearly disorientated and in pain – took the responsibility of asking for professional help. A brave move; she acknowledged to me at a later date (and I can’t tell you how grateful/glad I am that there was such a later date), “I have lots of very good friends. My issue is, and has always been, asking for the help I need.”
Sometimes, the hardest part about seeking help is letting go of the reins.
The Samaritans charity have launched a smart phone Twitter app, the Samaritans Radar, which is designed to alert its users to potential “red flag” tweets that have been gathered by an algorithm, and pushed to the app via words such as “tired of being alone”, “hate myself”, “depressed”, “help me” and “need someone to talk to.” Users receive an email alert, and the app asks whether such tweets are a cause for concern. The charity itself doesn’t get involved directly unless requested.
Reading about it this morning, I offered a cautious thumbs-up. The premise seemed sound. Who wouldn’t want to be alerted to a potential crisis, such as the one I witnessed? I’d rather know about friends’ anxieties, their blue-black moods, and be able to offer help wherever possible. The app comes with guidance on how to deal with potentially fragile situations – advice which, I must say, is fundamental in progressing the public narrative on mental health disorders. There’s always room to learn more, to do away with misconceptions and prejudice. Where better to do so than on social networking sites like Twitter, where the target audience (18-35 years old) spend much of their lives? Many of them, like me, use the platform as an outlet for thoughts and feelings which can’t be offloaded in real-time. Sometimes, that “shouting into the abyss” element is actually positive. I don’t really care if I get a response, though they’re welcome; and I admit, more often than not, my projections are via other’s words, in RTs. I still have a hard time articulating how I feel.
But – the fact is, I’ve chosen to do so, and others have the choice to look, to read, to reply, to ignore.
The app has proven to be divisive, with as many – if not more – Twitter users condemning as applauding it. Through the hashtag #SamaritansRadar, they are voicing their concerns and recommendations to the creators. While some agree that it is a good idea in theory, put into practise it could cause issues with invasions of privacy, the potential for retention of personal data; perhaps more crucially, there is no opt-out function for people having their tweets screened. There is no way of knowing if this is happening, as the app retains the privacy of the user.
The backlash to this has produced quite a raw response, with Twitter users stating that they would have to lock down their profiles – making them Private – in order to keep projections of thoughts and feelings about mental health, within secure and comfortable boundaries. Considering these are the people who are feeling most vulnerable, it’s not a step forward in terms of social networking.
We all have days when the world is filtered through nightshade, or the white noise upstairs is louder and more disturbing than ever. For many users of social media, the only way to vent is to get the words out via a tweet – or a whole ream of them. In my case, I then sit back, rub my cheek and think “well, for fuck’sake,” and feel a bit better, and get on. Would I want to be offered help/advice? I probably wouldn’t turn it away if well-meaning. But that’s assuming all replies to Twitter users WOULD be well-meaning, which is the point of former Samaritans volunteer Emsy’s blog post: not all followers are followed back. They’re not all trusted friends, and there is the potential for abuse of the app, with stalkers using it to track a tweeter’s darkest moments. Which is a horrendous thought.
“The app itself is called the ‘Radar’ app, and even in the name gives connotations of being watched, being monitored. How likely are you to tweet about your mental health problems if you know some of your followers would be alerted every time you did? Do you know all your followers? Personally? Are they all friends? What if your stalker was a follower? How would you feel knowing your every 3am mental health crisis tweet was being flagged to people who really don’t have your best interests at heart, to put it mildly? In this respect, this app is dangerous. It is terrifying to think that anyone can monitor your tweets, especially the ones that disclose you may be very vulnerable at that time.”
Then there’s the misconception-factor. It’s got quite a scope. What if I, or anyone else for that matter, chose to use humour to detox a bad mood – would hyperbole, satire etc, be recognized by the app? Apparently not. This would be up to the human element on the receiving end, to filter out what was meant, and to act accordingly. Or not. I have a dear friend who blogs regularly, the sort of pitch-dark stuff that caused a former teacher to call him in for a chat about the state of his mental health. Said friend laughed it off – it was his way of venting, via twisting bramble words and noir humour. He’s normally quite a chipper character. What the app is saying to some people, is that to remain inconspicuous, they must smile.
Twitter is itself a microblogging site. Many users choose to divulge information about themselves, and while it could be argued that this is their own responsibility to monitor security levels, the fact is they retain the right to speak freely – without the feeling of being monitored.
If several people are all following each other, and someone is sending out multiple “red flag” tweets, will they then be piled in on by well-meaning but possibly intimidating attention, when in an distressed state? I know I get a little frazzled when several tweets/messages come in at once; trying to reply to them, I often just shut the phone down and go away for some quiet time, completely alone in my head.
Imagine trying to negotiate various tweets/messages from
people you might not even be following back, while trying to offload about things that won’t make it into real-time.
Which is the main fear of many Twitter users now. In putting their words out onto timelines, will there be a constant – silent – analysis? Paranoia is not something to be downplayed, here, or looked upon as a side-effect of the app. It is the very real state of mind for a lot of people, along with feelings of fear, anger, frustration, pain, confusion … numbness. As another friend put it this morning while discussing the app, “For me twitter is somewhere to vent – sometimes all you need is somewhere to be able to say something to get it out of your head and then it is gone. Though I know that’s not the case for everyone.”
This brings me back around to the crisis point of that Friday afternoon. Would I have preferred an app to locate the tweets of a friend which might have gone missing from my feed, given that it is now curated by an algorithm like Facebook? (I’ve noticed tweets going missing, only to appear at later times or to be located on friends’ own timelines.) Would I feel safer, knowing that her tweets could be pushed to me if something like this happened again?
I’d rather be a good friend, and try to keep consistency by checking in on her wellbeing – and that of others I care about – on a daily basis. Not when an app tells me to.
I’d also watch out for a recurring trend of negative thoughts with anyone I am following. While I’d like to think that friends could come to me if they felt they needed to offload, sometimes shouting into thin air is a very pleasant experience. Not everyone wants an intervention; and not everyone I am following, follows me back. It’s a delicate balance between Twittiquette and genuine concern. As I told a dear friend recently, we can only be there for so many people in our lives, on and offline.
It’s worth checking out the #SamaritansRadar trend to get a better idea of the current mood surrounding the app. While I do applaud the charity for its initiative – using social media to encourage people to reach out to each other (let’s face it, we spend much of our lives online) – the conception of the app seems a bit flawed. No opt-out function. Glossing over the fact that tweets in the public domain are still the personal data of the identified tweeter, as specified in data protection expert Jon Baines’ blog:
“A tweet from an identified tweeter is inescapably the personal data of that person, and, if it is, or appears to be, about the person’s physical or mental health, then it is sensitive personal data, afforded a higher level of protection under the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA). It would appear that Samaritans, as the legal person who determines the purposes for which, and the manner in which, the personal data are processed (i.e. they have produced an app which identifies a tweet on the basis of words, or sequences of words, and push it to another person) are acting as a data controller.”
And perhaps the most damaging: the breach of trust felt by some Twitter users, who are warning followers to identify themselves if they are using the app, so they can be blocked.
A sad state of affairs. Not the Samaritans’ intended outcome, I imagine. Perhaps with a pull-back and review of the app’s production, a resolution might be found – with tweeters encouraged to engage with each other over its use, rather than using it in secret to perpetrate already-present fears.
Updated (05/11/2014) to include: Change.org, petition to shut down the Samaritans radar Twitter app, by Adrian Short (@adrianshort).
Updated (14/11/2014) to include: Samaritans app removed, all data to be deleted.