Samaritans Radar – underestimating people…

Yesterday, after a huge struggle, Samaritans finally decided to suspend its new app, Samaritans Radar. It took them a long time to do it, and there was a lot of pain on the way. The Samaritans have lost trust, and a fair number of people respect them less than they did before the saga began – not least because, even now, the Samaritans don’t seem to have grasped what has gone on. They still seem to think the app has had to be pulled because of the way that privacy concerns were raised – the implication being that a bunch of activists on the internet derailed a valid and important project. Very much the opposite is the case: Samaritans Radar had to be pulled because the app, and those behind it, misunderstood the nature of the very people they should have been helping.

In a wide range of ways they underestimated those people. They underestimated how much people care about their autonomy (and related to that, their privacy). They underestimated people’s ability to work out what was going on, to analyse and understand not just how the app worked but what the impact of the app might be. They underestimated people’s ability to organise, to bring in experts to support them, to work with the media – and to support each other. They underestimated people’s ability to achieve something.

The campaign that eventually led to the suspension of Samaritans Radar was led by what is an active and very positive ‘mental health community’ on Twitter. This isn’t a bunch of out-of-touch ‘keyboard warriors’ as some people seem to have suggested. It’s remarkably varied: people who have or have had mental health issues, people working in the field of mental health, privacy advocates, social media professionals, academics, media people – and many people who have a complex mixture of all of these. Many of those now working as mental health professionals have also had mental health issues themselves. It’s not an ‘official’ campaign of any kind – it’s a bunch of people who connect with each other on an ad hoc basis (one of the best things about Twitter) and who coalesced around this issue. I was brought into it by someone I know only through Twitter – but someone who I respect very much for his views, his perspective and his understanding. That’s the thing – respect. And that’s where Samaritans let themselves down so badly. It looked as though they didn’t respect exactly the people they should have respected.

People who have suicidal thoughts, people with mental health issues and so forth don’t have any less desire for autonomy than other people. They don’t have any less need for autonomy than other people. They don’t have any less ability than other people – because they’re people! They come from every walk of life, and have every range of skills. Of course there are people here who care about this kind of thing who also have huge amounts of ability to express themselves, to campaign, to investigate and respond – and Samaritans as much as anyone should know that. They should have understood that before they developed the app – and should have been able to anticipate the issues, and avoid them.

“Privacy, particularly in its aspect as a protector of autonomy, is something that people want and expect. When it is invaded, when people’s autonomy is overly restricted, people react and dislike it. One common thread of the case studies throughout this book is that it appears that the more people know about how, when and where their privacy has been invaded, the more they want to protect that privacy. In the end, businesses need to understand this if they are to meet consumer desires.”

That’s a quote from my book, Internet Privacy Rights: Rights to Protect Autonomy – from the first chapter (p21). It’s referring to businesses – the case studies in the book are mostly business-related – but it applies equally directly to charities like the Samaritans. The issue of autonomy is the key – people want autonomy, they think they have a right to autonomy, and they will fight to protect that autonomy. In the case of Samaritans Radar, they did fight to protect that autonomy.

So what can Samaritans do now? They’ve taken the first step by suspending the app. Next, they need to think a bit harder about why that had to happen – and not try to pretend it was a fine app brought down by unnecessary complaints. Then, most importantly, they need to consult much more widely – and in particular, they need to talk to the very people who brought down the app: the campaigners, the Twitter activists and so on. They need to face up to the concerns that people have – and understand why people care about their autonomy and their privacy. It’s hard to see a future for the app – but if they are going to try to resurrect it, they need to understand why the people on Twitter fought so hard against it. They didn’t do it out of perversity, out of some theoretical and misplaced belief in privacy: they did it because it threatened their autonomy, their agency, something that everyone holds very dear.

If the Samaritans don’t understand this, and try another relaunch along the same lines as before, it will be fought again. And it will lose.

Samaritans Radar: understanding how people use twitter…

On the Samaritans website, in a recent ‘update’ on Samaritans Radar, they note:

“We understand that there are some people who use Twitter as a broadcast platform to followers they don’t know personally, and others who use Twitter to communicate with friends. Samaritans Radar is aimed particularly at Twitter users who are more likely to use Twitter to keep in touch with friends and people they know.”

So the people behind Samaritans Radar – and I don’t believe for a moment that this is the Samaritans as a whole – think that there are basically two modes of usage of Twitter: broadcasting information to people you don’t know, and communicating with friends. Now I’m a pretty prolific Twitter user – I’m closing in on 150,000 tweets – but I would say that even now I’ve only scratched the surface of the possible uses of Twitter, and the possible ways to use Twitter. I’ve developed my own way of using Twitter – and I suspect pretty much everyone who uses Twitter has done the same. Indeed, that’s one of the great things about Twitter: it’s relatively non-prescriptive. There’s no particular ‘way’ to use twitter – there are an infinite number of ways. Just off the top of my head, I can think of a whole number of distinctly different reasons that I use twitter.

  1. To keep up with the news – people I follow post links to fascinating stories, often far faster than mainstream media news
  2. To get updates from people I know in a professional capacity – I’m an academic, working in law and privacy, and there’s a great community of legal and privacy people on Twitter.
  3. To publicise my blog – it’s the best way to get readers (and yes, that fits the broadcast platform idea)
  4. To make contacts – some become friends, some are professional, some both
  5. To exchange ideas with people that I know – and with people that I don’t know. These may be work ideas, or just general ideas
  6. To live-tweet events that I’m attending, to allow those not present to learn what’s happening
  7. To have fun! I play hashtag games, watch silly videos, make jokes and so on.
  8. To follow live events and programmes – following BBC’s Questiontime via the #bbcqt hashtag is much more fun than watching the real thing
  9. To have political arguments – some of my ‘favourites’ at the moment are fights with UKIP supporters…
  10. To let off steam – when I’m angry or annoyed about something
  11. To express pleasure – if I’ve enjoyed something, I like to say so! Watching a good TV programme, for example
  12. To access and read material about subjects I’m interested in
  13. To follow my football team (the mighty Wolverhampton Wanderers)
  14. To support people I like – whether they’re friends or not
  15. To Retweet tweets or links to blogs from people that I like – and new blogs that I’ve not found before. A kind of ‘blog-networking’
  16. To spread interesting stories to the people that follow me
  17. To keep in touch with friends (yes, that fits the Samaritans idea) and to be there when they need support
  18. To feel in contact with current events and issues – not just news, but the ‘buzz’
  19. To experiment with ideas…
  20. To crowdsource the answer to questions – ‘ask twitter’
  21. Creating online performance art! (h/t @SusanhallUK)
  22. Just to see what happens – something wonderful might! Serendipity (h/t @LizIxer)
  23. Getting helpful corrections to blog posts!
  24. Receiving/conveying first-hand information from people ‘on the scene’ regarding events in the news (#Ferguson, say) (via @Doremus42)

This is only part of it – the ones that I could think of in a few minutes – and they overlap, merge, combine and produce new things all the time. I have around 9,000 followers, and follow around 7,500 people, and the relationships I have with each of them vary immensely. Some I know in ‘real life’ and consider my friends. Some are colleagues. Some I know well online but have never met. Some I have no idea about at all, but it seemed like a good thing at the time to follow them – or, presumably, they thought it might be interesting to follow me. Some are my political ‘allies’, some very much my opponents. Some I will tweet personally with, others I will just exchange professional information with. Some I will tease – and some I will offend immensely. I try to be sensitive – but often fail. What I do know, though, is that there’s no one way to use Twitter. There’s no prescriptive model. Twitter is particularly adaptable…

…which is one of the reasons it’s particularly suitable for many people with mental health issues. People can use Twitter as they want to, and find a way that suits them, and their own personality, their own views, their own way of being. And that’s one of the many reasons that ideas like Samaritans Radar are misconceived. As set out on their update, they have a particular model in mind – and have not properly considered that this model is only one of a vast range of possibilities. Their idea fits their preconception – but it doesn’t fit the ways that other people use Twitter. And when those other people – particularly people who are vulnerable – have other ways to use Twitter, their ideas don’t fit, and end up being potentially deeply damaging. Further, when Samaritans fail to listen to exactly those people when those people say ‘that’s not how it is for me’, they make things worse. Far worse.

Again, I’d like to appeal to the Samaritans to reconsider this whole project. Withdraw it now, and have a rethink. An organisation that listens should be able to do that.