The Social Samaritans
Philip Ellison 06 November, 2014 at 10:11
The Samaritans organisation has been around for years as a valuable source of support to people in need of someone to talk to – but until now, the individual needed to be the one who initiated contact. Now the charity has launched Samaritans Radar, an app which, once activated, trawls your Twitter contacts for updates with key phrases such as “depressed” and “feeling low”, which function as red flags. You will then receive an email alerting you that the individual in question needs help.
Radar has been divisive, to say the least, with hordes of Twitter users decrying it as another step towards the end of privacy, to the extent that technologist Adrian Short has launched a petition to block Samaritans Radar from Twitter. It is possible to opt out from the app, but in order to do so you must add yourself to a special list requiring your email address, which many are incredibly reluctant to do.
Samaritans communications director Sophie Borromeo maintains that the app does not technically infringe on people’s privacy, as all it does is identify existing, visible content. “The aim of the app is to highlight potentially worrying tweets – which are already public – from people talking about their problems, to give their followers a second chance to see their tweets and respond,” she explains. “The app works in such a way that the alerts sent out are only seen by the subscriber… Samaritans does not monitor the tweets or view them – we’re just giving people who have signed up for Radar a second chance to see a call for help.”
Pando’s Nathaniel Mott believes that while the intentions of the app may be well-meaning, it encourages people to make a fundamental, all-too-common mistake, i.e. believing that they know better than the person who is suffering from mental illness. “Feeling like the star in a morbid reality show is one of the worst things about trying to cope with these disorders and all the problems they cause or exacerbate,” he says. “Imagine finding out that someone you considered a friend was using Radar to keep track of your tweets. At that point it seems like the friendship, that even following each other on the network, is less about actual communication and more about making sure you don’t decide to off yourself. How would you feel? How would you react? What would you think?”
Others, however, have applauded The Samaritans for making use of the technology available to reach out to people who may genuinely need support. “In the fifties, Samaritans set up the world’s first telephone helpline so of course, now, they would be at the forefront of trying to help more people as how we communicate with each other changes,” says Antonia Bance, communications director for a charity that helps victims of domestic abuse. “And that’s controversial – what innovation isn’t? Many charities would have played it safe, not willing to be out there for those who need them, for fear of criticism. Samaritans deserve a round of applause for putting their mission front and centre.”