Seven months ago, the Samaritans put a public foot wrong with Radar, an effort to leverage Twitter's social graphs to help people identify friends who might need help. The program was widely criticized and rapidly dropped.
They haven't stopped mulling over options, though: these are people who don't ignore someone passed out on a sidewalk thinking, "probably just drunk". So what should they do? they asked a group of people including privacy advocates, social workers, and others this week.
Online can be a difficult environment in which to find the right balance between outreach and interference. Some years ago, I saw someone post a farewell suicide note on a bulletin board. The rules of that particular section limited postings to news items only, with no comments allowed except for a single summary of received email replies by the original poster. In this case, people commented: they complained about being confronted by this depressing farewell over breakfast, one or two thought someone should do something, and finally several invoked the no-comments rule. Soon afterwards, a moderator arrived to vape the whole thing. As a friend later observed, these reactions suggested that posting to this particular site was a good way of showing you weren't just crying for help. Help did arrive, however: a couple of readers who knew the poster personally got him to a hospital. Today, someone in similar distress might also get rescued - but meanwhile his mobile phone would explode with trolls shouting "Jump!"
The basis of Radar was that the large number of people using social media could be used to spot the relatively small number of individuals among their friends who need help. From the Samaritans' numbers , in 2013 there were 6,233 suicides in the UK, an overall average of 19 per 100,000 for men and 5.1 per 100,000 for women. The male suicide rate, which had been dropping steadily, began climbing again in 2008, and is now at its highest since 2001. The most at-risk group is men aged 45 to 59: 25.1 per 100,000, the highest it's been since 1981. Lower social class, economic deprivation, and mental health issues are all risk factors. The suicide rate is as low as 3 per 100,000 in parts of Surrey, as high as 30 per 100,000 in Merseyside.
Of the organization's 5 million contacts per year, 85% are by phone, around 200,000 are by email, a few are face to face. Texting, currently at 380,000, is growing rapidly here as elsewhere. Many categories of desperate people such as teens and victims of domestic violence have little privacy or agency to make voice calls, and many younger people are more comfortable with text.
If you grant the premise - that the Samaritans should change with the times and that social media are an opportunity to reach people who might otherwise die of isolation in the middle of crowds - then the question becomes, what should it be? It's tempting, but probably wrong (at least at the present state of the art), to think that turning computers loose on the firehouse will work. Yes, a classifier, such as appears in research at the University of Cardiff in work by Jonathan Scourfield and Pete Burnap, might find evidence of suicidal intent, but it's far more likely to find people unhelpfully joking about suicide. Given that we're talking of billions of messages, false positive rates seem an obvious key issue here, as is the possibility that people in existential distress may in fact be less likely to post than to close themselves off. A system that studies contents of tweets rather than patterns of metadata will not see silence.
Finding and helping those who need it ought, on the face of it, to be a simpler problem than that the security services face in trying to find terrorists. The security services need to locate a precise individual to stop a specific plan to attack a particular target. At any given time there will be far fewer of these active, and identification has to be precise. The Samaritans don't want to miss anyone, but for them success can be measured in people helped, with less emphasis needed on exactly who those people are. Even if they miss some, they've done well. Yet nothing is ever simple. A billion people are on Facebook: Facebook chats to support people seems like a no-brainer except: privacy, since among the Samaritans' principles are anonymity and the promise that records won't be kept.
For the Samaritans' purposes the best form of outreach is likely indirect: give access to tools and choices that anyone can benefit from, whether they're in immediate distress or not. Democratise the training given to volunteers by using social media, apps, the web, to help as many people as possible to understand how to recognise and support friends in crisis. The obvious model here might be CPR: many people who are not medical personnel have taken the training so that in a life-or-death emergency they can keep someone alive until medical staff can reach them - and many public areas have defibrillators for the same reason. As has been the norm in the past, let people find you, and be there to be found.
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.