A very real reason why the Facebook suicide button is a good idea

It’s been reported that Facebook is to roll out expanded suicide prevention tools after successful trials in Australia and the USA.

This means we’ll all soon have the option to report friends we’re worried about. The app, which was developed with Samaritans, will then send that friend a message with support options, like this:

FB-suicide-button

Feedback seems to have been generally positive from what I’ve seen. But it does still raise legitimate concerns about just how far we’re willing to let social networks into our lives.

How will the network be able to use this data, for example? We already know Facebook records everything you ever do, and the vast majority of this data is used in ad targeting. Will we get to a stage where a person’s mental health is fed into the picture Facebook builds of them for advertisers?

I think it’s unlikely. I honestly don’t think Facebook has any ulterior motive in developing this tool. But what if there was a data leak? If you were suicidal, imagine the kind of damage it could cause your mental state knowing that the whole world knew about it.

So there are legitimate concerns. But none, as far as I can tell, are really outside of the broader issues about Facebook becoming more and more integrated in our lives and storing huge amounts of data on each of us.

And anyway, it could actually save lives. And I knew one specific person it genuinely could’ve helped.

In a past life I used to play drums in a rock band. One of the quirkier things about being in a group with a presence on social media is that you start to pick up fans from all over the world. One of ours was a guy we’ll call John (not his real name) from San Francisco.

John found us on MySpace and seemed like a nice guy. He’d regularly get in touch about new demos we’d posted, and all of us would chat to him about our music on Facebook.

He started adding our friends, and other UK-based fans, and catching up with them to ask about how our gigs had been. Then conversations began to get more in-depth. He’d tell us more personal details about his life, and talk to us all as if we’d been lifelong friends.

We actually used to wonder whether it was a wind up. We thought it could’ve been one of our friends pretending to be an international super fan. But it became clear he was just a pretty lonely guy, reaching out for company.

Anyway, John was clearly in a bad way. He’d post strange things, and we started to receive messages from people he knew who were worried about him, asking us about what he’d said to us.

The whole thing was surreal. We liked John, and worried about him, but were completely powerless to do anything to help. We were a bunch of guys from London who didn’t spend all that much time on Facebook anyway, and he was a person we’d never even met who lived in San Francisco. The connection was tenuous to say the least.

Then, tragically, John killed himself.

At least, we think he did. The first any of us in London knew about this troubled man we barely knew taking his own life were the messages of condolence that started to appear on his wall. We didn’t know how to react, but I’m certain we all felt guilty for not doing more to help.

So, yeah,  for my money, the button is definitely a good idea. We certainly would have reported some of the updates and messages John posted, and he might still have been around today.

 

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