Friday, 11 March 2011

Great help from facebook on suicide and bullying, but could Big Brother culture follow?

facebook, the Social Media giant, has launched a couple of new initiatives aimed at helping seriously unhappy users on their network, which now numbers at close to 600 million people worldwide.

The first looks to help those vulnerable to suicidal tendencies in the UK. Ran in conjunction with the Samaritans charity, the move involves new functionality on facebook, where users can report any friends who post worrying comments. Help and advice is offered to the concerned user in supporting their friend and once reported, facebook will direct a councillor from the Samaritans to actually contact the individual.

This comes following the tragic case of 42 year old Simone Back, who took her own life last Christmas, after posting to over 1,000 facebook friends that she'd taken an overdose. Their reactions varied, but there was no concerted effort to intervene. The new development with facebook hopes to address this, by giving a more visible and defined route for people to seek help.

A further announcement was made by facebook in their continuing efforts to combat cyber bullying. Changes to the website will encourage those being victimised to either seek help from a trusted friend or take it further by contacting the administrators, who may contact Police or appropriate Charities, should the matter warrant such attention. The plan was unveiled at an anti bullying conference, hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House.

There's an argument offered by those who have resisted the lure of facebook, that it can cause dislocation from the real world, with users more interested in living through this online community than within those away from a computer screen.

This may be up for debate, but if facebook can make it easier for unhappy, lonely and even desperate people to find support and help, then surely at least in this instance, it can bring a connection to other people that may provide an intervention that's vital to an individual's well-being.

These measures represents facebook taking some responsibility for it's role in the lives of those who use it's network and it should be commended for doing so. It does also, however, set something of a precedent, which could open the door for a similar approach to other aspects of a person's life.

It's not too much of a leap, for instance, to expect a future expansion of their help centre, using similar methodology to allow users to report concerns about a friend's drug use. The same may follow for cigarettes or alcohol. Any regular user of facebook will be familiar with status updates detailing drunken nights out and regret filled morning afters. If for a friend, these appeared a little too regular and the option presented itself to seek help, a concerned party might report the matter.

Critics of facebook often quote those status updates detailing what a user's had for dinner, as an example of the triviality of the platform. What if from on friend these regularly described unhealthy eating habits? Could their friends report them to a dietician? Would the friend in question actually welcome that intervention or would it be seen more as interference?

As I said above, I'm certainly not criticising facebook for these recent changes and do genuinely applaud and agree with their intention. I would say though that going further with this 'report a concern' approach should be very carefully considered and employed. Otherwise, there is a danger that a certain culture of paranoia may develop, where people actually have less trust in their friends, almost seeing them as informers in a virtual Big Brother state.

Relationships are the fundamental basis of facebook and all Social Networks. If their integrity is threatened, people may be more reluctant to engage in them, and that could in turn, actually endanger the future of such networks.

Of course, this is speculation at this point, but should facebook go further down this path, they must be extremely careful. Their good intentions may pave a road with a familiar destination.

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