How Can I help my Online Friends?
Do they even count as friends if we have never met in person?
by Gavin Steven
Terry Davis was a schizophrenic programmer who dedicated his life to creating an operating system to talk to God. Made from scratch, the software featured its own programming language called HolyC, a keyboard shortcut that would generate a biblical quote and a game in which you played as Moses on his way to Mount Horeb. Afraid of the risk of institutionalisation and creativity-stifling medication, Davis avoided treatment for his schizophrenia. Instead, he chose to live his life on the internet, frequently live streaming to YouTube to show off his software. The streaming platform was like therapy for Davis. A local reporter with frequent contact with Davis said that he “was always lucid when he talked about computers” and, simply, his streams allowed him to always be talking about computers. However, his viewers were a noxious mix of earnest fans and 4chan-style trolls, creating constant discord in his chat rooms. Eventually, his stream was banned after trolls tricked him into clicking pornographic links and reporting him. He quickly became homeless and, just over a year later, he tragically died after walking onto train tracks. Davis had been let down by his online network.
We spend more of our lives than ever online. Many of us have become members of online communities, be it meme pages, fan clubs or enthusiast groups, to interact with people we will likely never meet. Eventually, we begin to call these people our friends, even though we know almost nothing about them. Our relationships are defined by their simplicity, confined to mutual interests. Once we begin to know these people better, we may begin to see worrying signs in their behaviour: erratic mood swings, extreme self-deprecating humour, cries for help that are deleted the next day. Yet it is difficult to respond with anything other than frustration. In an internet landscape characterised by trolling and callousness, how can we compassionately respond to people suffering mental illnesses within our communities?
In the real world, anyone who expresses mental anguish should be taken seriously. However, on the internet this is turned on its head – legitimate concerns can get lost in meme culture. While mental health memes were initially fringe humour on sites like 4chan and Something Awful, in late 2016 the “I Have Crippling Depression” meme hit the mainstream. In October alone the meme received around 100 million Google searches. Similar memes have followed, mental health memes have become a genre of their own. Indeed, these memes can also be a coping mechanism for people who are struggling and cannot express themselves without the meme framework. It has become hard to tell a joke from a warning sign. We should look out for changes in our online friend’s behaviour, and keep an eye open for worrying posts that do not fit a meme format.
It may be tempting to offload responsibility onto social media sites automated reporting systems. Unfortunately, these sites can be almost as dispassionate as online trolls. At the first sign of mental suffering, social media sites encourage us to simply report and move on. Sites like Twitter even offer a neat checkbox for suicidal behaviour. However, given the current climate, it is perhaps not surprising to hear that social media sites response to reports often disappoints. Twitter, for example, will not forward any reports of suicidal behaviour to relevant authorities, or even contact them with information on how to get help. Instead, they will do nothing on the first report, nothing on the second, and on the third, give the offending user a temporary ban from their account. Rather than providing any form of help, Twitter instead chooses to remove what might be their only support network.
So, when we begin to worry about our online friends, how can we help? The most important piece of advice is to realise that online friends can be just as legitimate as physical ones. It is easy to ignore tell-tale signs or offload responsibility to social media’s faulty moderating. However, it is also easy to send your friends a message and check up on how they are doing. Arm yourself with research and links to support sites. Even if someone is not your friend, treat them with respect. At the end of the day, there is always a real person behind the screen.
Samaritans (UK): 116 123
National Alliance on Mental Illness (US): 1-800-950-NAMI