Apps that spy: are they good or are they bad?

There appears to have been much disquiet within my twitter time line regarding an application a well-known charity has created that enables users to be alerted if anyone they follow on twitter uses words or phrases related to possible suicidal ideation.

I have read the updates information on the charity website and apparently it is possible to have your tweets opted out of the app. I am however concerned and share the reservations some people have regarding intrusion but also the responsibility – what to do if you receive an email alerting you that someone you do not know in real life and cannot contact is distress.

Not wishing to comment on the charity and their intentions, which I am certain are only for the good, I am going to discuss this via tweets relating to #TheArchers. For those not familiar with twitter, the use of the hash tag # preceding a word or phrase is a brilliant way of connecting with other people who are tweeting about the same thing. Okay, some of you might not be aware of a fabulous BBC Radio 4 programme called The Archers; it is broadcast Sunday-Friday 19:01-19:15 with a Monday-Friday repeat 14:01-14:15 and an omnibus on Sunday 10:00-11:15. It is a drama programme based around a farming community in a fictitious village called Ambridge, though for those of us who have been weaned on the programme and are avid listeners and/or tweeters, it is not fiction but reality.

It is the reality issue I wish to focus upon because yes, it is fiction but deals with real issues and enables people to tweet about the programme whilst mindful of their own personal experiences, sometimes shared with others online, at other times kept private. #TheArchers hash tag contains a myriad of tweets and is a safe space for people to express their stresses and tensions of the day. As my research interest is discourse analysis I have been asked by potential followers on twitter if I analysed their tweets and my answer is always no, life is far too short, though yes I do read and reflect as many others do. It is therefore not my intention to highlight individuals or embarrass anyone; instead, I will mention general themes in particular those in which I partake.

Should anyone devise an app to detect murdering psychopaths with sadomasochistic tendencies who believe children should be beaten would have a field day with tweets in #TheArchers time line!

A while ago, there was an excellent storyline regarding workplace bullying. The bully was an odious character and I was not alone in expressing the need to insert a red hot poker somewhere painful; in real life the episode of Blackadder where this is alluded to by the Bishop of Bath and Wells gives me the chills and I cannot watch medieval films as I am squeamish. An app however would highlight me as having ‘problems’ and would not detect the sarcasm or irony within my tweet directed at a character in a radio drama.

A few years ago, a character called Nigel came to a sudden end whilst on the roof during a windy evening taking a banner down. His widow Elizabeth is a drama queen and many of us were very unsympathetic towards her sudden bereavement; does this imply that in real life the tweeters are unfeeling and horrible human beings? Of course not, but an app might not realise this. There are many occasions when we tweeters suggest certain characters ought to inspect the roof especially in stormy weather, this is in the hope that the said character will fatally fall off; again are we people who disregard safety and wish harm upon others, I doubt it, but an app might not realise this.

There is a serial nymphomaniac in the village who has a demonic child, well actually all children of Ambridge are demonic and no, devil worship is not really on the agenda, but would an app know this? Over the years we have made fun of her and some even post pictures of a turkey baster when discussions relating to the father of her child are mentioned. Helen is now involved in a relationship and initially much fun was had with #TheArchers hash tag regarding this; however things have now changed. The scriptwriters are using the relationship to highlight psychological domestic abuse so the tweets have changed in format. No longer are they sarcastic, but concerning. People are discussing domestic violence, a very serious issue and are suggesting things Helen should do. Yes, we all know that we are not advising Helen; instead, we are signposting for each other.

As with the workplace bullying, #TheArchers tweeters have moved from sarcasm to care for each other through the medium of a radio programme. This is twitter at its best.

Many people I follow on twitter listen to #TheArchers, we laugh together, are sarcastic and bitchy together during those precious 14 minutes Sunday-Friday yet the rest of time we are so different. An example of this is death and dying. Recently my time line moved from discussing recent family member deaths within our own lives and the genuine pain of loss, to an annoyance a character had not died and then returned to supporting each other. I know my #TheArchers tweets reflected my own recent loss and having the ability to step back was extremely helpful. An app would not know this.

My concern therefore is context, how does this charity app distinguish between a real cry for help or expression of desperation, and a tweet relating to a radio or television programme? I understand the age group it is aimed towards is the generation that thinks it strange I walked home from school across a park having said goodbye to my friends at the school gate and not communicate with them again until the next school day. My world of youth did not consist of a mobile phone and shock horror there were only three television stations; excitement was John Noakes cooking on Blue Peter and being radical was watching Magpie on ITV. The target group are those who communicate constantly by text and online devices, in other words, they are more likely to know the people who are in distress and know how to contact them or know others who can do so. If the app assists young people to help each other and openly discuss mental health issues without stigma then it is a good thing; if it spies unnecessarily upon people and causes alarm to followers then it is not. I suppose time will tell, but it is not something I will be downloading.

Issues relating to mental health are being discussed more openly now and this can only be a good thing. The ability to let off steam, express feelings and have deep discussion within the medium of twitter are important and I just hope that this app does not detract from the insights I have personally gained from learning from others and the support I have been given, especially recently. Apparently, this app will email the followers and the tweeter; surely, this will make a person feel embarrassed and less likely to be open again? If this were the case then I would judge the scheme to be a failure especially if targeting the generation who have been raised upon airbrushed images of so-called perfection and reality television as a way to become famous and successful.

Anyway, they are my thoughts, and if you do tweet #TheArchers, do please continue and I promise you I am not conducting research on your tweets, I am responding just as everyone else is; a murdering psychopath with sadomasochistic tendencies who believes children should be beaten… but only whilst listening to #TheArchers!


2 thoughts on “Apps that spy: are they good or are they bad?

  1. msalliance

    Reblogged this on msalliance and commented:
    This is a brilliant post from Mistress Fiona on how easy it can be to make judgements about peoples’ state of ind out of context. I do hope that charity to which she appears to refer will take heed.

  2. Pingback: About the Context: Reblog of an excellent post from @MistressFiona | MsCellany

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