Friday, March 7, 2014

Hey, Twitter: A message from the 1 in 5 club.

Since our beginnings, mental illness has been a part of the human experience, with the USA and Canada reporting a lifetime prevalence rate for developing a mental illness as being 1 in 5. Put simply, a person need not cast their net wide in order to find someone who has struggled with such disorders as depression, anxiety, or psychosis. Whether we acknowledge it or not, mental illness is familiar to many of us, and along with it comes its all too frequent bedfellow: loneliness.

Enter Twitter, stage left.

At less than a decade old, Twitter is a social media giant, an online service whose numbers now register in the multimillions. For many, Twitter is used primarily for networking and platform-building. For others, Twitter is used for pleasure, such as meeting others who share similar interests.

Self-promotion, platform-building, and amusement are not the only ways Twitter is being utilized, however.

Remember that 1 in 5 statistic? Throw it into a pot with the multimillion users of Twitter, then stir. What you'll have is a recipe for emotional connection, an elixir which helps ward off loneliness that is par for the course for many sufferers of mental illness.

This I know well, not because of my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, but because of something that doesn't come with an embossed diploma--my diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder.

As a member of the 1 in 5 club, what has been most debilitating is the intense loneliness I often feel. Yes, I have a family whom I love. Yes, I have friends who care deeply for me. And yet, too often I have felt horribly, irrevocably alone.

Enter Twitter, once again.

When I joined Twitter, it was to build a platform of sorts and to meet other writers. Then came depression, and with it, a black hole of loneliness. While friends and family supported me in every way they could, I often felt they did not truly "get" it. Not only that, the energy required in contacting them often felt like...too much.

And so, like many before me, I turned to Twitter as a way to connect with others who are living through similar experiences and who can often give me support (and whose support I can often return) in a way that those not in the 1 in 5 club simply cannot.

Through Twitter, strangers have transformed into friends, friends who are as dependable as those I care for in the "real" world. Through Twitter, and the help of my "followers", I've often been able to pull myself out of even the most weighty loneliness, to recognize there are others (so many others), just like me. Through Twitter, I have felt less stigmatized, less ashamed.

Perhaps most importantly, through Twitter and the conduit of connection it provides, I have time and again witnessed fragile lives being saved, purely through the support and caring of others who have reached out to help from within Twitter's ever-expanding universe. I don't believe it's hyperbole to state that Twitter has been a lifesaver to many in the 1 in 5 club, a flotation device that is usually within reach, when needed.

And yet.

And yet Twitter has not evolved as quickly as its uses have. Despite seeming still so shiny and new, Twitter continues to enforce regulations and practices that may have fit the platform building/social networking model quite well, but which may have devastating repercussions for many of its more vulnerable members.

Specifically, I'm referring to what I believe to be Twitter's overenthusiastic use of its one-size-fits-all Suspension policy, typically due to a "violation of Twitter rules".

Twitter is quite transparent with regard to its rules and regulations for appropriate conduct on their site (see For this I applaud them.

Many of these rules are incredibly straightforward. One is not permitted, for example, to impersonate another individual, or to "post direct, specific threats of violence against others". Again, I applaud Twitter for such parameters of conduct.

Other rules are more perplexing and confusing, however, such as being suspended for "repeatedly" following or unfollowing people, posting "multiple unrelated updates to a topic using #, trending, or popular topic", or for having updates that "consist mainly of links, and not personal updates". Despite being fairly intelligent, and despite multiple readings of said rules, I continue to be bewildered by their meaning. Multiple unrelated updates? Too many links? What?!?

More disturbingly, in the past few months alone, I've known several members of the 1 in 5 club who have been suspended by Twitter for what more than likely fall into the perplexing reasons camp, rather than the clearly abusive one. These people are not "trolls". These are not individuals who spew off as much hate as they can cram into 140 characters. These are not people who gleefully post pornography.


These "suspended" Twitterites are often vulnerable individuals who depend on the daily support and emotional connection that Twitter affords them. These are people who may struggle with significant depression, anxiety, or psychosis, to name a few illnesses. These are people who may not feel well enough to reach out to those in the "real" world or may not even have actual supports that exist offline.

For many individuals, Twitter may be their primary lifeline. When this is the case, having their account inexplicably suspended could be devastating, confirmation of their self-perceived lack of worth.

Those of you who experience a mental illness yourselves know what I'm saying. Hell, those of you who have seen the film "Gravity" know what I'm saying. Connection to others is vital, like oxygen to one's spirit. Being deprived of it (or "suspended") for infractions that may not even make sense to the person involved, may even, in extreme cases, prove disastrous.

Again, I'm not talking about "trolls" or individuals who use Twitter to spread hate speech or bigotry. I'm talking about the 1 in 5 who reach out and who may not even realize they've broken one of the more obscure "rules".

I'm talking about people like many of you. People like me.

If rules and regulations have not been followed, could other strategies not be used first to alert the person in question that they have stepped over a line? A warning, perhaps, or an investigation began prior to a "Suspension"? In situations in which one Twitterite has lodged a (possibly quite legitimate) complaint against another, could not the complainant be reminded about the use of "Blocking", and could Twitter not significantly strengthen the Blocking tool, so that users do not feel harassed or threatened?

My final question for the multimillion users out there is this: Does Twitter have a responsibility to revisit its rules and regulations, given that it is being increasingly used as an online self-help/support group of sorts by members of the 1 in 5 club, even if that was not the service's intent?

From a legal perspective, I highly doubt it.

But does it have an ethical responsibility? A moral one?

Think of five people. Imagine that one of them finds hope in connections they've made online. Imagine that connection being cut off, like a light switch, leaving a highly vulnerable person sitting in the dark. Hold that image for a while. Ponder it, feel it. Therein lies your answer.