This app crowdsources positive thinking and support from strangers

Smile, you’re with friends.
Smile, you’re with friends.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Dal Zennaro
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Depression, envy, and even loneliness have been linked to Facebook use by multiple studies. Instagram may make us feel even worse. But one app promises a social network that does the opposite, by actually treating depression.

Instead of competing for the best-looking life, users of the new mobile app Koko can now post negative thoughts and stories of misfortune to a public platform. And instead of responding with provocation or judgement, fellow users respond with positive feedback.

Initially designed as a web app by a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Northwestern University, the system behind Koko (currently invite-only) aims to change the negative thought patterns characteristic of depression.

Post your life’s failures and how you feel about them, and other users check in to respond with messages that reinterpret the situation positively. A post like, ”A coworker failed to acknowledge my part in a project because my contribution was worthless,” for example, might be reframed by speculative user comments like, ”Your coworker was probably tired and distracted at the end of the project.” Tweaking the way you evaluate various situations is a cornerstone of cognitive behavioral therapy, a common treatment for depression.

The idea to crowdsource positive feedback came from lead researcher Robert Morris’s own experience as a PhD student. “I was really stressed out, even depressed, because I was really struggling at MIT,” Morris told Quartz, of his time transitioning from a clinical psychology background into work at MIT’s Affective Computing Lab.

With little programming background, Morris depended on a web forums to crowdsource coding solutions and fix bugs. “But the most stressful part of the coding was not the bugs in the code, but the way I was thinking about them: ’Oh, I don’t have any time to fix this. I’ll never learn to do this,'” he said. So he applied the forum model of collective intelligence to feelings and built prototype Panoply, designed to “identify and fix bugs in your thinking.”

To keep malicious users out, the technology has built-in protections: Before sending a message, users first have to participate in short training programs that teach empathy, how to identify “buggy thinking,” and how to reframe negative situations as positive ones. Messages that might contain malicious or bullying content are automatically flagged and held for moderation by staff.

It’s so far proven more effective than expressive writing, another common method of correcting depressive thinking. In a Mar. 2015 report in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, Morris revealed the results of a three-week comparison between expressive writing and Panoply: researchers found that participants with the worst depressive symptoms improved more with Panoply, and were twice as active in their therapy as the expressive writers.

“People often find it comforting to hear that others have dealt with similar challenges,” said Scott Woodruff, a post-doctoral fellow at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, to Quartz. “It’s also easier to notice self-deprecating behaviors in others than in yourself, and that eventually can make you better at noticing it in yourself.”

Of course, the model still requires users to entrust their most vulnerable feelings to strangers. Cautions Woodruff, “If someone is having a very very distressing thought that’s causing a lot of upset, and a group of people are saying that’s the wrong thought to have, that can be a punishing experience.”

The greatest risk of crowdsourcing positivity may simply be that users mistake strangers’ support for serious treatment. In Morris’s study, one participant “composed several troubling and off-topic posts on the Panoply platform.” Her need too great, the participant was eventually blocked from posting more requests for feedback, and issued an automated notification that the service was only a self-help tool, not “a formal mental health resource.”