We’ve all seen the headlines: many exaggerate and distort how we can use the web.
Imagine for a sec that we learnt how to fly thanks to some amazing piece of technology. How would the newspapers cover the story? How would the media cover the emergence as the uptake grew of wholly new piece of technology?
Substitute the word ˜flying’ where the papers talk about the web and you get the picture. Not much would probably change. This emphasises the point that much of issues are to do with the fact that the web is new. The behaviours associated with the technology and how the new possibilities influence our social relationships transpire later. The serious point here is that we are living through a period of profound social change, not just technological change. We’re all looking for answers. To find those answers we need to introduce a modicum of balance into the debate.
Take the example of technology that has become mundane. Learning to ride a bike was terrifying when we fell off for the first time, terrific when we were let to go solo. It was amazing when we learnt to play games and be with our peers, shocking if you consider cycling accident statistics! Revolutionary when we realised the significance of being able to go off our own away from our parents, and mystifying when tried to mend our first puncture.
Balance comes inevitably from experience, we need to give it time. However, web technology moves so fast we need to get this balanced perspective by carefully considering the issues.
Is there too much information?
Before looking at the web’s potential for changing how we can build new information and support services, it’s worth asking the fundamental question: is access to more and more information always a good thing?
We’re living through a Googlefication of our culture. There’s a belief that the web’s mission is to make more information readily accessible. Google’s seventh point in it’s explicitly stated philosophy is: “There’s always more information out there.” The right approach for a technology company, but is this the right approach if we’re concerned with the human value of information? Information can be empowering, but it can also be overwhelming and even anxiety provoking. Perhaps the real challenge is not technological. Information is a human issue, not a technical problem after all.
Mark Charmer made the analogy between Twitter and the invention of radar during the first half of the Twentieth century at the Media140 conference. Social media, like Twitter, is a new more powerful way of making the previously invisible life around us, visible. Just as radar did in its day. In fact, it’s an analogy that works for social media in general and the web. Radar’s battle is with ˜clutter’ things like rain and sandstorm that sometimes get picked up. Some of this peripheral vision information captured in social media can be useful, but plenty can lead to false alarms and worry.
Let’s look at three new capabilities that the web’s given. Although there are many others.
Anonymity is not new – writing – helplines – fax – but the web has opened up new opportunities for practitioners to make particularly early interventions that were either not practical before or did not offer a very complete form of anonymity.
When we look at the issue of how we ensure the security of the identity of users crucial for the effectiveness of information and support services, it’s striking how much of a shift is taking place. The rise of anonymity is significant because it empowers the service user. Unlike with confidentiality, anonymity is within the service user’s sphere of influence. It’s also subject to very personal drivers like feelings (such as embarrassment), rather than formal drivers such as the laws and organisational policies, as with confidentiality.
Ruthie Henshall, the singer and actress, said recently, “We’re constantly judging our insides on everyone else’s outsides”. She was describing how she coped with her own mental health difficulties. As a celebrity, the difference between how she felt on the inside and how people perceived her on the inside was perhaps even more pronounced. Anonymity gives you the opportunity to share what they are feeling on the inside, with others on the outside (it needs to be a safe environment to be able to facilitate this).
The strengths of friends as advisors are that they are emotionally supportive, acknowledge feelings and are non-judgmental and trusted. All things that it is difficult to feel about a trained advisor who you may typically only approach at moments of crisis. Trained advisors and professionals strength is in how they understand the options, provides accurate information and offer an external perspective on your situation.
Friends are crucial for relationships issues- when mental health problems involve relationships- users are less likely to reach out to mental health service providers. Health concerns are less likely to be discussed with friends, kept private and not shared.
Is there too much choice or can personalisation overcome the overwhelming threat of too much information? Young people are used today to using a whole range of online tools. It’s important to understand how these differ and compare if we want to offer a range of options to service users. Up to now, online information and support has previously often be about developing ‘oceans’ that can be accessed wherever and whenever the service user needs them. These vast oceans of information and support exist online where space is no longer a storage issue and communication can be asynchronous.
At the same time, and increasing as technology improves, the web provides information as a stream. It’s allowing much more synchronous information and support services to take place such as voice-based technologies, web cam and chat as user uptake grows and they become more cost effective. The web is also allowing more broadcasting or live streaming of events or conferences that can provides information and support.
Given the choice that now exists both for service users and providers, the challenge is to offer a balance of services or to understand better what you specialise in so that you can build partnerships with organisations that complement your work/services.
“Online is good if you want to remain anonymous and don’t feel comfortable talking to someone face to face, or if there is no services to help you in your area.” – Participant, Self Harm project talking about the discussion boards on TheSite.org.
Finally, participation is a significant new capability offered by the web because of how it is shifting the relationship between service users and providers.
“Young people are creators not consumers of the services.” – Sally Carr, Leader in Charge, Lesbian & Gay Youth Manchester
“It’s great as it allows you to get advice from people that have been through the same thing and makes you feel good when you can relate and give advice to others.” – Participant, Self Harm project talking about the discussion boards on TheSite.org.
Services are no longer just about the delivery, they are also now about enabling users to feedback and be part of the continual improvement of the services themselves.
Three examples demonstrates three different ways in which participation can work. This models can broadly be distinguished by what the aims of the participation are. Namely:
Improving public services
Patient Opinion is a great example of this work to rethink the way the knowledge and experience of service users can help transform public services if it is understood and recognised by service providers.
Mapping of all services, both public and community
The Aliss Project is a great example of this drive to use the web to better map what services are available both in the public sector and the voluntary sector, so that sufferers of long term conditions can more easily access services available.
Developing communities for social change
Mind Apples is a great example of how the web can bring together communities of individual inspired by a call to action. In this case, helping to reframe mental health as the pursuit of health, rather than the overcoming of illness. In this campaign, Mind Apples calls on people to share what five things can contribute to a healthy mind.
- How can we use new technology to offer early intervention?
- How can we use new technology to widen access to our services?
- How can we use new technology to change the relationship between service users and service providers?