DoSomething: Creating a National Text Crisis Hotline

Today, we had lunch with Bob Filibin and Stephanie Han-yu Shih of DoSomething.org. They started off by telling us that smartphones with touchscreens and Siri aren’t going to drive social change, but that texting is a much more viable approach. To help frame the possibilities, they shared a slide with a 160 character text:

This is exactly what one hundred and sixty characters looks like. No, I’m not joking. This is it. This is all you have to work with OMG WTF AMIRITE LOLOLOL

DoSomething started two years ago with a few small-scale sms experiments. They received an overwhelming response, within just minutes. As a result, they theorised that texts might be an important channel, a theory which has been supported by subsequent research by the Pew Center. Bob Filibin showed us some slides about teen’s usage of social media. (Pew 2009 data) 75% of teens have cellphones, 25% percent are using social media on a daily basis, and only 11% of teens are using email. When an audience member asked if these were just American numbers, Bob shared that SMS is much more prevalent outside the United States.

In his slides, Bob was careful to present his statistics in terms of “7 out of ten” or “three out of ten” people rather than simply sharing statistics. He mentioned a study which checked to see how many people understood percentages, and very few people were able to understand them. Do Something is interested in using data to improve people’s lives, and that mission is reflected in their slide decks as well.

Stephanie jumped in to talk about some of the initiatives that take advantage of the prevalence of sms usage among young people. Text4baby, for example, is a programme where moms can subscribe to reminders about pregnancy and parenting throughout their term, and then for the following year. Over 200,000 moms are signed up, and Text4baby has convinced all the carriers to waive the fees on texts. A DoSomething project, Give a Spit, invites people to sign up for bone marrow transplant eligibility tests. Teen bone marrow is the best for transplants, so getting teens involved can be tremendously important.

DoSomething’s main goal is to scale this approach from a handful of projects to become a major channel for people to become involved in civic engagement. At present, they are hoping to grow to 30-40 projects a year. To get there, they’re trying a wide range of initiatives, combining the data from their A/B testing to determine general principles for running SMS campaigns.

The big picture message coming out of their tests is that SMS is best used when it’s used as a comunication tool– not just a broadcast medium. This is most clear when DoSomething looks at their unexpected, unsolicited texts. This makes sense to me, since I was in an sms startup for several years. As Stephanie points out, people see text as a very personal medium. Lots of sms services get very personal messages from their subscribers.

Stephanie shared an example which is very familiar from my experiences at Texperts and KGB: a rape victim who texted in an appeal for help. They were able to help out in this case, which raised for them the question of whether SMS might be used more broadly for personal crisis support. People often don’t know about existing telephone hotlines and online chatlines. Teens often don’t have access to internet chat or telephones in a private environment. Some people are developing mobile apps, but Stephanie says this is misguided. She asks why someone might choose to download a mobile app for abuse. You would have to self-identify as a victim of domestic abuse, search for the app in the store, and then anticipate that you might be a victim of abuse at some point. Furthermore, apps are often shown on the home screen, which would be embarrassing to some people.

Bob shared four reasons to start a National US crisis textline. The communication medium is discreet. The service is in someone’s contacts list, a teen’s intimate circle. Since so many teens have mobile phones, it’s an accessible format. Finally, it’s a familiar medium that teens use all the time.

Stephanie asked why hotlines aren’t doing this. Current hotline organisations said that they found it to be too time intensive. The current model is that the teen has to find a hotline which matches their trauma, and then connect. DoSomething wants to start a single point of entry for trauma texts, which then routes to the right organisation. She thinks that this could be really important and valuable service to teens. It doesn’t yet exist and is a brand new idea that they want to create as a subsidiary of DoSomething.org

Bob and Stephanie theorise that if a single point of entry were created, then the coordinating organisation could do large-scale data analysis on texting patterns by its users. While this would be a long, hard effort, it seems like a reasonable way to pull along with the grain of privacy laws while providing a critically valuable service. I love it. Back in 2008, when I was at Texperts and KGB, we *tried* to start one of these but got stuck in the privacy and liability issues and failed to find the funds. I hope this is an idea whose time has finally come.