Swartz Suicide Propels Facebook Search for Danger Signs

Facebook Inc. is helping to open a window into the minds of those who die by suicide.

The social media site is providing researchers at the suicide prevention group SAVE.org a glimpse of how those who take their own lives behave in the days leading up to their deaths, as outlined in their Facebook postings. Dan Reidenberg, executive director of Save and a national leader in the counseling field, expects the information will one day help friends, family and social media sites better identify warning signs in the words and actions that lead up to suicide. It will be a year before they have the data gathered, he said.

The Jan. 11 death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, the latest casualty in a series of high-profile suicides in the technology industry over a decade, has spurred new interest in understanding the triggers that compel people to cut their own lives short. In the past, researchers had to overcome protective friends and family to get information. This project changes that dynamic, Reidenberg told Bloomberg in a telephone interview.

“Friends sometimes don’t ask important questions for fear of being invasive,” said Reidenberg, a psychologist who also serves as managing director of the National Council for Suicide Prevention. “If we can see what’s happening, we can train people to look for it.”

Facebook’s collaboration with Save continues despite a difficult phase for the Menlo Park, California-based company. Its stock plunge last year made it one of the worst-performing initial public offerings of 2012 following investor concerns over the viability of its business model. Facebook has also come under heavy criticism over changes to its privacy policy, which may make unwitting users’ data available to advertisers. The company faces a $15 billion lawsuit from users who said they were being unfairly tracked.

‘Big Brother’

“I would be careful with a program like this, even if it’s for the greater good,” said Daniel Rosentreter, the chief strategy officer of New York-based FutureBrand North America, a branding firm. “They’re like no other brand because they’re so essential to people’s lives. They need to be careful not to be seen as Big Brother.”

The company introduced a tool for searching the information posted to its social network of more than 1 billion users on Jan. 16, which draws on more than 240 billion photographs and more than 1 trillion connections.

Facebook rose about 1.1 percent to $31.07 at 12:51 p.m. New York time. Shares had declined 19 percent through yesterday since its initial public offering in May.

Broader Effort

Facebook isn’t alone in its efforts. Twitter Inc. and Google Inc. also have put systems in place over the last few years that direct at-risk users to counseling help, or allow others to report concerns to the company.

Twitter itself isn’t conducting research on suicide prevention, said spokesman Jim Prosser in an e-mail. However, an outside researcher or group could conduct a study using Twitter data, he said.

Google’s search engine, meanwhile, has been designed to bring up the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for any searches on “suicide” or related terms, said Jay Nancarrow, a spokesman for the Mountain View, California-based company.

Swartz’s death follows a pattern of high-profile suicides within the industry. In 2008, Jonathan James, a hacker who was the first juvenile incarcerated for cybercrime in the U.S., died at age 24. In 2009, Dan Haubert, a co-founder of TicketStumbler, died when he was 25. Gene Kan, the founder of InfraSearch, died in 2002, at age 26. In 2011, Ilya Zhitomirskiy, a co-founder of the social media site Diaspora, died by suicide at age 22.

Partnership Begins

Social media’s partnership with suicide experts started in the summer of 2010, after a cluster of suicides in Palo Alto, California, set the industry on edge, Reidenberg said.

In 2010, representatives of Facebook, Google and San Francisco-based Twitter met with medical experts from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline about what they could do to help. A year later, Facebook set up a system in which the company offers a way to connect potentially at-risk users with counseling services based on referrals from friends.

Now the company will help independent researchers analyze patterns that may reveal how people approach their decisions to commit suicide. Investigators may be able to glean insights from changes in the type of language being used, or even by identifying the intervals between posts, Reidenberg said.

Getting Help

“Anything that can decrease the latency between someone needing help and getting help is beneficial,” said Frederic Wolens, a spokesman for Facebook, in a telephone interview. “We’re trying to really shorten that period of time, whether it’s Facebook intervening, or that person’s friends or suicide prevention organizations.”

The project is focusing on at least 20 people in a Minnesota county who died by suicide.

Doctors know that certain behaviors surface as people at risk move closer to making a decision about their own death, Reidenberg said. This includes talking and writing about suicide in general, seeking advice on ways to die, expressing feelings about how they feel trapped or that they consider themselves a burden to others, he said.

The research will allow investigators to track such language online without having to depend on the memories of survivors or friends. The findings may one day help train psychiatric workers, technology employees, and even friends and family to identify those most at risk, Reidenberg said.

Young Adults

About 100 Americans die by suicide every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 25 to 34, which is also a key demographic for social media sites. In mid-September, the median age of users joining Facebook was 22, according to a report by the company.

Swartz wrote widely used standards for web syndication, called Really Simple Syndication or RSS, as a teenager. He was 26 when he died following his indictment for allegedly using the computer system at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to download information illegally from a digital library of academic journals. Swartz co-founded the news and information site Reddit, as well as Demand Progress, a group that advocated against Internet piracy bills.

MIT’s Role

In a letter dated yesterday, Hal Abelson, a computer science professor at the university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said MIT’s investigation into Swartz’s death will be ready “in a few weeks.” Swartz’s family and web activists have criticized the university’s role in what they call an overzealous prosecution against him for the downloads.

Such individualism and autonomy, long idolized within web culture, may contribute to difficulties getting or accepting treatment, said Eric Caine, chairman of the psychiatry department at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

Web culture “values being tough and self-reliant, so there’s a feeling of ‘I can handle this on my own,’” Caine said by telephone. “Tech culture in some ways is a magnification and distortion of what we call the Great American Culture, the idea of the individual success story.”

The potential for social networks to have an impact on how suicide is talked about and prevented is potentially vast, said Zak Homuth, the chief executive officer of Upverter, a Toronto-based startup that assists hardware engineering.

Depression Struggles

Homuth struggled with depression in college and in February 2012, he said. He wrote a blog post about feeling depressed, because he found writing therapeutic, and was stunned by the response.

“I got a couple hundred e-mails from strangers, some little stuff and some 10 pages long,” Homuth said. “It was all people trying to help, or to say that they’d been there, too, or to thank me for talking about depression because they couldn’t.”

Talking honestly about depression in the technology world, especially among entrepreneurs, can be taboo, Homuth said.

“Startups are often not perfect, they’re often on the brink of failure, but if you fill a room full of startup people, everyone’s all smiles and they’re all going to be millionaires next week,” Homuth said.

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