Perhaps you’ve already heard about what happened with Crisis Text Line. It’s a wild story. But I was more struck by the attention the story received.
Not because it didn’t deserve the attention. The situation is horrific. But it’s also incredibly common and underlines a years-long issue.
It’s a perfect example of the lifecycle of a technical social impact project. From a moment of opportunity, to the ascent of a storyteller that can get tremendous support to seize that opportunity, to the fixation on scaling an initiative, to the decline of interest, to a pivot to financial sustainability at any cost.
But let’s back up.
Crisis Text Line is a chat service designed to support teens in the US suffering from poor mental health or moments of mental health crisis. Teens are more likely to be on phones, duh. And teens are more likely to feel comfortable chatting about issues than initiating a more formal and resource-intensive process to get therapy.
Yay technology can add value to an ongoing and important issue! So what do we do?
A) Support existing mental health service providers and infrastructure to adapt and improve their services for vulnerable constituents?
B) Dump loads of attention and resources on a shiny ‘social impact’ ‘start-up’ that is going to ‘disrupt’ everything ‘at scale’ so we can maximise ‘upside’?
You guessed it! We go with B. And enter the personality — Nancy Lublin — who can drive the attention and translate it into resources that can ‘innovate’ our way to change.
To be clear, Lublin did not invent anything; she recognised a very obvious dynamic, told an incredibly compelling story about a possible transformation, and used her existing network of political and social capital to get oodles of financial capital to grow into a gap.
A few years passes, and this service has assisted millions of people. The conference circuit drinks it up. And funders keep coming. Because it’s inspiresting.
It also offers the endorphin hit that only technology can. Living in a world that doesn’t allocate appropriate resources to care for the mental health of youth? Blam-o we can take care of that for you!
But then we have two challenges:
- what to do when the storyteller entrepreneur behind the project decides to do something else?
- what do we do when the pace of scaling slows, and morphs into a liability that requires continued resourcing because it is not deeply connected to existing services that are funded as critical societal infrastructure?
This is where the thinking goes full on galaxy brain. Philanthropy is fickle. And techno philanthropy has an underlying libertarian ethos. When an intervention scales into a system that is now kind of boring and also too-big-to-fail, there has to be an offramp from that ‘free money’.
And hey, if you can use free markets to drive revenue to an important project that adds social value, you have hit the absolute trifecta: innovation, social change, and a free market that funds... well all of it! How incredible. It’s the TED dream.
But how do we turn this liability of a scaled, effective, but increasingly unsexy system that is running into the nuances of mental health service delivery...into an asset? Well, let’s take a look at our ‘resources’. Ah yes, the data is a resource — let’s use it as a spring-board into the next sexy innovation in tech. The data can train a model, and set up a B2B service that mechanises empathy.
You can almost see the brainstorming sessions. And each little step felt clever and sensible when operating with these logics. But at the end, you get the culminating headline: that a mental health charity uses data from interactions with people at maybe the lowest point in their lives, to feed an algo that can help corporate types mechanise empathy. It’s all set up to work this way.
To be clear, I think much more of people who try to incorporate technology in socially valuable ways than Captain Metamate.
But this isn’t good for anyone.
I’m hoping that this will be the end of an era (though I’m doubtful it is). Let’s get critical infrastructure funded by society. And have new business models focus on meaningful work rather than cosplaying as a unicorn. And when technology presents an opportunity?
We don’t need a cavalier storyteller building a temporary empire. We need to thoughtfully consider the possibilities and support responsible adoption.
And as for Loris.ai? They’re still working to fulfil the ‘mission’ of "scale without sacrifice". Because scale is the point, and the sacrifice of people who don’t matter isn’t sacrifice at all.