NEW YORK – Facebook is helping to open a window into the minds of those who die by suicide.
The social media site is giving researchers at the suicide prevention group Suicide Awareness Voices of Education 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 said 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.”
“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 Jan. 16, which draws on more than 240 billion photographs and more than 1 trillion connections.
Facebook isn’t alone in its efforts. Twitter and Google 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 email. 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 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 United States, 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.
Social media’s partnership with suicide experts started in the summer of 2010, after a cluster of suicides in Palo Alto, Calif., set the industry on edge, Reidenberg said.
In 2010, representatives of Facebook, Google and 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.
“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.”