Facebook is now redefining depression and a MIT student is trying to fix that problem. Koko is an upcoming iPhone app that aims to help people fix the bugs in their thinking by crowdsourcing cognitive behavioral techniques.

The creator, Robert Morris, grew up in the heart of Silicon Valley and got his undergraduate degree from Princeton in Psychology. He then moved to MIT for PhD work and discovered technology was never his first passion. The real operating system he cared about was the human mind and now is creating an app to help fight depression.

Morris began to understand the difficulty of computer science during is time at MIT and discovered a social platform called “Stack Overflow”. Stack Overflow, is an online forum where programmers help each other write and debug codes. A direct quote from Morris about his use on the platform:

Whenever I had a bug or was stuck on something, I would go on there, and almost miraculously, this crowd of programmers would come and help me,” he says. “It was just this intuition that, just as we can get people on Stack Overflow to help us identify and fix bugs in code, perhaps we can harness a crowd to help us fix bugs in our thinking.

This sparked a creative idea for Morris and lead him to develop Panoply, an online tool that crowdsources treatment for depression and anxiety.

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 11.09.21 AM

Image taken as a screen shot from the website Depressionconnect.com

Panoply, was similar to Facebook, but instead of encouraging people to make a razzle-dazzled and positive self-image, Panoply asked people to post “What’s Wrong?” instead of “What’s On Your Mind?”. And once people posted about their problems the users were encouraged to help others see their issues in a more hopeful light. It created the feeling of a safe and open-minded social network commune. This platform became a social media experiment for Morris, by having 166 volunteers, who were asked to a join a social network for depression. The user was asked to describe what happened, like losing a job and then to try to quantify why that makes her upset. The point is to express these dreadful thoughts out loud so that other people on Panoply can help the user to get the “bugs” out of their mind.

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Image taken as a screenshot from the website of MotherJones.com

A study published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Medical Internet Research, stated Panoply’s engagement tactics and its overall approach to improving mental health are actually effective. The results are as followed:

“Of 166 study participants who had previously exhibited symptoms of depression, those who spent three weeks using Panoply for at least 25 minutes a week ended up significantly less depressed and better at cognitive reappraisal than those who spent three weeks doing an expressive writing exercise, a typical treatment for depression”.

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Image taken as a screenshot from the website of Aeon.co

The Panoply experiment and online tool lead to the creation of an upcoming mobile app, called “Koko” which is schedule to launch this fall. Why mobile? According to Morris, the biggest challenge facing anyone who is looking to receive or give mental health advice is staying engaged.

Morris states, “To be good at giving productive advice, or to think in a more healthy way, you have to practice, just like diet and exercise” A mobile app encourages people to “snack” on Koko throughout the day. You can spend a few minutes each day practicing positive feedback and thinking.

This new mobile app reminded me of last weeks guest lecture with Denis, who identified the distressing signs of depression via social media. When people feel sensitive or depressed, Facebook tends to make individuals feel worse. For example, there is nothing like reading peoples happy posts, and looking at pictures of them having fun, while you are just feeling left out. You begin to measure yourself against others, and feel like you could never match up. This is a leading factor to depression and this exactly what Morris is trying to fix.

Morris says he doesn’t want to confine the app to just a “depression app,” though he apparently prefers the term “stress-reduction”. He wants people to feel like they can use the app even if they don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition.

Currently the app Koko, is invite only and prospective users can sign up here

Featured Image taken as a screenshot from MITNews.com


2 thoughts on “A New Facebook App for Depression

  1. Morris’s new app is very interesting and I believe it redefines what social media can mean. Traditionally, I imagine social media as a tool for sharing with friends what is going on in your life. Most people only share the good things, or really cool things that happen in their life, leaving out misfortunate or tragic life events. Therefore, social media like Facebook and Instagram becomes channels of hyperactive happiness and positivity — or what it seems like it. Everyone’s life seems more exciting and more fun than yours, which understandably can cause some people to feel like they are missing out or not living life correctly.

    I like how Morris is thinking of the psychological and mental side effects of social media and therefore, creating an app that counters Facebook in many aspect. I can see it could be helpful for people who are dealing with depression and anxiety, especially since there is a sense of community and people within the network are all focused all helping each other out. But the fact that most people who are on there are dealing with something can also be troubling for someone who is looking for help. It is hard to receive help from a specific group of people, who are suffering from similar problems like yourself.

    In fact, I would say the function of Morris’s app is very similar to forums and boards on websites like Reddit, where people share and give advice. I would say these organized groups can be more helpful because you are getting advice and help from a more diverse audience and people from all walks of life. This would generate more diverse discussion as well, and in the long term, be more helpful for people seeking help. Also, Reddit and other similar forum based websites are open for everyone and Morris’s app Koko is currently invite-only, which eliminates diversity and attracts a certain group of people. I can’t help but think of the quote “Misery loves company” in this situation.

    But from all innovation perspective, I appreciate his attempt at creating a platform that is very much different from Facebook and puts the pressure off of creating a “perfect” life. Facebook definitely creates that pressure. It’s nice that there’s an app where people can feel like they can just feel relieved of any stress and actually be real about how they are feeling. I think social media is all about balance. From the two extremely different social media, Facebook and Panoply, we can try to reach a middle ground. Users should not over amplify or glamorize their life on social media, to an unreal extent. Nor is it healthy to be in a social media environment filled with people who are extremely down or negative. After all, social media should be fun.

  2. The premise of Morris’ app is particularly intriguing because it takes the idea of “sharing” online via a social network and drastically changes the term’s implications. The things we share on traditional social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are posted with the expectation that we will receive likes, favorites, and comments in return. We share because we ultimately want the gratification that comes with attention from our friends and followers. Therefore, most of the things we share on social media are of a positive nature because posts like that are more likely to generate a bigger, more positive response. As we discussed during lecture last week, a person posting about negative things or generally acting sad, depressed, or different online is seen to be breaking from typical social media etiquette. When people deviate from these unofficial online rules, it is often cause for concern because they are sharing the “wrong” things. To me it seems that, through social networks, we have changed what it really means to “share.”
    Koko and Panolpy seem like strange forms of social networks to us because when they encourage people to share their feelings and experiences, they mean it the literal sense and not in the “let’s only share positive things that make us look good” sense. The app provides a therapeutic experience where people can truly share and seek help. This contrasts the unfortunately common feeling of “Facebook depression” that traditional social networks can often induce.

    While I am very supportive of creating networks and apps that help people struggling with depression and anxiety, I do think they need to be approached very carefully. My concerns with an app like Koko are that some people may seek it out as a substitute or replacement for actual treatment of mental illness. That’s not to say that it can’t assist in that treatment, but I would hate to see people become too reliant on it or addicted to it like people sometimes become with other social networks because that won’t help someone’s health and well-being in the long run. I also think it is critical that the app include information on external resources for people struggling with their mental health and encourage users to take that route first. It definitely needs to be marketed as a tool and not a solution so that users don’t get the wrong idea and seek it out as treatment. I like that it is also currently invite-only, and it’s important that it stay that way. If everyone has access to it then, unfortunately, there will inevitably be trolls and the presence of them would likely make people feel that the app isn’t a safe space for them anymore.

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