App users’ advice helps others out of stressful situations

When you have a problem, sometimes even a few quick words of advice can make you feel better. But the psychologist behind a 10-month-old free app to let users counsel others via short messages has found that some of the most appreciative people are those offering the advice.

The app, called Koko, was launched in March last year. It’s dedicated to the idea that strangers can talk you out of a funk by pointing out a silver lining in the problem weighing you down, or by suggesting a way to work through it.

“It’s really teaching people to think more flexibly about stressful situations,” said Robert Morris, who built a Web-based prototype, called Panoply, while getting his PhD at the MIT Media Lab. The Koko team moved to New York City in January last year and now has funding from Union Square Ventures, a firm that invested in Twitter and Tumblr, and Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, who invested through his venture fund. Like many brand-new app-based services, Koko is focusing first on getting its app to as many users as possible — with the belief that once they have the attention of a big enough crowd, they’ll figure out how to make money off the service.

Koko doesn’t ask you to log in, or even provide a username. You pick a topic (dating, family, work) and describe the event or problem that is troubling you in a short sentence or two. Visitors to the app can swipe to see new posts and responses, and can join discussions to add an encouraging comment.

Morris studied interactions on an early version of the app and discovered that adults who were crowd-counseled saw a bigger positive effect than people who shared their thoughts with a diary and didn’t receive any responses.

The 10 months since launch have brought new insights — among them, people keep coming back. Morris said that 98 percent of posts get responses, and that 30 percent of visitors were regulars. The most active 20 percent visit four times a day.

The app is now being used in 144 countries, Morris said, and as more people use the service, he has learned some unexpected things about which people gain from this exchange.

“The helpers in the app are really helping themselves in a profound way, and they might be the people who are benefiting the most,” said Morris, who has received user feedback through the online chat tool and even via hand-written cards. “That’s the biggest revelation that came out since the initial design.”

Internet forums, particularly anonymous ones, have a reputation for turning hateful and vicious very quickly. But swipe a few times through Koko and you’ll glimpse humanity’s nurturing side.

That’s no accident. Morris says moderators who work part time for Koko screen every comment that is submitted. In addition, Koko browsers can flag unsavory comments. But considering how much massive social networks with enormous resources, like Facebook and Twitter, have struggled to keep bad behavior in check, it remains to be seen how Koko will keep up as it grows.

 

NIDHI SUBBARAMAN

BetaBoston

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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