Not in service in your area

Shortly before I left for France, on Twitter I saw someone post several messages looking for a crisis counselor — someone who works with at-risk women. It was a man, so presumably it was for someone he knew who was in a precarious situation.

After repeated requestss, he seemed fairly frustrated at not getting a response. Then he started saying how the service (i.e. Twitter) should be better organized to meet needs/handle emergencies like that. My reaction, frankly, was, “Umm…”

It’s understandable that if he had a friend who needed help, he’d want to help her, and would get frustrated if he wasn’t getting anywhere. And it’s certainly possible that at the same time as he was asking on Twitter, he was checking other avenues as well — websites, phone book, etc.

Thing is, those other avenues are set up to handle emergencies, to direct people to the resources they need. Twitter isn’t. Twitter can barely function at a basic level these days; so expecting its architecture and direction to support the need for emergency services comes off as, frankly, a bit ludicrous. Plus, really, there is the fundamental issue that if the guy wasn’t finding a crisis worker, it’s because there wasn’t one among his followers (which could number 10 or 1000 — I forget who it was so I can’t check). It’s not Twitter’s fault he couldn’t find the right person.

Now, embryonic as Twitter still is, and taking its growing pains into consideration, it does provide value to plenty of (admittedly niche) people. Additionally, a lot of Twitter’s value outside of its basic functionality and connection-enabling comes from third-party development. The search, the stats, the mashups — those provide the analytical tools that help people parse what’s really going on. Mmm… data. So if there was to be support for emergency services built for Twitter, those third-party developers are where it would come from.

Let’s face it, though, 911 isn’t “sexy”. It’s not fun. It can’t really be monetized. (It could be ad-supported, but because of the nature of the service the impression of trying to make money off something like that would be perceived very negatively.) The only reason someone would put the effort into building something like that is personal reasons. If someone had experienced a compelling event, a crisis, and Twitter failed to help and the person wanted to make sure it didn’t happen to someone else.

But even so, it would still beg the question: why didn’t they just call 911? It’s already there… If you’re looking for someone to have a beer with while you’ve got some down time at a conference, sure, use Twitter. If you’re looking to make some connections to ramp up your consulting business, sure, use Twitter.

What I guess it illustrates is our culture of entitlement, “our” meaning the technorati, those of us who’ve chosen to make our lives and livelihoods online. And I don’t use entitlement with the negative sneer that’s typically come to accompany the word these days. It’s human nature. When you choose to personally invest a lot in a person/product/service/etc., it automatically comes accompanied with some expectation of reciprocation. I’ve made a commitment to your success, so I expect you to offer me some commitment to my needs as well.

When that expectation falls flat, we get frustrated, we make assertions that might seem rather illogical to the casual observer. Twitter doesn’t make money yet, but they’re supposed to dedicate resources to building social services? Twitter’s basic functionality doesn’t work half the time, but they’re supposed to dedicate resources to building new functionality? Your reach on Twitter is only as great as your follower/following network, but somehow it’s Twitter’s fault that you can’t find what you need? Much of Twitter’s value comes from third-party development, because people had an interest or saw a need and decided to fulfill it themselves, but you expect in your case that someone else should just randomly pick up the torch of your idea because you think it’s important?

Of course, when you’re scared, and when, more broadly, you’re used to living in a society that does have a social net, that does provide help via standard communications channels when you need it, none of those considerations matter to you. When you have made a communication channel standard for you, that means you have similar expectations of it than from the other channels. Doesn’t necessarily matter that it’s only used by about .02% of the world’s population.

It presents an interesting question, though. One which I admit is purely theoretical and philosophical in this world, especially the online one, as we have constituted it. Development in this world is typically based on one of two things: curiosity and money. Either you build something because you wonder “what if…?” or you build it because you want to make money. Some things get built for the purpose of charity, but usually only after one or both of those other criteria (usually the second) gets fulfilled. Once you have the resources, you can turn your attention to things humanitarian. You can do so much more when you have resources (unless the resources are encased in bureaucracy, but that’s another story…).

Interesting to ponder, though. An uber-socialist society where caring for the needs of its members is baked into everything we do. Communications paths and connection methods for every need and style. Help and support built right along with apps’ or platforms’ fundamental architecture and functionality.

Where the resources for that extremely expensive business model would come from would be irrelevant. After all, caring for the needs of society’s members would be baked into everything. Those with the resources would automatically use what was needed to develop and enhance tools to better care for society’s members. Presumably, the fact that lots of these apps are, in our real society, flavours of the month that vanish within relatively short time frames would also be moot.

That society doesn’t exist. I can’t see it ever existing, especially in North America, though, certainly, there are fragments and microcosms here and there of people who make the extra effort, simply because they want to and they can.

Pondering even marginal adoption of such activities in our current world is an exercise in flexing one’s cynicism. Let’s see… Companies that consist of two guys with few resources, working on unstable applications, which might not exist in six months. Can’t see that being a golden egg sell to government, which isn’t agile or bleeding edge at the best of times, and which operates (on some levels, anyway) under a very large umbrella of CAUTION.

What else… Well, corporations have lots of resources. Money, bodies, marketing reach. But corporations aren’t nice. So something would have to be in it for them. Branding? Ad-supported models? They might do it for the good PR, though it would only really get the full, desired reaction the first couple times, then it would be something we ignore and get cynical about just like anything else. Plus, people’s minds make their own associations. Now more than ever companies don’t control spin, exposure, and conversation.

Is there a PR firm in existence that could manage to positively spin “This domestic violence brought to you by Coca-Cola”? Frankly, I would be terrified of the minds behind any company or campaign that would even touch it.

Stepping back, though, do you even need to wonder which of the two models I have an easier time envisioning coming to fruition?

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