Technology

The Recession: My Facebook, My Therapist


In a time of growing unemployment, tumbling stocks, and rising foreclosures, people are finding comfort on social networking sites

When Ian Schlueter found out he'd be among the casualties of a layoff announced Dec. 11 by global shipper DHL, he was too shaken up to call friends and family. "I didn't want to talk about it," says Schlueter, an IT manager. "It just kind of sucks."

Instead he reached out to the Web for moral support. First he snapped an iPhone picture of his severance letter and posted it to photo-sharing site SnapMyLife. He also updated his Facebook status line and eventually joined a group on LinkedIn for former DHL employees.

Rising foreclosures, tumbling stocks, surging job losses, and other symptoms of the recession are adding to people's stress and anxiety levels. To cope, Internet users are increasingly finding an outlet through online social media. "These new channels are providing a sense of community in an environment where there is a sudden, almost compelled, need…not to feel alone," says Sherry Turkle, a professor of social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some are logging on to vent frustrations; many are commiserating with others. Still others are collaborating to find solutions, like landing a new job or helping friends in need.

Down in the Valley

In communities across the Internet, the ravages of recession abound. On Dec. 10, when Yahoo! (YHOO) began laying off 10% or about 1,500, of its employees, tech industry blogs like Valleywag and Silicon Alley Insider published minute-by-minute updates on where layoffs were happening in the company, while hundreds of readers chipped in with front-line news, such as how managers were carrying out cuts and what was included in severance packages. The same day, laid-off Yahoo employees announced their predicament on microblogging site Twitter. Many found solace. "Actually kinda comforted by the Twitter outpouring," wrote Ben Ward, who lost his job as a Web developer at Yahoo's Brickhouse startup incubator. "Thanks everyone."

Social networks aimed at helping people work together are proving particularly useful amid a recession that's leaving some feeling helpless. "What has struck me is that so [much] of what is being said is in the nature of support rather than information, perhaps because people don't know what information will be useful," says Turkle, who founded the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. "More dire news? Job losses? This is out there, but there is a parallel track on which people are just trying to help each other out." More than 1,100 Facebook members have joined a group called "I will NOT be participating in any Recession" where they trade advice on how to shore up finances and stay employed. "We can't horde our money so we have to put it back into the economy…but smartly," wrote member Doug Martin in November. "Working off a budget and ensuring that we don't overextend ourselves is key." Searches for other Facebook groups with "recession" and "downturn" in their names yield dozens of results, from the activism-oriented "I oppose the bailout" to the more despairing "The Second Great Depression (2008-?)."

Typically, people are loath to publicize bad news. "When someone is initially laid off their inclination is to avoid being in social environments," says Marlin Potash, a New York psychiatrist who counsels workers exiting senior positions, primarily from the financial and media industries. But that behavior can heighten anxiety or worsen depression, she says. Potash recommends that some clients use social networking sites because they provide a kind of "halfway house" between comfort and social immersion. "You can go on LinkedIn in your pajamas, and you can try on your positive attitude on Facebook for a few minutes," Potash says. "If it's uncomfortable you can always go in the other room and give yourself a pep talk."

Live Chats with Therapists

Connecting with others in the same predicament can also remind a person that others are in the same boat, says Richard Sherman, a private-practice psychiatrist based in Tarzana, Calif. "When [my patients] believe that they could have done something different to ward off some of these consequences, they're embarrassed and they feel some shame," he says. Using online social networks helps to "reassure them that they're not alone, that we're in this together, and people are successfully overcoming this."

Not everyone is up to the sometimes risky and always gutsy prospect of sharing woe with everyone in their Facebook friend or LinkedIn contact lists. Yet they can still find support online through groups that address certain mental health problems, like depression. In 2006, Ryan and Kristin FitzGerald launched WebTribes, a site with support communities for people with addiction, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and HIV/AIDS. Members can create profiles, post photos, write a blog, and participate in special events like live chats with professional therapists.

The site has signed up about 35,000 members since it was launched, and according to Ryan FitzGerald, both activity and new user registration have spiked by as much as 25% over the past three to four months. "We certainly have seen an increase in new members and activity related to the economy," FitzGerald says.

Being Online Can Increase Anxiety

Spending too much time amid online gloom and doom can add to some people's sense of hopelessness, says psychiatrist Sherman. In between visiting social networking sites, he says, "people are checking their stocks, they're checking the latest news alerts, and this is creating more anxiety and more stress—that's a real problem."

Some Web surfers are put off by the emphasis on other people's adversity. "This is tasteless and gross coverage," wrote a person using the name Bad Coverage on Silicon Alley Insider on Dec. 10. "What are you looking for? Someone to say that they can't put food on the table for their children?"

Online well-wishes and support groups can provide some succor, but what the unemployed often need most urgently is a new job. Getting laid off recently from Pearson (PSO) gave Tyler Hurst a whole new perspective on microblogging site Twitter. "Before, it was more of a way to talk and share ideas and to expand upon things you normally wouldn't have been able to figure out for yourself," he says. "Now it's my address book, my networking planner, my job search—it's everything."

Just Another Manic Monday

For Hurst, the search continues. On Dec. 15, he posted to Twitter: "Had no idea it was Monday when I woke up. Now that I do know, nothing has changed. Good god I need a job."

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