At The Verge, Ben Popper takes a look at Koko, a startup with an app that helps people connect and provide emotional support to peers and, in the process, allows them to recognize and “rethink” their own problems:
The Koko app starts users off with a short tutorial on “rethinking.” The app explains that rethinking isn’t about solving problems, but offering a more optimistic take. It uses memes and cartoons to illustrate the idea: if you choose the right reframe, a cute puppy offers his paw for a high-five. The app walks new users through posts and potential reframes, indicating which rethinks are good and which aren’t. The tutorial can be completed in as little as five minutes.
Once users finish the tutorial, they can scroll through live posts on the site. Despite the minimal training, the issues they are confronted with can be quite serious: an individual who is afraid to tell her family that she’s taking anti-depressants because they might think she’s crazy; a user stressed from school who believes “no one actually likes the real me, and if they see it, they will hate me”; a user with an abusive boyfriend who has come to feel “I am a failure and worth being yelled at.” I walked a friend through the tutorial recently, and they were shocked by how quickly Koko throws you into the deep end of human despair.
Koko lets you write anything you want for a rethink, but also offers simple prompts: “This could turn out better than you think because…,” “A more balanced take on this could be…,” etc. The company screens both the posts and rethinks before they become public, attempting to direct certain users to critical care and weed trolls out of the system. Originally, this was accomplished with human moderators, but increasingly, the company is turning to AI.
Accepting and offering rethinks is meant to help users get away from bad mental habits, cycles of negative thought that can perpetuate their anxiety and depression. Over the next few months, Zelig found herself offering rethinks of other Koko users almost every day. “Having it in your pocket is really good. All of sudden it would hit me what I needed say in the reframe, so I would pull my car over, or stand in the produce aisle.”
In the process of giving advice Zelig felt, almost immediately, a sense of relief and control. She began to recognize her own dark moods as variations on the problems she was helping others with. Zelig says the peculiar power of Koko is that by helping others, users are able to help themselves.