Emotional distress

Digital outreach/reaching out digitally: Online sharing in the face of emotional distress



What is the research about?

The web has opened up diverse possibilities for supporting people who are experiencing emotional distress, including those who are describing suicidal thoughts and behaviours. These range from formal support services to informal friendship, affinity or interest groups through which individuals may be offered or seek practical or emotional support.

There is a growing body of research on the nature of emotional support online (Sandaunet, 2008; Horne and Wiggins, 2009; Yoo et al., 2014) but studies of how trust in extremis is established online in a multi-layered way (Brownlie, Howson and Green, 2008) – that is, textually, through interaction and within specific organisational contexts – are underdeveloped. This project sought to address this gap by asking the following questions:

  • When, why and with what consequences do people look to online sources of help and support when experiencing emotional distress?
  • How are trust and empathy established (and lost) in the context of emotional distress in different online environments?
  • How do others respond to online communications suggesting apparent suicidal thoughts or behaviour?

How is the research being carried out?

The research team looked at empathy and trust in relation to two kinds of web-based interaction: use of Samaritans’ email-based, one-to-one emotional support; and posts with reference to suicide in one-to-many online spaces such as Twitter.

Specifically, the team will be conducted:

  • online interviews with users of the email service and volunteers to explore their experiences of different forms of online emotional support
  • ethnographic work on aspects of the Samaritans organisation concerned with online provision. This involved digital (online survey, interviews, email analysis) and offline methods (observation, documentary analysis)
  • analysis of how Twitter is being used to discuss (and respond to) suicidal thoughts and behaviours

Drawing on sociological work on emotions, personal relationships and social media the team is aiming to explored trust and empathy through interactionist and narrative methods as well as developing an analytical approach for working across quantitative and qualitative analyses of Twitter data. 

Key findings

The aim of the research was to examine how individuals interact and share information online during times of severe emotional distress. The research had two main elements: a study of the digital work of Samaritans: past (The Twitter app, Radar), present (email) and future (Instant Messaging) and two studies (with the Analysis of large data sets and creation of data subsets project) of talk about emotional distress and suicide on Twitter. The first of these was the ‘Emotional response’ study - a response to everyday talk about emotional distress on Twitter - and the second was the ‘Public empathy’ study, an analysis of Twitter responses to high profile deaths by suicide. Key substantive, conceptual and methodological findings emerged in relation to these and across the research as a whole.

  • New baseline data were established about the attitudes and experiences of Samaritans’ users and volunteers of the email service, the sharing of emotions online and social media more generally. Findings suggest pragmatic considerations such as cost and privacy, and the expressive advantages of the medium, gives email an added dimension to the other support offered by Samaritans.
  • Through analysis of the particular dynamics of Samaritans online provision, important substantive and conceptual findings have also emerged about the limits of the transferability of trust and empathy; and hence about how to understand the relationship between interpersonal and organisational trust and between trust and empathy.

    Samaritans was found to have a powerful ‘warrant’ for trust, bound up with the organisation’s values built over time. If the organisation or its volunteers are seen to act in ways that are not consistent with these values, however, for example by failing to demonstrate empathy, the impact on trust can be significant and swift.

    These findings build on Brownlie’s (2005; 2006; 2008) earlier work on trust offline which developed a model of trust as having system, structural and relational dimensions that shift over time. Through an empirical exploration of Samaritan’s email system and Twitter suicide prevention app, Radar, the research illuminated how these dimensions of trust are technologically mediated and shaped by the cultures of different digital spaces (Brownlie, 2018; Brownlie and Shaw, 2017).
  • Important findings emerged, too, specifically in relation to empathy. The research found that different forms of online communication construct a sense of emotional distance and control in varied ways. Non-synchronous forms such as email can involve greater emotional distance and control than more synchronous channels, such as IM and phone texting, and this shapes how empathy is experienced and expressed.
  • As Samaritans heads towards a multichannel future, the research also provided greater clarity about the key features, advantages and limitations of different digital channels and articulated differences between online environments in terms of the sharing of emotional distress and offering of support. Through doing so the research opened up debates about what ‘safe(r) space’ looks like online (see Brownlie (2018), ‘Looking out for each other online: Digital outreach, emotional surveillance and safe(r) spaces’).
  • The research offered insight into the challenges of digital professionalism and outreach. Specifically, for organisations thinking of offering online support in different digital spaces it identified the need to fully appreciate the culture and norms of existing online spaces; the informal means of moderation already present in such spaces including Twitter; the fact that expression of ‘risky/unsafe’ thoughts online may be a means of being safe/gaining support; the complexity of using algorithms to detect emotional distress such as Samaritan’s Radar and the unintended consequences of their use including the silencing or withdrawal of users from online public spaces (see Brownlie, 2017; Brownlie, 2018). Developing the concept, ‘emotional surveillance’, the research concluded that the politics of outreach are more contentious online than offline, and that there are particular risks associated with any strategy perceived as surveillance and/or the deployment of technological solutions for the identification of distress online.
  • Drawing on the Twitter study, the research offered insight into the nature of everyday talk about emotional distress on Twitter – a previously under-examined area. This challenged recent assumptions arising out of big data analysis about the movement from negative to positive emotion online as a result of expression of empathy. In particular, Brownlie developed the concept of ‘empathy rituals’ to reinterpret apparently ‘positive’ postings as ‘tactful’ exchanges which reduce the risks of personal disclosure and facilitate the movement of such conversations to more private ‘background’ spaces off and online (Brownlie and Shaw, forthcoming). This suggested that for some there is value in ‘quiet disclosure’ in public online spaces. In other words, some people deliberately choose to share emotional distress in public online settings in order to avoid the possibility of targeted response.
  • Insight into the nature of public talk on Twitter about suicide: emergent preliminary findings of five case studies of well-known deaths by suicide suggest such talk is shaped by age and gender of the people who have died, and that there are temporal fluctuations in publicly expressed empathy in the aftermath of suicides (Shaw and Brownlie, 2015).
  • The research has produced key methodological insights about the bridging of computing and social science approaches towards big data analysis (Karamshuk et al., 2017), including the capturing and analysis of Twitter ‘conversations’ (see Brownlie and Shaw, forthcoming) as well as the combined use of machine learning and qualitative analysis to explore temporality in complex public discussions about suicide (Karamshuk, Shaw, Brownlie, Sastry, 2016).

    The research suggests an iterative, back-and-forth approach is especially important when investigating empathy, given the fluidity of this social practice.



Brownlie, J. (2017). Spaces for sharing? Challenges of providing emotional support online. Centre for Research on Families and Relationships Research Briefing 89. Available from www.crfr.ac.uk

Brownlie, J. (2018). Looking out for each other online: Digital outreach, emotional surveillance and safe(r) spaces. Emotion, Space and Society, 27, 60–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.EMOSPA.2018.02.001

Brownlie, J., & Shaw, F. (n.d.). Samaritans digital: present and future. Research summary of a study of trust and empathy in online support. Available from https://www.samaritans.org/sites/default/files/kcfinder/files/Samaritans summary report - Trust and empathy in online support.pdf

Brownlie, J., & Shaw, F. (2016). Samaritans Digital: present and future initial findings from a study of trust and empathy in online support. Full report. Samaritans: UK

Brownlie, J., & Shaw, F. (2017). Samaritans Digital: Present and future Initial findings from a study of trust and empathy in online support. Samaritans: Uk

Brownlie, J., & Shaw, F. (2018). Empathy Rituals: Small Conversations about Emotional Distress on Twitter. Sociology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038518767075

Karamshuk, D., Pupavac, M., Shaw, F., Brownlie, J., Pupavac, V., & Sastry, N. (2017). Towards Transdisciplinary Collaboration between Computer and Social Scientists: Initial Experiences and Reflections. In X. Fu, J.-D. Luo, & M. Boos (Eds.), Social network analysis: interdisciplinary approaches and case studies (pp. 21–40).

Karamshuk, D., Shaw, F., Brownlie, J., & Sastry, N. (2017). Bridging big data and qualitative methods in the social sciences: A case study of Twitter responses to high profile deaths by suicide. Online Social Networks and Media, 1, 33–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.OSNEM.2017.01.002

Conference papers and invited talks

Brownlie, J. (2016) Conceptualising Online Trust and Empathy. Invited talk, Cornell University Social Media Lab.

Shaw, F. and Brownlie, J. (2016) The Role of Empathy in Socially Mediated Responses to Suicide on Twitter CrossRoads Conference Paper, University of Sydney.

Brownlie, J. and Jamieson, L. (2016) Imagining Jo: Virtual Trust and Empathy. American Sociological Association Conference, Seattle.

Brownlie, J. and Shaw, F. (2015) Under and over sharing Emotional Geographies Conference Edinburgh University, Edinburgh.

Brownlie, J. and Shaw, F. (2015) The Ethics of Digital Outreach: Researching Social Media and Suicide Apps. Fifth Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics. Chicago.


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