To share my recent discovery about 7cups.com, I have to first reveal two personal things I’m often ashamed of and shy about broadcasting:
- sometimes I get quite melancholy and
- part of my income comes from freelance digital marketing.
While the comic in me wants to suggest that #1 is a consequence of #2, they are not directly linked: I’ve dealt with occasional depression at least as far back as my teen years while my experiences with digital marketing are more recent.
Also, it feels awkward saying ‘melancholy’. I think I’m trying not to use the term ‘depressed’…. Maybe ‘unfulfilled’, ‘bored’, ‘sad’, ‘lonely’, ‘uninspired’, ‘unmotivated’, ‘overwhelmed’… any of these could be an alright choice of words depending on the specific moment. Not to get too distracted… my mood is not the point of the article, but it is what triggered the start of this research.
On to the discovery…
A couple months ago, I was feeling a little down and I Googled the phrase “everything is fine but I’m unhappy” and came across a bunch of posts from 7Cups.com.
The company name was familiar – I remembered being peppered with ads on Reddit promoting 7cups which I found very annoying. These ads saying things like: “Are you Lonely? We can help” or “Are you sad? We can help” were really frustrating when I’d see them. This constant reminder of the looming darkness of sadness was not what I wanted when I escaped to Reddit for amusement.
They were popping up so often, it made me wonder if somehow they were tracking me. At the time, I thought it was coincidence.
Since then, I’ve run ad campaigns for clients on Reddit and learned how Reddit advertising works. I now know that you can target people who have subscribed to specific subreddits, so the fact one of my accounts is subscribed to the /r/bipolarreddit subreddit is likely why they were sending these ads my way.
So these 7Cups ads pissed me off. But why? On the one hand, if they are offering something to help sad people… this is a good thing. The service they provide: free peer support via chat. If you want to pay, you can then speak with a professional therapist.
But upon deeper research, it feels more like they are preying on vulnerable people.
Which brings me back to my Googling ‘everything is fine but I’m unhappy.”
If you do this, you’ll see the 7Cups result:
If you open this article, there is a “Top Rated Answer” that looked incredibly suspicious. Here’s the post:
Here’s what I found suspicious:
1) The response was posted the day before I opened the page yet it was already rated a “Top Rated Answer”. How could an answer become a ‘top rated’ answer within a day?
2) There was a link embedded in the response (in blue) with all those unnecessary keywords in the clickable text. Who posts answers with such long anchor text (the clickable part) unless they’re pushing keywords into posts for their search engine ranking.
3) The link embedded in the post was pointing to 7cups.com… yet we’re already in a forum on the 7cups website. Why would anyone post on the 7cups forum including links pointing to 7cups.com… anyone reading this already knows about 7cups?
None of this makes any sense, unless…. You’re trying to boost your search engine rankings.
I had to know if the posted date was being automatically changed every day to make it seem more recent, which would be super, super sketchy. I checked the site a couple days later.
Sure enough – super sketchy
Checking in over a month later… and sure enough, the date has been updated again and now with a new username.
Since the content of the post was the same, I wondered how many times this has been posted on other 7cups posts. I went back to Google and did a search for this phrase “Searching for answers on the internet” “we’ve all been there” and TONS of posts (over 200,000 results) show up with the exact same answer all over the 7cups forum.
This screenshot was taken on August 5th and you can see the date of the answer was posted on August 4th and once again it’s a “Top Rated Answer.”
Here’s another one from the post: “What part of me is the real me, and what part is the depression?”
And another from the post titled: “why do I feel so down when everything is going well for me?” ….
I did some digging on where their funding comes from on CrunchBase. Looks like they’ve had two rounds of undisclosed amounts of funding in 2013 from a number of investors.
I can’t get a sense of how they’re doing financially. They offer text-based chat therapy services. They give away free chat peer support from ‘trained’ “Listeners” and paid chat support from mental health professionals. Anyone can volunteer to become a Listener if you go through their training. (They also make some money from white labelling their platform to universities.)
I will say that I liked the founder Glen Moriarty’s humble approach to listing himself last on the list of Team members at 7cups.
Glen wrote a public post talking about issues with funding the company, which seemed pretty honest. That’s when he announced they would be taking donations to support the site. It’s unusual for a for-profit to solicit donations like this, but it’s not a horrible thing.
Though I could gripe about the impersonal nature of a text-based chat, or my concerns over the continued inflation of mental health services… there’s nothing inherently unethical with their business model.
But the fact is, they are straight out lying to people. They are making fake posts on their own forums to promote their website and boost their search rankings. They’re altering the dates of their own posts. They’re using fake aliases to disguise themselves as forum members instead of paid staff. It’s lying. It’s wrong. And they’re doing it to an incredibly vulnerable population.
I’ve thought it might be appropriate to contact them before posting this. Maybe that would be proper journalism. (Am I a journalist?) This would give them a chance to explain themselves. Likely, they would blame a programmer or a marketer, maybe reprimand them or fire them, and ‘fix’ the issue. Then they would be absolved of their responsibility, right? Possibly.
As I look at it, the level of technical detail that went into doing this kind of exploit is probably a combination of both marketing and programming and doesn’t seem like it would be a single individual at the company who pulled it off. This also does NOT seem like something a rogue marketer or engineer within the company would do. Nor does it seem like something that a 3rd part would do if they outsourced their marketing. To implement this type of auto-posting, auto-date updating, and changing usernames, etc… this is something that was probably discussed by more than one person and was a collaboration.
I’m not sure my motivation for posting this. I am angry.
I downloaded their app because I wondered if they were using bots instead of real people to do that chat support. That would have driven me postal. While the app was buggy, it appeared I was talking to real humans. Then again, chat bots have gotten good enough that I don’t really believe I’d be able to crack a good one.
So I’m bashing this company… but what if their service helps people?
Honestly, I am so torn about this.
Maybe I’d be harming their reputation by blowing this out of proportion and that could lead to less people getting help from their platform. Or maybe writing this article is actually providing free marketing to them, and I’m only serving their purpose? Maybe my ego is at play here – wanting the joy and distinction of having uncovered this kind of thing and being rewarded with “likes” and “shares” of my post.
I’m not sure… I suppose I could just contact them privately and see what they think. I don’t know really how far deep this goes into their system… I have no idea exactly how many forum posts they have on their website and how many of them have this ‘hack’ built into them.
I’ve also got some residual anger about Talkspace, an app which sounds similar to 7cups, except that their therapists will actually prescribe anti-depressants for people through the app. This sounds frightening and horrible. I’m not sure what to do about it, maybe I’ll do a separate article about these folks at a later date.
Lastly, I realize… there is a big part of me hesitant to post this because I feel like a hypocrite. I’ve done some work in online marketing that I’m not super proud of. It feels hypocritical to write this post criticizing these folks while I’ve done milder versions of this type of thing. I’m not sure… but now it’s August 21 and I still haven’t posted about these people. I think it’s more important to reveal the truth that to take any kind of moral high ground. So I’m posting this… you can decide what to make of it.
PS – it also pissed me off that they send me marketing emails. How many fucking emails is enough, 7Cups?
UPDATE #1: In the weeks that passed between writing this, editing it, and having the courage to post it, 7cups removed all of this content from their website… which is a good thing. But I still feel that the truth should be shared, so I will still post/share it.
UPDATE #2: I received some really unusual emails from someone claim to work for 7cups. Not sure what their purpose is.