When Dan Blackman was growing up in Warren, Pennsylvania, a small town of 10,000 outside of Pittsburgh, his father, a lawyer, was surrounded by friends. “I had a lot of ‘uncles’ growing up,” Blackman recalls. But one of the things, apparently, his father never shared with his many close friends was that he was suffering from alcoholism.
“His doctor was essentially a guy that lived down the street,” says Blackman “If he went to an AA group, he probably would know everyone and maybe even have defended them. Saying, ‘I have a problem and want to get better’ was never something he thought he could do.”
Blackman’s father died of cancer at age 60 in 2007. Last year, his son created Huddle, a secret sharing app that he hopes can help adults, including many parents, suffering in silence from diseases like alcoholism, the crushing weight of social expectations, depression, and even economic issues. It is an app designed to defray the harmful stresses of a society in which keeping up with Joneses is a way of being and talking openly with the Joneses is not.
The thing about community that Blackman learned the hard way is that, though they are often supportive, they are frequently stifling. Secondhand memories of Rockwellian Main Streets may be charming to dwell on and even prove to be effective political propaganda, but they do not speak to the amount of suffering that was done in silence when Americans existed in tighter knit communities. Huddle, which launched in August and already has tens of thousands of users, seeks to hold onto the supportive aspect of community while diminishing the friction of proximity.
Originally Blackman and his partner, Tyler Faux, aimed the app at the middle-aged, a demographic they concluded were more likely to be suffering silently. But quickly the user base skewed younger. It was, after all, an app. And though he notes, “Huddle isn’t for everyone,” there are, Blackman points out, 26 million Americans currently suffering from mental health issues without receiving treatment. Unfortunately, the scale is there.
After a simple snappy onboarding process, Huddle users post videos of themselves — pixelated if they so choose — as they discuss their issues. Fellow users express support with a little wave of a cheerful yellow hand, or with comments. But the power to define and create their communities are in the hands of the users.
Though Huddle initially focused on top-line maladies (depression, addiction, and anxiety) Blackman noticed sub-communities forming quickly. Under addiction, one of the most popular communities, six heavily subscribed sub-channels sprang up: siblings of overdose victims, drug addiction, kids with alcoholic parents, opiate addiction, meth addiction, and quitting tobacco. The videos vary. In alcohol addiction, which by last count had just shy of 200 members, some users ask for advice, “You guys who are recovering from alcoholism — do you avoid ALL products that have alcohol? Like Listerine and cough medicine?” to confessing to a relapse, “I ran into my ex last night. I haven’t seen him in months. I sobbed in my car and went home and got more drunk than I ever have. I really don’t wanna be here right now.”
The sheer mass and mournful polyphony of the suffering on Huddle (and in life) can be daunting. Quickly scrolling through the app is like peering down the dark corridors of the human heart. In the Eating Disorder channel, a middle-aged woman posts a video called “Holiday Bullshit” in which she says, “I’m gonna make it through this season without harming myself and trying as best I can to eat like a ‘normal’ person.” In another channel, “Family Problems” the camera is trained on a pixelated face that remains silent. The only background noise is of a loud argument.
“Parents arguing. I can’t take it anymore,” is the caption.
Blackman is careful to note that Huddle isn’t therapy. “The amount of HIPAA compliance we would have to go through is unrealistic.” But there is something undoubtedly vital and sane about listening and sharing. Blackman notes that his dad probably wouldn’t be the kind of guy to be an early adopter but at least with Huddle there is a space to which he could turn. Perhaps he would have hidden behind a pixelated mask, but his heart would have been open.