When you talk to CEO and Cofounder Britain Taylor about ShuffleMe, a predictive software app that helps people track the impact of social media on their mental health, you might think, “What a timely idea!”
In fact, Mill member Britain has been preparing for this moment since she was a teenager, long before Twitter wars, the pandemic, and doomscrolling. She’s playing the long game, and she trained for it by getting an undergraduate degree in psychology and neuroscience, an MBA in behavior and marketing, a masters in industrial and systems engineering, and now, at Indiana University, a PhD in intelligent systems engineering. This kind of career path doesn’t develop by accident. It takes intention and laser focus on the end goal, which for Britain is simple:
“I just want to help people to have a healthy relationship with social media. ”
An early adopter of the first social media platforms—in 2004 she was the 16th user on MySpace, where she had over a million followers—Britain grew up hacking and coding. In those days, social media was very different. “There wasn’t much cyberbullying. It was really fun! You listened to music, and you played with your profile layouts. Now it’s a different ball game.”
By 2011, Facebook had exploded. “Facebook gave you more options to actually talk to each other,” Britain says. “So a lot of my friends started using Facebook to express their emotions. And now that I’m older, I realize some of them were reaching out for help. The first friend I lost to suicide had been posting these really dark statuses, and we didn’t really know what to do. And then we lost a second friend a year later.” By the time a third friend died by suicide, Britain was 18. “It seemed like I was just losing friends constantly, but there was always a status post leading up to what they were doing and how they were feeling.”
“I told myself, there has to be a way around this. I told myself that I was going to college, and I was going to stay in college as long as possible to build some sort of solution. ”
Britain’s personal experiences of tragedy track with national trends. The CDC has reported that between 2007 and 2016 (years of tremendous growth in social media usage) rates of suicide among young people jumped 56 percent.
Here’s how her solution ShuffleMe works. As a user, you download the app, give it access to your webcam—and that’s all. From there the app runs in the background, tracking your social media activity against your emotional responses in your facial expressions. “Even when you’re on social media but not liking anything, not commenting or sharing, all that passive activity is being captured,” Britain explains. When you’re done with your social media session, you can check the dashboard and see exactly which channels and content have impacted your mood—thus empowering you to make specific, effective changes to your social feeds, your behavior, and your happiness.
ShuffleMe addresses privacy concerns head-on. None of the user’s data is stored on the server; it’s only used to create the dashboard report for the user, then deleted from the server immediately. “The beautiful thing is that our younger generation is so obsessed with data, right? They’re like, ‘What are you doing with my data, with my phone?’ That’s a plus. You want to know what that data means. And you want to see if some data can actually help you.”
The app uses algorithms and a face classifier, based on research on universal facial expressions and trained on over a million people, to connect your facial reactions to social media to specific emotions. It achieves 98.9% accuracy in classifying emotional responses, an impressive accuracy for software.
Britain started on the path to ShuffleMe by focusing heavily on human emotions in her undergraduate work. After that, she says, “I knew that I wanted to make software. I just didn’t know what kind of software. So I started drawing sketches of what I wanted this technological device to look like.” Then she entered an MBA program specializing in consumer behavior. Whatever her product would be, she says, “I knew that I needed to know how to market the product, I needed to know how to keep consumers engaged with the product.”
Next, Britain headed to New York for a second masters, in industrial and systems engineering, to study how humans interact with technology. “I put in my personal statement that, Hey, I’m coming here to build software. I care about mental health. I care about social media, please help me.” There she used the campus launchpad incubator to start to develop the software.
“One of my teammates at the time said, ‘Have you heard of something called facial recognition? It’s another biometric.’ So we built out this facial recognition to where you can see your emotions in real time. We used that as a masters capstone project; we had 10 people test it out, and we presented that. And I took that and said, ‘Okay, this seems like something that we can commercialize.’ And now I’ve continued that into my PhD program at Indiana University Bloomington and their intelligent systems engineering department, where I focus now on engineering and digital mental health.”
Bramsh Chandio, CTO of ShuffleMe
Ike Obj, UX/UI Designer of ShuffleMe
Human behavior is notoriously hard to impact. “We do know that having a tool to help you to understand which social media content is causing your mood decline could cause people to have some sort of self-directed behavior change; maybe they unfollow a person’s profile, for example. There could be other people who might decide to still live in that misery or continue having their mood. Our target audience, though, is people who either a) know that social media is impacting their mental health or b) are interested in knowing whether it is impacting their health. The individualized data users receive, that’s something that they get to look at and self-reflect and determine if they make that change or not.”
ShuffleMe is currently pre-revenue and running a pilot program for practitioners. “We completed a National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps program, and we noticed a different niche market, where the data from the end users can be shared in one-on-one sessions with their practitioners. So we started our first closed beta solely for practitioners. They’re giving us feedback on our dashboard, on the data that we’re using to show them what it would look like, on whether they feel it will impact their one-on-one sessions, and on whether they feel it’s useful.”
In February ShuffleMe will launch a second closed beta for end users. About 2,000 students from Indiana University, Purdue University, and Ball State have signed up, and Britain and her team are thinking about expanding to other students in the Midwest. ShuffleMe has raised $36,350 toward their initial goal of $250,000, and Britain was the winner of The Mill’s inaugural Spark Business Plan Competition. Possible next steps include entering an accelerator program and opening up a pre-seed funding round for angel investors. Eventually, Britain expects to release a viable product in a public launch.
“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to have my dissertation to do research on it. So we push out this product for business, but then I’m also doing research with faculty and other students to make sure that software is being validated and that there’s research behind it. This is not something that I want to do just for my dissertation. This is something that I want to spend the rest of my life researching and making sure that it’s a viable product and a needed product, both in research and also in business.”
For all the promise ShuffleMe shows for its research and market potential, neither of those is what excites Britain the most.
“What I want to see is whether something that I spent 11 years building is going to benefit people in the long run. Not just, ‘Your software helps me to understand that when I spend this amount of time on social media or use it this way, it impacts my mood,’ but ‘Hey, here are the changes I can make because of it.’ That’s something that motivates me every single day.”