When I reviewed the 7 Cups of Tea website I looked at it as a resource for anyone who needs support. Anyone can also sign up to be what the site calls a listener, helping to provide support to others. I signed up to look more deeply into how the service works.
After brief and easy induction training I was able to participate in live chats with members and guests. I also had full access to the chatrooms and forums, including some special ones that are reserved for listeners.
Listeners can see the worldwide queue of listening requests from guests and members as they come in. When the queue reaches 10, any listeners who are logged in are prompted to find someone to listen to. From time to time there’s a pop-up prompt, too.
In the time I’ve spent logged in as a listener, the queue has mostly been less than twenty requests, with the average waiting time mostly just a couple of minutes. This may be partly a function of time zone, however. I’ve probably been online when much of the US is not awake.
Maximum waiting times can be much longer than a couple of minutes. This might happen if listeners choose to chat with people who have recently joined the queue, leaving people who have been waiting for a long time to wait even longer.
How live chats work
The training emphasises reflecting and exploring guests’ and members’ issues without needing to be an expert or giving advice in live chats, but it’s not clear to what extent listeners really pay attention to these instructions. A lot of listeners have profiles that highlight the areas they are experts in, and a lot of guests and members may be happy to be told what to do.
The four philosophies I came up with in my previous review are entirely my own invention. The site doesn’t seem to differentiate styles or philosophies amongst listeners. The official line seems to be that listeners should all behave in a certain prescribed way, and that for them to deviate is a fault. The reality seems to be that listeners, members and guests collude in a variety of other behaviours.
Some of the live chats never happen at all, because someone has pressed the button to request a chat but never responds. Sometimes this might be because there was a long wait before a listener came online, and the member or guest went off to do something else. Another possibility is that technology failure prevented any messages from getting through.
Some of the live chats, as you might expect, turn out to be people who apparently just want to be entertained, sometimes sexually. Guests and members can be blocked and banned, though on other sites blocking and banning don’t really work well with persistent trolls.
Technically, it would be possible for members to acquire reputation by completing successful chats but the site doesn’t provide for that. Listeners don’t have a way to indicate to each other what kind of chatter a member is.
For listeners themselves, however, the site implements a confusing variety of measures of reputation. Many of these seem to be based on activity, and some listeners are surprisingly active.
For example, I came across a listener who had joined a week before and completed more than 240 live chats. Well, if he worked a 40 hour week that’s 6 an hour, or ten minutes each—a gruelling full-time job. And ten minutes of live chat doesn’t cover much. It’s more likely he was running multiple chats simultaneously just to score points.
Amongst listeners the drive to score points has sometimes been criticised as the gamification of the site. In the listener community there’s an unresolved tension between those who (apparently) focus on scoring points and those who (claim to) focus on helping people. Scoring points might be considered a fifth philosophy.
Making sense of the scoring system is difficult. I looked at a very small randomish sample of listeners to see what I could discover.
Initially, I came across many deleted listener profiles, which makes me think a lot of listeners don’t stay long. Then I changed my criteria and selected ten listeners who had joined a month or more ago.
There’s what seems to be a basic measure of activity called cheers. Listeners in my sample were getting between 25 and 3,000 cheers a day, averaged out over however long they had been listeners. This seems to correspond roughly with the number of chats they were doing, which in my sample ranged from one every few days to 45 a day.
Another measure is steps, but I’m not sure what a step is. It’s represented as a step on the listener’s growth path, but I was able to get steps without doing what the growth path part of the site wanted me to do. The number of chats per step varied in my sample from less than 2 to over 40.
Yet another measure is badges. Some of the badges can be earned by specific activities, like working through a self-help guide. Others seem to arrive out of the blue. In my sample everyone had about half a dozen of the badges, and one listener had more than 100.
The most visible measure of reputation is a kind of rank, combined with a level within the rank, things like Scholar 5 or Helper 7. It’s not easy to know what order the ranks are in, although it’s documented somewhere if you look hard enough. The ranks and levels seem to correspond to cheers as far as I can tell.
Adherents of the fifth philosophy, the listeners who are driven by their quest for status, probably aim to collect cheers without wasting energy on steps, badges or the other measures I haven’t mentioned.
It wasn’t obvious to me, though, how one would go about collecting cheers in the most efficient way. I imagine that chatting for long periods with relatively few dependent members, several at a time, might be the best way. From the data in my sample, there do seem to be listeners who collect cheers, and therefore status, more efficiently than other listeners.
Members and guests can rate listeners by awarding 1 to 5 stars for Helpfulness, Professionalism, Empathy and Response time, and they can make a written comment.
It seems to me that the first three of the ratings only measure whether the member or guest has the same philosophy in mind as the listener. For example, if someone wants advice and the listener gives advice, then the listener probably gets five stars. But if someone wants to grow as a person and the listener prescribes a manual of psychotherapy, then the listener probably gets marked down.
The response time rating is probably influenced by the technology and the length of the queue for live chats.
Written comments are processed manually to sort the good ones from the bad ones. Good comments are published anonymously in the listener’s profile, and some of them are published in a global collection on the site. This means the only comments you ever see are good comments.
Bad comments are sometimes reported to the listener in secret. They are delivered as a kind of blameburger, in which the blame is hidden inside a soft bun of praise. The blame is expressed as a general category, without any specific details. To me this seems psychologically unhealthy, a double bind that’s likely to feel comfortable only to people who have been emotionally abused.
As a listener I can sign up with a more experienced listener as my mentor, and I have access to a special chat room for support during a chat if things become difficult. Soon after I joined I was welcomed by another listener, but there’s been no contact since. The potential for listeners to be well supported is certainly built in to the site, but I haven’t seen it working.
Listeners have forums where they can discuss anything they want. I can’t say I’ve seen any references to mentors or other support in these discussions, but I haven’t read a lot of them.
When I first reviewed 7 Cups I found it confusing, with a chaotic mix of incompatible philosophies. Now that I’ve been behind the scenes as a listener I remain just as confused.
The business model seems to be that 7 Cups will end up being one of the many therapist directories, but with a focus on online therapy. The self-help front end, and the live chat with volunteers, will pull in the clients. But 7 Cups is still in development and it’s hard to be certain about any of this.
The cautious recommendations I gave it in my previous review still stand, although my experience of being a volunteer listener has, on balance, somewhat increased my caution at the expense of recommendation.