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Social Apptivism: Q&A with ASK HIV Founder Josh Robbins

By Mary / Jan 09, 2015

For this customer showcase, we interviewed Josh Robbins, an independent HIV social media activist and blogger from Nashville who used our SupportKit-powered “Ethanifier” code to create the ASK HIV app.

ASK HIV lets people have 1-1 conversations with Josh about anything related to HIV, via text. A simple and powerful idea, Josh has built the first HIV hotline for the smartphone age.

His story, from his activism to how he discovered SupportKit and launched ASK HIV is inspiring and unique, and even has a sprinkle of karma. Josh had been looking to create an app that would coincide with his award-winning HIV blog IMSTILLJOSH.com. One day while browsing Product Hunt, he found an open source project called Ethanifier that allows you to create a personal messaging app just like the Ethan app.

For those who may have missed out on the Ethan craze, Ethan is an app built by a developer named Ethan Gliechtenstein that allows people to message him and…wait for it… he messages back. Silly, but actually quite a pioneering idea that showcases how much easier and accessible software and technology are becoming for people to use and even build personal apps.

SupportKit’s Product Director, Michael Gozzo, was inspired by the Ethan concept and wanted to do something with it using SupportKit. When the gift of time presented itself while he was delayed at the airport on his way to a conference in Las Vegas, Michael wrote the code for Ethanifier by building on the SupportKit API. A few hours later, he released it on Product Hunt, where Josh discovered it.

Josh saw a new opportunity with Ethanifier and the “Ethan mentality” of
1-1 communication. What if people could message him with any questions they have about HIV? Josh isn’t an app developer, so he paid a “super nice” developer on eLance $127 for a day and half of work, and eight days later ASK HIV was available on the iTunes store.

The Radialpoint team is humbled to know that our work is being used for an amazing social cause that we support and believe in. Read on to learn more about Josh’s brave story and mission. You can also hear more of Josh’s stories by listening to the audio clips of the interview.

What inspired you to build ASK HIV?

I’ve been looking to create an app that would coincide with my blog for quite some time. A lot of the times as influencers or bloggers, you see these amazing products that seem very inaccessible when you’re not a software developer, so there’s a real gap for people like me who are attempting to make a difference.

Because I was in a discovery mode and trying to figure out what I can help people with, that’s the exact time that your code became available. I thought “how can I take what they’ve made available and implement that into something really deeply meaningful in a space that I’m an expert.” I’m not an expert in apps, or customer service but you guys are.

In the HIV health space there is tons of information. When someone thinks they are going to test positive for HIV or when they do test positive, as I did three years ago, they go through a period of Googling everything they can find. And there’s never enough information, although there is actually an overload of information.

Do we even know the real questions people have? When your solution came up in Product Hunt, it was no we don’t know the answers to questions, but now we can. I feel like that code came at the exact right time, I saw it at the exact time I needed to and I had access to it!

Somebody who is diagnosed with HIV just wants to talk to somebody, they just want to know that they’re not going to die, they’re going to be okay. I’m taking the “Ethan” mentality of 1-1 communication in a world where everything is about mass communication, pushing everything else away for a moment to have a conversation between me and one person.

I’ve had more than 35 conversations with people from different parts of the world; people who don’t know where or who to turn to and I wouldn’t have been able to do that if SupportKit hadn’t taken this initiative and open sourced the code.

In this clip, Josh talks about the day he learned he was HIV positive and the live video he released on YouTube when it happened.

January 24Th

As an activist, why did you choose a hyper-personalized medium to connect with people over a more broad reach approach?

With some of the other HIV health apps out there they are providing answers but they don’t feel individualized and personal and that’s what someone needs at the moment they are newly diagnosed.

Somebody that is newly diagnosed has a moment where they realize they have a decision to take: they’re either going to live healthy and are going to succeed and beat this, or, they’re going to stay quiet and not tell anyone. Then it’s a game of statistics, are they going to stay in treatment and remain there? Are they not going to? Are they not going to get their viral load to a certain undetectable level? And if they don’t then there’s a possible chance they expose other people and infect other individuals.

So everything I’m about in my HIV activism space is about finding those people in that exact frame of time. I believe that if we inject those individuals with encouragement and speak life into them and give them accurate health information, provide them to resources that they should be going to – it’s then that those people will become successful. They will get in treatment, they will take care of their virus.

I’ve seen it happen over and over in Nashville, they will become small town activists that are sharing their story to their family and friends in a real and vulnerable way that’s actually very effective. Because we know that peer-to-peer interaction is WAY more effective than brand to consumer interaction. If we know that in marketing, than that has to be the case in real life for people with real conditions.

I’m not a doctor, I’m not a therapist, I’m not a psychiatrist, but I love people and it doesn’t take a degree to just listen.

In this clip, Josh tells the story of one of the first people to reach out to him via ASK HIV who had just been diagnosed with HIV.

Not Going To Die

What’s next? What are your plans and/or aspirations for ASK HIV?

When someone connects with me on ASK HIV, I want them to feel safe. They’re going to ask any questions they want. I’ve pleaded with them in the app description to be patient. It’s not a one size fits all answer. It’s not automated – because they can get that anywhere.

It’s the ability to talk directly with somebody in an anonymous way without any kind of commercial interruption. There are no ads in the app, it’s never going to monetize and it’s never going to become automated for me. Even if I partner with an organization, I still want every answer to be individual answers to whatever their questions about HIV are; it can be prevention questions, condition questions or it could just be support questions.

We’re all assuming that at ASK HIV, we just speak with people who are living with HIV or are concerned that they might have exposure risks or that sort of thing, but no! That was initially what I thought my blog was going to be, but a ton of people that reach out to me because HIV has affected their lives, or they have friends or family that were just diagnosed and they want to know how they can be the best ally for that person and so they reach out to me for advice.

The AIDS range right now that is disproportionately being affected by HIV is 15-24 year olds and it’s my belief that 15-24 year olds aren’t calling hotlines. Do you call hotlines?  I don’t! But these things are still funded. This is the old way of believing that if somebody has a question, they’re going to pick up the phone and call and talk to somebody. Nobody wants to talk to anybody about HIV not on the phone, not in person. So we have to find new ways to communicate with that age range and that demographic. A personal 1-1 app  they can use in a safe, secure and cool way. Their heads are already in the phone!

In this clip, Josh discusses the current gaps in individualized HIV support apps for people affected by HIV.

Doctor

How would you like others to help your cause?

The long-term plan is not to keep this app per se. I want an organization or a non-profit to be able to respond quicker as sometimes I won’t be able to.

I’m one person, I can only talk to one person at a time in the app. There’s no way for me to talk to five users at a time and it never should be that way. This is only one condition. People need to be encouraged that live with MS, people need to be encouraged that just found out they have cancer. So the way to scale this is to find individuals in every health condition that are willing to take on the responsibility to allow people to ask them questions about a condition that they know about.

I think it would be great if every condition had an ASK___ health condition and were able to use that 1-1 communication. Eventually we know that if it’s successful we’ll need 20 more people to make ASK HIV Kelly, ASK HIV Jeremy apps so that everyone can have their own kinds of conversations going. But the key to me where I think there’s a real opportunity is now the app’s built and now a team of people can respond.

In this last audio clip, Josh tells us his vision for the future of ASK HIV. 

The End

Josh Robbins will be keynoting our free event “Social Apptivisim : How Messaging is Changing Activism and Customer Care” on January 20, 2015 at 5:30 pm.

Register now!