The inherent conflict between Facebook and its Safety Check

There’s a bit of a flurry around the negative aspects of Facebook’s Safety Check going around this week, mostly based on the reaction to the London fire. The problem, as Techcrunch reports, is that the Safety Check causes unnecessary stress because, for one, it’s not geographically specific enough, asking users miles away if they were OK, and two, because it can be triggered by many events, not all of which should be considered dangerous. Techcrunch makes the interesting point that not all disasters affect people around it in equal ways. A terrorist bombing such as the one in Manchester could involve people from all over the city but a fire in a tower is unlikely to involve people not living there.

Asking users in the perceived area of a tragedy to say they’re safe. They can either answer that they’re safe or not in the area.
Source: Facebook

Finally, Safety Check causes distress by “by making Safety Check a default expectation Facebook flips the norms of societal behavior and suddenly no one can feel safe unless everyone has manually checked the Facebook box marked “safe”.

In a series of tweets, Zeynep Tufekci‏ adds that Safety Check “can be comforting—but it is also adding to the fear-mongering around the world. People check-in safe even when never in danger. Humans are already bad at estimating risk/danger. We already have sensationalist media stoking fear; social media options matter a lot. For both mass and social media fear-mongering is engaging. Pageview/ratings driven mass/social media can converge on sensationalism.” So instead of being a helpful tool to tell people that they are safe, Safety Check stokes hysteria.

The tool originally made sense, and in some way still does. A check-in to tell friends and family that one is OK when a local tragedy occurs is not necessarily a bad idea. Consider the total unavailability of Bay Area phone lines during the hours and even days after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Even before the widespread adoption of cell phones, telecommunication systems are designed to handle an average load, not the maximum possible when almost every subscriber is trying to use the system, as well as people calling in. Add to that the probable power outages that take some parts of systems offline directly after an event, causing another reduction in capacity.

It makes sense to have an asymmetrical check-in product where people affected by an event can quickly (and with little connectivity) say that they are OK while any of their friends can check that notification whenever they want. It also makes sense that Facebook create such a tool. It has the ability to share information with the people who matter. Adding to that is the incredibly high percentage of the population already on Facebook, almost guaranteeing that everyone who needs to see the check-in, will. Creating such a product also fits in with Facebook’s goal to create social value. So where did it go wrong?

There is another problem, though, beyond the geographical inaccuracy, the definition of a check-in worthy event, the ensuing fear-mongering and stress creation. Being on Facebook creates a perception of profiting from a check-in, even if that wasn’t Facebook’s original intent. Consider the new features added just this week: adding a personal note and fundraising, one which pushes engagement and the other monetization, both of which can create unease.

So what can be done? Techcrunch suggested using “Facebook to post a status update saying they’re fine if they feel the need to — or indeed, use Facebook (or WhatsApp or email etc) to reach out directly to friends to ask if they’re okay — again if they feel the need to.” The problem with that is that people no longer trust that their important family and friends will even see an update they post. If it doesn’t have the importance inferred by an official check-in, the newsfeed algorithm might not deem it important enough to show. An email might be too cumbersome and time-consuming to send.

WhatsApp, however, is a much better option. By updating a chosen group or two, users can notify the important people in their lives and only those people. Others, not in the group, can assume that if they were not updated, it means the person was not close to the disaster. It can reduce stress for both the affected people, their friends and family, and people who weren’t in any danger from the beginning. The only disadvantage of that solution is Americans aren’t big users of WhatsApp, meaning that there is not one app that users can go to to update friends, and that’s a shame. 

The takeaway is to realize that even a feature with the best of intentions can have negative ones, and to always strive for better. Corny, I know, but it has been a tough week.



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