It started with the odd grumble in a Facebook status post, and then, as time passed, long threads started to form and the voices became louder and more varied.
No, I’m not talking about politics, but the use of Facebook’s Safety Check. The feature, which launched in 2014, activates when the company is alerted to an incident, allowing you to check a box to show you’re not in danger. It’s been activated four times in the UK, most recently with Wednesday’s fire in Notting Hill and the London Bridge attack two weeks ago.
But what was designed to help reassure friends and family has drawn criticism — at least in the UK. Some questioned whether it heightened the sense of panic, added to the anxiety or made it seem like you were somehow affected when you weren’t. Others were baffled: If you were worried about someone, wouldn’t you just call them directly?
One factor Facebook uses when deciding to activate Safety Check is the amount of discussion an incident is generating on the platform. “One potential result of this is that unnecessary panic and paranoia can be stoked by what are ultimately much discussed, but minor inconveniences,” said writer Tausif Noor In his essay “Safety in Numbers” for Real Life Magazine.
Some Facebook users were also annoyed that people who were unlikely to be connected to an event appeared to insert themselves unnecessarily into the story by marking themselves as safe. I’ve been trying to work out whether this is a British trait. As any Brit will tell you, it’s not really the done thing to make yourself center of attention (and we’ve all see the “keep calm and carry on” merchandise).
Following the London Bridge attack, I used Safety Check for the first time so my friends and colleagues around the world would know I wasn’t affected. But shortly after I marked myself safe, I noticed that not everyone found the feature as useful as I did.
Facebook offered information on Safety Check, but declined to comment for this story.
As an experiment, I asked my Facebook friends and Twitter followers to weigh in on Safety Check. Here’s what I found.
The when and the why
On Wednesday, Facebook Safety Check was activated in London for the second time in two weeks as the residential, council-owned Grenfell Tower in Notting Hill went up in flames. At least 17 people died and more than 70 were injured. More than 120 families have lost their homes.
The damage done is on a par with, if not greater than, the recent terrorist attacks in the UK. And yet people are questioning whether it was right decision for Facebook to activate its safety check.
“I cringed when I saw the safety check had been activated today,” said Johnny Chiodini, a video producer at Eurogamer. “This is a [preventable] tragedy that’s hit a small and very close community — asking the whole city of London to weigh in on it seems remarkably tone-deaf.”
Not everyone agreed.
“Anything that can put people’s minds at ease during stuff like this is fine with me,” said freelance journalist Kate Solomon. “If I had loads of friends in Latimer Grove [the area of Notting Hill where the fire broke out] I’d be glad to have an easy way to see if they are safe today.”
Multiple people noted that while they didn’t see the point in using Safety Check for the fire, the “random” nature of terrorist attacks makes it far more likely that people would be caught up in a such an incident unexpectedly.
Former Londoner Shannon Doubleday, who relocated to New York in 2016, has “mixed feelings” about Safety Check and didn’t see the need for it during the Westminster attack, but has found it useful for certain incidents. “London Bridge was different for me — we’ve met friends for tapas and drinks so many times at Borough Market,” she said. “The station is a major thoroughfare to the southeast, where we lived.”
In some cases, it really can make a difference. “My mum didn’t bother calling late at night after London Bridge because she saw I’d marked myself as safe,” said TV production manager Joe Rackham.
Me, me, me
A significant amount of the debate focuses on whether Safety Check blows incidents out of proportion. “I know a lot of people feel like it creates a sense of panic or makes it seem like it’s likely you could be caught up in things, when in reality the chances are very small unless it’s a citywide incident,” said Shahina Kabir, a charity communicator for Carers UK.
Another gripe I’ve heard: the feeling that some people use the feature to draw attention to themselves unnecessarily during a real emergency.
“I would get annoyed if friends who lived in other areas of London used Safety Check for this fire,” said Clare Harms, a drama teacher. “Totally unnecessary and to some extent attention-seeking.”
It’s something that even bothers people who have used Safety Check themselves.
“Hitting it myself the last two times has felt a bit self-indulgent,” said Chiodini. “No, I wasn’t in Borough Market on Saturday night. I never am, and my friends know that — saying I’m fine so publicly feels like I’m trying to make this attack personal to me in some way.”
I was curious to know what my colleague, CNET senior managing editor Kent German, makes of the feature. He’s an American, but has been living and working in the UK for over two years now, and he’d surely have had many people back home worrying about him. Despite living near London Bridge and being a prolific Facebook user, Kent told me that he doesn’t see the point in the feature and hasn’t used it.
“While probably well-intentioned, I find it be to be invasive, and Facebook is arbitrary about activating it,” he said. “It loses its significance when deployed to everyone in a city as large as London. I’m also uncomfortable with what feels like a corporate capitalization on grief and terrible events.”
Instead, Kent updated his status to let friends and family know he was safe. “Facebook can be an effective way to communicate that you’re safe, but it shouldn’t be about checking a box,” he said.
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