When I left to study abroad in Paris, I was thrilled to find that my host family assignment was in the Montmartre area. I lived just around the corner from the cafe Amélie worked at in my favorite movie of all time, and the entire neighborhood was located on a hill where the sun would rise from and set on beautifully.
Every day was blissful until I had to deal with the biggest problem with these hills: cell service. The slopes were pretty steep all around, which means the metro stops are WAAAAY deep underground; the two stops I used most frequently were basically caves.
Naturally over time, I got in the habit of checking my phone and sending messages before I went down to the metro stop. When one of my childhood friends was visiting from Barcelona, I wanted to show him what a typical Friday night would be in Paris, so we made plans to meet up in the Bastille area. I was running late, so right before I hurried down the 2029443984 stairs to take the metro, I went on Facebook messenger to let him know that I would be arriving late.
On November 13th, 2015, I received a notification from Facebook that I’m never going to be able to forget. I had just returned to my apartment from the metro stop because I saw that fifteen people were killed in a restaurant and bar in a machine gunfire, not too far away from where I was headed. That was around 9:30, and within the following ten minutes, 5 more people were killed. By 9:40, they took 19 lives in addition to the 20. Next thing I knew was that over a thousand people were held hostage at a concert hall and 89 of them killed. In a frenzy, I messaged everyone I knew that was supposed to be in Paris that night. I called my host mom who was on her way back from the suburbs and I woke my parents up to let them know what had happened. When I was desperately trying to think of people to contact, a Facebook notification popped up: Are you OK? It looks like you’re in the area affected by the Paris attacks. Let friends know you’re safe.
Facebook safety check came into being in 2011, year of the Japan tsunami and earthquake. The tragedy affected more than 12.5 million people, many of whom went to social media to communicate their safety as well as to check on others. The local Facebook engineers responded to this with a Disaster Message Board which continued to be tested and updated until it became Safety Check, available to every account and device. Based on information from my profile, Nearby Friends, and location services, Facebook knew where I last was prior to the crisis, so it could conclude that I may have been in danger.
The engineers behind this feature have been continuously improving the structure and function based on how communities utilize it during and after the times of disasters. At their first Social Good Summit in New York last year, Facebook introduced four tools invented with the hopes of bettering the global community. They decided that individual members of affected communities should have say whether they are experiencing an emergency situation, and left the activation of the feature entirely up to the people instead of the company. Facebook’s VP of social good Naomi Gleit mentioned in the announcing post, “We believe people closest to a disaster should play a bigger role in deciding when Safety Check is most helpful, so today, Safety Check will be turned on by the community instead of Facebook.” Enough posts including keywords related to an incident in a location will automatically trigger the Safety Check feature to ask users to notify their situation. When the feature is activated, a user can mark whether they are in the area and if they are safe, as well as mark friends as safe or ask them to check in.
A new tool called Community Help further attests to Facebook’s humanitarian efforts in optimizing crisis response; their definition of crisis ranges from what they refer to as “natural and accidental incidents” like earthquakes, flooding, and building fires, to include suicide prevention and amber alerts. The feature allows direct messaging between users that want to seek or offer aid. The feature comes into use once users are marked safe; for each crisis, there is a page and feed devoted to it so that communication is instant and efficient. When help is asked for on the feed, people can post to give what they have access to and mark the request as completed once the delivery is made.
As Joe Gebbia mentioned in his TED Talk, dismantling the “stranger danger” bias for the greater good has given us a sense of shared belongingness; in the case of Community Help, this is even more so since people are in the midst of an experience that could otherwise feel much more desolate and helpless. Although my encounter with Safety Check was by no means as calamitous as many other incidents that put the feature into use, I felt lost in the chaos caused by an abrupt breach to what used to seem like a safe little universe. Not only was this a wake-up call to be aware of multiple realities beyond my horizon, but it was also a reminder that I live in such an interconnected world in which we try to let people know how much we care. But in such a highly communicative society, we—myself included—often forget to go a step further than just unharnessed empathy into making a real difference, regardless of how inconsequential the individual action may seem. In this regard, I see a lot of hope in Facebook’s initiatives in Community Help to bring us to a point where help is readily available and more importantly, giveable.