London Bridge is a brisk twenty-five minute walk from my flat. Last night, I heard the sirens. By the time the news began to arrive in fragments, the notifications started on my Facebook page, letting me know that “so-and-so has marked themselves safe on Facebook”. When I clicked through I was confronted with: “The Attack in London: tell friends that you’re safe.”
Naturally, I was glad to hear that my friends and loved ones were safe. At the same time, I had no desire to use the feature myself. As the notifications mounted, my resistance grew. Later, I received another notification. This time, a particular friend, it appears, wanted to know if I was safe, but chose not to call or text.
On the face of it, it makes perfect sense. Why allow friends and loved ones to wonder if you’re okay for even a second – when you can just let them know you’re out of danger? But this Facebook feature is more problematic than it may seem.
The vast majority of us in London are safe – but the Facebook “safety check” paradoxically makes us feel like danger is our default setting when something like last night’s terror attack occurs
Sherry Turkle, a researcher at MIT, notes how mobile technologies tether us together such that we’ve lost our capacity to feel secure unless we’re in constant contact. Parents, for example, who used to have to trust that their children were OK for hours at a time, can now text them incessantly. While this may seem unobjectionable, it implicitly communicates a lack of confidence in their child’s basic safety – ultimately threatening their developing sense of self-care and autonomy. This can equally be applied to other family members, friends and romantic partners – the ability to check in constantly fuels our anxiety that if we don’t hear back straight away something bad must have happened.
From what I understood about last night’s event, my assumption was that my friends were probably OK. I hope that they would also assume that I was safe unless they heard otherwise. For events on the scale of last night, the Facebook Safety Check reverses this assumption. It creates an implicit supposition that we are not safe until we let people know that we are. It creates a culture of hyper-vigilance that undermines our capacity to feel relatively secure about our environment.
This is not to say that there aren’t real risks – however the risk of being killed or harmed in a terrorist attack in the UK is still vanishing low. If you wanted to build a Facebook safety checker with reference to risk you may be better off checking in as safe after commuting by bicycle or driving on a motorway – both are more likely to result in a causality.
Today there will be inconsolable grief and worry about those who were injured or killed in last night’s attack. But we must ask ourselves, did the safety check do anything to help them? For all the reassurance it gave others not at all associated with those horrific events, those who were there were not safe, and their loved one’s inability to contact them, must have been a terrible ordeal.
This sense of fear will have been shared by many others in their own state of panic because, for whatever reason, their loved one wasn’t marked as “safe” on Facebook, even though they were perfectly fine.
The deployment of such a feature during events like last night’s attack may increase a user’s personal stake in the incident, leading them to engage more deeply with the social network than usual. This is no doubt a good thing for Facebook’s stats but I question whether it serves the public good.
For events that truly affect a huge swathe of people in an area – an earthquake, a tsunami, a dirty bomb – the situation is different and a safety check makes more sense, as the risk of having been harmed is so much higher. By treating the events of last night in the same fashion, we elevate those who wish to sow discord, and ultimately give them exactly what they want.