Safety Check shows Facebook’s indispensability problem

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Facebook has an indispensability problem: Whenever people discover a feature they feel as if they can’t live without, the company is immediately scrutinized more than it is when it’s seen as little more than a social network.

For instance, in the wake of an attack that killed more than 120 people and injured at least 400 more, Facebook repurposed a tool built to be used during natural disasters so people near the affected areas in Paris could tell their friends and family that they were alive. It was the first time Facebook made the feature, Safety Check, available in response to a terror attack instead of an earthquake or similar event.

Facebook said in an email that more than 4 million people used Safety Check after the Paris attack, and that 360 million people received notifications about the status of a friend or family member. That’s more than other disasters, like recent earthquakes in Afghanistan and Chile, but less than the earthquakes that struck Nepal in April and May. Safety Check, it turns out, is popular in a crisis.

The episode highlighted Facebook’s utility in a disaster.

“Facebook is clearly a place people expect to see frequent updates from their friends, and given Facebook’s penetration in some of its biggest markets, it’s also going to be a place where the vast majority of your friends have accounts,” said Jackdaw Research chief analyst Jan Dawson. “So it’s a logical place for people to go to see if their friends are OK after a disaster (whether man-made or otherwise), and it’s also logical for Facebook to make that checkin process as easy as possible.”

But the reaction to Safety Check wasn’t all positive. Critics were quick to point out that Facebook made the feature available in response to the Paris attack, but it didn’t do so for a double suicide attack in Beirut, Lebanon the day before. Some blamed this on the inherent biases of Facebook’s engineers; Facebook vice president of growth Alex Schultz said it was because Safety Check is still young.

“This activation will change our policy around Safety Check and when we activate it for other serious and tragic incidents in the future. We want this tool to be available whenever and wherever it can help,” Schultz said in a blog post. “We will learn a lot from feedback on this launch, and we’ll also continue to explore how we can help people show support for the things they care about through their Facebook profiles, which we did in the case for Paris, too.” Safety Check could become the go-to utility whenever disaster strikes around the world.

That would inevitably bring even more criticism. Facebook thrives because its users think it’s indispensable. They use the service to message friends, share pictures, and share their opinions on whatever happens to be in the news cycle. For some people it’s hard to imagine life without Facebook — but the truth is that most of the service’s users would be able to replace the network if needed.

People know this. It’s why they pretend to freak out whenever Facebook goes down. If they were actually concerned it wouldn’t seem like a joke; it would be a crippling failure of a critical system. Facebook reaps the benefits of people thinking they need to use its service without often being held to the same standards applied to systems that people actually consider a basic need.

The response to Safety Check brought this truth into stark relief. The moment people thought they might have needed Facebook — in this case to share that they were safe following the attack in Beirut — they demanded to know why it seemed to care more about an attack in France than an attack in Lebanon. No good deed (or in this case disaster-focused feature) seems to go unpunished.

Facebook “appears to be trying to help out and are responding to user feedback but their good will in this situation may not be received in the way they intended,” said Gartner analyst Brian Blau. “I don’t see their safety check as trying to replace official government efforts to help those impacted by the tragedy, but in [an] awkward way people are assuming their efforts to [be] nefarious in nature, and I just don’t think that is the case. I’m sure they feel some responsibility to help their users communicate given they are so popular globally.”

The company is caught between triviality and indispensability. People need to think it’s integral to their lives for Facebook to continue to thrive, but in cases when the service is actually viewed as more than just a social networking tool, the company often invites criticism. (Just look to the campaign for the company to change its real-name policy for evidence this isn’t confined to Safety Check.)

Given how many people used Safety Check the night of the Paris attack, it’s clear that they view the feature as an important way to communicate with the people they care about in a tragedy. Facebook seems to understand this, and is taking the criticism about not using Safety Check during other terror attacks seriously. But there’s sure to be more complaints — that’s what happens when more than a billion people use a service, and several million actually need it in their lives.

Safety Check made sure Facebook is finally indispensable. Now the company will have to learn how to manage all the expectations that come from that new status.

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