Facebook’s long-term goal is to become the center of community and social connection for its users. This is not just a site about messaging friends and sharing pictures. One of their central philosophies is to translate and streamline the way that people communicate with each other, harnessing technology to make life easier, less stressful, and more connected.

With more than 1.5 billion users today, over a billion of whom login each day, one in seven people on Earth check their Facebook consistently. That number is truly awe inspiring and has a major impact on the way that people all over the world connect with the people that they know and with the people that they don’t.

What it used to be like to connect in tragedy

Everyone who was of an age to comprehend the world around them remembers where they were on September 11th, 2001. I was driving to work, listening to the radio when I heard about the first plane hitting. The grip that spread over the country was immediate, with everyone gathering around televisions that morning to take in the news. The world stopped dead in its tracks.

Cell phone service in the city was difficult to impossible in the hours after the attack thanks to the inundation of calls that flooded the cell phone towers. Texting was in its infancy, so the only real way to reach someone was to actually talk to them. Hours went by before anyone knew if their loved ones in NYC were okay.

Keep in mind that no one knew what was going on that day. The chaos was tremendous and there was a serious belief that this was the beginning of a war right here on American soil. Four planes had been hijacked, but no one was sure if there were missiles or bombs on the way, chemical or biological warfare. It seems so ingrained in us today, but at that moment the world was wide open. The sense of feeling unsafe in our own communities was overwhelming.

Facebook’s new vision of connection in tragedy

Having to wait so many hours to hear about loves ones’ safety was truly agonizing.

Facebook, with its droves of users, has a different vision for what tragedy could look like. In October of 2014, it rolled out Safety Check, a function that allows users to verify that they are safe in a tragedy. The criteria for which events trigger the feature are still being determined. In early June, Facebook announced that it would begin to experiment with community activated safety checks for smaller events. These events would be flagged based on the posts of individuals in a geographical area as well as sources from third-party news outlets. The system offers a similar functionality to Google’s People Finder, although with a much wider reach.

The feature has been activated six times in the nearly two years since its launch.

  • 2015 earthquake in Nepal
  • 2015 South Indian floods
  • 2016 terror attack on Ankara
  • 2016 terror attack on Brussels
  • 2016 terror attack on Lahore
  • 2016 shooting in Orlando

The Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando recently became the first time that Facebook’s Safety Check had been deployed in the United States.

How Facebook’s Safety Check worked in Orlando

Once the news hit of the event taking place, Facebook users in the Orlando area were prompted to click a checkbox that would notify their friends that they were safe in the midst of the chaos. Thanks to GPS, everyone with the Facebook app on their phone and the feature enabled could check themselves in as being safe. The University of Central Florida is close to where the shooting happened, and in those muddled early morning hours after the attack, thousands of parents were alerted to the safety of their children thanks to this social media feature.

On 9/11, we all gathered around television sets and landlines to watch the news and call in to check on loved ones. In today’s world we all stoop down over our smartphones to check our Facebook pages for news and to find out if a loved one is out of harm’s way.

The system isn’t perfect, of course. Cellphone service was a nightmare after 9/11, so there’s question as to whether or not Facebook would have had an impact in that moment. In addition, there is the question of what happens for those families who do lose someone – the sinking and terrifying feeling that comes with that safety check button not popping up.

One of the most chilling accounts of the aftermath of the Orlando shooting was that of an officer at the scene who recounted the sounds of the cellphones ringing and buzzing as loved ones tried desperately to contact those who would never answer. No amount of technology can ease the burden of those families.

However, there’s no question that Facebook’s Safety Check does serve a useful and powerful function in times of tragedy. The ability to access critical information without waiting for it allows families and friends to weave one more level of social media integration into the fabric of society, making Facebook an even more indispensable part of the way that people live their lives.


Pete Peranzo

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