The Facebook “Safety” Button
Perhaps you have noticed that on Tuesday, 22nd March, that some of your Facebook friends living in Brussels had the option to click on a green Facebook Safety Button in order to instantly display that they are literally “Safe”. Some of you might have even seen this button before, namely during the earthquake in Nepal in April, 2015. This is all well and good; we want to know if people we care about were harmed in these dangerous, unfolding events. But is the Safety Button useful in this regard? I do not think so. I believe there are good reasons to abandon this kind of “click” mentality, especially with regards to terrorist attacks.
Firstly, terrorist attacks rarely unfold in a single blow, while the “Safety” Button only captures an instant moment of safety. The recent Brussels attacks are a good example. The first bombs were detonated at the airport around 8:00am. It took over an hour before the second bombs went off at the Brussels metro station at Maalbeek at 9:11am. If someone indicated on Facebook that he or she is safe in between these two events, they would also have to indicate again after the metro bombing. It might sound picky; it is only one hour which separates these two instances. However, after a terrorist attack, state security agencies have to search for the perpetrators and their accomplices. Raids, firearms exchanges, and suicide attacks can be regular consequential events and create, yet again, a need to indicate “safeness” of the person living in Brussels. Hence, the button loses its meaning with every new dangerous event unfolding. This is not confined to man-made attacks. The earthquake disaster in Nepal consisted of the main earthquake on the 25th April 2015 and a large aftershock on the 12th May 2015. Between the two earthquakes, landslides and building collapses occurred. Eventually, the “safety” button is deprived of its power to indicate the “safeness” of a person in danger.
Secondly, not everyone continuously participates in Facebook, so a grey, unused “Safety” Button induces unwarranted feelings of anxiety for caring people. There are many reasons why someone is not available on Facebook during a terrorist attack which can be due to reasons completely unrelated to the unfolding event. However, there is a certain kind of expectation invoked in people to see the green “Safety” button appear on the profile of one’s friend. If four out of five friends pressed the “Safety” button within in a short time, you may start to (unreasonably) worry about the fifth person. People are irrational, and although the actual chance to be a victim of a terrorist attack is statistically extremely low, we tend to overestimate the chances that friends can also be victims. A grey “Safety” button causes more harm than good.
Thirdly, (relating to the second reason) if clicking the “Safety” Button on Facebook becomes a standard practice, it will have at least one negative consequence. People might be subconsciously pressured to use this and other Facebook services to display to “friends” their own safeness in times of acute danger. However, people in such situations certainly have other things in mind than updating one’s Facebook status. The expectation to be online and available all the time puts undue pressure on those coping with dangerous situations. In such instances, one has to think about his or her own safety as well as the safety of people close-by. Moreover, if one is affected by a violent event, Facebook should not be the first, second or even third thought. Although some might voluntarily choose to use social networks as a valve for message exchange or even for some narcissistic tendencies, this does not pertain to the vast majority of people. With the exception of close friends and family members, there should be no pressure for people to maintain permanent message exchange, especially via Facebook.
Why Facebook should abandon the new Safety Button
Basically, the “Safety” button does not fulfil the function it pretends to deliver. It cannot provide information with certainty that someone is “safe”, and furthermore it only puts pressure on those who have a Facebook account and their friends online. It puts friends into the role of spectators that await for a final “click”, as if they were fans following a football match, awaiting the final goal on a live-ticker. It puts those affected into the role of information-deliverer, whether they want this role or not. A “grey” unclicked button conveys more information than a “green” one.
The rules of conduct in such situations should be different. First, people have to decide by themselves if they want to reveal that they are safe or not safe. As well, they need to have the ability to address only those whom they want to know. Second, care-taking people have to learn to wait for direct responses. This includes me as well as everybody else. Unwarranted worries create stress and might even lead to anger. “Why is he/she not pressing the button?” is a question inevitably forced upon everybody. But there is no benefit from asking this particular question. The by-stander cannot change the past violent event nor are they able to teleport themselves to Brussels or Nepal. Furthermore, it isn’t even clear that the affected person wants this kind of attention in the first place.
In general, the negative side-effects from the sensationalism created by the “Safety” Button outweigh the short-term positive effect of knowing that someone is able to press the button in times of danger. The removal of the button would be a beneficial step for those affected and their friends online.
- The Facebook “Safety” Button is widely used for events which put people in danger
- Certain consequences of the button are reason enough to abandon it
- The button does not help to convey the important “safeness” information and it puts pressure on people involved as well as on friends
Acknowledgements: I want to thank Josh Kent for his valuable input to this blog post