Marked As Safe

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Facebook introduced the “Safety Check” tool after the deadly earthquake in Nepal in April 2015. It was designed to be enabled during natural disasters not human ones.

But only months later, the attack on the Bataclan in Paris happened. It was the first time Facebook’s new tool was used during terror incidents. At the time it caused controversy – why was it being used for Paris but not other incidents? – but the amount of relief that simple button brought to people was astounding.

Since then all of us will likely know someone who has used the button – in Berlin, in Brussels, in Nice, in Orlando, in Istanbul, in Manchester.

And now, for the second time in three months, I’ve used the button myself.

First, following the Westminster Attack (22nd March 2017) and just last night when I heard the news about London Bridge and Borough Market (3rd June 2017).

But lots of people seem to feel uncomfortable about marking themselves as safe.

After all, surely we should assume everyone is safe until proven otherwise not vice versa?

Well, yes. We’re more likely to be in an accident going to work than to be in a terror attack. And to be honest, that’s my starting point. You’re probably safe but I’d like to confirm it.

Some say this desire to ‘confirm’ is the Safety Check sowing seeds of doubt and spreading fear. That it means we indulge a kernel of concern for those not marked ‘safe’, amplifying the panic, shock and anger. The Safety Check is just another form of ritualised, online hysteria rather than a solution to terror.

However, last night as more and more of my friends from around the city marked themselves safe, it was a relief to have my assumption they were safe confirmed. Because Borough Market is a buzzy, vibrant place to go of a summer evening. The bars are fun and there’s amazing outdoor areas for drinks near the Thames. Whilst there was no reason to think anyone I knew was there, there was also no reason to believe they weren’t.

I find the Safety Check means we can go from fretting, fretting, fretting, to helping each other. I’ll come back to that in a sec.

Of course, it would be daft not to see that the function certainly does have limitations and makes mistakes (like Lahore).

As most of us know, the Safety Check function asks users if they are in the affected area and enables them to “mark” themselves as “safe.” Facebook friends then receive a notification. The comments section in each update mostly fills with exclamations of relief. In addition, Facebook have also enabled the feature to let users request help or offer support, food, and safe spaces to others around them. This is all good, positive stuff.

The problem that arises is one of scale. As Tim Burrows pointed out after the Westminster attack – it was absurd that the ‘affected area’  encompassed Watford, Slough, and Basildon. An attack would have to be something much, much worse than a deranged loner with a knife to have that much reach.

Hopefully the scale is something that Facebook will refine over time. It definitely seems to still be more suited to the natural disasters for which it was originally designed. But does this make it too sprawling to be useful in incidents like Manchester or London Bridge? No. In every case we’ve seen lately, it’s been useful. Moreover, people making this argument seem to forget there’s a “Does Not Apply” option people can use to say the algorithms got it wrong and they’re no where near. Perhaps more of us need to use that.

Fact is, we all appreciate knowing that the people we love are safe.

That they’re somewhere griping about the tube being crap, pints being overpriced, wedding season being way too close for their bank account to deal with.

That you’ll be having a G’n’T and a salty snack with them again soon.

Plus, if you’re not worrying about where your mates are, you’re free to focus on ways you can help. After marking myself safe and hearing from my family, my next reaction was to find out if London needed more blood donations. Other friends online shared ‘Community Help’ posts to do with pubs and locals who were opening their doors to anyone looking for a cup of tea and somewhere to be safe. London rose up, doing its best to rally around each other through the social networks available.

Last night, people were pouring in support through the tool. They couldn’t make the situation less terrifying for the people there but they could open their doors. They could volunteer their help. They could at least let people in the aftermath feel less alone, which is, at times like this, everything. And it all happened within minutes.

There is no harm in checking-in and easing our minds.

It’s not embarrassing. It’s not melodramatic. It’s not attention seeking. It’s not helping spread fear.

It’s a tool that has reflected some of the best of our cities. Perhaps even more so than the chap running away clutching his pint (ok, maybe not quite). But my opinion has been swayed from vague skepticism to this: it is a tool that, whilst designed for tragedy, is one that also gives us reason to hope. To see the best in our communities.

So whilst I wish, with all my heart, that none of us will be using it any time soon, I also know that I will mark myself as safe or use the ‘doesn’t apply’ button if the need arises again.

If it helps people worry less and come together more, it’s a positive in my book.

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