We can learn from Facebook

by Giuseppe Lanzi on 11/26/2015

I know a lot of people who would read the statement in the title and say, “Oh come on, Facebook is just a huge waste of time,” and I can’t deny that from a certain point of view they’re right. More than once I’ve found myself scrolling through my news feed on Facebook, using my time poorly, and finding myself saying, “enough, I’d better do something else”. Nevertheless, right now while the world is facing such difficult situations, I noticed something that I think is a interesting point for discussion.

I’m talking about Facebook’s Safety Check, which the world’s most popular social network uses to react to crisis situations by helping users reassure their friends and family about their well being. The operating principle is very simple. I’ll quote from the official page:

  1. If it looks like you may be near a natural disaster, we’ll ask if you’re safe.
  2. If you’re OK, click or tap the “I’m Safe” button to let friends and loved ones know right away.
  3. We’ll let you know when friends say they’re safe. You can also check a list of friends who may be affected by the disaster.

I’ll tell you why I make this observation.

On November 13, I was away from home in an area where the cell coverage was patchy – one of those situations where you put your phone away because it gets so little coverage that you don’t feel like wandering the hotel searching for a Wi-Fi signal. I was already in bed and was about to fall asleep when I got a text: “Have you seen what’s happening in Paris?”.

I got out of bed, hunted down a Wi-Fi signal, and started reading the papers in a corner of the room.

My wife had woken up, and I brought her up to date on what I was reading. The question quickly followed, “I hope So-and-so is OK!” – “Wow, that’s true, we have friends who live in Paris now. Are they OK??”. A few minutes later, the notice from FB: So-and-so has confirmed he’s OK during Terrorist attacks in Paris.

That weekend I was away for a three-day seminar with about another 200 people. Sharing my thoughts, emotions, and experiences from that night with them, I found that I wasn’t the only person with friends in the area hit by the crisis, and that many people were reassured by the Safety Check notification.

What happened? What happened is that Facebook asked our friends, Are you OK? and they answered with a simple tap. Being very focused on finding out what was happening in the city, and rightly so, none of them had posted any special status on Facebook, but they all were given a simple way to report I’m OK.

This is not the place to talk about the facts of the matter, and I definitely don’t want to ride the wave of this news, but I was struck by the FB feature, both in its premises and in the consequences that arise from it:

  • a crisis identification system has been implemented;
  • an algorithm was implemented that estimates the risk situation of a given user;
  • a feature was implemented with a purpose far distant from the reason the social network was created.

Anyone who has followed us for some time knows how many times we’ve said that to develop for mobile we need to change mentality, think of different services that sometimes aren’t strictly linked to our business, or of interfaces and procedures created specifically for mobile users. Procedures that require ongoing design, infrastructure, and maintenance.

Safety Check is a striking example of this: a function seemingly far from the core business, but with a clear added value for users.

It’s a type of approach that offers us an additional opportunity to learn what mobile really means.

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