When disaster strikes, we turn to our phones to find out if our friends and family are safe. But everyone else does too, and it can be impossible to call or text your loved ones when networks clog. So Facebook had an idea: Instead of reaching out to people one on one, why not just update social media?
The network is rolling out Safety Check, a new tool for iOS, Android, feature phones, and desktops that lets you quickly notify your Facebook friends of your whereabouts in the aftermath of an emergency.
Facebook will use information like your current city, location of last check-in, and the Nearby Friends location-tracking feature (if you have it turned on) to figure out if you’re in the vicinity of a disaster. The network will send you a push notification asking if you’re OK. Swipe on the notification to open the app and tap, “I’m safe,” or, “I’m not in the area.” Facebook will use the information to generate a story to post to your friends’ News Feeds. You can also check on other friends who are nearby and mark them safe, too.
Why this matters: People are already using Facebook to keep friends and family in the know, so Safety Check simply streamlines that process. I was in San Francisco when an earthquake struck Napa Valley in August, and rather than respond to a flood of texts in the early morning hours, it would’ve been far more convenient to tap “I’m safe” on Facebook and head back to bed.
Social media emergency
Safety Check emerged from a disaster message board Facebook created in Japan in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
“It’s meaningful to be in Tokyo to announce this because the great earthquake and tsunami a few years ago inspired us to build the first version of this for Japan,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Thursday Facebook post. “Now we’re glad to have this ready to serve everyone in the world.”
Facebook isn’t the only network that people turn to in an emergency. Twitter last year introduced an alert system, so you can choose to receive push notifications from law enforcement agencies and organizations like the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But Twitter Alerts is designed to bring you real-time information about disasters, not help you communicate your whereabouts to the world. Hyperlocal social network Nextdoor also lets you send alerts to your neighbors, but the urgent alert tool requires you to craft a message to send (and the network has nowhere near the number of users that Facebook does).
The new Safety Check tool takes a common behavior—reassuring your loved ones that you’re safe—and makes it as simple as a tap on the screen. It may not seem groundbreaking, but if you’ve ever worried yourself sick wondering whether a family member is in the vicinity of a natural disaster, Safety Check could spare you a lot of heartache.
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Social Networking Apps
Caitlin covers Apple news, health and fitness tech, and social networks from IDG's New York bureau.