Since last Friday, I’ve been thinking about Facebook Safety Check—what it means as a technology, and what it means for our perception of terrorism in the world.
On its face, Safety Check is stunning. In the 24 hours after terror came to Paris, 4.1 million people around that city marked themselves “safe” on Facebook. In turn, 360 million people worldwide received a notification from the social network saying that some or all of their friends were okay. For users with many acquaintances or relatives in the French capital, the weekend became a trickle of alerts: This cousin was fine, that old roommate was unharmed, this old colleague wasn’t even in the city at the time.
One of the main traits of a disaster area—one of the ways we judge whether something is mid-emergency—is informational chaos. On the Media, WNYC’s press-criticism program, warns in its “breaking news consumer’s handbook” that “in the immediate aftermath, news outlets will get it wrong.” But everyone gets it wrong. Getting it wrong, being unable to see the full picture, is part of the nature of zones of violence and destruction.
I think we discount how much the Internet has brought good sense to places where information was previously conflicting or chaotic. In the past few years, I’ve spent some time covering what’s come to be called “crisis mapping.” That’s where—using the Internet, software called Open Street Map, and donated satellite imagery—online volunteers map the destruction left over after an earthquake or a cyclone has wreaked havoc. This new data help rescuers and relief organizations know where to send food, shelter, and potable water. Crisis mapping is a miraculous service: Within hours, strangers bring coherence to an otherwise disordered place.