Currently the most-visited social media site in the world, Facebook seems unrivalled in its ability to influence and mobilise society. And while too much power can be a dangerous thing, harnessing it for good can have huge positive affects in today's world. This month saw the first trials of Facebook's latest tool for social good, a new feature they're calling Community Help.
There's a lot to criticise about Facebook: their less-than speedy response to 2016's fake news controversy, the ongoing and seemingly neverending conversation around privacy and property rights, and all those hours of procrastination that you will just never get back. But at the same time, no other company in the world has ever had such power over the way its users think, feel and act. We're well aware of the ability of social media giants to spread a message quickly and effectively, and while many users might be using the site to disseminate misinformation, in the coming year, an increasing number could be using it to mobilise and empower communities in the aftermath of disaster.
Facebook for Good: Crisis Response
Facebook already has one tool for social good, Safety Check, which allows users to let their friends and families know that they're OK during a major crisis, whether it's an earthquake, a flood, or a terrorist attack. Usually based in Berlin, I personally used the feature for the first time ever this week, to inform my friends around the world that I was safe and sound after news came in of a violent incident in the west of the city. I try not to use Facebook too much, and rarely share personal information on the site, but it was a great comfort to see my friend's updates flooding in, informing me and others that they were safe.
While I could have used text or email instead, the real-time notifications and ubiquitous nature of Facebook meant that messages of support and reassurance were spread that much quicker. And the Safety Check service has been improved recently too. Powered by big data, by analysing the words that appear most often in their content streams, Facebook has made the feature completely community activated: users are asked if they're safe based on the number of people in that area posting about a certain event. Once they're marked safe they can invite friends to do the same.
Community Help: Helping Others to Help Others
The month of December sees Facebook trialling a new additional feature, Community Help. Set to be launched in January 2017, it seems like the logical next step. After you've marked yourself as safe using the Safety Check feature, Facebook will lead you to Community Help, where you will be shown others' safety statuses, as well as posts from people in the area who are offering or looking for help.
If you have something to offer, such as free food, transportation, or a place to sleep, you can click on "Offer Help", look through the messages people have posted and directly contact someone who needs you. And of course, with the "Find Help" button, it works the other way around too.
There are already tonnes of groups around where people can look for, and offer, free services or donated items within their neighbourhoods or cities. But with people posting at different times and in different places, it can often be hard to link the offers to the people searching. And that's where Community Help comes in, helping to facilitate and streamline those vital connections, ensuring that the offers of help get to the places they need to go.
So while the ever-growing influence of Facebook may cause some to worry, currently their power to connect and communicate seems to be being put to good use, at least when it comes to certain extraordinary events. For more on the subject, here's the (rather robotic) CEO Mark Zuckerberg: