Skip to main content
opinion

Shannon McKinnon is a TV producer in Toronto.

When I woke up in Leslieville on Monday morning, Facebook asked me to mark myself as “safe.” I live about a ten-minute drive from Danforth and Logan, and I was still reeling from the news of the shooting. People were gravely injured. A woman and a child had been killed. And I couldn’t bring myself to register my “status” in this tragedy, because I have no status. My status is insignificant compared with the victims, their families and those who witnessed the event.

Facebook makes it very easy. Click “safe” once, and let everyone know you’re okay. It’s so … community minded. An elevated use of technology. The safety-check application confirms our connection to the world around us, acknowledges that we’re loved and broadcasts our awareness of what’s happening in our community. Ostensibly, it provides widespread relief and highlights everything admirable about us as a society – that we care about each other.

It’s a tough thing to criticize.

But I couldn’t mark myself safe, for a few reasons. Facebook directs us to define ourselves in these situations, driving up its own traffic with what appears to be genuine cultural concern. And maybe it is. But every single friend of mine that Facebook defined as “lived in the area” (and I couldn’t confirm if that meant the surrounding neighbourhood or Toronto itself), and didn’t mark themselves as safe was listed as “not marked safe yet.” That’s an anxiety-inducing sentence, to say the least.

You also have the option to click “doesn’t apply,” which presumably means that you’re either out of town at the moment or declining to signal your proximity online. But if language matters – and I think it does – “doesn’t apply” might actually be the better option for those of us who aren’t directly involved in a tragedy that has ripped open the lives of other people. It’s a hard and short response, and doesn’t necessarily register the perspective and respect we may be trying to communicate. But “sending strength and love to the victims and their families” isn’t a clickable option.

Safety check’s practical implications are pretty clear in widespread situations in which lines of communication are down, phones aren’t working and nobody can get hold of anybody. If you manage to get online, you can send up a smoke signal. But being adjacent to tragedy is prime social-media real estate.

After the 2015 earthquake in Nepal, there was a lot of anger online about people far from the affected area who were marking themselves safe. They were accused of tragedy appropriation, and an online battle ensued. It ended with Facebook acknowledging that a bug was prompting people who lived nowhere near the tragedy to mark themselves safe – and a bug that drives engagement through the roof is a convenient bug, indeed.

In 2017, safety check was triggered when a fire broke out in the Grenfell Tower apartment building in London. Seventy-two people were killed, 70 more injured and 223 escaped. People up to 11 kilometres from the North Kensington tower block were prompted to identify as safe, and a genuine British backlash started. The offended parties wanted to “Keep Calm and Carry On” and not be asked to insert themselves into someone else’s tragedy. It was distasteful.

We don’t ask to engage in the safety-check process; it engages us. A more cynical person than myself might question whether it’s a psychological tactic deployed to get us comfortable with being constantly tracked. Facebook knows where we live, and as soon as a situation registers online, safety check pops up as a blaring, front-page banner for everyone in the area. If you refuse to engage, you’re publicly pronounced as “not marked safe yet.” If you click “doesn’t apply,” you’re engaging in a process you might not feel comfortable with. And “safe” is a loaded word.

Do you feel safe? There’s no easy answer to that question, no matter what Facebook wants us to click. At the moment, I feel devastated for our city and our world – but like most of us, I’m mainly heartbroken for the victims. Safety check has no status options for them. There’s no clickable prompt to register that you’ve been affected. That you’ve seen something tragic and horrible, that your family member is barely hanging on in the ICU, that you’re making funeral arrangements for your child. That you are, in fact, unsafe.