In today’s world of high-tech interactions and living digital lives, corporations and organizations have more data on our actions and behaviors than ever before. “Creepy” advertisements that know what sites you’ve visited previously rely on tracking cookies to store your online behavior, and ads that align with your interests are made possible by Facebook’s in-depth knowledge of your likes and dislikes. By now, we’re used to these confrontations with the modern world of data gathering.
What we aren’t used to, and what we fear, are even more in-depth explorations of our actions and behaviors. For example, Facebook made headlines back in 2014 when it was revealed that it was artificially manipulating users’ emotions by selectively controlling their newsfeeds—just to see if it could. This, and other perceived infringements on user privacy, has sparked a wave of concern over privacy and responsible use of information that persists to this day.
But now, Facebook is moving forward with new ways of using user information, and it could be influencing its competitors and contemporaries to do the same—we’re looking at a potential new era of social responsibility, or even social good, in user data.
Social responsibility isn’t a new construct for Facebook; the company has made a number of concentrated efforts in the past to do some form of collective good. For example, Facebook has partnered with Amber Alerts to distribute and make visible more detailed information about children and adults who have gone missing. It’s also attempted to raise visibility for natural disasters, prompting users to donate to disaster relief funds and other charity efforts.
The company also employs a feature called Safety Check, which allows friends and loved ones to check on each other’s safety during events of turmoil, such as natural disasters or major attacks. The company activated the Safety Check feature in the United States for the first time recently, during the shootings in Orlando. Within the feature, Facebook users can check for and mark friends and family members they believe to be in the affected area, and those users, upon loading their newsfeeds, can mark themselves as “safe” as a notification to their friends and followers.
Recently, Facebook announced it was also rolling out a new host of tools and features to support suicide prevention. With these tools, Facebook users can identify other users who are exhibiting signs of depressive or suicidal behavior. They can access tools and resources to help these afflicted users, including suicide prevention hotlines and prevention organizations, or simply refer the user in question to Facebook directly, which can take further action as an organization to prevent things from developing any further. As a central location for things like bullying, harassment, and trolling, Facebook has been gradually rolling out new features and safety screens to cut down on these destructive forms of user interaction.
The Future of User Data
The volume and specificity of data Facebook has access to are always increasing, and as those levels increase, it’s going to have more power to influence our lives. The new safety features it’s developed are useful and positive forces for society as a whole, but they’re not yet fully automated, nor are they solely controlled by the user data to which Facebook has access. It will be interesting to see how Facebook adheres to its new vision of social responsibility once it develops the capability of joining these useful features with even bigger volumes of data.
Influencing Other Platforms?Facebook isn’t entirely alone in its pursuit of social responsibility; for example, Twitter, and most other publically available social media platforms have taken measures to crack down on abuse. But Facebook serves as a role model for other companies in the tech sphere, influencing things like newsfeed algorithms, design layouts, and even general approaches to data management. Hopefully, its bold steps forward on the front of user data responsibility will similarly influence the other rising stars and mega-corporations in the arena. It’s hard to say exactly how this trend might develop, or when, but Facebook is on an interestingly beneficial trajectory, and it’s unlikely to stop here.