Oct 16, 2014 · 1 minute

Facebook is adding a feature to its mobile applications that allows users in areas affected by earthquakes, tornadoes, and other calamities to tell their friends they're safe. It's called Safety Check, and it's the most self-aware feature Facebook has announced in a long while.

It's not unusual for tech companies to make unpopular decisions. People get set in their ways, and the slightest changes to a service can spark outrage. Just ask Twitter after it added a line to all the tweets made in response to each other, or Apple pretty much any time it updates iTunes.

But it almost seems like Facebook has been actively hostile to its users in recent months. It's tried to convince them that they should use its service to participate in public conversations, increased its focus on videos even though they waste precious wireless data, and introduced applications that emulate other services instead of focusing on updates to its own products. Oh, and there was that whole treating-our-users-like-lab-rats-by-manipulating-their-emotions thing.

Safety Check isn't like that. It's a genuinely useful feature that makes it easier to do something that many of Facebook's users were already doing: taking advantage of the service's ubiquity to reassure worried friends and family members that everything is fine during a natural disaster.

The feature puts some of Facebook's worst habits, like tracking its users' location whenever it can, to good use. I'd prefer it if the company didn't follow its users all around the world -- and across devices, with its new Atlas platform -- but if it's going to do it anyway we might as well get some real benefits from it instead of just seeing local advertisements or being able to check-in somewhere.

Given all of the bad news that's emerged from Facebook over the last year, from its decision to experiment on users' emotions by manipulating their News Feeds to its controversial real-name policy, it's hard to believe that the company can still make something as useful as Safety Check.

Who'd have thought that instead of trying to copy its competitors or show bare contempt for its users all it would take for Facebook to get back on track were a few natural disasters?

[photo by Meena Kadri]