Making Facebook Events Safer for Survivors

Current online privacy protections can have devastating consequences offline. How can we change that?

A while ago, a friend of mine hosted a going away party. The night before, a sudden realization hit — the party host was friends with a person I had blocked on Facebook, and it was entirely possible that they had been invited too.

I frantically opened my laptop and logged on to see if there was any way I could figure out if this person was invited or was planning to attend. After unblocking someone, you can’t re-block them for another 48 hours, so my first plan was out. Several other post-1 AM attempts at work-arounds were fruitless, and it became clear that there was no way for me know if the person I had blocked was going to attend the party.

This is a massive issue — the online-offline disconnect could put the vulnerable population of survivors in unexpected and very real danger.

I was stumped. Luckily, this person was someone who would not hurt me. There are, however, people I have blocked on Facebook who frighten me, and whose presence — digital or physical — makes me feel unsafe. What if one of those people was invited to the same party as me, and we both RSVP’d we were going? They wouldn’t be able to see that I was attending because I have them blocked, and I wouldn’t be able to see that they were attending because Facebook hides the activity of someone you have blocked. We’d show up in the same space, unaware of the others’ plans, and chaos would ensue. Unfortunately, the privacy protections of Facebook can actually cause harm in the real world.

The scenario that immediately comes to mind is that of survivors of abuse and sexual assault. As someone currently in college, I’m concerned about the potential for students to interact with their abuser or assaulter on campus. It’s possible — indeed, likely — that a student guilty of sexual assault will not be expelled from a university. As it is more common for assaults to occur by someone known by the survivor, it is completely plausible that their assaulter could be invited to a private (or public) event within their school or friend group. Repercussions of this include instigating PTSD episodes, violating legal ordinances, and putting the survivor directly in harm’s way. This is a massive issue — the online-offline disconnect could put the vulnerable population of survivors in unexpected and very real danger.

Motivated with this purpose, I started to research how Facebook implements blocking. My main question was whether the technical architecture would allow for one-way viewing — in other terms, seeing the actions of someone you’ve blocked without them being able to see you. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any useful information. I decided to move forward with a design assuming that one-way viewing was possible. (Potential extension: search to see if there is information on how other websites implement blocking, or how to build that functionality into your website, then extrapolate that to Facebook.)

Brainstorming and observations.

Before I started sketching, there were two things I needed to determine: which Facebook pathways a user would take to learn of an event, and what information should be displayed to the user.

For the prior, there are three ways: an invite, which shows up in the notifications tab; clicking an external link that leads to a Facebook event; and seeing an event in the user’s newsfeed. When invited to an event, the user needs to click the notification to RSVP, which leads them to the event page. As such, I focused my design on event pages and the newsfeed.

When determining what kind of information to provide, I scanned the copy that Facebook uses to inform you when a friend is interested or going to an event, as well as all references to blocking. For the newsfeed notifications, the copy is pretty straightforward — “Jasmine is going to an event” or “Jasmine is interested in an event” displayed on top of the event information. The content related to blocking and security was sympathetic — when a user blocks someone, they are told “We are sorry you had this experience.” Overall, the blocking process is streamlined, and the copy humanizes the process. It feels as though Facebook has the user’s safety and best interests at heart, and I wanted to keep that emotion.

The next step was for me to review Facebook’s design considerations. I analyzed the interactions within the events feature. Which elements could I hover over? What information was provided when I did? Which elements could be clicked, and what did they lead to?

Investigating different interactions.

After thoroughly investigating the Facebook events feature, I took to designing. I took into consideration the potential for over-informing the user, and opted for an icon instead of a line of copy for that reason. When hovering over the icon, title text of “Someone you have blocked is going to this event” or “Someone you have blocked is interested in this event” appears. The user has to click through to the event to see who the blocked person is, but the user has to do that normally to see a list of attendees.

Potential event sighting on timeline.

On the actual event page, the icon appears next to the number of attendees indicated by the blocked user’s RSVP. Clicking the number of attendees brings up a list of all who have RSVP’d. Here I added a “Blocked” category, on top of “Friends” and “Others.”

Potential way to show users which blocked accounts have interacted with the event.

This design is easy to navigate and understand. The icon is the one shared by Messenger when a message isn’t sent, and red type plus an exclamation point are clear indicators that something is wrong. (Extension: research if warning text is red in all countries.) Everything else is integrated into the general event user flow, both catching the user’s interest immediately as well as remaining unobtrusive to their normal interactions.

Unfortunately, the privacy protections of Facebook can cause harm in the real world.

An incredible array of people use Facebook, and that diverse audience includes survivors. It’s important to design Facebook to be inclusive of these vulnerable populations, and to work with the special considerations these people have to fit into their everyday lives. After all, as Facebook’s Internet.org states, “connecting the world means the whole world, not just some of us.”