As tech companies expand their global presence, one of the biggest challenges they face is addressing the needs of each individual culture. For Facebook, the basic elements of the social media platform may look the same, but there is no one size fits all approach — especially when it comes to a woman's safety online.
Such is the case in India, where Facebook has found that many women in the country, for various compelling reasons, are hesitant to use a real photo of themselves as their profile photo.
"If you think of how your online life works, it really mirrors what is happening in society offline," Aarati Soman, a product manager at Facebook, told Refinery29. "In India, safety is a concern for women offline and those concerns are very much mimicked online."
The problem is that women's profile photos are often downloaded by another user who then posts the photo as their own profile photo or adds it to their timeline. The reasons for why people do this are varied. "You see people doing it because they don't understand internet norms and then you see behavior with more intent," Soman explained. "Regardless of that range [of reasons], it comes down to how that woman feels and the consequences it has in Indian society of her picture being copied."
Today, Facebook is unveiling two new tools that they hope will make women in India feel safer on its platform, and give them the confidence to post real photos of themselves as their Facebook profile photos.
The first of these products is a profile picture guard. When applied, it appears as a blue border around the profile with a small blue shield beneath. This guard serves multiple protective purposes: It prevents others from downloading, sharing, or sending the image on Facebook; it disables someone from taking a screenshot on an Android device; and it keeps anyone who is not Facebook friends with the user from tagging themselves in the photo.
Nevertheless, the guard doesn't relieve all concerns. It is unable to, for example, prevent someone from taking a photo of a profile picture using another phone or camera or computer. To deter those actions, Facebook is also releasing unique design overlays for profile photos. Users can choose from six different designs, each of which was inspired by traditional Indian textiles and art, to place on top of their profile photo as a sort of screen.
When testing photos with the overlays compared to those without, Facebook found that users were 75% less likely to copy the photo and redistribute it. Women in India will be able to apply both the guard and the photo overlay by tapping on their profile picture and selecting the appropriate option from the drop down menu.
Though it's hard to predict the effect the new features will have until they are adopted widely, Facebook's product testing predicts the impact will be positive. "You get to see that moment of 'Ah, okay. This gives me a lot of relief, this gives me a lot more comfort," Soman said of the women who tried out the guard and design overlay.
Facebook cares about profile photos for a couple reasons. One is the social media platform's recent emphasis on community, Soman spoke of one 21-year-old woman she met in Lucknow, India, who has been using a profile photo of a puppy instead of one of herself. "This makes it really hard for her friends to find her on Facebook and as a result she isn't able to form the types of meaningful communities that she really desires [there]," Soman said.
For now, the profile picture guard and design overlay will only roll out to users in India, since that's where research with the products has been focused. However, there's always the potential Facebook will expand to more countries — particularly the ones where they would serve a purpose in the future.