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Did you see blue, white and red on Facebook this week?

After the devastating Paris attacks we’ve flocked to social media to show solidarity, but should we feel comfortable that Facebook provides the emotional button to push?

Since the terrorist attacks that took place in Paris on Friday night, Facebook is awash with an outpouring of emotion, opinion and displays of solidarity for the victims and Parisians alike. Profile pictures became red, white and blue as users changed their avatars and Facebook provided an easy way to express support.

As users responded to the news, I started to feel uneasy about the prevailing response. An understandable response rooted in a simple, visual way to express solidarity with victims and those affected. But nonetheless, a response initiated by Facebook as they encouraged a collective statement in the form of temporarily personalised avatars. “Change your profile picture to support France and the people of Paris,” Facebook said, with little nuance, as if by not changing it, your support might be questioned. Isn’t this situation more complex than changing a profile avatar? I wondered, as I watched Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg and high-ranking Facebook staff change theirs, setting the mood for the correct emotional response.

This isn’t about judging individuals for changing avatars, or policing reactions. People should be free to respond to shocking events in their own way, just as they need to be free to watch a rock concert without being harmed. Whatever our individual views are, we have for the most part been mobilised for the same reasons – a desire for tolerance and for people to live their lives without the threat of violence. This certainly isn’t about asking people to explain themselves. But it’s worth thinking about social media as a medium, and considering how that medium responds in the wake of an act of terror.

The fact that these displays of solidarity with the French (on a scale rarely extended to the civilians of other conflict zones) feel manipulated by Facebook makes the prevailing response wanting for nuance. Of a respect for the complexities of the time we are living in, when terrorism, civil liberties and the right to privacy seem forever tangled and tackling the former without impacting on the latter feels impossible. Shouldn’t we ask why, in this moment, Facebook has encouraged users to react quickly and vocally?

“Facebook wants to be the place we go when it all unfolds, as iconic as the image of people gathered around news reports on television sets after Kennedy was assassinated, during the moon landings, when we watched the World Trade Center collapse. Facebook responds in the best way it knows – through our emotions”

What is Facebook? For users, it’s a free social media platform. But really it’s a business. A communications agency with an interest in keeping its advertisers happy. Its interest is in creating a network in which we are emotionally invested, memories appear on our feeds each day, and we stay in touch with friends across the world – a place, in short, in which we will spend vast amounts of time. Facebook wants to keep users engaging with the site for as long as possible.

What do tricolor avatars have to do with that? It’s in Facebook’s interest to initiate a bandwagon effect. To maintain its position as a place which people return to during major world events, as well as every other day. Facebook wants to be the place we go to when it all unfolds, as iconic as the image of people gathered around news reports on television sets after Kennedy was assassinated, during the moon landings, or when we watched the World Trade Center collapse. Facebook responds in the best way it knows – through our emotions. The avatars are, to my mind, an easy, homogenous way for Facebook to say, ‘We Care’.

Facebook also provided Parisians with a ‘safety check’ button, to reassure friends and family that they weren’t caught up in the attacks. The safety check has been used before, during natural disasters like the earthquakes that hit Afghanistan, Chile and Nepal this year. But this was the first time it was activated for a terrorist attack. Facebook did not activate it a day earlier, when Isis suicide bombers killed 43 people and wounded more than 200 others in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.

“Facebook became a place where people were sharing information and looking to understand the condition of their loved ones,” said Facebook vice president of growth Alex Schultz in a statement after the attacks in Paris. It’s Schultz’s job to make sure new users continue to sign up to the network – like, for example, older relatives who might want to know if their family is safe. His role, according to his LinkedIn profile, is “internet marketing” and involves “retention for Facebook” and “helping drive other product adoption as required”. I’m talking about him, and I’m talking about this new Facebook product, so I suppose he’s doing a pretty good job right now.

It is surely a given that we would empathise with those affected by any violent attack. But we’ve reached a stage where to say nothing at all online feels like a lesser allegiance. Or to have feelings of unease is to personally attack friends expressing their feelings in other ways.

Displays of solidarity are everywhere, and it’s starting to feel like a well coordinated marketing campaign. It has all the hallmarks: memorable hashtags, powerful iconography in the form of Jean Julien’s Tour Eiffel-turned-peace sign. It doesn’t feel right that companies who want to sell us things are leading this campaign. Want to buy a book from Amazon? There’s the French flag on the homepage, caught in the breeze, next to the word solidarité. Watching a YouTube video? “We Stand With Paris,” the site proclaims, as we learn that France has retaliated with a massive airstrike against Isis targets in Syria.  

In the aftermath of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris in January, Roxanne Gay wrote about the viral ‘Je Suis Charlie’ response. “Within our social networks, we can feel less alone,” she wrote. “We can feel less impotent. We can make these gestures of solidarity. Je Suis Charlie. We can change our avatars. We can share our anger, our fear or devastation without having to face that we may not be able to do much more.”

“Can we channel this engagement into telling policymakers that we hurt and we care, and that our solidarity extends to other parts of the world routinely affected by conflict – for which New York City does not light up its landmarks?”

Changing an avatar is a small, achievable gesture. It’s comforting and uplifting to participate in a campaign. Like wearing a poppy or a political campaign badge, it can be reassuring to find yourself in the company of others making the same statement when it’s difficult to know how else to meaningfully respond. But changing an avatar doesn’t feel sufficient. Can we channel this engagement into telling policymakers that we hurt and we care, and that our solidarity extends to other parts of the world routinely affected by conflict – for which New York City does not light up its landmarks?

Can we make our voices heard and tell the people in power that we want them to do something that truly makes a difference to curbing the continuing atrocities? My hunch is that, for most of us, we don’t feel like we have the energy or the power in our daily lives to follow through on this hope.

That’s why there’s something unsettling about this avatar as the prevailing response. It feels indicative of a pervasive political apathy. We can sign and share e-petitions, we can donate to Kickstarter appeals and click ‘attending’ on Christmas shoebox appeals that we might later forget to go to. These are all easily clickable reactions for the short-term, but it feels like we always run out of steam before we can consider the long-term.

Energy continues to be channelled into heated conversations online – and it’s a good thing, surely, to muddle through discomfort and differences to find a common motivation. But as these exchanges continue, we could do worse than pause to consider the reasons why businesses like Facebook might want us to rush online with our emotions, and to return again and again for short-term comfort. The avatars are temporary. The pain and the difficult conversations will subside until the next attack, which will surely happen, and Facebook provides another button to press.