What is the point of changing your Facebook profile picture to a French flag?

If you aren’t personally affected by the attacks in Paris, then putting a filter on your profile picture can look a lot like a superficial repetition of a publicly acceptable opinion.

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It is shocking, but death, terrorism and murder have become a normative image when we (in the western world) think about the Middle East. By contrast, and exemplified by the reactions to Friday’s attacks on Paris by social media and mainstream news, such attacks in western cities are received with total horror, fear and anger. For most people going about their daily lives in busy European cities, such attacks are assumed to occur predominantly in distant war zones and countries which are not politically stable. More and more, it is becoming clear that this imagined distance is just that, and that terrorism is becoming increasingly transnational.

Friday’s attacks on Paris have, once again, brought the concept of terrorism and the danger of spontaneous death, through no fault of one’s own, into the forefront of many people’s minds. We are aware that such attacks are extremely difficult to predict and prevent. This fear of impending danger is heightened by the fact that Friday’s events took place in relatively “local” regions of Paris – it was not the Sorbonne, or the Louvre or Gare du Nord that was targeted, but a series of Friday night hotspots packed with local Parisians.

People interacting on social media forums have been extremely quick and vocal in their reactions to Friday’s attacks. However, this seems to have elicited two main reactions: the first is that small changes and demonstrations, such as changing one’s Facebook profile picture to include the French flag, are kind acts of support. The idea is that collectively we are stronger – that wherever we can, we will help each other.

However, the second, perhaps more cynical or perhaps only more nuanced, opinion, which I heard many people suggest over weekend, is that such proclamations are short-term, pointless and somewhat selfish. If none of your Facebook friends were personally affected by the attacks, then the only people who will see your new profile picture and so-called declaration of support are those who do not need supporting. By changing a photo of yourself for a week, you are doing nothing for the victims; instead, you are making the issue about yourself, by making your public, online persona appear more sympathetic. These arbitrary changes mean nothing in real terms, and they belittle the seriousness of the situation in Paris by the fact that they are in the company of videos of dancing dogs or memes of Kylie Jenner. Thus, some people view these acts of “support” as insensitive and indicative only of the depressing idea that people love to be part of a crisis.

Some of my French friends responded to another friend’s status which expressed this scepticism yesterday, saying that, to the contrary, they found the images of support encouraging and consoling, even if they did not know the people who were posting images of the Eifel tower or quotes from Martin Luther King; the point was that citizens from across the world were with them in spirit. Are these opinions – those of the people who are most in need of consoling – more valid than those of others, further removed from the situation, who are more critical?

Ultimately, it falls to the individual to decide. Personally, I find these social media – I want to call them fads – trends, such as changing one’s profile picture to reflect current affairs, superficial. Take, for example, the large number of people who changed their pictures to incorporate the rainbow flag after the American Supreme Court passed gay marriage. The vast majority of these people had done nothing to aid the LGBT community’s fight, and some campaigners were unhappy about people jumping on their victorious bandwagon. I’m sure that such people were in full support of gay marriage as a concept, and, of course, you can support a cause without actively participating. However, taking a strongly positioned stance in public – and I think this issue of “public” is the crucial point – on any given issue or event once it has occurred does, to me, seem superficial. Is this merely people pointing out that they are aware of current affairs and repeating a publicly acceptable opinion – indeed, the dominant, preferred discourse? How much does that count for?

Social media can be extremely useful, and I applaud the PorteOuverte hashtag on Twitter, which afforded many stranded Parisians the help and comfort they desperately needed on Friday night. This is the way social media, and strangers actively participating in a crisis, works best. To me, this makes so much more sense than a swiftly changed profile picture, doubtless prompted by a newsfeed cluttered with identical changes – a change made in order to be seen to publicly agree that, yes, this has been a tragedy. Such a statement is unnecessary – I won’t assume that, just because you didn’t change your picture, you are somehow condoning these atrocious acts of violence. By sending someone a personal, private message you let them know that you are thinking about them; by making a general, public statement, the sympathy and goodwill you express is impersonal and somehow misdirected.

Some people think social media is a good thing, and an almost limitless and helpful resource; some people think it cheapens statements of support because they are two-a-penny. Some people are learning about current affairs through engaging with social media, while others deplore the fact that many seem only to be able to express horror and anger when the violence is directed at people and places close to home. Perhaps there is no real answer – you cannot know with what sincerity something has been typed, nor what any given individual has done or tried to do in the name of a stranger.