On Facebook’s French Flag – Or: If one needy person, charity is done; if ten, none.

About a month ago what is now known (at least on Wikipedia) as the November 2015 Paris attacks happened, with more than a hundred people killed in mass shootings and suicide bombings.

I vaguely remember first seeing reports on this on Facebook, thinking it was some sort of joke. It was unreal; classified in my head with the other “how can that be true?” events, in the realm of the Boston Marathon bombings; the disappearance of MH370; the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre; and Steve Job’s and Michael Jackson’s deaths, both of whom played a huge part in shaping my childhood.

Over the next couple of days I noticed that many people’s profile pictures were overlayed with the French flag. It was a movement that felt bigger than myself, and I wanted to be a part of that. I did a quick Google search and found that it was easily done. A few clicks and I could get myself a profile picture overlayed with the French flag. Facebook made it really easy.

But I had my doubts. I wasn’t sure if this was what I wanted to do. Despite my feeling of loss, I knew it was temporary and didn’t want to commit to changing my profile picture for an indefinite length of time – what would it mean to me or anyone? It felt hypocritical to have that overlay longer than the feeling lasted.

The Facebook developers, though, probably thought and felt the same thing. And in what I must say was a masterstroke, they provided users the option to have that overlay be temporary, defaulting to a week (which was exactly the length of time I’d felt was appropriate). That nudged me in the direction of going ahead with the profile picture update.

I must admit, though, that I still had my reservations. It felt, in a way, overtly political, which is something I go out of my way to be not; but at the same time it felt comforting and it gave me the feeling of being part of a bigger collective, a collective saying yeah let’s show the terrorists we won’t be put down.

Yes, I knew that this reeked of slacktivism: it certainly wasn’t the least I could do (i.e. nothing) but it probably wasn’t too far off. But what else could I do? And if it made me feel better without causing others too much distress, why not?

Still, I started to worry: had I done the right thing? I wondered if others would view me as a herd-follower, mindlessly following others because it was trendy or just because. (Just thinking about what I thought others were thinking about me made me second-guess myself — this wasn’t about me so why was I making it about me?)

And seeing many others writing about why they weren’t doing the change made me worry as well, because I’d frankly not thought too much about it (remember the nudge mentioned above? I was on the fence and a silly thing like the Facebook default of a week made me finally do it!)

So I did the only rational thing I could think of and read the arguments of those who were against the overlay (and there were many). From what I gathered, most dissenters were from one of two camps.

The first camp essentially said, “having the French flag on your profile picture is meaningless and a form of slacktivism. It doesn’t do anything and is a pointless exercise.”

The second camp, funnily enough, in effect stated quite the opposite. “Why do we only care so much about France when there are so many other countries suffering similarly? Why should the attacks in France be so special? Because no flags were put up for the other countries, I’m not going to do so for France.” Their act of refusing to take this French flag action seemed to place undue weight on the importance of this exercise.

In the end I bought more into the argument of the first camp. Putting a French flag overlay on your profile picture is a little pointless – I mean, what purpose does it serve? But then again so many of the things we do are like that, but we still do them anyway in the hope that it might make a difference, even if in the smallest of ways. (Reminds me a bit of e-mails that I send out asking for action before a deadline – I know it’s not going to happen before then, that people being people will dally and deadlines will be pushed back. But still I do it, in the hope that deadlines might one day be met.)

The second camp reminded me a bit of how charity works. If I see a single beggar I might decide to give a coin. If I see ten, I avoid them like the plague. If I gave one of them one, I would then have to give to the others. And if I couldn’t, then it wouldn’t be fair to those who receive nothing. So I just avoid giving altogether. But this just makes me feel like a prick, and keeps them all feeling hungry.

In the end though, there did seem to be common thread. A theory that unified both seemingly disparate camps. Other than the fact that those who wrote about it tended to be a little more political, I realised that if the campaign wasn’t as successful as it had been, I wouldn’t be writing this at all. Because nobody would’ve cared, and neither would I.

For every mindless Facebook user who applied the overlay (me included), there was a dilution of (political?) meaning (though it seemed to me to somewhat increase the feeling of solidarity and community). In the end, the more political among us probably found that making a greater statement was to not have an overlay, but to write about why not to have an overlay.

On the Why only France Question

I want to address separately the “why only France” question though, because this did stump me a little bit. I sort of got this argument at an intuitive level – France is no more or less special than other countries that had been attacked, and having it elevated to such a “special” status can be irksome feel horribly unfair.

But, like a number of commentators have mentioned, one big difference is that the attack in France was so rare and unlikely that it shocked us. A bombing in Israel or Palestine (or the general “Middle East”) seems like a once-a-week affair. Horrible as it is, it’s not unexpected and doesn’t make the news. When it happens in France, it does.

And if you ask me which makes me sadder, the deaths in Israel/Palestine/Middle East or France, I must admit it’s France. Not because I think France is greater in any way, but because I relate more to the French. I know more about them, have dreams of vacationing there, and find them more relatable because they seem more like me.

I remember the Boston Marathon bombings hitting me especially hard. Being an avid runner myself, one who aspired (still do, sometimes) to one day run the Boston Marathon, reading about the bombings made me literally sick. For weeks I felt down, and running just didn’t give me the same high. I would look at images of runners with severed limbs and ask myself what for do we run so hard?
It felt like my family was being attacked; it felt like me being attacked.

If most of the Facebook community looks like they’re treating non-Western countries unfairly, it might just be because most of its users are from Western countries, and people tend to sympathise more strongly with people from similar cultures, people who are more like them. It’s just the way we are.

And if Facebook itself does it, as a for-profit company seeking to make its users happy (so they return and drive its revenue), should we be too surprised?

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