Since their first signs of widespread popularity in 2002 with the launch of the site Friendster, social media platforms have witnessed near continuous growth, with almost five new Facebook profiles created every second, according to zephoria.com.
The staggering number of social media users and the connectivity of such sites can provide many opportunities to raise widespread awareness and support for those affected by tragedy. With recent updates to Facebook allowing for users to post temporary profile pictures and use filters on their pictures related to a cause, these opportunities have only grown in the past months.
But all too often, it’s hard for legitimate sympathy to show through in these social media trends. With some using them as an opportunity to garner more likes and attention than support for a struggling community, these social media campaigns can quickly become nothing more than gestures that have lost any true meaning behind them.
After the tragedy in France nearly a month ago, Vice President of Facebook Messaging David Marcus encouraged users to temporarily change their profile picture by adding an overlay of the France flag “[to show] support for the people of Paris.”
But as Facebook feeds around the world filled with notifications of those who had already applied the filter to their images, it was all too easy to scroll past the abundance of French flags and the messages they carried — or rather, were meant to carry.
Of course, in the past, these same Facebook filters have been used successfully for events like cheering on favorite baseball teams in the World Series or showing support for the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage — celebratory events that elicited pride or team spirit and encouraged the expression of such spirit to our friends. In light of a tragedy such as those in Paris, however, such filters have no place in the healing process for those affected by the tragedy.
Still, some will argue that these trends could be seen as acts of empathy toward those who are suffering, thereby contributing to the healing process in their own way. Even if people might see these filters and other trends on social media as beneficial to the cause, the meaningless intentions of some who changed their profile pictures to that of the French flag or posted various hashtags related to the event represent the desire to fit in with the crowd. Such actions donate neither time nor money to the healing efforts in these regions, and offer little in the way of comfort to those who are suffering.
This isn’t to say that following such trends can’t show support for those struck by tragedy — when posted along with a more individual message or following through with other forms of emotional or monetary support for those in need, these posts can represent people coming together to help a general cause.
When the trends stand alone on one’s Internet profile, however, it’s hard to see them as much more than an attempt to create a sense of helpfulness amid widespread adversity.
Undoubtedly, those who experience disasters deserve unending support and messages of comfort from others in any form they can give. But the disconnect associated with social media hashtags or profile picture filters simply cannot convey the sort of understanding needed for these trends to truly be considered helpful to those affected by the tragedy. While the idea of solidarity may be nice, a flag on your Facebook feed or a hashtag on Twitter is not enough to show true awareness in light of the deeper tragedies our world faces today.