If you watched your Facebook feed turn blue, white, and red in the days after the horrible attacks in Paris and were somewhat horrified by that, too, you aren’t alone. Seeing the French flag over the shiny, smiling faces of friends — or worse, a friend’s dog — might have felt jarring in a way it didn’t when the flag was a rainbow, celebrating the US Supreme Court decision that declared same-sex marriages legal.
“It just doesn’t feel thoughtful,” said etiquette and modern manners expert Diane Gottsman. “Kind of like someone giving bad news with a smile.”
Voices critical of the Facebook overlay are all over the Internet. Some say it’s just another form of narcissism, making France’s tragedy about oneself. But others make strong cases for accepting it for what it is: in most cases, a simple gesture of good will and solidarity.
In an e-mail to the Washington Post, Rurik Bradbury, a New York software executive, wrote, “The part that feels the most useless to me is people’s vicarious participation in the event, which on the ground is a horrible tragedy, but in cyberspace is flattened to a meme like any other. Millions of people with no connection to Paris or the victims mindlessly throw in their two cents.”
In an opinion piece in the British daily The Independent, artist and writer Lulu Nunn wrote, “Paint-by-numbers solidarity when it’s foisted on you by one of the most powerful companies in the world is simply not the way to help a traumatized nation in shock after murder.” The piece was titled “Got a French flag on your Facebook profile picture? Congratulations on your corporate white supremacy.” It had more than 100,000 shares within days.
There was also enormous backlash against Facebook for not offering the Lebanese flag the day before the Paris attacks, when 43 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in a terrorist attack in Beirut — or the flags of the many other countries and cultures mired in ongoing and deadly turmoil across the globe. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg addressed this in a post: “Thank you to everyone who has reached out with questions and concerns about this. You are right that there are many other important conflicts in the world. We care about all people equally, and we will work hard to help people suffering in as many of these situations as we can.”
Joel Paula, who has lived and worked as a policy analyst in Paris for about two years and who has Boston ties, said in an e-mail, “I do find the French flag thing on FB to be a little weird. . . . Flags are powerful symbols that are tied to many different emotions, so I guess I can see why some have had negative reactions to them. But like everything else on Facebook and the other free-for-all corners of the Internet . . . it’s just a lot of nonsense.”
Jason Longo, a Brooklyn, N.Y., cinematographer with friends in Paris, has mixed feelings about the flag overlay and what he called the “corporatization of sentiment.”
“It’s a small thing that seems insignificant because you’re just clicking a button,” Longo said. “But as I look at my Facebook feed and see all of those French flags, part of me is really moved by it, more than I am cynical about it.”
He said that to him it’s similar to Parisians flocking to put candles and flowers at the sites of the attacks as a symbol of solidarity. That’s not an option for most of us, so we signal our support in other ways. “It’s sort of like we’re stuck in front of our little devices all day,” Longo said, “and there are these big, global things happening, and this is the intersection of these two realities.”
He remembers having a similar internal debate when the pride flags began to appear on June 26, the day of the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage. He said he thought, “I support this, but I didn’t share in this struggle or participate in a meaningful way. But you also don’t want to seem like you don’t support it, because you do.”
Gottsman, who owns The Protocol School of Texas, added, “People who don’t change their profile pictures aren’t saying that they don’t care, they still feel the same kinds of emotions,” but may choose to express them differently. She called for tolerance on both sides. When it comes to figuring out how to mourn in the social media world, “this is brand new.”
Jean-Baptiste Heguy, a Paris-based travel writer, said changing his profile picture on Facebook was an easy call.
“I didn’t ask myself if it was right or wrong to do so. It was a way for me to send a sort of support,” Heguy said in an e-mail. “I’m smiling in the picture, and for me it’s a way to say that whatever happened, I don’t want to change anything to my way of living.”
Facebook’s flag option allows users to choose how long the temporary profile picture stays — an hour, a day, a week, forever. Asked what the appropriate length of time is, Gottsman said she wondered herself.
Longo had been contemplating adding the overlay, that is until he saw the timer. “That’s the moment I decided not to go there. It’s a little too weird, setting a timer on grief.”Chris Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.