When it comes to Facebook’s flag overlays, you’re not helping anyone but yourself.
Since last Friday's devastating terrorist attack in Paris, Facebook has turned into a sea of Tricolore.
Red, white and blue French flags overlay the profile pictures of everyone from your Aunt Trudy to your best friend’s dog sitter, and everyone who you meant to unfollow in between. All across the social media site, people are scrambling to demonstrate their solidarity with France, exhibiting what they believe to be sympathy and support by plastering the French flag over their best MySpace angles.
Thing is, we're guessing that your first instinct upon learning about the massacre in Paris wasn't to wrap yourself in the French flag, until Facebook suggested you do so. Most likely, you felt moved to go Tricolore after you saw how many of your friends had done the same thing. There's nothing wrong with your inclination towards solidarity, but when it's subtly thrust on you by Facebook, one of the earth's most powerful companies, it's just not the right way to help the French people recover in the wake of senseless brutality.
Changing your Facebook photo is a fine and dandy way to tell your social network you care about what happened in Paris, it’s not activism. It's slacktivism, in the very definition of the word … which, in case you were wondering, is "Actions performed via the Internet in support of a political or social cause but regarded as requiring little time or involvement, e.g., signing an online petition or joining a campaign group on a social media website."
In slacktivism, social media users are urged to “like” posts and pages on Facebook, share Twitter and blog posts with everyone they know, and to create videos or take a picture for Instagram relating to their cause (think Ice Bucket Challenge). These activities pose a minimal cost to participants; one click on Facebook or retweet on Twitter and the slacktivist can feel that he or she has helped to support the cause. The Facebook French flag is a perfect, perfectly timely example of this.
There is some debate as to whether slacktivism works. Although it does garner more attention for a cause, a new paper University of British Columbia graduate student Kirk Kristofferson and co-authors Katherine White and John Peloza found that more effectatious political and cultural changes are the results of more private methods of communication (such as writing a member of Congress or donating money). Public slacktivism is a hell of a lot easier, but less effective than private activism. Hence the problem with your pretty Tricolore photo.
See, clicking twice on some e-buttons to change your profile picture on a corporate platform does not make you a helpful participant in the fight against human slaughter. You're still in your Pottery Barn laden apartment, on your butt, getting a $20 Chipotle burrito delivered to you by Postmates. Chances are, the moment after you change your photo, you'll fall into some clickbait hole about "one weird trick" that "eliminates eye bags forever." It's not that you're not well-intentioned or that you don't care as much as you should, but … you're not helping.
In fact, broadcasting the message that you dislike terrorism to your social network by changing your profile photo does nothing more than just that; it just lets people know you don't like when people die en masse. In doing that, you do more for yourself and own ego than you do for people who need help.
The same thing happened when everyone added a rainbow flag or equal symbol overlay to their Facebook photo in support of gay marriage. It was a nice gesture, a beacon of support for a civil rights, but beyond that, it only happened after gay marriage was legalized. This makes us think people do this more for their own benefit, to make others think they're socially conscious, than for the actual cause.
Facebook is a place where people project the personality they want to have onto other people, but without real action, there's an emptiness behind that "socially conscious" personality they advertise. And, correct us if we're wrong, but a French flag certainly does not constitute real action.
Instead, if you want to truly support the hundreds of people who were senselessly murdered, look for an option that broadens its recognition of other tragedies and isn't designed to do more for your own ego than for the actual cause. As the Independent states, "The first step in doing this is to acknowledge and mourn their deaths equally and genuinely, not just because they’ve brought to your attention by a tech giant’s misguided marketing tool."
At this point, we think we owe more to the victims of terrorism and war than a self-serving profile picture change. It's fine to show your support by donning yourself in the French flag … but it doesn't mean much until you involve yourself in more meaningful, more selfless ways of helping people in need.