#PrayForParis: When Empathy Becomes a Meme

You could dismiss all the recent activity on social media as self-indulgent slacktivism. But it’s more than that.


The world’s most iconic monuments, awash in blue and white and red. Human faces, replaced with the stark black and white of Jullien’​s Eiffel Tower. French flags, filtered over photos. Hashtags. Emoji. #Parisjetaime. #Jesuisparis.

People, this weekend, grasped for ways—ways that were at once not nearly enough and the most that could be done—to express their sadness and their solidarity and their fear and their empathy after Paris was attacked on Friday. Ways for people to convert compassion into media. Ways for them to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that “je suis Paris.”

It’s easy to be just a little bit indignant about all of that—to dismiss it all as self-indulgent slacktivism in the vague manner of #kony2012 and #bringbackourgirls and rainbow-filtered profile pictures. As Rurik Bradbury, author of the Twitter feed @ProfJeffJarvis, told The Washington Post’s David Weigel in an email, “The social media reaction to a tragedy is a spaghetti mess of many strands, some okay but most of them useless. There are positive elements (in intention, at least), such as the #porteouverte hashtag and the Facebook ‘Safety Check’ in Paris—though it remains to be seen how many people actually gained from these, either finding a place to stay or letting relatives know they were okay.”

He continued:

But 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: performative signaling purely for their own selfish benefit, spreading information that is often false and which they have not vetted at all, simply for the sake of making noise...

Instead of silence or helpfulness, social media pukes out stupidity, virtue-signaling and vicarious “enjoyment” (in a psychoanalytic sense) of a terrible tragedy by people thousands of miles away, for whom the event is just a meme they will participate in for a couple of days, then let fade into their timeline.

Bradbury makes a very good point. There is something self-centered about this conversion of empathy into smarmery, something distasteful and perhaps worse about this mass impulse to put the “me” in “meme.” It is a kind of slacktivism. It is a kind of performance. It is a kind of posturing.

What it also is, though, is an act of mass compassion. Even more specifically: It is compassion that has been converted, via the Internet’s alchemy, into political messaging. It is empathy, quantified. Facebook, today, is awash in blue and white and red. The social network has become its own kind of flag.

That will change, of course, as people forget and move on and go about their lives, just as all the “je suis Charlie” avatars reverted soon enough to human faces, just as all the marriage-equality rainbow filters dissipated, inevitably. The attention will also, as it were, flag. But, for now, all these expressions of solidarity with France are notable. Together, they treat the Internet not just as a commercial platform or a public square, but as an engine for empathy.

They represent a new kind of ability that we humans have—one that Facebook is just figuring out how to work with, and one that the rest of us are figuring out along with it.

It’s notable, in this instance, that all the French flag filters on Facebook, like the rainbow filters supporting marriage equality, have come from Facebook itself. (Similar efforts have sometimes come from users or political organizations, as with Planned Parenthood’s “Pink Out” day.) The company has directly encouraged its users to activate the filter on their profiles, keeping updates about the filter option high up on users’ newsfeeds and accompanying those updates with a message that reads, “Change your profile picture to support France and the people of Paris.”

It’s hard not to see this in the context of Facebook’s development of an “empathy button”—a mechanism, essentially, for users to express solidarity with a news event or an argument without literally “liking” it. As Mark Zuckerberg explained earlier this year, “What [people] really want is to be able to express empathy.”

Not every moment is a good moment, right? And if you are sharing something that is sad, whether it’s something in current events like the refugee crisis that touches you or if a family member passed away, then it might not feel comfortable to Like that post. But your friends and people want to be able to express that they understand and that they relate to you.

The memes are all, in their way, an empathy button. They work to convert shock and sadness and solidarity into currency. And, in the process, into data. You can argue both for and against that state of affairs, but it is all part of the new access people have to each others’ lives via the Internet, and by extension of The Way We Grieve Now. The expressions of empathy that come from it are sometimes awkward and sometimes self-indulgent and sometimes #toosoon and sometimes #toolate. What they ultimately acknowledge, though, is a deeply human thing, and a thing that has the potential to make its mark on politics and culture and our sense of what communities can be: the notion that “that could be us.” That, in ways big and small and superficial and profound, “je suis Paris.”