On Saturday night I logged onto Facebook and noticed a curious pattern. Several of my friends (and people that Facebook tells me are my friends) had begun changing their profile pictures to a filtered version corresponding with France’s national flag colours:

“Show your support for the people of Paris by temporarily updating your profile picture with this new template we created”.

It’s a nice idea and a touching gesture that raises awareness for the tragedy that occurred in France. 10 points to Gryffindor!

But, then I started to really think about whether this actually makes a substantial impact.

For many of the online participants – the celebrities, politicians and average Joes – the act has simply become an exercise in narcissism camouflaged as altruism. You could imagine some of the conversations blossoming on Facebook:

Did you change your profile picture?

Ja, I did. You did too? Cool.

We’re so awesome doing our part to support the families that have lost a loved one.

It’s a passive act that expects little effort and engagement on the part of the user. Online activism can be powerful when it motivates changes offline or begins a powerful discussion. You just have to examine all of the effects that social media empowered movements like the #RhodesMustFall movement had or the recent #FeesMustFall, which I have written about. The danger of the filter is that people think that adorning their profile in pretty colours is enough. They don’t engage with the issue. They don’t debate. They don’t donate. They don’t write letters to public representatives calling for action.

The filter is perfectly fine for supporting sports teams and their colours. The filter works well for aligning one’s public face to political parties or commercial brands. But, France’s tragedy merely becomes a trend for many to jump on until the enthusiasm wanes. You have to ask: By next week how many of the faux mourners (faux-ners?) will really have their profile pictures reflecting the tragedy that they were so concerned about? As one study points out, the way internet users discard their profile pictures with ease, calls into question whether pic-tivism can “provide durable foundational elements of contemporary social movements”.

You also have to question Facebook’s so-called efforts at humanitarianism here. This temporary feature has garnered a ton of press for the company with news headlines falling head-over-heels for the new feature and little interest paid to the actual plight of the French people.

What Facebook has done right is the institution of a “safety check system”, which allowed the Parisians the ability to let their friends, families and colleagues know they were alive. This was a feature that actually can make a difference during times of strife. It has already been used by more than four million people and has received praise from some locals.

But, I just can’t get behind those filters. They remind me a lot of those charity wrists bands we use to wear in school. They were designed to support a good cause. Sadly, they lost their signified sincerity and became a throwaway fad. Just like the French filters will.



Rasvanth Chunylall

Rasvanth Chunylall is a media and cultural studies master's student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He currently works as a research assistant with the KZN...

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