We were in Paris, more than a mile from the attacks, enjoying a quiet Friday night dinner at an Alsatian restaurant, just as people on vacation do. Our first indication that something bad had happened wasn't the sound of gunfire or explosions, but the buzz of a text from a family member back home: "Are you ok?"
We hurried out of there, and 15 minutes later, safe in our hotel room, my husband updated his Facebook status. I did the same.
As the night wore on, I was prompted by Facebook's "Safety Check" feature: A message on my app asked, "Are you OK?" I marked myself safe. It got more than 100 likes. And that's when I started to feel guilty. Did broadcasting my safety imply that I had actually been in danger, inserting myself into a tragedy I didn't witness? Or was it just an efficient way to tell friends and family not to worry?
Chatting with fellow travelers on the train from Paris to London the next morning, some told me they found such use of social media distasteful.
“The first thing people seemed to do was post on Facebook,” said Marina Sheen, who said she opted not to. “It’s a vicarious involvement, the social media thing.”
The scene in France after bloody rampage stuns Paris
Max Mandel, a Canadian who splits his time between New York and London, said he opted not to use the safety check feature, either.
“To say ‘I’m safe’ would be to draw attention to myself,” he said. “I think it’s tacky.”
Of course, worried loved ones would prefer that we err on the side of overcommunication, and Facebook's tool made it easy. Facebook also streamlined the sharing of sympathy for Parisians, letting users add a temporary overlay of the French flag for their profile pictures. People snapped it up, posting pictures along with prayers, poems, and expressions of sorrow. Some of them were personally affected by the attacks. a great many who were outspoken in their sympathy were not — and they are, some say, exemplary of a certain psychological principle. When we mourn someone else's tragedy on social media, is it empathy — or narcissism?
Perhaps a little of both.
“There is a principle in psychology that explains that people band together when they have a common enemy,” Karen North, a communication professor at the University of Southern California who studies social media, said via e-mail. “The world rightfully feels united against the terrorists.”
So in every tragedy, people search for a way to express that solidarity, and often do so via hashtags and image memes. Two of the fastest-emerging and most popular were #prayforparis and an image of the Eiffel Tower turned into a peace sign.
But that’s not the only psychology at work here, North said — there’s also a principle called “self-presentational needs.”
“People are motivated to control and craft their public persona,” North said. “These events offer an opportunity to present themselves as ‘good people’ and/or people who are knowledgeable.”
As #prayforparis spread and was used by people farther and farther from the tragedy, it wasn't long before people began to question the veracity of those prayers, calling out a double standard. If we pray for Paris, many asked, why are we also not praying for the people of Beirut, who suffered losses in an Islamic State attack, or any other place in the world where innocent people die? Are we only praying for Paris because it's a romantic, lovely place where many Westerners vacation? That was one of several dialogues about the propriety of social media empathy that emerged in the wake of the attacks, and is still evolving.
Another #prayforparis question to consider: Why are we praying for Paris at all? The question didn't come from a lack of empathy for its wounded and dead. Rather, it was a way of pointing out that many using the hashtag were perhaps praying for their idea of Paris — crepes, the Louvre, baguettes — rather than the complicated reality of Paris. Many in France perceive themselves as a secular nation besieged by religious fundamentalists, so a call for prayer showed a jarring disconnect.
"The terrorists pray. Good people think," was one common sentiment on Twitter. Another response that quickly went viral was a drawing by French cartoonist Joann Sfar, who posted a series of drawings reacting to the attacks, with one frame in English that read: "Friends from the whole world, thank you for #PrayforParis, but we don't need more religion! Our faith goes to music! Kissing! Life! Champagne and joy! #Parisisaboutlife."
A third group of commenters discouraged people from posting anything — because in their view, any Paris-related post would inevitably be more narcissistic than sympathetic. (In the case of people posting smiling vacation selfies in front of touristy Parisian landmarks, they may be right.) One essayist, Jamie Khoo, argued that the redundant messages of empathy lend themselves more to image-crafting than support for a grieving nation. In an Elephant Journal story called "Why I'm Not Turning my Facebook Photo Blue, White and Red," she said, "I feel that just changing my photo, writing a few words and hashtag minimizes (even cheapens) the tremendous, horrific reality of what is going on all around the world, not just in Paris."
"It irritates me how other people treat it like an art or photo contest," one Facebook commenter wrote.
Predictably, those who have participated in these rites responded angrily to what they saw as trying to police their emotional expression. Who is to say that posting a beautiful photo or a message of solidarity isn’t a valid enough way to care?
North thinks it is; she is among the many who posted about her love and sympathy for Paris. I did, too.
“I did it for the same reason as many, that we actually do care for the strangers who were victimized and the others who were terrorized by this attack,” North said.
Because social media brings us closer than ever to the victims of faraway attacks, it is possible that we feel more deeply than we would have in a pre-Facebook era. Not to mention, it is easy to put oneself in the shoes of the victims.
That was certainly on our minds, as my husband and I had dined Thursday night at a restaurant a block and a half away from La Belle Equipe, where at least 19 people died 24 hours later. We wanted to go on Friday, but changed our plans because we figured we wouldn't be able to get a table on a weekend evening in such a busy neighborhood.
When people say, “It could have been me,” they’re making it all about them. But isn’t the point of terrorism that it could have been us — or anyone in the wrong place at the wrong time?