Like any job, there are moments when I doubt myself. You know those moments where you wake up in the middle of the night and wonder whether what you do actually matters or not? Is social media destroying the fabric of our society? Can cats think of any more funny things to do? Have all the inspirational slogans of our time been said?
And then events such as the Paris Attacks provide some sense of perspective; the realisation that social media is more than just marketing. It has a purpose above and beyond Twitter networking hours and ad campaigns and that sometimes it does matter.
I was living in London at the time of both 9/11 and the 7/7 bombings and remember both the fear and defiance that was evident around the city; the silence on the tube and the worried texts.
The Paris attacks, and indeed all of the many other atrocities and disasters that have struck in recent times, have been marked in that they have been able to harness social media in a way not possible 10 years ago. Its existence has changed our actions and reactions, or at least given us a louder platform. Added to this is a wealth of instant information for better for worse.
As soon as the attacks took place, people took to social media, either to give information about what was going on, or to express their horror. Facebook’s “Safety Check” feature was deployed which recognized who was in the area, and allowed them to quickly and easily let their Facebook friends know that they were safe. More than 4 million people are reported to have used the feature to reassure concerned loved ones. The all-pervasiveness of Facebook can sometimes seem claustrophobic but in times of trouble it does have its uses.
On Twitter, #ParisAttacks started trending almost immediately with people. However, alongside that was the #PorteOuverte, with which people in Paris offered their spare rooms, sofas and food to those people stranded or in need. Quickly the horror of the event went hand in hand with generosity and compassion.
— Team Hopia Designs (@TRMDTeamHopia) November 15, 2015
One of the most reassuring things about social media is that it brings people together, It allows disparate, unconnected people to stand united in a single cause. Whether that’s a tragedy, the Rugby World Cup or a social cause, it gives people a feeling of togetherness. Quickly social media was flooded with posts of solidarity with the people of Paris. Graphics began to appear of the Eiffel Tower, candles, La Tricolore and #PrayForParis started to take over Twitter’s timelines. Facebook allowed people to temporarily filter their profile picture with the red white and blue of the French flag.
Some people misjudged it. People from Kay Burley to Rob Lowe came under fire for insensitive tweeting and many UKIP members were accused of using a tragedy to take political pot shots.
At the same time, what social media also excels at, is allowing people to voice different opinions, and for people to see alternative points of view to the ones that get shouted the loudest in the mainstream media. People began to highlight other atrocities which did not provoke such a reaction; atrocities in Beirut, Syria, Kenya. Posts began to appear from people who did not want to change their profile or #prayforParis – not because they didn’t care, but because they cared about all of it. Many people began to criticise Facebook for its double standards over both the Safety Check and the Profile picture deployment, so much so that Facebook has now promised to deploy its safety check more.
Today, a one minute silence was held at 11am (12 noon Paris time) which was shared far and wide.
As a business, and one who represents other businesses, it is difficult to know how to react in these circumstances, if at all. In the late hours of Friday night and Saturday morning, the scheduled tweets and posts of businesses, probably written days before suddenly seemed jarring and insensitive as the rest of the timeline was overtaken with expressions of grief and sadness.
Buffer had an appropriate message, highlighting how people could pause their scheduled posts if they wished to, allowing them to reconsider what they wanted to publish.
It is a fine line between expressing support and compassion and using a tragedy as a sponsorship opportunity (indeed I thought long and hard over this post) or a platform for controversial opinions and I think it’s always wise to err on the side of caution.
Of course it remains to be seen whether any of it actually matters makes a difference, whether it provided comfort or provoked thought where it was required – or does it all just serve make ourselves feel better, safe at home.
It’s impossible to be certain of anything, except that this will not be the last time that we unite around tragedy.