How your Facebook profile picture can save the world…and your ego!

The news is shocking. Last night, on November 13, 2015, 130 people were killed in a terrorist attack in Paris. It is the number one news story all over the world. As I scroll through the Facebook newsfeed, I quickly see that the topic is already spreading all over social media. One specific thing, however, catches my attention in particular. It seems that all of a sudden, some people all have the same profile picture, namely the French national flag colours. Especially on Facebook, which usually serves as the perfect platform for people to present their uniqueness, creativity and lifestyle, everybody now looks the same. Obviously, this must have something to do with the latest happenings. However, I cannot quite figure out, what exactly the connection between terrorist attacks and changing your Facebook profile picture is.

It is only after I read some of my friend’s posts that I realise, those people are actually changing their picture in order to show their support for Paris. At least that is what they think they are doing. I still do not understand, how is this ‘action,’ which literally is not more than clicking on a button, supposed to do any good for anybody. Apparently, or better said, luckily, I am not the only one who feels that way, since not all faces are covered by the French flag.

What I find most disturbing is the fact that those people really think they are helping the people in France. I remember when supporting a cause meant donating money, signing a petition or demonstrating on the streets, which actually required some real effort and commitment. Back then, people would come together, in any wind and weather, walking through the city, shoulder to shoulder, as one unified force ,shouting and singing until their voices were heard.

Facebook user Alexander agrees: “It is funny to see how most of those people who change their picture and write those posts truly believe in the power their actions have, and even accuse the others of not being compassionate because they don’t do the same. In reality, all they did is click on a button, nothing more.”

This is not the first time people use the internet to show their solidarity and support. Earlier this year, on June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States of America has made same-sex marriage legal nationwide. As a response, more than 26 million people slapped a rainbow flag over their Facebook profile picture, in order to “celebrate pride,” as the social network promotes it. Caitlin Dewey, journalist for British national newspaper ‘The Independent,’ claims: “Profile picture change campaigns have become as common as cat videos on certain social networks. There were green filters for Iranian protesters in 2009, yellow ribbons for Hong Kong in 2014, black dots to oppose sexual violence in India, Arabic ’Ns’ to support Iraqi Christians.” It’s a well known phenomenon that especially social media users strongly engage in communicating how caring and enthusiastic they are about certain causes.

Jonathan Obar, professor for telecommunication at Michigan State University, explains: “These technologies may in fact be promoting a form of ‘slacktivism’ instead of activism, and do little more than promote ‘weak ties,’ which can bring a million people to a Facebook page but fail to mobilise a thousand people in the street to actually effect change”.

Not only does this ‘slacktivism’ barely contribute to any valuable benefit, but the reasons behind those actions are mainly of selfish nature, in the sense that those users anticipate acknowledgement and admiration from their social environment, in the form of likes and positive comments. Thomas, a Dutch student in International Business Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam, generalises: “Nowadays, people on social media have no interest in helping a social or political cause. They just want to boost their ego so they can tell themselves and their friends how amazing they are.” To be fair, the users are not entirely to blame for their ignorant thinking, considering Facebook inviting you to take action by saying: “Change your profile picture to support France and the people of Paris”.

In light of the increasing popularity of online activism, I am most concerned with the effects it has on actual meaningful support. A study from the University of British Columbia revealed that posting support online enables people to associate with causes but makes them less likely to commit any resources to them. “Our research shows that if people are able to declare support for a charity publicly in social media, it can actually make them less likely to donate to the cause later on,” said graduate student Kirk Kristofferson, who co-authored the study. “If the goal is to generate real support, public facing social media campaigns may be a mistake.”

So as I realise that this is a serious problem, I start thinking about how it is possible to combine people’s desire to show their grandiosity and compassion to the rest of the world on social media with real meaningful support. And suddenly, the idea was obvious. Since people only support a cause if they are absolutely sure that all their friends can witness this act of pure benevolence, why doesn’t Facebook then create a tool, that generates a personalised message on the Facebook newsfeed, whenever someone donates money. That way, people can show their support and, most importantly, they actually make a meaningful contribution to the benefit of mankind. And to put the cherry on the cake, it makes sure the beloved Facebook community is finally spared the insufferableness of dealing with those hypocritical philanthropists for good.

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