We no longer remember important events by dates or names, for that matter, but rather hastags. From #BlackLivesMatter to #JeSuisCharlie, social media has invited us to get involved in causes near and far. We choose the faction and unleash our social media gestures, engage, support.
On January 7, 2015 the viral cry of the moment was Je Suis Charlie or “I am Charlie”, a response to the attack on satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo that left 12 killed and another 11 injured.
The slogan ‘Je Suis Charlie’ adopted by supporters of free speech and freedom of expression quickly gained popularity. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was used in more than 3.5 million tweets within the first 24 hours and was shared in nearly 650,000 photos on Instagram.
The slogan appeared on accounts 6,500 times per minute. Roughly.
The horrific execution of a dozen editorial members of the magazine had drawn nearly global outrage and grief. The hashtag was used to express condolence, outrage and defiance and to show support for free expression.
It had become, perhaps, the biggest solidarity activist campaign on social media to date.
It migrated quickly even beyond social media – to the physical world, from Twitter and the Charlie Hebdo homepage to the handwritten signs and billboards that covered Paris in the ensuing days.
Hotels and shop windows, electronic traffic signs, on the pavements and in graffiti art. You wouldn’t go five minutes in Paris without encountering the phrase.
Not every hashtag will have such influence. Nor should it.
Yet in the avalanche of commentary that followed the attack, an old argument reoccurred, as it does every time a event of such calibre galvanizes social media into action.
Does it in fact make a difference?
It’s an easy thing to proclaim solidarity – takes no longer than a minute to type in the hashtag along a thoughtful message or change your FB cover picture with a white-on-black image of the Je Suis Charlie phrase. But in the end, will it make a difference? Social activism, they’d categorise it but is it activism at all?
In fact, I wouldn’t ask this question.
Je Suis Charlie united. Brought the conversation to the frontline. We seem to swallow all of these and yet question the role of social networks in steering real-world conversations. When clearly “Je suis Charlie” meant that killing 12 people does not diminish the values of France and its citizens. Or the rest of the world for that matter.