Man Repeller · Jan 7, 2015

#JeSuisCharlie, But Is That Enough?

I posted the first image I ever shared on Instagram on a Thursday. While it would be several weeks before I could deconstruct the various shades of gray that separate Willow from Inkwell, I understood this much of the platform: Thursday was an opportunity. That afternoon, I found an old picture of my best friend and me, cropped it into a perfect square, and captioned it: #tbt.

It seems trite, but it’s true. The simple construction was a kind of inauguration. It gave me a new language. It was how I proved I belonged. It’s dumb, I guess, but we all do it. We find the shorthand that resonates, and we use it to have a conversation that is bigger than the radiant sunset on 57th Street or our #OOTD or that slice of avocado toast we ate for breakfast. The wild virtual universe is more powerful than almost any sequence of symbols I know.

On days like today, when terrible things happen, I am especially conscious of it.

This morning, twelve people were murdered in Paris at the headquarters of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. I am not a political cartoonist or a pundit or even an editor at The Onion but I am someone who has read enough of The New Yorker to know that nothing illustrates senselessness so well as a cartoon. I am someone who cherishes the potent punch that humor and parody can pack.

This afternoon, I have at least one way to express as much. Soon after the attack, untold numbers of images and tweets and hashtags flooded the Internet and my newsfeed, trumpeting “Je Suis Charlie.” The digital demonstrations have become how people across the globe can mourn victims of disaster and this serious blow to free speech in an instant.

Social media has made the world so small it fits in the palm of our hands.

It’s good—a lot of the time. It reveals to us our allies when the universe seems to deny them. It’s how we find our friends and our sympathizers and our fellow fans: #theBachelor is not going to watch itself. But the convenience is not all hearts and rainbows and emojis. It means we can engage without elaboration. It gives us a way to participate that is maybe too passive.

The generous view is that such outpourings of support on social media remind us of our humanity. They show us that we are not alone in our commitment to #bringbackourgirls. They prove that #blacklivesmatter and that #yesallwomen face more than they should have to bear.

But sometimes I am less optimistic. I wonder about our motivations. I wonder how much we would sacrifice for the ideals that we declare in impassioned statuses and tweets and profile pictures that only last until next Tuesday. Our generation has built a kind of network that seems supernatural. I suspect we have maybe deified it. And frankly, I love it. I “like” it. I double tap it. Really. I think it has the power to exact real change. But I’m not sure how.

Can a hashtag make you an activist? Can we protest on the Internet? Do we no longer need bodies and brains and outrage in the streets? Were those things ever enough? Are our thumbs enough? Let’s talk about it.

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