Skip to main content

Getty Images/iStockphoto

When it comes to online mourning, what, if anything, is in questionable taste? How do we emote without making it about us or devolving into petty infighting? And is it necessary to fill your social media feed so people know you care?

Cynics are starting to question the sincerity of the outpouring of grief on social media after Friday's attacks in Paris. Some were irked by those tweeting #PrayforParis hashtags: Who else have we not bothered to pray for, they wondered. Others took issue with people plastering their Facebook profile pictures over with the French flag. For some, the sea of flags on their feeds smacked of slacktivism: professing your support for a cause online without really rolling up your sleeves and doing anything.

"When we mourn someone else's tragedy on social media, is it empathy – or narcissism?" asked The Washington Post's Maura Judkis. In the end, Judkis decided it isn't fair for people to adjudicate the empathy quotient of others' messages this way.

Andrea Vale thought otherwise: In 2013, Vale feared her brother had been killed in the Boston marathon bombings. This week, she expressed her distaste with Facebook friends whose photos were now red, white and blue – friends who seemed otherwise uninterested in world events. Vale took shots at those who "lay claim to a stake in tragedy" and personally rebrand themselves online through overt reaction to horrific news. "When I didn't know if my brother was dead or alive, the last thing I had thought to do was to tweet about it," wrote Vale, whose brother turned up safe.

Parisian expat Charlotte Farhan also questioned the Facebook flags this weekend, and went viral for it. From her Facebook feed, Farhan posted that she wouldn't be changing her profile photo, explaining if she did this for every attack around the world, she'd be doing it several times daily: "If I did this for only Paris this would be wrong," wrote Farhan.

Her post racked up nearly 140,000 likes and spurred much bickering. Farhan followed up with several rebuttals and thanked her supporters for the shares, inviting them to follow her on Twitter. And so the story quickly became about one woman's online identity rather than about victims in Paris – or anywhere else in the world.

Social media etiquette experts suggest people take a deep breath and consider the big picture beyond their tiny aggressive worlds online. Their question to those slamming each other online is this: who are we to dictate the right way to say you care?

"People criticizing how others are choosing to respond, there's a boundary issue there," says psychologist Jennifer Thomas. "We need to let others change their profile picture or respond with sympathy to Paris without condemning them with, 'Well, did you respond with much for Beirut?' " says Thomas. "When you're feeling upset, don't pull other people down. Assume that others are doing the best they can."

Julie Spira, author of The Rules of Netiquette: How to Mind Your Digital Manners, agreed: "The earliest ones who adopted the flag felt sad and wanted to share their support. We should let up on it."

Spira said she talked to friends who were so concerned about causing offence that they resisted going red, white and blue on Facebook: They worried how soon would be deemed too soon to take down the tributes and return to their selfies. Spira herself posted Jean Jullien's peace sign with the Eiffel Tower to her Instagram account with the caption "It was hard to sleep last night. Continuing to pray for Paris and our entire world."

"That was where I came from," said Spira, who also suggested posting pragmatic information to support victims and their families.

Another piece of advice: go easy on the hashtags, no more than three or it dilutes the message. "The conversation isn't about hashtags."

On the other side of emoting for France, there was something more worrisome bubbling up across social media feeds: offensive and Islamophobic messages. Here, the question was should one engage, block, unfriend or simply mute the offending feed? Spira recommended blocking or muting. "If anyone on your feed is posting anything that makes you uncomfortable, whether it's political, religious or has to do with war, you have the right to hide them from your feed. Digital real estate is like inviting people into your home."

What about actually showing your online community that you won't stand for hate? Experts recommend taking the conversation offline or private messaging, rather than turning it into a showy flame war. "Call them out privately," says Spira. "Once you start having long-winded rants on Facebook, it suddenly shifts and becomes about you, not about the cause."

If you happen to be the one doing the offending, recognize the voices calling you to a higher standard and then apologize in the forum where you've been offensive, says Thomas, co-author of the book When Sorry Isn't Enough.

"We're in a very raw place and we're also bystanders as North Americans," she said. "We have a sadness and emotions are very near the surface for everyone. We feel threatened and we don't know what the future holds. It's important to be doing what we can to foster communities that feel encouraging and supportive and to mute the conversations that feel attacking."

Certainly, social media can also do good in the aftermath of a tragedy. Take the hashtag #PorteOuverte, which Parisians used on Friday if they needed a safe place to go or if they could provide safe haven for others. "In the face of horror," said Thomas, "one thing that can let us sleep at night is seeing that there is a kindness."

Of course there is also the option of mourning privately – and quietly. It's invisible but it counts, too.