Tragedy Branding:
Paris, Beirut, And A Generation

On Friday, as word began to spread about the mass killings in Paris, friends and colleagues posted images from the City of Lights. First, there were stock photos of the city, then illustrations of various arrondisements, and then a crescendo of peace signs in the shape of the Eiffel Tower. Accompanying each was the hashtag "#PrayForParis" , three words to let one's social networks know that they hurt, too.

But as photos of a ravaged city morphed into glamorous selfies of non-victims on a 2012 jaunt through Paris, some became perturbed. "You look beautiful, however this is bad timing," said one commenter to a reality star who had posted a well-coiffed photo of herself in front of the Eiffel Tower. Those callouts continued as millions of people slowly began to veil their Facebook profile photos with France's red, white, and blue flag. "What about the senseless murders in Beirut," they asked.

Chloe Wilk-Martin, a friend who witnessed the murders in Paris, called these conscious uploads by our generation "tragedy branding." Whether we decided to enact Facebook's veil, or use the hashtag #PrayForParis vs. #PrayForBeirut vs. PrayForTheWorld, we made a statement to those around us. And these online statements, especially in the wake of horror, have become expected.

A friend, Marianne, opted not to post about the Paris tragedy this weekend, preferring instead to engage in dialogue offline. As she uploaded happy photos with friends in Colorado through Sunday, she received a note from one of her followers on Tumblr. "Why haven't you posted anything about Paris or Beirut? It seems like something you'd care about," it read. "How dare you take pictures having fun with your friends this weekend when something like this happened. Pretty heartless [in my opinion]."

Via Tumblr

By going silent on things that "matter", Marianne had gone off-brand. These days, "[social media] is how people show they care," Marianne told me. "The way [our generation] knows to share feelings is by putting it out on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram first." And so to not engage with it in a time when just about everyone else is, is to say (or, rather, not say) that you could care less.


Alternatively, by highlighting Beirut as the media focused on Paris, some in my network were branded "defiant." After a friend posted a widely circulated meme asking why not one person's status update read "Baghdad", her contacts lashed out with comments that read "I think this is not appropriate at this moment" and " I still remember your reaction after the Boston bombing... I doubt you would have appreciated the same reaction at that time." Across oceans, we began to "point-score" our tragedies, parsing out who deserves what attention and when.

Though we, as a generation, have painstakingly tried to shape our online identities into the offline versions of ourselves, we continue to ignore the fact that these two identities are not identical. That while our veiled Facebook profile photos may be one-dimensional (and not inclusive by design), our reasoning for choosing to change these photos are not. We can have lots to say about Beirut, or Yemen, or trans killings, or racism, and have a red, white, and blue profile photo. Or we can choose to say nothing at all.

After all, we are multi-dimensional beings not online brands. It's time we stop confusing the two.


Nov 16, 2015


Sian-Pierre Regis