In his Economic Theory of Democracy (1957), Anthony Downs argued that the propensity to vote was an outcome of the probability one's vote is decisive (P) in a given electoral contest taken with the perception that one benefits from your chosen party winning over and above opposing parties (B), minus the cost of voting (C). Both Conservatives and Labour heavily played the PB themes at the last election, each painting the other in blood-curdling terms and aggressively chasing every vote. And because the polls were close, parties and commentators alike expected a much higher turnout. In the end, the latter was up by a blip, and Labour was trounced as bits of its (former) support stuck to UKIP or stayed at home (among other reasons). From the Downsian perspective, the PB-C formula* played out as Labour voters in sufficient numbers thought their vote didn't matter, that there weren't enough incentives on offer from their party, and the cost of ploughing through party literature, watching political broadcasts and TV debates, and finally going out to vote were too high for too many.
What's this got to do with the price of social media filters? Adapted to the world of tweets and Facebook updates, and doing some injury to Downs' formulation, everyone knows filtering one's avi through the colours of the Republic isn't going to have a meaningful impact on the world. Yet demonstrating one's opposition to IS in a way that is cost free makes some sort of sense. The benefit of being seen as a caring soul touched by awful events does not see one benefit materially, except in the sense of signalling one's virtue.
That, at least, is how a rational choice approach might explain why an ocean of red, white, and blue has taken over the internet. And, as such, it shows up the limits of its utility. Everyone here is self-motivated and self-interested, expressions of solidarity and support have an undercurrent of bad faith. It does not recognise that people can be genuinely moved by tragedy. Looking at my Facebook updates, which contains some real people as opposed to the politics weirdos I follow on Twitter, folks ranging across the spectrum of politicisation, from the heavily committed to couldn't-give-two-hoots demonstrated their solidarity and sympathy. And, undoubtedly why it was closely felt in ways the atrocities in Lebanon and Kenya just weren't - unfortunately - is cultural proximity. Most people don't know a great deal about France, French politics, or French society, but they know enough that they are like us. Hence it's very easy to imagine being at the footy, sinking a jar or two down the bar, enjoying a gig and facing the sort of nightmare Paris has been through. Among the outpouring of pity and sadness, as well as rage against the IS death cult, there is a tinge of fear in there as well, that this could be visited upon a British city.
To return to Camilla's New Statesman piece, the point of filtering your avatar is ... well, it varies. There is no point as such, and if there is a consequence it is to strengthen the social bonds, to create a shared emotion; a 'we' in a highly varied, digitally individuated world - just as it is with other outbreaks of social media solidarity.
*Any resemblance between this formula and the arrangement of my own initials are entirely coincidental.