It took less than an hour for the hashtag to appear. When gunmen attacked the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday morning, French onlookers mourned the murdered journalists by tweeting #JeSuisCharlie. Soon, Charlie Hebdo had updated its website with a guide to translating the call for supporters around the world—#YoSoyCharlie, #IchBinCharlie, #IAmCharlie. As the violence spread in Paris, the hashtag fractured into countless iterations: #JeSuisAhmed, in support of the Muslim police officer Ahmed Merabet, killed while patrolling the street outside the newspaper’s offices; #JeSuisJuif (“I am Jewish”), after hostages were taken inside a kosher grocery store; #JeSuisParisien extended solidarity to all the people of the city.
#JeSuis, #IchBin, #IAm—this is now the standard opener for expressions of social media support. We express empathy, outrage, and horror by subsuming ourselves into victims’ identities—#WeAreTrayvonMartin, #ICantBreathe—or stepping into their shoes—#IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #WhyIStayed. When a 15-year-old Houston girl was raped at a party last summer then ridiculed on social media with the hashtag #JadaPose, supporters countered her harassers with the hashtag #IStandWithJada, until Jada herself proposed a more powerful one: #IAmJada. When a racist soccer spectator threw a banana on the field near Barcelona star Dani Alves, fellow players responded with the hashtag #SomosTodosMacados (“We are all monkeys”). And when Boko Haram kidnapped 276 Nigerian girls, they quickly became “ours.”
This is, of course, not just an Internet thing. The “I am” construction has roots in the famous 1960 “I am Spartacus” scene, where rebel Roman slaves assumed their leader’s name in an attempt to prevent his execution; the Charlie Hebdo response in particular has a #JeSuisSpartacus vibe, as the more people who republish the newspaper’s provocative cartoons, the harder it is for terrorists to silence the message. The meme also mirrors John F. Kennedy’s 1962 “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, where the president expressed America’s support for the people of Berlin by literally claiming himself as one of them. In the late 1960s, California journalists affixed “I am not Paul Avery” buttons to their shirts as a show of strength and self-protection against the Zodiac killer, who had pledged to target the journalist, Avery, who was investigating his crimes. And before the #WeAreTrayvonMartin hashtag and hoodied selfies were used to challenge racist images of black boys, a 1990s staple, the “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt, attempted to upend a cultural stereotype by putting a face—or rather, faces—on a stigmatized ideology.
But what was once a rhetorical flourish has become the default mode of showing solidarity in the hashtag era, where the political only reaches viral heights if it’s suitably personalized. As with all enduring memes, the “I am” construction appears almost endlessly flexible: “We are the 99 percent” was constructed to recast the radical Occupy movement as a populist one. To conceal their identities, members of the hacker collective Anonymous don identical Guy Fawkes masks (in public, on YouTube, and in their avatars) and favor the catchphrase, “We are Anonymous. We are Legion.” And American nurses printed “I am Nina Pham” stickers in a bid to encourage medical facilities to provide better protection to nurses charged with treating Ebola patients. In each case, the #IAm construction functions like a politicized selfie, drawing attention to both the speaker and the subject (often, as with #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, the conceit actually requires a photo to spread). So while #IAm often begins as a way to grant a voice to the voiceless—it typically arises in death, as it did for Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and the staffers of Charlie Hebdo—it’s also designed to grant a platform to another silenced demographic: ourselves.
The simplicity and accessibility of the meme also means that it risks veering off message. When white people began contributing to #WeAreTrayvonMartin, many were attempting to show empathy and support, but they were also inserting themselves into a movement designed to lift black voices, which made them seem culturally clueless and self-aggrandizing. Similarly, the wrong subject can stop the meme in its tracks. Counter-efforts like “I am Darren Wilson” or “I Can Breathe” have failed not just because they lack popular support, but because the optics are so inartful—we know that white cops can breathe, because other cops aren’t putting them in chokeholds on the street.
#JeSuisCharlie had all the elements to become the broadest iteration of the “I am” meme yet. The Venn diagram of people who both value their speech and condemn terrorism is expansive. But in the days since the attack began, its broad coalition began to collapse under the weight of its own meaning. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg argued that we are, in fact, not all Charlie Hebdo because most of us have never exhibited the “genuine display of bravery” required to continue to publish offensive materials after our offices have been firebombed by terrorists. And at Gawker, Maria Bustillos distanced herself from the sentiment, reminding readers that a “lot of the stuff that Charlie Hebdo published was really gross and racist.” Other onlookers took a different approach. As the attacks continued, mourners on social media began stacking the emerging hashtags atop one another, hoping to extend their empathy as far as character limits allowed: #JeSuisCharlie, #JeSuisAhmed, #JeSuisJuif, #JeSuisParisien.