Heartfelt hashtag tried to help on a dark night in Paris

#PorteOuverte showed the Internet’s limits – and the enduring warmth of the real world – in hours after Paris attacks

Parisians look at the street from their windows Friday night after police warned them to stay inside because some of the attackers were still at large. Later, the hashtag #PorteOuverte was widely used in attempts to match those who needed shelter with those who had homes to offer for the night.
Mehdi Chebil / Polaris

PARIS — It was one of the few bright spots on a night of horror and death.

When authorities declared a state of emergency Friday night in Paris, many tourists and residents alike found themselves stranded, not sure if it was safe to attempt passage to their homes or hotels.

Enter the Internet. Following the coordinated attacks that left at least 129 dead and many more wounded, the hashtag #PorteOuverte popped up on Twitter and other social media. French for “Open Door,’’ the initiative was meant to connect people looking for shelter with those who could offer space for the evening.

The doors didn’t open for everyone, but for some seeking a safe place, the show of support was a comfort on a night of terror.

“Lots of people were tweeting back, but no one was saying where to go,” said Jeff Sharlet, an English professor at Dartmouth who was visiting Paris for the weekend.

Sharlet, who had been at dinner in the Marais district of Paris when the attacks started, said he was able to stay at a bar he found, but was forced to leave when it closed at 2 am. He eventually found a taxi home.

Some tweets with the hashtag received more than 1,000 re-tweets. But that’s where Sharlet speculates things went flat. While the heartfelt sentiment may have been outpouring all over social media, it didn’t cross over for him into the real world.

“It’s not to say generosity isn’t real. It’s just that I think social media generosity is not as real as it could be — at least not yet,” Sharlet said.

Chris Caliz, who works for a startup in San Francisco and was in Paris with colleagues on business, also failed to find help through the hashtag.

Caliz and his colleagues were also dining at a restaurant in the Marais when news began trending online. He said he was afraid to go back to the place he’d procured through Airbnb, near the Bataclan theater where 100 people were killed at a rock concert during Friday night’s attacks.

“I was hoping I could find something within a one- or two-block radius,” Caliz said.

While he said the response on social media was positive, it didn’t end up leading him to a place.

“There were a lot of re-tweets and what-not, or people who said they would ask a friend, but nothing ended up coming through.”

Despite his lack of success on Twitter, Caliz said he still felt a tremendous amount of support from the real-world restaurant where he was a patron.

“At first they were a bit reluctant to let us stay, but once the state of emergency was declared they closed the blinds, turned on the lights and just started opening bottles of wine for us,” he said.

Support, if not shelter

Others said they were able to find shelter from strangers without the aid of social media. After being stranded at Saint-Michel, a popular nightlife area, Sorrel Lucas, a 26-year-old graduate student from southern England, ran into a courtyard with four other friends. A woman heading into her apartment saw them, and immediately offered to let Lucas and her friends to stay with her.

“Straight away she offered us champagne, salmon, cheese, bread and snacks,” Lucas said.

They stayed up most of the night talking and watching a movie as they waited things out.

Liam Alcock, a student living in the same area, tried offering space in his small studio using the #PorteOuverte hashtag on Twitter.  His tweet received more than 300 re-tweets. Alcock said he received a response from a couple in the area looking for shelter, but while they were on route to his place, a friend volunteered to come pick them up and take them home.

Alcock, who was having a small get-together for friends when the news broke, said he was adamant about making sure his nine guests stayed in his apartment for the evening.

“We ended up going to be around 2 a.m. with people sleeping on the floor, under a table, in the bathroom — we literally just said no one is going home, no matter how close you live,” Alcock said.

Alcock’s friends eventually began to head home around 8 a.m. Saturday morning. In spite of the lack of success with #PorteOuvert, Alcock said he continues to feel quite supported, thanks largely to social media.

“I’ve had countless people message me, phone me — everyone in our community in Paris has been checking up,” he said.

When asked if he feels safe, however, Alcock was reluctant to give a positive answer.

“Not really,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s other people make it more scary for me maybe, but there’s just been news of armed police in the 7th arrondissement next to [The Pullman] hotel, and I can still hear sirens and helicopters out my window.”

“But the most encouraging feeling about the situation is the support,” he said.  I feel like there’s been absolutely tons of support from everyone.”

Related News

ISIL, Social Media, Terrorism

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


ISIL, Social Media, Terrorism

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter