Facebook, you may have noticed, turned into a rainbow-drenched spectacle following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday that same-sex marriage is a Constitutional right.
By overlaying their profile photos with a rainbow filter, Facebook users began celebrating in a way we haven’t seen since March 2013, when 3 million people changed their profile images to a red equals sign—the logo of the Human Rights Campaign—as a way to support marriage equality. This time, Facebook provided a simple way to turn profile photos rainbow-colored. More than 1 million people changed their profile in the first few hours, according to the Facebook spokesperson William Nevius, and the number continues to grow.
But all this raises a serious question: Is Facebook doing research with its “Celebrate Pride” feature? Facebook’s data scientists have attracted public scrutiny for conducting experiments on its users: tracking their moods and voting behavior. Much less attention has been given to their ongoing work to better understand collective action and social change online.
In March, the company published a paper that got little outside attention at the time, research that reveals some of the questions Facebook might be asking now. In “The Diffusion of Support in an Online Social Movement,” Bogdan State, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate, and Lada Adamic, a data scientist at Facebook, analyzed the factors that predicted support for marriage equality on Facebook back in March 2013. They looked at what factors contributed to a person changing his or her profile photo to the red equals sign, but the implication of their research is much larger: At stake is our understanding of whether groups of citizens can organize online—and how that collective activity affects larger social movements.
Scholars and activists have debated the effectiveness of profile-image campaigns since at least 2009, when Twitter users turned their profiles green, joined Facebook groups, and changed their location setting to Tehran in support of Iranian protesters. Experts downplayed the importance of such actions; Global Voices Iran editor Fred Petrossian argued that talk of a Twitter revolution “reveals more about Western fantasies for new media than the reality in Iran.” Evgeny Morozov, who was a Yahoo fellow at the time, called it “slacktivism,” a “harmless activism” that “wasn’t very productive.”
Among other critiques, Morozov voiced two important questions in a larger debate over the value of collective action online. First, he argued that social-media solidarity has an unknown effect toward political change, perhaps even siphoning energy away from more effective action. Secondly, Morozov downplayed the cost and risk of that participation. But unlike Westerners showing solidarity for Iranians on Twitter, gender equality in the U.S. involves changes in social relations alongside political changes. Changing one’s profile image in support of marriage equality in America carries immediate risks and costs, from “a quarrel with one’s otherwise-thinking friends—to the life-threatening,” as State and Adamic explain in their research.
Indeed, it’s hard to look at the compilation of coming-out videos posted by YouTube on Friday and dismiss online activity as inconsequential. The “slacktivism” of changing a profile image matters in part because of the personal risks it may entail, and in part because it may contribute to changes in the social acceptance of LGBTQ people. While some might argue a rainbow-colored profile is a lazy way of showing support, it could be an act of great courage for the person changing his or her profile.
( via theatlantic.com )