Green Vs Pink: Change Your Picture, Change The World | MIT Center for Civic Media

Green Vs Pink: Change Your Picture, Change The World

This post was a collaboration with Molly Sauter and Matt Stempeck

Movements of people changing their profile photos on social networks do definitely achieve one thing: they draw out the slacktivist critics.  

During the 2009 Iranian election protests, hundreds of thousands of Twitter users turned their profile pictures green in solidarity with the protesters. This became the slacktivist strawman everyone had been praying for: naive American Twitter users taking the laziest possible action to support a foreign conflict because it was the cool thing to do. Or, if you were on the other side of the fence, it was the strongest show of solidarity between Americans and Iranians in...ever?

Criticizing slacktivism is a bit ironic, given that it's the laziest area of social movements to attack. Everyone's done it, and the same obvious arguments are trotted out each time. Yesterday, as the US Supreme Court weighed multiple cases that could legalize, outlaw, or retain the shifting status quo around gay marriage, hundreds of thousands of Facebook users adopted the Human Rights Campaign's red and pink equality symbol to show their support. As this digital bandwagon grew, so too have the usual attacks on change-by-avatar. 

The fact is, we all understand that changing our profile photo is the most thin, simple, and symbolic way to participate (Ethan has blogged elsewhere about thick and thin participation). The question is not whether the action is directly tied to the lead actors deciding the fate of gay marriage, which no one has argued or believed, but rather whether the act of profile photo switchery, at mass scale, produces any result whatsoever.

Matt: Going pink may actually be tied to a theory of change, in that it changes norms and clearly establishes which side you are on in a cultural debate. Many of these oft-criticized ‘voice’ efforts are directed not at those with the power to change things directly, but at those who follow us on social networks and thereby know us. No one taking these actions is expecting a direct response from the Supreme Court.

Yet this action, taken by many, can matter. We know that support for gay marriage is linked with how likely it is we know someone who is openly gay. And we know that people care deeply about societal norms. Ever-increasing support for gay equality, generated at the interpersonal level, is only strengthened by a mass outpouring of support on social networks. People may be smarter than slackademic critiques allow.

Matt & Nathan: In the case of gay equality, the focus of change is also social itself. By going pink, people are standing up as allies and creating the perception of a safe space within their own friendship communities online-- spaces where gay people may face stigmas and bullying. That's another reason going pink may be meaningful: it was, for many people, a more difficult social decision than going green. Going green may have produced some indirect changes, in terms of raising awareness, or signaling a broader US audience for news from Iran than was previously assumed, or establishing affinity for the Iranian people at greater levels than we previously broadcast to our friends. But going pink was still, in many individuals' social networks, an act requiring some degree of bravery, because it's a more controversial topic, closer to home, and likely to alienate at least one social contact.

Molly sez: I question whether “going pink” needs to be linked to a theory of change, as opposed to a pattern of personal identification. Kendra Albert wrote on Facebook: “I'm not usually one for profile pic changes, but I switched mine after I realized how wonderful it felt to see all of the allies/LGBT people as I looked at Facebook. Of course, it won't change the Supreme Court's decision but it feels good to know that people care.” Notice that she talks about a personal feeling as weighted over the expectation that her action in and of itself will cause change. It seems to me that this is very much about the creation of performative/visual networks within networks. There is not only the visual network Kendra refers to, as visual critical mass is achieved as more and more of your contacts change over their profile picture, but also a network of reinforcement actions, as people “like” each other’s picture changes and share interesting/funny/touching examples.

Molly further sez:Personal identification may not be mutually exclusive from an overt theory of change, but I think the personal identification/in-group recognition thing is paramount in most cases of slacktivism, particularly cases like this, where the event being referred back to is taking place within a closed system (the Supreme Court). This type of performative identification may add to a societal change, but I don’t think that’s in the minds of many people participating in it. It’s worth breaking this out of the “must attempt to cause change now” social movement structure, and look at how this model of slacktivism is more about developing personal identity than immediate social change.

Nathan: Personal identity and social change are linked whenever visible signals of our friends' behaviour influences our own. Experiments have demonstrated that showing people which of your friends have voted, how your neighbourhood turns out for votes, or who in your network donate organs can *sometimes* influence your own choices.

Nathan: In the case of pink Facebook profiles, people may actually see more pink than their network actually contains, since the things that appear on the Facebook NewsFeed are mediated by recommendation algorithms. Every time a person changes their profile, or someone likes or comments on their new profile image, the NewsFeed algorithm counts that as a vote for showing other people that profile. In theory, even if only 5% of your friends change their profile, you could be seeing pink on 50% of your NewsFeed.

Molly: This particular model of slacktivism also contains many opportunities for substantial personal creative involvement. Many of the pink equality profile pictures we’ve seen in the wild this week have been humorous, employing absurdity, internet culture, various fandoms, or other references to make the point more personally relevant. Some were more directly ideologically confrontational, or deeply personal, such as pictures of individual users and their partners.

Molly: These remixed versions are picked up and passed on by others (Henry Jenkins would call this “spreadable media"). This cycle of consuming, remixing, and sharing media places the individual within the action and raises their personal level of investment. Humor reduces barriers of sharing and identification, de-escalates a contentious topic, and asserts the normality of acceptance.

Nathan: creative remix and the playfulness of social conversation around marriage equality are two reasons why research on this topic can't just measure the number of people who turn their profiles pink, or the network effects of doing so. If I were Cameron Marlow, the in-house sociologist at Facebook, here are the questions I would be asking:

  • Geographic distribution of profile image changes. Are people changing their profile pictures in the county where no one's gay? Are any of their friends who don't live in that country making the change? How many people outside the US are getting involved?
  • What is the structure of information diffusion for people changing their profile photos? Are formal organisations like the Human Rights Campaign reaching people directly? Are groups like Binders Full of Women, which arose out of election debate gaffes, actually driving ongoing political action well after the election? Or is this a more viral social movement?
  • By checksumming profile pictures, you could try to measure the relative creativity that people are bringing to profile images. In academic-speak, what is the ratio of generativity to originality in this meme?
  • How many changed profile images are Facebook users seeing on their NewsFeed, and how does that compare to the actual proportion of their friends who have made the change? This is one way of describing the role of social activity and algorithms in mediating perceptions on this issue.
  • How long will people keep these profiles?
  • How does the spread of this meme and the comments about it compare to Only True Friends reblogs which, like marriage equality, are particularly focused on issues of family and relationships?