Facebook Avatar Activism: What's the Point?

4 years ago

We live in amazing times, my friends, when changing our Facebook avatars can make the national news. When a meme catches on as big and as elegantly as the Human Rights Campaign's red equality sign avatars posted in support of the same-sex marriage Supreme Court cases this week, it deserves some special scrutiny.

Image: See-ming Lee via Flickr

Most major news outlets covered the movement, in which users changed their Facebook avatars to support same-sex marriage. The avatar was provided by the HRC, and the movement was fanned by George Takei, among others, ultimately picking up millions of participants. Since then, social media users and reporters alike are assessing its efficacy. The dreaded diss "slactivism" has even been invoked in posts here and there.

I understand the Grumpy Cats of the Internet, I truly do. This wasn't my first viral cause rodeo, either, and I think it's good for us to question whether our online activism choices are performed with meaning and clarity.

I think the Grumpy Cats are going to have to find something else to be cynical about, though. The red avatars for equality, all told, had a tremendous positive impact, and we should claim and celebrate that. Switching out your avatar for the modified HRC logo, or one of the other creative versions that emerged, was a good thing that shouldn't be dismissed.

Civic awareness is a good thing. Do you think many social media users are now unaware that marriage equality issues were argued before the Supreme Court? We could share news stories all we wanted, and I've been begging people to watch the wonderful Edie and Thea documentary for months now, but I saw more curiosity about the court cases because of avatar switches than about any other news sharing. The typically dry and hard-to-explain issues of constitutional law became personal, and grew handles on Facebook. That alone is amazing, and may be one of the most memorable civics lesson since Schoolhouse Rock taught us about the life cycle of a bill.

Public opinion was voiced. People worry about slactivism because merely announcing one's support is insufficient to manifest change on many issues, such as finding a cure for breast cancer. But the issue of gay rights hinges almost completely on public acceptance. We are at this point in our journey now because of increased societal acceptance of LGBTQ people. It really does matter to show one's beliefs to others, and for changing public sentiment to be articulated. It doesn't matter if this sentiment has a chance to impact the actual cases, not at all -- but the swell of public support matters in the long run; and, despite recent gains, we still have a long way to go.

Coming out was easy for allies. Coming out is hard, for everyone. When we share about issues that are important to us, we can sometimes feel didactic, negative, or harsh. But a lovely, visual avatar meme that made Facebook pages look like gorgeous Valentines? That created a positive way to share support, which evoked spontaneous action. Easy, positive, and lovely doesn't equal ineffective, though, and that's why social media is magic. In this case, the meme was so well suited to communication that it spawned fabulous Sons of Memes (Ernie and Bert! Paula Deen!), and many corporations (including Bud Light, Expedia, the HBO series True Blood, Kimpton, and Absolut) joined in. There's no logic in panning an action for its ease when that was a major tenet of its success.

Support means the world to LGBTQ people. I personally was very moved (and surprised by my own emotions) by the display of support, and so were my gay and lesbian friends. We know our straight friends accept us, but there was something very heartwarming about the massive support and the way it said, "We know today is important." Advocating for your human rights, over a lifetime of grappling for basic acceptance, coming out again and again in a heteronormative culture, and often healing from some damaging family rejects or social injustices, can take its toll. Not only did friends and co-workers step up -- Martha Stewart posted a red velvet cake equality sign, people! How can that be bad? To be bolstered by this meme meant a lot. Even if this were the only positive outcome, it seems worthy to me. Let the Grumpy Cats eat cake; maybe it will cheer them up, too.

Overall, a lot of interesting things happened with the red equality sign meme. The HRC symbol wasn't simply shared as a post. People in most places replaced their very faces with the sign, which is always a cool identity experiment -- and it was interesting to see who was resistant to living without their mugs for even a day. It sparked dialogues about whether one's affiliations needed to be lived out loud, which were fascinating to listen to as an out gay person. We experimented with wide-scale visual symbolic communication.

The red avatar movement was a huge celebration of a changing culture in more ways than one, and I wonder if this kind of inclusion -- which is a natural byproduct of knowing each other through social media -- is what the Grumpy Cats are really pushing back against. Change is hard.

And now, as people decide when to switch back to their own photo avatars, we see smiling face after smiling face. Okay, with some duck faces and puppies and even Grumpy Cats mixed in. We see our friends again, expressing a different version of themselves, knowing they were willing to step out in favor of same-sex marriage. How in the world can any of this be seen as ineffective?

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