This was a big week for viral politics, with the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) red equal sign meme taking Facebook by storm. To show support for marriage equality during the Prop 8 and DOMA Supreme Court hearings, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Facebook users changed their profile picture to various incarnations of the red-and-pink, love-symbolizing equal sign logo. HRC has a good roundup of the media coverage, corporate endorsements, celebrity shout-outs, and countless meme spinoffs that have proliferated in the past few days around this campaign. For more on this story, check out Facebook’s own report on the statistics behind the phenomenon, as well as Time and Slate’s compilations of the best red equal sign variations.
While there is quite a lot to talk about regarding this watershed moment in viral politics, I’m particularly interested in how it highlights the key role of profile picture-changing in politically-oriented social media campaigns. More than just a simple post, link, or status update, the profile picture has a strong connection to the identities of users, visually representing them during each of their platform-based activities (chatting, posting, commenting, Liking, etc.). If a social networking profile is now a person’s ‘digital body,’ as danah boyd has argued, then the profile picture is the virtual clothing that he or she uses to communicate identity. When this badge of identity is used to show off one’s political beliefs, its function becomes very similar to wearing a political slogan T-shirt in public, a phenomenon that I have studied in a number of research projects. In my IJOC article “Visible Identities, Visual Rhetoric: The Self-Labeled Body as a Popular Platform for Political Persuasion, I explore how people use these T-shirts to transform their physical bodies into rhetorical texts for political purposes. Here’s an excerpt:
When discussing motivations for wearing their political T-shirts, many participants emphasized not only the persuasive messages printed on the T-shirts themselves, but also the message-making potential of their bodies as they were labeled by these items. In these scenarios, the T-shirt functioned to publicize a key attribute of the wearer’s political identity that would not have been obvious or visible otherwise, in order to make a point about the presence of that identity in a particular locale… By creating visibility for their political identities via this popular culture platform, the participants here see themselves as potentially challenging public perceptions of who “the people” out there really are, a reality-redefining gesture that they conceptualize as an efficacious form of political action.
I would argue that the HRC red equal sign campaign follows precisely the same logic. In fact, in the conclusion of the article, I suggest that the ‘digital body’ of social networking profiles can be used in a very similar way as the physical body, providing further opportunities for politically-engaged citizens to make their identities visible as a way of advancing persuasive messages in the public sphere. When these practices are coordinated so that many bodies simultaneously articulate images of ‘the people’ in a collective show of force, these messages can be particularly powerful.
Indeed, the HRC used both strategies in their ‘love’ campaign this week, urging marriage equality supporters to wear the color red as well as to change their profile pictures to the red equal sign image. The organization is also selling T-shirts featuring the logo, further underlining the connection between these two sorts of identity-based viral communication strategies.
With the stunning success of the red equal sign campaign this week, I would expect that these sorts of self-labeling campaigns will become more and more widespread in the future – not only for LGBT activism, but for myriad political and social issues.
– Joel Penney