This week, a father’s loving handwritten note to his gay teenage son became the talk of the town on social media. Originally posted by the LGBT activist group/apparel retailer FCK8 on its Facebook page, the photo has since received coverage on Huffington Post and Daily Kos in addition to numerous repostings by groups like the Trevor Project. Although the note is not the least bit political in itself, it has been quickly adopted by the LGBT movement as a heartwarming example of pro-gay parenting that serves to counter homophobia and intolerance.
To me, what’s fascinating about this viral image is the way in which it illustrates how the classic feminist slogan “the personal is political” is becoming the new logic of political advocacy in the age of social media. On sites like Facebook, volumes of personal stories (expressed in photos, videos, and even status updates) that reference broader social and political phenomena are collected and stored for posterity, serving as raw materials for activist groups to appropriate for their digital outreach efforts. As the viral success of this image underlines, these humanizing stories seem to work very well on social media, as their emotional pull compels onlookers to comment and share. In fact, they may be more effective than politically-oriented posts that don’t capitalize on social media’s personal and intimate nature.
For instance, the group FCKH8 churns out pro-LGBT posts on its Facebook page on a daily basis, but rarely do they enjoy the kind of viral success as the dad’s note to his gay son. This same week, they produced several memes about the anti-gay positions of the new Pope Francis, but these posts (resembling typical political ads) received far less attention.
To demonstrate the contrast, the above meme posted by FCKH8 got only 1,700 Likes on Facebook this week, while the dad’s note got over 77,200 Facebook Likes (not to mention the Trevor Project repost that got an additional 33,200 Likes). In other words, people seem to really like the personal stuff.
Of course, this brings up serious issues of privacy. One has to wonder whether or not the dad and son in question gave permission for their private correspondence to be spread across the internet in such a public fashion. While their identities are not referenced in the image, it is certainly possible that they would be uncomfortable having their personal moment transformed into a political symbol. Of course, on Facebook, privacy is an afterthought. The next time you post about your personal life, you may be unwittingly participating in viral politics…