The Red Equal Sign Meme for Marriage Equality: A Look Back

red equal sign liberty justice

With the Supreme Court decisions striking down DOMA and Prop 8 last week, the red equal sign meme supporting marriage equality has been taking a victory lap on Facebook. As I wrote in an earlier post, this campaign is a significant moment in the development of viral politics, particularly for its use of profile picture-changing as a way of displaying a collective identity around an issue. Now that the dust has settled on this historic campaign coinciding with a major triumph for gay rights, it’s time to look back at some of the most interesting coverage that has appeared online in the past few months.

Anatasia Khoo, the head of marketing for Human Rights Campaign (HRC), gives an inside look at the creation of the red equal sign meme in pieces for Huffington Post and Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the former article, Khoo recounts an intriguing anecdote about the impact of the campaign:

“For many, this act marked the first time they had come out as a straight ally, or in some cases, the first time they had come out as a member of the LGBT community. Since then, we’ve heard so many stories, but one really sticks out for me. One day, we got a message from a gay soldier who had come out to his mother and unfortunately, it wasn’t the positive experience he was hoping for. It wasn’t until he saw that his mother had also changed her profile picture to the HRC logo that he felt accepted by her. It’s incredibly powerful to know that something so simple could provide such a strong feeling of support.”

In the latter article, Khoo offers a key lesson for organizations who wish to create a similarly viral social media campaign:

“We documented close to 100 different variations on the logo, and we made an important decision: We were going to not only embrace the memes, but also promote them. Politicians, celebrities, and corporate America embraced the logo. Bonobos, Bud Light, Martha Stewart, and Beyoncé all picked up the red logo—it became synonymous with equality… Most organizations are very protective about their brands, but for this campaign, HRC put our logo out into the universe without any organizational language, making it easy for individuals to embrace. It was a bold move for the organization… We certainly could have taken a much different approach to try and control the campaign or to brand it more tightly, but success relied on allowing people to make our logo their own and feel like they were part of something bigger.”

In a blog post for Scientific American, social psychology scholar Melanie Tannenbaum outlines a compelling theory for how the red equal sign meme may work as effective political persuasion. Basically, it all comes down to modeling behavioral norms (i.e. setting ‘descriptive norms’), which parallels my own argument in “Visual Identities, Visual Rhetoric” regarding the importance of visually articulating ‘the people’ as a way of changing perceptions about social reality:

“People look at an issue like marriage equality, and the first inclination is to set prescriptive norms. We should do something, the justices should rule a certain way, you should support a given cause. But based on everything that we know about our brains and their bafflingly strong desires to fit in with the crowd, the best way to convince people that they should care about an issue and get involved in its advocacy isn’t to tell people what they should do — it’s to tell them what other people actually do. And you know what will accomplish that? That’s right. Everyone on Facebook making their opinions on the issue immediately, graphically, demonstrably obvious. That is literally all that it takes to create a descriptive norm: Publicly acknowledging your belief along with the thousands of other people who are also publicly acknowledging theirs.”

Finally, in a thought-provoking piece for the New Yorker Online, Matt Buchanan compares the red equal sign campaign with Malcolm Gladwell’s famous castigation of “Facebook activism” as so-called slacktivism in the same magazine:

“While the HRC’s profile-picture activism relies on weak ties, like those between celebrities and their followers, it’s designed to exploit the stronger personal connections that lurk among the web of weak ties in a Facebook profile. That is, you are true friends with at least a few people that you are ‘friends’ with on Facebook… The odds that the HRC’s campaign, as wildly successful as it has been, will directly influence the decision of the Justices are nil, which speaks quite loudly to the limits of online activism: twenty million avatars are not twenty million people in the street. However, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote, as people and politics change, so does the Court. And online activism has shown, most notably through its role in the defeat of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act last year, that maybe it can change people.”

In other words, Buchanan is saying that while online activism may not have a direct effect on public policy, it may have a long-term impact on public opinion that can eventually trickle up. It’s an intriguing thought, and one that seems to be supported by Tannenbaum’s point about the power of social media to shape social norms, one Facebook friend at a time.

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