Research & Insights

Why We Turned Our Profile Pictures Rainbow

Following last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage in the United States, Facebook profile pictures nationwide turned into rainbows. According to a Facebook spokesperson, over 1 million people made this change within hours of the Court’s decision. While it was not surprising to see so many people make the profile switch, recent research provides some insights into what motivates people to take this kind of collective symbolic action.

In a study published in the August 2014 Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, communications scholar Joel Penney from Montclair State University examined the motivations that led Facebook users to respond to calls from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) to change their profile picture to the group’s red equal sign in support of marriage equality. During this time – March 2013 – the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on two same-sex marriage cases: Proposition 8 and The Defense of Marriage Act.

To understand what motivated people to change their profile picture, Penney conducted interviews with 22 Facebook users who participated in the campaign. He found that participants changed their profile picture for a variety of reasons. They saw the action as “creating visibility for marriage equality supporters (including LGBT persons), as a means of compelling sympathy and strategically modeling social norms, and raising awareness about the issue as a means of setting the public agenda,” writes Penney.

Penney found that participants responded to HRC’s call as a way to persuade others in their social networks who did not support marriage equality. By adopting the red equal sign avatar, “campaign participants made themselves conspicuously legible as marriage equality supporters, and respondents pointed to the cumulative effect of these self-labeling acts as central to the campaign’s persuasive power.” For example, one participant explained that, “I hope that my friends who are straight, or who don’t really agree with me politically, would look at [the profile picture] and say ‘Yeah, that [Supreme Court] decision affects [him]’… Saying ‘This affects me’ makes it a lot harder for somebody to get up and say ‘That’s wrong, that should never happen.’ It changes the conversation and it changes the tone.”

Participants also changed their profile pictures as a “recruitment strategy for getting those who are already sympathetic to the cause to become more involved in an organized fashion,” explains Penney. The goal, according to one participant, was  to encourage others to “be active, to be part of it, to do something in the real world.”

Lastly, participants found that changing their profile pictures expanded support for marriage equality from people who may not have previously paid much attention to the issue. One participant shared a story about how his action inspired another Facebook friend: “She doesn’t have any gay friends except for me. And I got that she…wouldn’t have been opposed to it, but she wouldn’t have paid much attention. And then she did that [changing her profile picture]. And what made me happy about her doing that is that means that the other people in her community saw that, and saw it’s something that’s actually worth looking at and a community worth supporting.”

As Anastasia Khoo, communications director for HRC and the mastermind behind the red equal sign campaign later said, “For those people, this was the first step to becoming a straight ally, and now it’s our job as advocates to help bring these individuals up the ladder of engagement so that the next time they receive an email from us, asking them to contact their legislator, they might do so… Small steps add up.”

Anastasia spoke about the red equal sign campaign at frank 2015. Watch her talk here.

Journal of Computer Mediated Communication

Joel Penney, Montclair State University

Posted: July 7, 2015
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