Over the last several weeks, there has been a remarkable swell of celebration following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to allow gay marriage in America, and in fact all over the world. While this has been visible on television and in the newspapers, nowhere has the depth of the movement in support of gay marriage been more visible than on social media. Anyone who has logged into their Facebook account has seen the overlay of rainbows on the profile pictures of people everywhere. What is surprising is that the rainbow overlay isn't some independent promotion from an outside source, but rather it's a function that was created by Facebook itself, from right at the headquarters of the social media giant.
Lots of speculation has taken place as to the purpose of the initiative from Facebook. There are theories claiming everything from this being a conspiracy by the government to find out where people stand on the issue of same sex marriage, to the notion that rainbow profile pictures are another way for Facebook to track the interests of users for advertising purposes. According to the leadership at Facebook, it's neither of those two. While Facebook has in the past completed a significant amount of market research, particularly with it's "I Voted"study, when users clicked on a button to acknowledge that they had voted in a recent election, to the "motion contagion" research, which tested how users responded to changing experiences, the company maintains that this particular offering was prompted by an in house brainstorming session that was popular within the company, and so then was rolled out to the public in the week leading up to Pride Weekend, June 27-28 as part of the celebration. The company maintains that this was not at all a social experiment, only an expression of the company’s own support of the LGBT cause, and that the proximity to the Supreme Court decision was coincidental.
Facebook is surprisingly a consummate research organization, having published its studies in numerous scholarly journals regarding the information that it gains from its massive demographic - nearly 1.5 billion active users in the first half of 2015. That amounts to an astonishing one in five inhabitants of the planet. In fact, Facebook has an entire research wing of its organization, which publishes data and findings on its public research page at research.facebook.com, and which is continually working to uncover social trends and patterns of human behavior.
The current rainbow phenomenon isn't wholly new. In 2013 there was a similar movement in which 3 million users changed their profile pictures to a red equals sign in support of same sex marriage. The difference in this profile picture change and the current rainbow change is that the 2013 equals sign change was a completely organic, user driven movement. The current rainbow movement is fundamentally different in that it was driven by a function of the Facebook software itself, and thus immediately had a much further reach. With the new profile movement, users across demographics were offered the option by Facebook itself, thus extending the reach exponentially. The process was incredibly easy to do and thus had a wider reach naturally. In addition, the rainbow was an overlay to the current profile picture, thus preserving their personal identity and wholly unlike the equals sign, which replaced the personalized profile picture completely.
Facebook's research department did analyze that 2013 profile picture change and presented this analysis in 2015 at the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (Adamic & State, 2015). What they found was that people were more likely to have changed their profile picture to an equals sign if there was a conjunction of factors that rose to a threshold moment in which they were motivated to change, with those factors including the number of their friends who had changed their profile pictures, their own propensity to change their profile picture, and their own demographic characteristics. As of yet there is not a published analysis of the current profile picture change, but given Facebook's previous release of research regarding its users, it's likely that there will be an analysis of the rainbow profile picture movement.
Activisim, Slactivism, or Cause for Alarm?
Whether the massive change in profile pictures has had created a real change in social attitudes remains to be seen. Some have argued that these kinds of changes are ineffectual and amount to nothing more than "slacktivism," lulling people into thinking that they're bringing about real change when they are in fact doing little to support the cause. Others argue that this kind of movement raises awareness and destigmatizes groups that would otherwise be marginalized, as social media is so incredibly pervasive and personal.
One big question for most Facebook users remains whether or not the rainbow profile picture movement is a cause for alarm. What this experience should serve more than anything is a reminder that Facebook is not a completely user driven platform - rather it is something which users have access to but which does not belong to them. Social media, and Facebook in particular, has become an intimate part of users lives. People identify with their profile pictures, with their friends lists, and with the information that they share and see shared on the site. There is a sense of safety and privacy for those who connect with the real people on the other sides of their screens through smartphones and laptops. However it's always important to remember that Facebook is not a neutral party - but rather is an interface that is constantly collecting data on its users for its own research purposes, however well intentioned and seemingly benevolent those may be.
Adamic, L. & State, B. (2015) The Diffusion of Support in an Online Social Movement: Evidence from the Adoption of Equal-Sign Profile Pictures. CSCW '15, Proceedings of the 18th ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing, p 1741-1750.
Dewey, C. (2015) More than 26 million people have changed their Facebook picture to a rainbow flag. Here's why that matters. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2015/06/29/more-than-26-million-people-have-changed-their-facebook-picture-to-a-rainbow-flag-heres-why-that-matters/