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Marriage equality, Facebook profiles pictures, and civic participation

Brady Robards and Bob Buttigieg

On March 25, 2013, the "Human Rights Campaign" (HRC)—a lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) lobby—urged people to change their Facebook profile pictures to a pink-on-red equals sign to show support for marriage equality (see fig. 1). The campaign corresponded with a U.S. Supreme Court meeting to debate the issue. Shortly after, on March 30, Eytan Bashky (2013) from the Facebook data science team reported that "roughly 2.7 million (120%) more [users], updated their profile photo on Tuesday, March 26 compared to the previous Tuesday," which was roughly attributed to the HRC push. The campaign to change Facebook profile pictures spread to become a global phenomenon. Variations on the HRC profile picture emerged, some in support of the campaign, others opposing it, and others critiquing the impact changing one’s profile picture can have. In this case study, we explore the campaign through the lens of the "actualizing citizen" (Miegel and Olsson 2007) and discourses around "slacktivism" (Christensen 2011).

Figure 1 - Screen capture from the public HRC Facebook page, taken July 1, 2014

Variations on a meme

After posting their call to action, a range of variations to the HRC’s image emerged, notably including several brands that sought to "hitch their wagon" to the campaign such as Maybelline, Absolut Vodka, and Bud Light (see fig. 2). These brands were able to associate themselves with the goodwill of the campaign, and also "plug into" its viral spread.

Figure 2—Branding: Variations on a meme


Other variations were created, some seemingly critical of the effectiveness of the campaign itself (see fig. 3). In the first example from fig. 3, a critique against assimilating into the heteronormative institution of marriage is mounted, inviting viewers (especially queer viewers) to re-think the value of marriage as an institution itself. In other words, "to extend the conformist embrace of marriage to same-sex couples is to lack imagination" (Jagose 2013). In the second example from fig. 3, the "specter of the slacktivist" is invoked, representing a pessimistic reading of the HRC’s movement as an effective form of civic participation and ridiculing the people who have "done [their] part" by simply changing their profile pictures.

Figure 3—Critiques: "Assimilation does not equal liberation"; and "Welp, I've done my part!"

Defining civic participation

How, then, can the effectiveness of forms of civic participation that play out online—as per the HRC case study—be measured? What actually constitutes civic participation? The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) uses the following definition:

In measuring civic participation, we consider collective and individual activities that reflect interest and engagement with governance and democracy: for example, membership of civic organizations such as political parties and trade unions; serving on committees or clubs, voluntary organizations and associations; contacting members of parliament; participating in demonstrations and rallies; and attending community consultations.

This definition silences informal modes of civic participation such as conversations that occur in everyday settings, in schools, pubs and over dinner tables. As per this case study, informal acts of civic participation are also mediated online, but rather than vanishing into the ether or human memory, as with physical conversations (that are not recorded), conversations mediated online leave "digital traces" (Bowker 2007), and this is a reality with which we are still coming to terms. The profile picture is one such digital trace. Recently, scholars have argued for a broader definition of civic participation. Christensen (2011) argues that even though we cannot effectively measure the impact of online political activities on traditional forms of civic participation (as per the ABS definition above, for instance) the activities of what he describes as "internet activists" can serve to "invigorate" and "reinforce" a broader sense of civic participation. Similarly, Vie (2014) argues that 

"digital activism made possible through social media memes can build awareness of crucial issues, which can then lead to action."

In studying how young people engage in democracy online, Miegel and Olsson (2007, 231) consider a shift in conceptualizations of citizenship from what they describe (via Bennett 2007) as the "dutiful citizen" towards the "actualizing citizen." Whereas voting and joining a political party are at the core of civic participation for the dutiful citizen (as per the ABS definition), the actualizing citizen participates in civic life differently, favoring loose networks of community action and "personally defined acts of participation" (Miegel and Olsson 2007, 231) over voting, rigid party-based politics, and other traditional, institutionally sanctioned forms of action.


What constitutes civic participation is clearly changing, and the social web is part of this. As Harris, Wyn and Younes (2010, 27) argue, the social web can allow people a place to "have a say," giving them a voice in an arena (civic life) that is otherwise dominated by people with power. Thus, perhaps changing a Facebook profile picture to support marriage equality can constitute a valid, generative and even 'invigorating' (Christensen 2011) form of civic engagement. Even though these performances of civic participation are mediated online, they should not be rendered less valuable, as somehow "not real." Indeed, visibility (and the awareness that comes with being seen) does not just lead to action, but it is also a form of action in itself. While it is difficult to quantify the full outcome of this social media campaign for the HRC, even commandeered (fig. 3) or critical (fig. 4) reinterpretations of the pink-on-red equals sign contain important semiotic links back to the HRC, to the movement in support of marriage equality, and to the historic contexts in which the movement arose, elevating the campaign’s visibility. The figure of 2.7 million more U.S. users changing their profile pictures on March 26, compared with the previous Tuesday (Bashky 2013) is presumably only the tip of the iceberg here, as the meme continued to circulate in the days (and weeks) following, across the globe. Indeed, amongst our own networks in Australia, the original image is still set as the profile picture for some users. Viewers are engaged to consider these images by the prominence and importance of profile images on Facebook, potentially sparking discussion and reflection both on- and offline. Individual-centered, personally motivated forms of civic participation mediated online can represent an important part of a reconceptualization of civic life. By adjusting the lens through which civic participation is measured, a rich terrain of engagement will be made visible.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2010. “1370.0 - Measures of Australia's Progress”, Democracy, Governance, and Citizenship.  Accessed July 1. Subject/1370.0~2010~Chapter~Civic participation (  

Bashky, Eytan. 2013. “Showing support for marriage equality on Facebook.” Facebook. Accessed July 1. 

Bennett, W. Lance. 2008. “Changing citizenship in the digital age.” In Civic life online: Learning how digital media can engage youth, edited by W. Lance Bennett, 1-24. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bowker, Geoffrey C. 2007. “The past and the internet”. In Structures of participation in digital culture, edited by Joe Karaganis, 20-36. New York: Columbia University Press.

Christensen, Henrik S. 2011. “Political activities on the Internet: Slacktivism or political participation by other means?” First Monday 16(2). Accessed June 3, 2012. doi: 10.5210/fm.v16i2.3336.

Harris, Anita, Johanna Wyn, and Salem Younes. 2010. “Beyond apathetic or activist youth:  ‘Ordinary’ young people and contemporary forms of participation.” Young 18(1): 9-32.

Jagose, Annamarie. 2013. “The trouble with gay marriage.” The Conversation, July 1. 

Miegel, Fredrik and Tobias Olsson. 2007. “How aimed to foster but failed to promote youth engagement”. In Young People, ICTs and Democracy, edited by Tobias Olsson and Peter Dahlgren, 231-246, Gothenburg: Nordicom.

Vie, Stephanie. 2014. “In defense of ‘slacktivism’: The Human Rights Campaign Facebook logo as digital activism.” First Monday 19(4). Accessed June 28, 2014. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.2179035.

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