Do Solidarity Profile Pics Mean Anything?

Did you rainbow yourself on the day the Supreme Court upheld marriage rights for same-sex couples?  I did. Though I assumed Facebook had only provided the filter in order to conduct one of its studies in online behavior.  According to this story by J. Nathan Matias, writing for The Atlantic, data scientists at Facebook have not analyzed the trends in the rainbowing of millions of profile pictures, but it might at some point in the future in the ongoing attempt to understand how online behaviors reflect (or don’t) substantive political action.

I admit to being a bit of a skeptic about the value of some of these studies and the conclusions that might be drawn from them; but I also wonder how any relevant data might ultimately be used.  If we can learn anything at all about ourselves from behavioral analyses by social media companies, will the information be used to empower people with an awareness of their own vulnerabilities to manipulation, to group-think, to disinformation campaigns; or will the data simply be organized into play books for marketers, corporate PR teams, and political campaign professionals? Matias cites a study done by Stanford PhD Bogdan State and Facebook data scientist Lana Adamic, who researched data from the 2013 campaign in which many of us showed solidarity with the LGBT community by turning our profile pictures into some variation of the red equal sign.  Based on my own experience, and what I believe I can presume about many of my friends and family, I am dubious about the initial hypotheses proposed in that study, described by Matias thus:

In their study, State and Adamic asked the question: how many times do you need to see a friend change their profile picture before deciding to change your own? They set up two competing hypotheses. The first possibility was that profile changes spread like funny pictures and other online memes, falling off in influence as more people share them. The second possibility they considered was that people need to see others make the change before they follow suit, that “multiple exposures are most effective in determining the adoption of… [costly] behaviors.”

This line of inquiry is based on the assumption that the individual is taking some measure of risk by publicly stating a position on a controversial issue. This line of inquiry seems to be based on the assumption that the Facebook user bears some measure of risk by publicly taking a stance on a controversial issue. Thus, the study seeks to quantify the bandwagon effect looking by looking at profile picture data.  And while the bandwagon effect is not to be underestimated — I have criticized it throughout this blog with regard to far more complex decisions than changing one’s profile picture — I am suspicious of the initial assumption that there is much social risk at all for most individuals in this case. To the contrary, it is widely observed that, if anything, social media platforms tend to break down even ordinary barriers of common courtesy when it comes to expressing opinions and views any subject we can name. Yet, according to Matias, the data reviewed in the study of the equal sign campaign is interpreted as follows:

While users are quick to share funny pictures and text, the influence of a typical meme on individuals doesn’t build over time. But with the marriage-equality profile images in March 2013, users apparently needed “social proof”—they needed to see that others also supported marriage equality—before joining in. As more people changed their profiles, individuals who had seen their friends change their photos were more likely to do the same themselves.

No doubt the data do reveal that individuals change their profile pictures to these images of solidarity only after seeing several friends doing so, but this may reflect thought processes more mundane than the initial hypotheses imply.  Speaking for myself in the case of the rainbow example,I simply didn’t notice that Facebook had created the filter until I saw at least 4-5 friends had changed their existing profile pictures in a consistent way.  Additionally, I suspect that if there is any psychology at play in the decision to change a profile pic in these instances, it may have more to do with not wanting to be left out than any hesitation about going first.  If dozens of friends are showing solidarity with some cause that we also support, we may not want to appear opposed; and this motivation would produce the same data the researchers are studying but reveals a different decision-making process.  Finally, there is an element of innocuous bullshit that should not be ignored when it comes to this kind of “activism,” as was summed up by one of my gay friends when he wrote, “How come it’s only my straight friends who have changed their images to rainbow?”  Answer:  Because people are very comfortable wearing their beliefs on their sleeves, especially when there is absolutely no risk involved whatsoever.  Yet, Matias asks rhetorically:

“…Facebook’s past research on marriage equality has helped answer a question we all face when deciding to act politically: Does the courage to visibly—if virtually—stand up for what a person believes in have an effect on that person’s social network, or is it just cheap, harmless posturing?”

But why does it have to be either one?  A word like courage is probably overstating the significance of declaring a position on Facebook, while words like cheap and posturing may be too dismissive.  In his article, Matias cites research by Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam on the effects of peer involvement in Freedom Summer, the 1964 civil rights initiative that sent mostly white college kids from the North into the South to help get out the black vote.  While McAdam’s methodologies may be useful guides for data scientists looking at social media activism, it seems more than a stretch to employ the language we use to describe political action that gets people killed as we might use to describe the changing of a profile picture — even if it might result in a summary un-friending!

Still, I do believe the bandwagon effect in the age of social media is a critical and interesting area of study. And I think Matias is correct when he refers to data like profile pic changes providing insight akin to a super-poll. The sudden shift to the equal sign, for instance, does reveal something about how many people already supported same-sex marriage rights at that time; but there was also plenty of other evidence that provided the same information.  More intriguing — as I referenced in my last post — is the way in which social media very rapidly and tangibly revealed a latent disdain for the confederate battle flag the moment an act of violence catalyzed those emotions into action. That event, I think, is more representative of digital-age “activism” because the issue wasn’t even on the table 24 hours before it went viral.  And those of us who feel we’re right about the flag can enjoy the rapid turnaround of a previously intractable issue; but we should also be mindful of the hazardous volatility of high-speed bandwagons.

I started writing this blog in part because I saw my progressive, well-meaning, well-educated friends jumping on a rather cacophonous bandwagon to stop a bill (SOPA) that they grossly misunderstood.  More importantly, my friends bought into implausible, fear-mongering claims that had been handcrafted by an industry protecting its own interests; and this reflected a failure of epistemology that I found worth examining. Or at least trying to.  Today, many of those same friends have, for instance, boarded the anti-TPP wagon, not necessarily because they can say with certainty why they’re against it — and in fact many of the claims about its dangers are false — but because there appears to be broad consensus among progressives that it is a bad thing.  As a result, I noticed several friends inject criticism into Obama’s recent political victories, suggesting that while we were celebrating SCOTUS decisions on same-sex marriage and the ACA, we didn’t notice that the President “rammed” Trade Promotion Authority through Congress.

But global trade agreements aren’t binary the way flag up v flag down is; or same-sex marriage, yes v no; or the decision to rainbow or not to rainbow one’s face.  Some policy — in fact most policy — has less to do with how we feel about things than it does with weighing the imperfect pros and cons of proceeding or not with practical initiatives.  And it is in this regard that I think social media often fails us because it seems to foster and thrive on binary perspectives in contradiction of a geo-political reality that historically functions on compromise.  In this New York Times Op-Ed, David Brooks raises concerns that ought to at least provide food for thought with regard to the humanitarian costs of not entering into foreign trade deals. But such considerations appear almost entirely drowned out by the sheer volume of comments, quotes, memes, and headlines — the illusion of consensus among political peers — that validate the absolute certainty that this trade deal must be killed without further ado.  When it comes to complex decisions, I’m in favor of more ado rather than more corroboration that my friends and I just generally agree with one another.

© 2015, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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