If you’re still wondering what the “pink equal sign” campaign is all about, please crawl out from under your rock and log on to Facebook or Twitter, where your friends and followers will gladly fill you in.
The now-viral campaign, launched by supporters of marriage equality, has been embraced by high-profile social media dwellers from "Star Trek" actor George Takei to Newark Mayor Cory Booker, not to mention legions of Facebook and Twitter users who have changed their profile photos and shared “equal sign” memes as the Supreme Court debates the issue of same-sex marriage. Given that many see same-sex marriage as the defining civil-rights battle of the 21st century, it’s no surprise that proponents want to use a 21st-century mode of communication to show their support.
But do such symbolic displays truly do anything to advance the cause, or is it all just frivolity from the feel-good set -- the digital equivalent of an “I Like Ike” button? Avatar-changing campaigns have been a part of social media life for a few years now. While their effect on social change may be minimal -- at least in comparison to boots-on-the-ground activism -- many digital activists say they do serve a calculable purpose.
“My feeling is that they’re a good first step,” said Mary Joyce, cofounder of the Digital Activism Research Project. “They’re the difference between doing nothing and doing something, and that’s good. The question you have to ask yourself is what’s next. Will it lead to further mobilization?”
It’s not a new question: The point at which legitimate digital activism devolves into useless slacktivism has been debated for some time. In 2010, the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell famously challenged the idea that activism born on social media could bring about real change, writing that social networks are built around “weak ties,” which don’t necessarily parallel the ironclad bonds formed by those intrepid freedom fighters of the 20th century.
“Effective activism,” Gladwell wrote, “historically has involved strong hierarchies and strategic risk-taking by highly motivated people with close personal bonds, like those at the core of lunch-counter anti-segregation protests 50 years ago in Greensboro, N.C.”
But that was 2010, and many critics of Gladwell’s piece -- like Shay O’Reilly of Campus Progress -- have since pointed to movements including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring as proof that Gladwell was wrong. Granted, the majority of Facebook and Twitter users displaying pink equal signs are probably not sleeping in tents or joining protests in the rain. But does that make their show of solidarity any less valid? Supporters of the campaign don’t think so.
“I believe this is a powerful visual cue being used not only by the gay community, but our straight friends, family and allies to signal the tidal wave of support and passion behind the equality movement,” said Laurie Wolfe, CEO of ChicGayHoneymoons.com, which offers travel services to gay newlyweds and travelers. “It is showing -- in direct contradiction to the Supreme Court’s reservations -- that we are ready for the normalization of gay marriage and equality in this country.”
Wolfe, a gay woman who changed her profile photo on Tuesday morning, likened the equal-sign campaign to a tactic used by the gay-rights group Act Up in the early 1980s, when supporters stamped paper money with pink triangles as a way of showing the power of the gay dollar. “The equality signs on social media have put a viral electronic spin on it,” she said.
Still, judging by some of the responses to the equal signs, even many supporters of gay rights are seeing the whole thing as an empty gesture, another symptom of a slacktivist culture that equates profile photos and two-minute memes with actions for social change.
Consider the following tweet:
What does changing your profile picture to a equal sign really do? Nothing..hate those Facebook trends, write to your congressman
â€” Leslyyy (@LezLeeBak) March 27, 2013
And this one:
Keep up the red equal sign postings, I heard the Supreme Court justices are going through and counting all the profile pictures right now.
â€” Shayn Fernandez (@Shaynislegend) March 27, 2013
Then there are critics like Erick Erickson, founder of RedState.com, who just used the campaign as another opportunity to reaffirm his intolerance:
So when the left begins advocating polygamy, will they use the infinity sign instead of the equal sign?
â€” Erick Erickson (@EWErickson) March 27, 2013
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that most of the people annoyed by the equal-sign campaign have more class than Erickson. The notion that empty gestures and mindless symbolism can detract us from taking the steps necessary to enact meaningful change is still a valid one. And yet, as Wolfe points out, it’s equally possible to underestimate the power of a simple show of support. In that sense, the equal sign may not necessarily be about influencing the Supreme Court, or even changing people’s minds, but about reminding those in the gay community that they aren't alone in their fight.
“I believe those who dismiss this as ‘slacktivism’ are missing the profound impact that lack of equal rights has upon my life on so many levels,” Wolfe said. “This is a teaching moment, and it will be looked back upon much in the same way that we now view the suffrage movement, ending slavery and interracial marriage.”
And if you still don’t think she has a point, consider the chilling reality that there are still plenty of people like Zach Man in the world: