(The Engagement Lab supports the following: Chrome 57+ (70+ on mobile), Firefox 53+, Safari 10+, Edge 16+, iOS 10.3+.)
The blue square with a yellow equal sign has been a memorable symbol of gay rights since 1995, when the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) adopted the logo to represent the LGBT community (see Figure 1.1).
In conjunction with Stone Yamashita, a “strategy, branding, design, and culture change consultancy” that focuses on companies’ “heart” and “visceral experiences,” then-Executive Director of the HRC Elizabeth Birch aimed for a logo that showed that the campaign was “so much more than a fund” (Heath and Chang 2004; “About Our Logo” 2011). The blue-and-yellow logo offered a bold design that was cheap to produce and immediately recognizable.
However, the Human Rights Campaign’s recent success in helping overturn Proposition 8 in California and the Defense of Marriage Act relied on successful and strategic use of social media to tap into the emotional and influential power of networks. While social media tools have already become mainstream, research illustrates that many companies fail to utilize social media to engage with consumers beyond mere one-way communication (Briones et al. 2011, 40). Companies and organizations that do not keep up with the rapidly changing world of social media may neglect to tap in to the “large-scale mobilization among individuals … based on new person-to-person connections” these networks offer (Cockerill 2013, 40).
The HRC regularly sends free bumper stickers in the mail to support “an America where you can’t get fired just because you are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, or where all people who love and commit to each other can finally marry” (“Request a Free” 2014). The sticker, a tangible reminder of the HRC’s mission, costs pennies to create which helps ensure its spread (“About Our Logo” 2011).
In March 2013, to bring attention to the United States Supreme Court cases on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, the HRC modified its logo by changing its colors to red and pink — colors frequently associated with romance and love (see Figure 1.2).
The day before the Supreme Court was scheduled to start deliberations on Proposition 8, the HRC posted on Facebook encouraging users to adopt the modified logo as their profile picture. “Share this image and ask your friends and family to join you!” stated one update on March 25, 2013. Another asked, “Who’s wearing red tomorrow? Show your support for marriage equality — make your profile image red for tomorrow and check out www.hrc.org/StandForMarriage for more ways to get involved!” (See Figure 1.3)
Those two Facebook posts have been liked over 27,000 times and shared nearly 125,000 times as of August 2014, showing the massive viral impact of the HRC’s modified logo campaign. The logo spread and modified through the network. Many modifications included LGBT couples, real and imagined, like the Statue of Liberty kissing Justice (see figure 1.4)
or Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie (see figure 1.5).
Because the variants relied on collective symbols “immediately understood by members of the same speech community,” they thrived (Wodak and Reisigl 2001, 381). Their success depended upon viewers’ collective responses to recognizable figures such as the State of Liberty and to iconic, culturally embedded figures. Similarly, variants were frequently championed by “influencers” with desirable attributes like high levels of credibility, expertise, enthusiasm, or connectivity (Bakshy et al. 2011, 65–74). Notable influencers in this campaign included Martha Stewart, George Takei, and Beyoncé, who helped spread the logo to their millions of followers. (However, influencers are not always celebrities, but simply individuals with powerful significance within a network.)
How far did the logo and variants spread? Significantly more users (approximately 2.7 million more, an increase of 120%) updated their profile photo on Tuesday, March 26, 2013 as compared to the previous Tuesday (Bakshy 2013). While some likely changed their profile pictures to something other than the HRC logo, this significant increase illustrates the impact of the campaign. Social networking site users tend to adopt online content shared by friends; those rates of adoption increase as additional friends adopt as well (Bakshy, Karrer, and Adamic 2009, 334). This social contagion model showcases why examining even seemingly insignificant online elements such as memes is important.
> > This logo played a significant role in the moments leading up to the Supreme Court’s dismissal of Proposition 8.
It drove new traffic to the website with over 700,000 unique visitors in a 24-hour period around March 26; almost 90% were new to the site (“Marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court” n.d.). They signed and shared the HRC’s “Majority Opinion” petition, recruiting more than 67,000 new supporters (“Marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court” n.d.). The HRC released a video from Hillary Clinton proclaiming her support for marriage equality. Finally, five U.S. Senators noted their support for Proposition 8’s dismissal during this time and the HRC shared their support through Facebook blog posts and images (see figure 1.6) (“Marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court” n.d.).
These elements worked together to create “a widespread descriptive norm implying that it is socially acceptable to advocate for same-sex marriage,” leading to real-world impacts (Tannenbaum 2013). The power of norms can be more influential than the power of law and order; change often occurs through specific platforms where online sociality bleeds over into offline life (van Dijck 2013, 19).
From Internet memes and the Occupy Wall Street movement, Twitter hashtags and climate change protests, and political messages spread through Facebook and voting behaviors, online actions are intertwined in a complex ecology of activism. This complex ecology of activism includes offline actions, the actions of one’s friends and personal network, and non-human influencers such as tweets, memes, and status posts (Milner 2013; Segerberg and Bennett 2011; Bond et al. 2012). When considering the impact of social media on policy, institutions and organizations must attend to both the power of influencers in the network and the power of the meme itself to tap into a collective social consciousness. Without harnessing the power of influencers in the network, online activism may not spread rapidly or as far as it will when championed by these individuals. And without creating online campaigns that tap into people’s emotional or cultural ties, online activism may similarly fail to gain a foothold. The HRC logo illustrates the powerful potential that can occur when campaigns tap into emotional foundations of a collective and rely on the ability of both influencers and everyday individuals within large-scale networks.
“About Our Logo.” Human Rights Campaign. 2011. http://www.hrc.org/the-hrc-story/about-our-logo.
Bakshy, Eytan. “Showing Support for Marriage Equality on Facebook.” Facebook. March 29, 2013. https://www.facebook.com/notes/facebook-data-science/showing-support-for-marriage-equality-on-facebook/10151430548593859.
Bakshy, Eythan, Brian Karrer, and Lada A. Adamic. 2009. “Social Influence and the Diffusion of User-Created Content.” In Proceedings of the ACM Conference on Electronic Commerce, Stanford, July 6–10, 2009, 325–334. Stanford: The Association for Computing Machinery.
Bakshy, Eytan, Winter A. Mason, Jake M. Hofman, and Duncan J. Watts. 2011. “Everyone’s an Influencer: Quantifying Influence on Twitter.” In WSDM ’11 Proceedings of the Fourth ACM International Conference on Web Search and Data Mining. New York: The Association for Computing Machinery.Heath, Chip, and Victoria Chang. “Stone Yamashita Partners and PBS (A), (B), (C).” Stanford Graduate School of Business Center for Social Innovation. 2004. http://csi.gsb.stanford.edu/stone-yamashita-partners-and-pbs_abc.
Bond, Robert M., Christopher J. Fariss, Jason J. Jones, Adam D. I. Kramer, Cameron Marlow, Jaime E. Settle, and James H. Fowler. “A 61-million-person Experiment in Social Influence and Political Mobilization.” Nature 489 (13 September 2012): 295–298.
Briones, Rowena L., Kuch, Beth, Liu, Brooke Fisher, and Yan Jin. “Keeping up with the Digital Age: How the American Red Cross Uses Social Media to Build Relationships.” Public Relations Review 37 (2011): 37–43.
Cockerill, Corey H. “Exploring Social Media Obstacles and Opportunities within Public Agencies: Lessons from the Ohio Division of Wildlife.” International Journal of Business and Social Science, 4, no. 2 (2013): 39–44.
“Marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court: A Transformative Moment for Equality.” n.d. Human Rights Campaign. Accessed 25 June 2014. http://www.hrc.org/files/assets/resources/SupremeCourt_Accomplishments-FINAL.pdf.
Milner, Ryan. “Pop Polyvocality: Internet Memes, Public Participation, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.” International Journal of Communication 7 (2013): 2357–2390.
“Request a Free HRC Equality Sticker.” Human Rights Campaign. 2014. http://action.hrc.org/site/Survey?ACTION_REQUIRED=URI_ACTION_USER_REQUESTS&SURVEY_ID=33921.
Segerberg, Alexandra and W. Lance Bennett. “Social Media and the Organization of Collective Action: Using Twitter to Explore the Ecologies of Two Climate Change Protests.” The Communication Review 14, no. 3 (2011): 197–215.
Tannenbaum, Melanie. “Will Changing Your Facebook Profile Picture Do Anything For Marriage Equality?” Scientific American. March 28, 2013. http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/2013/03/28/marriage-equality-and-social-proof/.
van Dijck, José. The Culture of Connectivity: A Critical History of Social Media. New York: Oxford, 2013.
Wodak, Ruth, and Martin Reisigl. “Discourse and Racism.” In The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, edited by Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton, 372–297. Malden: Blackwell, 2001.
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