Update: As of now, the Supreme Court seems to have heard the people on Facebook who changed their picture, and acted accordingly, declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
Last week, as the Supreme Court heard arguments about whether it should legalize gay marriage, the Human Rights Campaign released a new version of its classic logo. While it’s normally a yellow equals sign on a blue background, this new logo was white on red. The HRC encouraged people to change their Facebook avatars to their logo to show their support for the cause.
This being the Internet, however, people weren’t content to merely use the HRC’s logo in its original form. Quickly, new versions began popping up. Some were merely more artfully drawn equals symbols, but many more were humorous takes on the gay marriage debate, from popular maybe gay couples (Bert and Ernie, C3P0 and R2D2) to Internet memes (Grumpy Cat) to historic bits of cultural literacy that just happen to look like an equals sign (Mark Rothko). We’ve collected a gallery of some of our favorites above. If you have your own, leave it in the comments.
Did the mass showing of support have any effect? It’s almost certain that the Supreme Court justices already know how they’ll vote, but what about simply changing popular opinion across Facebook. Facebook noted that 1120% more people changed their profile pictures than the week before, and that the vast majority of these people were 30 years old and lived in college towns. On this map, the redder the area, the more avatars were changed:
More importantly, despite the easy snarking that changing your profile picture will accomplish nothing, Scientific American argues that the "descriptive norm" of seeing mass support of gay marriage may be incredibly powerful—more powerful than arguing with people using evidence:
Descriptive norms simply describe the way that things are, whereas prescriptive norms offer a mandate about how things should be. For example, if I said that most college students go to class wearing jeans and sweatshirts, that would be a descriptive norm. If I said that you should wear jeans and a sweatshirt in order to fit in, that would be prescriptive. Quite possibly the most important takeaway point from all of the research that’s been done on norms is just how powerful descriptive norms can be. When people try to change behavior, they often focus on prescriptive norms, telling people what they should do. We often underestimate just how strongly we respond to what other people actually do.
Study after study has found that people like to follow a crowd. That’s why the hotel bathroom features a card that says that the majority of other guests reused their towels or why you’ll laugh more to a show with a laugh track, even though you hate the idea of shows with laugh tracks. We all want to be part of the crowd. In this case, that crowd is pushing for positive social change, so the bigger and more vocal it is, the more effective it might be.