Baer Facts, Social Media Strategy, Personal Branding

Are Social Causes a One Click Pony?

The Baer Facts Social Media Controversies

Social Media Controversies Addressed, Fresh Each Week

In this edition of The Baer Facts, I talk with Kyle Lacy of ExactTarget about thousands of Facebook and Twitter users temporarily changing their avatars in support of marriage equality, currently being debated by the United States Supreme Court.

If an Avatar Falls in the Forest…

It is admirable – and remarkable – when causes “catch fire” in social media and become a meme. It underscores how interconnected we’ve become. But do these temporal gestures of support have any impact? It’s not as if the Supreme Court is dialing up Sysomos to check social mentions before rendering constitutional decisions.

And while changing your avatar is, in fact, “doing” something, it’s not doing very much. As a friend of mine stated on Facebook, it’s almost literally the least you can do. I wonder what percentage of avatar changers have also signed petitions (like this one on, called a legislator, donated funds to the cause, attended a rally or engaged in some other form of support that might have greater impact?

bildeSocial Media’s Weak Ties

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a while back that social media couldn’t really take credit for spurring movements because the ties between us and the behaviors generated are weak and fragile. He was pilloried by the social community for this stance, and I’ll admit to writing my own stern rebuke. But now, 30 months later, I fear Gladwell was right. As social becomes pervasive, and slowly digests other forms of human connectivity, our ability and desire to turn everything into a one-click pony marches steadily onward.

Do You Have Motives, or Motivation?

What makes memes like the marriage equality avatar change go viral is their very visual nature (this phenomenon is explained by Professor Jonah Berger is his excellent new book, Contagious). Changing your avatar is a very intentional, public action that sends social signals about our values and beliefs. But is our motive for doing so to make certain that all of our friends know where we stand to continue curating the most attractive and interesting version of ourself online, or is our motivation something bigger, like actually making a difference?

Facebook Comments


  1. says

    The power of these social cause memes lie in the fact that they are the digital equivalent of a street demonstration.
    That it is simple or the “least” we can do doesn’t take away from the impact of millions of people taking that time to show their support for a cause.

    I suppose that many of those that demonstrated their support in this way also show their support in more traditional ways, but that’s another issue.

    The Human Rights Campaign is well established. Showing support for it by changing your avatar doesn’t make it a “one trick pony”.

    Making a statement and letting people know where you stand is a brave move for many people. Your friends who read your tweets and FB updates probably already know where your stand.
    By choosing a eye-catching meme for your avatar, you’re letting those in your wider “reach” know.

    Can it make a difference? I believe it can.

    • says

      Thanks Ray. Excellent comment. I hope you’re correct. I disagree with the notion that many/most of the avatar changers are also engaged in other, more meaningful expressions of support (per my point in the video). But I of course don’t have any data to support that either way, unfortunately.

      • says

        Without data to support your choice to disagree, at best you can remain “agnostic. :-)
        My supposition is based on the assumption that among those that chose to show support this way are people , many are apt to support the movement in other ways.
        Yes there are those that jump on the meme bandwagon, but that doesn’t take away from the impact of seeing pink squares float by your social streams.
        At the very least, if you don’t know what it means, you may look it up, if you do, it adds to your sense of community.

        I don’t think we can compare this tactic to making donations or writing your MP, it has a different goal – awareness.

        It doesn’t necessarily “spur a movement” but does add momentum to one.

  2. says

    Politics is a non-starter for many in social media. It’s off-putting and can be divisive. But the marriage equality meme was more subtle, less in-your-face, which made it effective (IMO). We didn’t have to SAY anything about the issue, per se. Posting the picture and using it as an avatar said a lot. For some, that’s more politics than they’ll ever share in social media.

    • says

      I agree with your analysis of the mechanics, but that’s just it. If we’re so uncomfortable that we can’t even talk about it, and instead have to change our avatar, that’s not a very deep commitment to the cause.

  3. Matthew says

    It’s a matter of defining what it means to make a difference or an impact. Will changing your avatar influence the Supreme Court? Of course not. But many of my gay and lesbian friends told me that they were deeply moved by the support they received from their straight friends including the changing on of the avatars. As they listened to pundits attack them and their families for simply being who they are they found some comfort in seeing those avatars.That’s enough of an impact for me. Not everything in social media has to be as profound as changing Federal law. Sometimes it’s enough to make our friends and associates feel a little better.

    • says

      Thanks very much for the great comment. Of course, having an impact on a federal decision is a straw man argument, and I’m glad to hear that people you know were genuinely moved. While that doesn’t speak to the overall impact, it does make me feel better about the whole thing.

  4. says

    I think we can all agree that there is loads of data to support both the positive and negative power of peer pressure. (Note this review by Anya Kamenetz of the recent book, Join the Club” by Pulitzer prize-winning author Tina Rosenberg on the topic.

    I believe this Facebook meme falls into the category of social pressure (for good or ill will depend on what you think about marriage equality), and that changing one’s avatar, while it may have no impact on the Supreme Court, absolutely influences the overall culture.

    When one sees dozens of friends changing their avatars on Facebook it sends a clear signal about what society has decided about the issue. The more changed avatars, the greater the effect. The result will be that even if marriage equality is not achieved this year, all the millions ofteenagers and young adults who will vote for the first time in coming years will have received a powerful social signal that in the minds of their peers, this issue is already decided. And just knowing that will inevitably influence their own thinking, because once something seems inevitable and ubiquitous, it is a very small step to becoming accepted as right. No small effect indeed.

  5. says

    A recent study showed that social media support is part of a ladder of engagement, both helping to promote a cause to an ever-expanding community and moving the supporter towards donating money and time.

    I felt your article spoke about social media in a vacuum, and didn’t give enough credit to the fact that sharing your political views with your social community can influence them and reinforce your commitment to a cause.

    My avatar turning red with an equal sign may not alter anything in the Supreme Court, it may not even change my friends’ opinions. But as a woman married to a man, it reaffirms my belief in marriage as a social contract that should be open to all people regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and is a visual reminder to myself to be more engaged in the issue.

    I recently wrote about why you should take slactivist out of your vocabulary:

  6. Graciousstore says

    Social media is just an outlet for people of like minds to aggregate and pursue their common cause

  7. says

    I would agree that the simple act of changing one’s avatar to show support for a cause of movement is likely not all that powerful in and of itself. However, if you changed your avatar (as I did) AND posted a few messages about why you changed it (which I did) … you could argue that you’re spreading awareness about the cause.

    That being said, spreading awareness to your FB friend – many of whom likely share similar beliefs as you do is kinda preaching to the choir.

    More powerful: Donate to the ACLU (or other similar organization) on a monthly basis (which I now do) and blog about it asking others to join you (which I have not – yet).

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Jay. Always interesting what you have to say.

    And FWIW, my FB avatar has been the Block M … in support of Michigan hoops. GO BLUE!

  8. says

    If the Supreme Court would like our help in making decisions, we’d be more than happy to work with them to ensure they’re seeing what their constituents are saying in social media.
    Just saying. =)

    Sheldon, community manager for Marketwired (formerly known as Sysomos & Marketwire)

  9. Irina says

    I also agree that it doesn’t matter if someone is changing a profile with the “equality symbol pic” if they are not really engaging with the cause. The same goes with many of the social chains, about any social cause out there, and people start sharing or “liking” because everybody else is also doing it; not necessarily because they also believe in the same cause. #greatpost

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