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 Change.org), called a legislator, donated funds to the cause, attended a rally or engaged in some other form of support that might have greater impact?
Social 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?