On March 26, the Supreme Court discussed the Defense of Marriage Act, an act denying federal marriage benefits and interstate marriage recognition to same-sex couples. In response, the Human Rights Campaign urged Facebook users to show their support for same-sex marriage by updating their profile pictures to a pink-on-red equals sign.
Many users obliged and painted the site red — and pink.
In fact, Facebook reported that 2.7 million more people changed their profile photos on Tuesday than on the previous Tuesday, a figure undoubtedly tied to the equals sign.
Before I even checked Facebook that day, a great majority of my friends and classmates had switched their profile photos to the equals sign. I even saw one person complaining about the people who didn’t have an equals sign in their profile picture, assuming they automatically formed an oppositional force.
I wondered if I should fling that equals sign up for a little while, just so my friends would know I didn’t randomly turn from a liberal to a far-right conservative in regards to marriage equality. I also didn’t want my gay friends to think I didn’t support their rights.
Ultimately, I decided that changing my profile picture would have just been a perfunctory gesture, only to be seen by friends who already support marriage equality or to be ignored by friends who don’t.
I’m not sold on the Internet’s ability to inspire political and social change. While it was impressive to see all of those equals signs, it’s also important to remember how easy it is to sit on one’s rear and click a couple of buttons.
Every day, my inbox is flooded with online petitions from sites such as MoveOn.org. MoveOn encourages its members to “be the change you want to see in the world,” and the organization apparently thinks typing a name, email address and zip code into an Internet form is enough to “be that change.”
It might seem as if the boundaries between real life and online life are blurred enough for the sharing of a Facebook meme or the signing of a virtual petition to signify political action. Sadly, though, Supreme Court justices and legislators don’t care about your Facebook profile picture, unless caring helps them get re-elected.
If you updated your profile picture to the equals sign, you’ve temporarily sparked a conversation about marriage equality amongst your friends and in the media, and that’s a fine first step. But, remember, while the Internet is great for talking and organizing, it’s also notorious for creating ephemeral memes.
Civil rights “movements” must entail moving, whether it is through civil disobedience or getting off the couch on Election Day and voting for candidates who will help to advance the issues that affect you and the ones you love.