Facebook Rainbow Profile Photos: The Latest Big Data Experiment?
The social network learns more about its users than they might realize.
Scholars and activists have debated the effectiveness of profile-image campaigns since at least 2009, when Twitter users turned their profiles green, joined Facebook groups, and changed their location setting to Tehran in support of Iranian protesters. Experts downplayed the importance of such actions; Global Voices Iran editor Fred Petrossian argued that talk of a Twitter revolution “reveals more about Western fantasies for new media than the reality in Iran.” Evgeny Morozov, who was a Yahoo fellow at the time, called it “slacktivism,” a “harmless activism” that “wasn’t very productive.”
Among other critiques, Morozov voiced two important questions in a larger debate over the value of collective action online. First, he argued that social-media solidarity has an unknown effect toward political change, perhaps even siphoning energy away from more effective action. Secondly, Morozov downplayed the cost and risk of that participation. But unlike Westerners showing solidarity for Iranians on Twitter, gender equality in the U.S. involves changes in social relations alongside political changes. Changing one’s profile image in support of marriage equality in America carries immediate risks and costs, from “a quarrel with one’s otherwise-thinking friends—to the life-threatening,” as State and Adamic explain in their research.