Profile Pictures, T-Shirts, and Visibility Campaigns

Curator's Note

In March 2013, during the Supreme Court hearings leading to the overturn of Proposition 8 and DOMA, an estimated two to ten million Facebook users changed their profile pictures to images of red equal signs to show their support for marriage equality. In this clip, Anastasia Khoo of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) explains that her organization created this social media campaign in order to send a message to at-risk LGBT youth that “there’s a community out there that loves and supports you.” The message of this visual activism campaign was thus not reducible to the graphic itself (which simply juxtaposes the standard HRC equality logo with the color red to symbolize love), but rather emerged from the way in which it visually manifests the identities of LGBT supporters. Such acts of conspicuous self-labeling, creating legible public visibility for a particular social group, point to an emergent form of activism stemming from the self-expressive possibilities of contemporary participatory culture. However, Facebook profile pictures are only one way in which communities can collectively announce their presence for social and political purposes. In recent years, LGBT groups at college campuses around the country have used the coordinated wearing of slogan T-shirts to send similar messages of support to those who may be struggling with their sexual identities. Like the graphic T-shirt, the social media profile picture has the capacity to serve as a visual representation of a person’s identity, and activists from a range of constituencies are beginning to realize how this identity-marking power can be utilized for visibility rhetoric. If one’s social media profile amounts to a “digital body,” as internet scholar danah boyd has argued, then the visual image one chooses to represent this body becomes, in a sense, its virtual clothing. This linkage between social media and dress may be a fruitful one moving forward for those who wish to investigate participatory visual campaigns like the red equal signs on Facebook. As scholars who study dress and society have long recognized, the social meaning of clothing cannot be understood by focusing only on the visual material itself. Rather, the analysis must also take into consideration the social identities of the wearers as well as their position in a web of social relations. As the digital body increasingly becomes a site for visibility-centered activism, such an approach can help to unlock the complexity of these performative visual practices.


I agree with Dara, this is a great post and a good example of social media based visual activism. Related to Dara's question about self-branding, I'm wondering what the implications are for this campaign around branding within activism more generally? While I agree that this was a powerful message that was not reducible to the graphic itself, it also can't erase the fact that this graphic, as Joel put it, "simply juxtaposes the standard HRC equality logo with the color red to symbolize love," thus equating the movement for marriage equality with HRC's brand. Does the potential conflation of support for an issue with the brand of a larger cause-based organization supporting that issue reduce the effectiveness of the visual activism in any way? Does it constrain what we come to see as possible modes of protest in visual activism? While I would prefer to think of social media through dana boyd's lens, as a manifestation of our digital bodies, more often I see or hear people in my field, communication studies, discuss social media as a means of self-branding. It seems that this campaign connects the corporatization of causes to discourses about the corporatization of the self, and I'm wondering what lesson we might take away from that. Thanks for the post Joel.

Thanks for the thoughtful responses, guys! I would agree that the branding issue is definitely pertinent in the red equal sign example, as well as in social media-based activism more generally. I would argue for a distinction, however, between the branding of politics (i.e. conflating support for an issue with a branded organization like the HRC, as Aaron pointed out) and the notion of self-branding. Although the two may certainly become intertwined, the latter concept tends to focus on how people market themselves for their own economic and social advantage (see Alison Hearn's 2008 piece "Meat, Mask, Burden"). In my interview research on political expression on social media sites and elsewhere, I've found that this sort of self-interest does not fully account for why people choose to show support for political causes. Rather, they often see themselves as acting in the interest of the broader society, lending their social capital in a sense to groups that they care about and feel would benefit from their assistance. In the case of the red equal signs, many straight people seemed to post these pictures as a small way of contributing to the cause of LGBT rights - whether or not this actually effective is another matter, but I would refrain from looking at it as wholly self-interested behavior. With regard to the branding of politics, I agree that there are some major dangers here, although I'm not completely pessimistic. I tend to agree with the position of Sarah Banet-Weiser in her recent book on the subject, "Authentic TM." She essentially argues for a measured ambivalence, appreciating the positives that can come out of marketing something like marriage equality like a can of Pepsi, while also critically considering the ways in which this reinforces the logic of global corporate capitalism. In other words, a little of column A, a little of column B...

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