Changing your Facebook profile picture means something, but what?

Published: Saturday, March 30 2013 9:50 p.m. MDT


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SALT LAKE CITY — J.J. Despain says he avoids conflict on Facebook as a general rule, but last week used the platform to make a  statement.           

When many of his classmates changed their profile pictures to the red square surrounding a pink equal sign in support of gay marriage, Despain decided to make a change to his own profile picture, offering a counter position.

The first-year law student at the University of Iowa felt compelled to speak out and the social media network provided a way for him to do that.

Despain changed his profile picture to a thumbnail image of The Family: A Proclamation to the World, a document issued in 1995 by the LDS Church that says marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God. 

 “If nothing else it just shows that ‘Well here’s what I think’ and it seems to be different from my classmates.”

Despain is one of millions of people who updated their profile pictures on Tuesday, roughly 2.7 million more than those who updated the previous Tuesday, according to Eytan Bakshy, a researcher on the Facebook Data Science Team. The data reveals the growing trend of using social media as a form of advocacy and in the case of Facebook, taking a stand in the place where a person's own image usually resides.

But is it a measure of support or just another way to make a social connection? Is it an opportunity for businesses to identify with causes, or a way for employees to find themselves in dangerous territory by taking a stance that may reflect on a company wishing to remain neutral?

“I think one thing that the social media aspect has is the quickness effect of something moving,” said Chris Cutri, associate professor in the Communications department at Brigham Young University. “So some kind of dialogue or advocacy or some kind of stance, it seems like through the notion of Twitter something can move more quickly.”

There is a bravery in those who take a stand on an issue online, Cutri said, because they are willing to put themselves in a vulnerable situation.

 “Social media sort of democratizes opportunities to speak out,” he said, while traditional advocacy platforms such as at a rally, in newspaper and TV spots have gatekeepers, which makes it more difficult for the average person to participate.

Identifying what motivates someone to speak out is more challenging.

Facebook creates a false reality, said Ron J. Hammond, a professor of sociology at Utah Valley University, not only because it tends to show only the best sides of people, but also because of reciprocity. Essentially, people will “like” or support issues and causes on Facebook that they might not in their everyday lives, all in an effort to maintain or strengthen a social connection. 

“Conformity is a major rule for friendships,” Hammond said. “I wouldn’t use Facebook for an indication for where someone stands.”

Some movements, he said, get an additional boost in visibility and publicity because they buy advertising space from Facebook, so they may appear to be more popular than they actually are.

People tend to use social media to validate the type of person they think they are, and allows people to become involved in a cause without much actual investment.

“A lot of our sense of self is behind our motivation,” Hammond said. “It says I’m a person who keeps in touch … I’m the type of person who supports this without paying anything.”

Many issues explored

Portia Groves-Westesen, a Provo resident, bucks this trend. She advocates a variety of issues using Facebook. Her posts and likes on Facebook parallel what she believes in and supports offline.

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