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Changing your Facebook profile picture means something, but what?

Published: Monday, Aug. 31 2015 10:48 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.

Recent posts include an article about a domestic violence survivor and a Luis Vuitton fashion film.  Her profile pictures include sayings such as “Health food won’t kill you but junk food will,” “Art saves lives,” and “Vegetarian non-violence.” Most recently she changed her profile to the red square surrounding a pink equal sign in support of gay marriage. 

She sees social media as a healthy environment in which to get conversations started. 

“I think sometimes it’s a safe forum to discuss,” she said, adding that if a conversation does get heated, Facebook offers her the option of taking time to answer a question, or to take a break in order to think more clearly, whereas face-to-face interactions do not.

And it's not just Facebook. More than one million users have used "Twibbons" — a message overlay of one's avatar — as a way for users to show their support for a cause with their avatars. Thousands placed pink breast cancer Twibbons on their avatars during Breast Cancer Awareness Month and thousands of others used twibbons as a way to show support for Haiti.

The workplace

When social media enters the workplace, rules of proper protocol become more complicated. ESPN's Bill Simmons early March tweets that were critical of a network program resulted in discipline because it reportedly violated ESPN's social networking policy.

On Monday, Twitter lit up with red squares and on the Facebook profile pictures of many San Francisco Chronicle workers. The members of the Pacific Media Workers Guild protested a health care increase, proposed by parent company Hearst Corp., that would result in pay cuts for the newspaper workers.

Kat Anderson, staff representative for Pacific Media Workers Guild, said the “checkerboard effect” caused by the profile picture change of colleagues was eye-catching for followers and allowed the employees to participate in effecting a change without having to leave their desks. 

 “It was in concert. It was meaningful,” Anderson said, because it put pressure on management and raised public awareness.

Because many journalists at the Chronicle use Twitter to engage in conversations with readers and promote stories, it was easy for them to use this to promote solidarity among union members.

Journalists are expected to remain objective in their reporting and public persona, which includes refraining from advocacy. So last week's union protest had journalists seeing red, but not engaging in the national displays for or against gay marriage.

Mike Cabanatuan, reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, said there is a difference between advocacy and standing up for rights.

“You ought to be able to speak up for yourself,” Cabanatuan said.

Public interactions

American Fork-based Domo is among the companies that have embraced social media. It launched a social media experiment last spring to encourage employees to become involved with social media. Employees can express opinions and engage in dialogue with the public, and Domo provides ongoing training on how they can best do this.

Julie Kehoe, vice president of communications at Domo, said employees learn limiting  their privacy settings and remaining respectful in their conversations, among other things. 

“We don’t wanna hire jerks,” Kehoe said.

Domo welcomes a diversity of opinions, she said, but employees need to be aware of their audience. If an employee were to insult, say, a company that is one of Domo’s clients in a Tweet rage, “that would so not be cool. That’s poor judgment,” she said. The policy, essentially, is to apply social norms to social media.

“We liken social media to being at like the world’s biggest trade show and being on stage,” she said. The difference is, you don’t always know who your customer is when you’re online.

A good rule of thumb is to avoid posting anything you would be hesitant to say in front of your peers, coworkers or boss, Kehoe said.

Salt Lake City Police Department has also launched a social media campaign, maintaining a presence on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This has been helpful in developing relationships between the department and citizens, said Laura Jones, Salt Lake City Police Department media director. Their social media policy is similar to Domo’s, in that they encourage employees to apply the same logic to virtual communications as they do to real life.

 “The basics of communications are the same. It’s just a new bell and whistle,” Jones said.

They are working on clarifying and strengthening their social media policy so officers have specific guidance, but until that point, Jones said officers need to be aware that although they may be expressing personal views, they are reaching a broader circle than if they were communicating in person.

 “One of the issues with social media, just like in real life, is who are your real friends?" Jones said. 

The department encourages employees to use good judgment when responding to angry comments or tweets.

“The inner snark is something that everyone has to police,” Jones said. 

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