How Facebook Measured Gay Marriage Support With An Equals Sign

Or how big data is telling the story of the civil rights movement of our time.

This week, as the Supreme Court heard testimony regarding same-sex marriage, my Facebook profile was flooded with a single avatar—a pink-on-red equals sign promoted by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Generally a curmudgeon about armchair activism, I was drawn the the strong visual (literally, as the eye is naturally drawn to red). I swapped mine out, too.

But did it make a difference? Did anyone have a way of knowing just how large this movement had become? It just so happens, Facebook does.

Facebook’s avatar swaps by region.

By comparing week-to-week trends, they saw that 120% more (or about 2.7 million) people changed their avatars than the week before. Most activity came from college towns. And most supporters were around 30 years old

Those closest to 30 years old showed the greatest increase in updating. This suggests that on average, roughly 3.5% of 30-year-old Facebook users updated their profiles in response to the events surrounding the HRC campaign. We also found a small, but significant difference expression between genders. On average, 2.3% more self-reported female users updated their profile photo, compared to 2.1% more self-reported males.

In other words, as a 30-year-old male, my stance was relatively predictable.

Interestingly enough, Facebook figured this out without even looking at our individual avatars with some sort of picture-deducing algorithm. However, earlier this week, another source measured the HRC campaign in almost exactly this way.

By pulling random HRC avatars from various profiles, Kenton Ngo was able to measure the JPEG compression of this very simple geometric image. Because each time Facebook users stole one another’s avatars, the image was recompressed, so it left marks sort of like heavily treaded carpet might.

What they found was that these images had been shared by hundreds of generations of people. Friends of friends of friends of…well, you get the point. And it all leads me to believe, that when this movement goes down in the history books, it won’t just include photos of Harvey Milk, but screengrabs of fuzzy viral jpeg artifacts, too.

Read more here and here.

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  • jmco

    The deep south, the western plains, and most of Texas have some issues they need to come to terms with.
    I am surprised to see the Rockies and even Utah are coming around.
    I thought the large eastern cities south of CT would have at least a little dark red. I think it is an issue of smaller gay numbers there versus simply very large populations.
    But I'd love to see one of these charts based on level of support versus county by county. That would be more accurate. You know, like they did during the last two elections. Made the U.S. map look like a blue or red clown balloon. But more accurate on issues, candidates, etc.

  • Zack Pless

    the civil rights movement of our time? lol what a hilarious hipster.  the govt just gave themselves the ability to kill any one of us with out any trial, and they are fighting to censor the internet for fucks sake.. i believe any homosexual relationship to be just as special and valid as its heterosexual counterpart, but to say that marriage rights is the civil rights movement of our time is sad.  the shitty ass institution of marriage is already going down hill, the fact that the government regulates personal relationships should already be offensive to a liberty minded individual!  abolish marriage as a state institution, let religious institutions handle those as they see fit, and the controversy is over.  that is the liberty centered solution.  

  • Web Edge

    A simple jpeg image can never represent opinions and beliefs. I have seen the people outside the USA and some places like Bosnia (that don't have roads but they have facebook) have adopted the red-pink image (maybe because it is cool) so does it make them a supporter of Homos, NO because they are searching for food and shelter (they don't give a crap). This was just an example and not at all aimed for particular region, So I count this poll as rigging of opinion to pressurize the courts and influencing the verdicts.

  • Cosmic Spark

    Places like Bosnia, that don't have roads? People in Bosnia searching for food and shelter? People from Bosnia "not giving a crap" about equality of homosexuals? Wow, your ignorance is absolutely disgusting. As someone who lives in Serbia, which for your knowledge is the country to the east of Bosnia, I can tell you that not only do most of us have roads, food and shelter, but that the issue of gay marriage and gay equality is very much alive and active in the region. Please try not to talk about things that you have absolutely no clue about next time, or if you do that, at least put it in question form so someone can educate you.

  • TrillupsYShort

    Can't believe the pseudoscience involved with this "measurement", and the rah-rah ease at which ya'll ('2.0 bloggers) have pasted it around the internet.

    1] Many times the image that facebook is using is actually a joke image, or even anti-gay rights. My friend had guns on his, and budweiser had beer cans. Yes, they were supporting gay rights...for the good of their brand.

    2] The number of people that actually change their profile pics all the time is large, as is the number of people that never change their profile pics, ever. What does profile-pic-changing say about one's beliefs? Nothing.

    3] Areas that are pro gay rights will ALWAYS skew higher, since "my friends are doing it, so I will too"

    4] Areas that are anti gay right will ALWAYS skew lower, since "my friends hate gays, and even though I don't, I don't want to be ostracized"

    This is the equivalent of counting pics of teens wearing Che Guevara tshirts, as a measure of communist party membership. The mere fact that Austin is bright red and Dallas is a pink mist should sum it up. Dallas has more gays than the population of Travis County!!! 

    Be more professional!

  • Bob Ligget

    The author, perhaps reflecting his age, presumes that when history of the gay rights movement is written, Facebook will still be in existence and relevant. I'm not so sure, perhaps reflecting my age. I highly doubt that historians will care one whit about a trendy image on a social network site. I'd bet instead that these images, if remembered at all, will be included parenthetically in an article on popular social history. I also take issue with the author's contention that this is the civil rights movement of our (meaning his) time. His generation searches hard for a social or political movement to get behind and overstating the case is part of the process. I suspect I'm in a minority of Fast Company readers, I'm really not in your target demo, but I like to stay on top of all perspectives out there.

  • cassette_walkman

    I do also wonder - like the answers given to a non-anonymous survey - How much of it was not just about choosing to participate but about being SEEN to choose to participate. Not the same outcome or significance.

  • cassette_walkman

     What I mean by 'outcome', is that it doesn't necessarily signify actual support, it signifies participation in the visual campaign.

  • Gavin Blur

    Only a small percentage of my friends - most that support gay marriage did participate! so the numbers of people in favor would be much much higher - all none scientific.