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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