What Do Those Facebook Pride Photos Really Mean?

A Sociologist Reflects on Social Norms and Politics

Nicki Lisa Cole/Facebook

On June 26, 2015 the U.S Supreme Court ruled that denying people the right to marry on the basis of sexual orientation is unconstitutional. That same day, Facebook debuted an easy-to-use tool that turns one's profile picture into a rainbow flag-styled celebration of gay pride. Just four days later, 26 million of the site's users had adopted the "Celebrate Pride" profile picture. What does it mean?

In a basic, and rather obvious sense, adopting the gay pride profile picture demonstrates support for gay rights--it signals that the user espouses particular values and principles, which in this case, are attached to a particular civil rights movement. This can signal membership in that movement, or that one considers oneself an ally to those the movement represents. But from a sociological standpoint, we can also see this phenomenon as the result of implicit peer pressure. A Facebook-produced study of what caused users to change their profile picture to the equal sign associated with the Human Rights Campaign in 2013 proves just this.

By studying user-generated data collected via the site, Facebook researchers found that people were most likely to change their profile picture to the equal sign after seeing several others in their network do so. This outweighed other factors like political attitudes, religion, and age, which makes sense, for a few reasons. First, we tend to self-select into social networks in which our values and beliefs are shared. So in this sense, changing one's profile picture is a way to reaffirm those shared values and beliefs.

Second, and related to the first, as members of a society, we are socialized from birth to follow the norms and trends of our social groups. We do this because our acceptance by others and our very membership in society is premised on doing so. So, when we see a particular behavior emerge as a norm within a social group of which we are a part, we are likely to adopt it because we come to view it as expected behavior. This is easily observed with trends in clothing and accessories, and seems to have been the case with the equal sign profile pictures, as well as the trend of "celebrating pride" via a Facebook tool.

In terms of achieving equality for LGBTQ people, that the public expression of support for their equality has become a social norm is a very positive thing, and it's not just on Facebook that this is happening. Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that 54 percent of those polled supported same-sex marriage, while the number in opposition had dropped to 39 percent. The results of this poll and the recent Facebook trend are positive signs for those fighting for equality because our society is a reflection of our social norms, so if supporting gay marriage is normative, then a society that reflects those values in practice should follow.

However, we must be cautious about over-reading the promise of equality into a Facebook trend. There is often quite a gulf between the values and beliefs we publicly express and the practice of our everyday lives. While it is now normal to express support for gay marriage and equality for LGBTQ people in the greater sense, we nonetheless still carry around within us socialized biases--both conscious and subconscious--that favor heterosexual couplings over homosexual ones, and gender identities that correspond to still quite rigid behavioral social norms that are expected to correspond with biological sex (or, hegemonic masculinity and femininity). We have even more work to do to normalize the existence of gender queer and trans* people.

So if, like me, you changed your picture to reflect gay and queer pride or your support of it, keep in mind that judicial decisions do not an equal society make. The rampant persistence of systemic racism five decades after the Civil Rights Act was passed is a disturbing testament to this. And, the fight for equality--which is about much more than marriage--must also be fought offline, in our personal relationships, educational institutions, hiring practices, in our parenting, and in our politics, if we want to really achieve it.