Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Avatar and Public Opinion

Social Media: the digital land of lots and lots and lots of talking, but very little listening.

It seems that almost everyone who actively uses social media accounts like Facebook and Twitter likes to complain about the political arguments that happen on these sites, but when the same people feel fired up enough they will either post a political post or at least leave a comment on someone else's post, thus perpetuating the problem of online debates that often dissolve into brutal, personal attacks. Even I, who consider myself very politically passionate, but also value the opinions of others, make a concerted effort not to post political statements after having learned the hard way when I was attacked by a large family (literally two brothers and three sisters) of Facebook "friends." While my intent in posting was not to persuade anyone, rather just to make a statement of personal belief, I was lambasted by said family in a thirty-two comment long assault. I have not posted anything political to this day, but more importantly, despite their attempt to shame me into sharing their opinions, neither the family nor I changed our opinions and, by the end of our interaction, no one was really listening to anyone else.

However, in early March the Human Rights Campaign released an avatar that was used by many users on both Facebook and Twitter (see below).

By using this sign as an avatar, social media users were able to make a statement of their opinion on gay marriage without opening up a discussion for debate like a status update might. That way users could post a status like, "Making cookies with Grandma B" and the picture would appear next to every update.

While this trend did cause this issue:

The avatar functioned as a message that was received loud and clear by anyone using social media--friends, community members, coworkers, and family members supported gay marriage, thus normalizing the concept of gay marriage (or at least the acceptance of gay marriage) among these users. By using this avatar, users aligned themselves as advocates of gay rights, openly and without creating the opportunity to debate their decision.

In an article published to Mashable on June 26, 2013 writer Alex Fitzpatrick asks if the red avatars had any weight in pulling the ruling of DOMA as unconstitutional. In the article, Fitzpatrick quotes several authors and judiciary scholars as saying, "Maybe, but probably not." However, while the favor rating for gay marriage among Americans has been rising in recent years, Fitzpatrick notes that the Supreme Court historically often rules in favor of the majority's opinion.

While I would certainly hope that the Supreme Court wouldn't base any decision on anything other than their best ability to interpret the law (even though I realize it's unfortunately FAR more complicated than that), I do think that the red avatar has done something to begin to sway some of those who still oppose gay marriage. I personally have seen and spoken with many social media users who seem to have revised their opinions, quipping, "If you can't beat them, join them."

As a result of the avatars, many of my LGBT Facebook friends also reported feeling much less isolated and more supported by their fellow friends and followers. What's more, the use of these avatars has spurred the creation of many articles among religious (mostly Christian) websites referencing the sheer number of avatars in voicing the need to end the "fight against" gay marriage and to reframe the dialogue between Christian and non-Christian users when discussing homosexuality. Clearly these avatars have taken social media platforms by storm and have been noticed by users around the globe. I'm very curious to see what the next avatar will be to go viral and how it will be used.

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