When I get to the Speak Social office in the mornings, my routine is simple: I take my laptop out of my black messenger bag, plug it in the outlet behind my desk, and open Internet Explorer (no judgments please). I have three homepages that I check regularly: CNN, Facebook and Gmail. Normally, very little piques my interest on these pages and I proceed to my daily tasks of tweeting and blogging for clients. However, yesterday morning was different. As I scrolled quickly through my Facebook feed, seizure-inducing flashes of red boxes housing pink equal signs met my eye.
I’m a bit of a news junky, therefore aware that yesterday was a big day for LGBTQ Rights … and equal rights in general for that matter. I knew Washington would be bustling with protesters as the U.S. Supreme Court listened to arguments from both sides of the hot-button gay marriage issue. What never occurred to me was the tenacity with which this court case – taking place 2,000 miles from where I live in Austin – would spread through Social Media. I knew I would see a few posts from my more politically active friends (many of whom refuse to lay the Occupy Movement to rest). However, what I saw yesterday morning was not a grassroots viral movement, but a strategically initiated virus campaign.
The red boxes that adorned my Facebook wall were a modified version of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) logo, a yellow equal sign within a blue box. Many (if not most) of my friends changed their profile pictures to this minimalist symbol in support of equal rights. Family members, old classmates, and people I’ve known for years (yet couldn’t tell you the first thing about their political ideologies) changed their images. By noon there were parodies of the image in both positive and negative lights. It was a sea of red – a movement happening right before my eyes.
It all began when HRC asked LGBTQ Supporters to change their profile pictures to the red and pink equality sign, which they shared on Monday (3.25.13). HRC is the largest lobby group for LGBTQ Rights, with over 1.2 million likes on Facebook. Yet this number paled in comparison to the number of people who changed their profile pictures, having a larger impact than even HRC could ever imagine.
So, how did this call-to-action balloon into a daylong cultural phenomenon?
The answer lies in simple Social Media physics. When one body exerts force on a second body, the second body then exerts an equal amount of force on a third body, and so on and so forth. In the case of influencers, this law of Social speeds up exponentially.
Most Social Media users gravitate toward influencers, or people who cultivated a large and devoted following on a particular Social channel. Hundreds of thousands of people generally respond to anything these influencers share, post or tweet … and not in a chuckle to ourselves then go about our day kind of way. Dedicated influencer followers retweet or share anything and everything in the hopes of gaining an influencer’s attention, which their friends then see, and share. It’s a simple domino effect.
Those influencers who followed HRC on Facebook and/or Twitter (the name George Takei comes to mind) began changing their profile pictures almost immediately, and encouraged others outside of the HRC network to do the same.
This initiative is not viral. This is a strategic virus, planted amongst influencers deliberately with the intention to spread.
As influencers convinced others to show their support, massive numbers of Facebook users changed their pictures. Friends of friends of friends eventually became aware of this campaign and followed suit, many without even knowing why they were changing their picture.
Media that goes viral takes time to build momentum. It can be months before a video on YouTube amasses over 1 million views. In most cases, it takes at least a few days for everyone on Facebook to become aware of a funny / controversial image or video that’s spread across the internet far and wide (check out Heineken, Dog Fights).This was different.
Within hours of HRC making the request, every active Facebook user saw at least one red and pink equal sign in his or her feed. Of course, having a timely and relevant civil rights issue helps, but do not ever underestimate the power of influencers.
Once an influencer decides to spread the word on a topic, as we just witnessed, it may only be a matter of hours before it’s hard to find someone that hasn’t heard about it.
I’m no doctor, but I think that is what’s called a virus.