Facebook Study Dissects the ‘Red Equal Sign’ Profile Pic Phenomenon

red equal sign

How many red equal signs can you count when you scroll down your newsfeed? With the HRC’s new equality campaign sweeping through Facebook, the social media site was bombarded with profile picture changes in support of the campaign, which was sparked in light of the Supreme Court’s discussions surrounding the hot topic of gay marriage.

The trend has been so noticeable that Facebook’s data scientist Eytan Bakshy has published a study on the surging social media phenomena’s popularity — studying its time trend, demographics and geography. Here’s what you need to know:

red equal sign facebook trend
Time Trend

red equal sign facebook study data

profile photo uploads trends revealed by a time series model. Dashed line indicates when HRC campaign was launched.

Most people (roughly 2.7 million) changed their profile photo on Tuesday, March 26 — the same day the court deliberated California’s Proposition 8 (which bans the right for same-sex couples to marry) and just a day before arguments regarding the national Defense of Marriage Act (which has legally defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman since 1996) were discussed.

Facebook found that the increase in uploads did indeed start around the time when HRC began urging their Facebook followers to change their profile photos at 1 p.m. EST.


demographics facebook red equal sign

Relationship between age and profile photo changes.

Data shows that more women changed their profile than men. Also, the average age of the profile-pic changer is roughly 30 — making a woman in her early 30s the most likely person to don the red equal sign.

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red equal sign

Counties with more intense colors can be thought to have greater turnout.

The study divided the country by county to quantify the amount of profile picture changes. The country with the largest increase in profile changes? Washtenaw County — home of Ann Arbor, Michigan and the University of Michigan. According to the model, 6.2 percent of users from the county adopted the equal sign to their profile. It is no coincidence that Washtenaw County is a college town — in fact many of the top 25 counties that shows the greatest support for the campaign were home to universities.

People changing their profile pictures weren’t just in college towns. San Francisco County, San Mateo County (home of many tech companies), and Washington, D.C., also ranked highly.

Surprisingly, counties housing large cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City showed only modest increases (2.4-2.9 percent) in support.

The HRC’s wise decision to cater to our Internet-driven world has prompted inclusion of millions of supporters.

It seems as though social media and social revolutions are linking arms. For example, in the 2010 Egyptian Revolution, it’s readily believed that a handful of people sparked this uprising through Facebook, Twitter and blogging. Similarly, the 2009 Iranian election protest (also referred to as the Facebook Revolution) as well as the Tunisian Revolution have also been linked to the use of social media.

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