This week the Supreme Court is considering a case about the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and legal protections granted to same-sex couples in states where gay marriage is now legally recognized. This is a watershed moment in US cultural history and internet activists are doing their part to make a collective statement.
If you’ve been on Facebook in the last two days, you have likely seen an explosion of red squares that look like this:
This image was created by a designer for the Human Rights Campaign and released earlier this week with a request that people share it to show their support for the rights of LGBT citizens. Then something unexpected happened. According to this source, George Takei posted the image as his Facebook profile pic and requested others to do the same. In a matter of hours, millions of people followed suit.
Mr. Takei currently has 3,775, 263 “likes” on Facebook — making him a major hub in his social network. This enables him to wield considerable influence as an innovation leader because his actions are seen and replicated by a large number of people all over the world. George Takei is a powerful meme propagator who can launch new memes into the discourse and really make a splash.
And this is what has happened in the last 24 hours. I posted a request on Facebook for friends to share their favorite mutations of the Red Square meme and gathered a sampling of images to share here. Note how they all follow a common visual theme, yet enable anyone to alter and personalize it any way they like so long as the original meaning is preserved.
Why is this important? Because it reveals how social movements arise and how they alter public perception, thus changing what is possible in terms of policy outcomes. And because it enables us to see the power of strategic framing and meme analysis in real time.
Deconstructing the Equality Frame
The Red Equality Square is a visual pattern that contains incredible semantic richness. For starters, it is minimalistic with only two colors and a simple layout of content. This makes it easy to process and get the gist of what it is about very quickly — a vital design feature for release to the web where people typically scan vertical news feeds on social media platforms with large amounts of information in them. It’s red color evokes a sense of danger, activating the “fight or flight” response that releases endorphins into the blood stream to more rapidly focus attention and assess possible threats.
One benefit of this neuronal activation of core emotions is that it increases memory recall and shuts out other information that may distract from threat detection. Another is that it associates danger with the core theme of equality as we’ll see in a moment.
Everyone will readily recognize the symbol in this image — the equal sign we were all taught in school in order to perform basic math calculations. This symbol tells us that any objects being compared with each other will have the same value. 1+1 = 2. 5+5 = 10. And so on.
This basic procedure of making a comparison and finding both sides to be equal is a conceptual model for equality. Its power arises through its simplicity and ubiquity. Everyone knows what it means. It is as self-evident as any truth we have ever been taught.
This evokes a feeling of commonsense insight, the “duh” moment that asserts similarity as being so obvious that any school child will get it. So we can already begin to see the power of this visual cue for evoking the moral intuition that all people are created equal (one of the most powerful memes in US cultural history) and so should be granted the same protections and rights no matter how else they might be different.
And the red color tells us that this fundamental right is under attack. We are in danger of losing something precious that runs to the core of what it means to be an American. Now is the time to take a stand — all you Momma Bears and Poppa Bears — to defend the heart of our democracy.
Emotional sentiments associated with human dignity, mutual respect, and compassion all come through in a rush. There is no formal argument, no facts to persuade us, or any possibility for rebuttal. It couldn’t be more plain. And so the Equality Frame is evoked through the power of design. So much richness packed into a rudimentary communication vehicle!
The Viral Spreading of an Internet Meme
Clearly this is a powerful communication vehicle for changing the discourse around gay marriage and a whole lot more. As the Equality Frame gets activated in the minds of people — bringing with it the moral sentiments around human dignity and compassion for our fellow citizens — it alters our social reality by telling us that this is how everyone around us feels about the treatment of homosexuals. Everyone who feels this way gets a steady stream of reinforcement as they scroll through their news feed on Facebook.
It is this capacity for a meme to alter consciousness that makes the Red Equality Square a textbook example for how social change occurs. The stages go like this:
A growing sense of concern and unrest lays dormant in the minds of many people. They feel frustrated about the state of the world and meagerly hope that it will someday change.
Like-minded people seek each other out and cultivate diverse social networks around shared ideals, interests, passions, and lifestyles.
These networks evolve and grow in a decentralized manner with some individuals gaining many more connections than others, resulting in the presence of key influencers who can operate as communication hubs when the moment is ripe.
A powerful communication vehicle is created that captures shared angst in a simple and powerful way, in this case an image of a red square with an equal sign that has been posted to the internet.
One or several key influencers take on the role of movement leadership, role-modeling a simple behavior that others can easily follow.
Ease of following creates a situation where followers are themselves leaders, replicating the behavior of the original influencer while also bringing their own unique personalities to life by mutating the message without compromising its core meaning.
As more leaders step forth, a pattern of activation becomes evident and many people become visible as part of a movement.
These collective actions alter the social landscape by introducing a new perceived reality — there are so many of us who feel this way!
A feeling of inevitability takes hold as the message become ubiquitous and gains the feel of being universally shared.
This is the tipping point that changes what is possible and irrevocably alters the course of cultural evolution.
The internet makes it easy to form networks and introduce viral media. But all of the right ingredients need to be there for it to activate. There have to be shared sentiments and values, common concerns about wrongs in the world, social networks of connected people, an easy-to-spread message, and a catalyzing event that sets the whole thing off.
This complex web of social change is the subject of study in the field of meme science. Only by combining knowledge from cognitive science, complexity theory, network analysis, communication design, and media analysis can insights like these be revealed.
I hope this helps you better understand what is happening this week. And that it empowers you to stimulate world-changing social change around the issues you care about. Please let me know if I can be of service in your efforts.
Director, Cognitive Policy Works