David Frum

04.04.13

Facebook's Red Sea of Equality

Last week, as the Supreme Court heard arguments regarding DOMA and Prop 8, people all over the country changed their Facebook profile picture to a red equal sign in an act of solidarity.

The Facebook Data Science Team collected demographic, time, and location information to analyze who changed their picture to the equal sign. 

Time trends
The first thing we wanted to do is understand how the events played out over time. While millions of U.S. Facebook users update their profile photos on a given day, we found that significantly more users -- roughly 2.7 million (120%) more, updated their profile photo on Tuesday, March 26 compared to the previous Tuesday...

Demographics
Next, we wanted to know what kinds of Facebook users were presumably showing support for marriage equality. We compared the proportion of users who logged in on Tuesday, March 26 and updated their profile picture with that proportion the week before (March 19), broken down by age...

Those closest to 30 years old showed the greatest increase in updating. This suggests that on average, roughly 3.5% of 30-year-old Facebook users updated their profiles in response to the events surrounding the HRC campaign. We also found a small, but significant difference expression between genders. On average, 2.3% more self-reported female users updated their profile photo, compared to 2.1% more self-reported males...

Geography
Finally, having seen so many Facebook friends change their profiles photos in response to the debate, we wanted to know how widespread this phenomenon was across the country. To do this, we constructed a statistical model to estimate the likelihood that an individual in a given county would change their profile picture on March 26...

Which counties saw the largest increases in profile photo changes? Much to our surprise, we found that Washtenaw County -- home of Ann Arbor, Michigan and the University of Michigan, this author's alma mater, topped the list. Our model estimated that approximately 6.2% of Facebook users who logged in from this county changed their profile photos in response to the campaign.

Washtenaw County is not alone. Many of the top 25 counties that showed the greatest support for HRC's campaign were home to college towns, including Orange (University of North Carolina), Durham (Duke University), Monroe (Indiana University), Johnson (University of Iowa), Athens (Ohio University), Dane (University of Wisconsin), Boulder (University of Colorado), and Travis (University of Texas at Austin).

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, while (log) population density was correlated with increases in profile updating (rho = 0.45), many counties housing large cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City, showed only modest increases (2.4-2.9%) in support.

Check it out for yourself at Facebook.