Facebook, Twitter and Google+ have all added or turned on features in the wake of the Paris attacks this past Friday, November 13. These features incorporate many of the behavioral uses of these platforms into their code. For example, Facebook turned on its “Safety Check” feature, where people can mark on their profile that they are ok instead of just posting something to your wall. The new app creates a featured post for your profile that says you are safe in the midst of a crisis or disaster. Like more common features on other social networks (e.g. @mentions, hashtags and the Quote Tweet functions on Twitter), these built in features are inspired by the ways people were using the platforms already.
These new features typically make using the social networks easier for users and often help campaign organizers, too, but not always. And the new tools are not always received in the most positive light. For example, the Facebook Safety Check feature was not turned on for all recent crisis events, prompting criticisms by activists that Facebook was showing a bias turning it on for Paris, but not for attacks happening in other parts of the world.
Another recent change at Facebook made internal to the website a third party campaign tool called Twibbon. Twibbon gives campaigns the ability to create overlays for social network profile photos/icons. A few years ago, the Human Rights Campaign created a Twibbon for its marriage equality campaign that transformed it yellow equal sign on a dark blue square into a pink equal sign on a red square. Pretty soon, the campaign’s Twibbon went viral, with people creating their own variations of the image. To its credit, HRC pivoted its campaign to focus on the Twibbon, whereas before it was a side piece to the effort. The HRC Twibbons is given a lot a credit for driving the marriage equality message deep into American culture, leading to strong support for the policy change.
Now Facebook lets anyone alter their profile photo in the same manner as Twibbon. For Paris, people are able to superimpose a transparency of the French flag over their photo. The process involves tapping on the Try It button on someone else’s page that is already using it.
While this new Facebook feature is nice, there are some limits. As it stands now, Facebook decides what images are made available. So while you can get the French flag for Paris, you cannot get the Lebanese flag for expressing solidarity with the victims of the attacks this past week in Beirut. In other words, Facebook has incorporated this powerful advocacy tool, but in a way that has stripped its value to activists and organizers seeking to use the images for their own campaigns. Where Twibbon was a tool designed for activism, Facebook’s tool undermines its use for organized action.
When Twitter incorporated the retweet convention into its system, it raised a lot of objections because it only offered an instant auto-retweet. This upset Twitter users because many, if not most, retweeters would add comments before the RT text in order to add emphasis, commentary, clarity, etc. Eventually (a couple years later), Twitter launched the new option to Quote Tweet, which allows people to add a 120 character comment to a retweet. It took a while, but eventually Twitter figured out why and how people retweeted and built it into their tool.
Now the question is, “Will Facebook figure out all the reasons why people used ‘Twibbons’ and eventually build those features into it tool?” And until they do, will the internal Facebook tool undermine activists’ ability to leverage profile pictures for their own campaigns? It seems, for now, that Facebook has co-opted a powerful advocacy tool and gutted its power. And, back to the Safety Check, will Facebook leave the function on permanently so that people who need it anywhere in the world can use it? Time will tell.