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Now That Oral Arguments Are Over, What's the Point of That Red Avatar?

At this point, everybody's seen the pink equals sign on the red background show up in her Facebook or Twitter feed. Not everyone's convinced that it's useful, though.

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At this point, everybody's seen the pink equals sign on the red background show up in her Facebook or Twitter feed. Not everyone's convinced that it's useful, though. The now ubiquitous symbol comes from a Human Rights Campaign effort to spread awareness about marriage equality. And much like the green avatar filters that took over Twitter during the 2009 Iranian Revolution, it's is an almost effortless way to show support for marriage equality, so much so that some wonder if it actually does any good, especially now that everyone has to play the waiting game until the Supreme Court's decision on the two marriage equality cases in June. Well, that all depends on how you define doing good.

Few can debate the popularity of the red and pink avatar. It's been less than 72 hours since the Human Rights Campaign unveiled the image, but you'd have a hard time visiting any social media site without seeing it. As The Wall Street Journal's Neal Mann pointed out, some the organization's calls for people to use the symbol as their avatar were winning upwards of 70,000 shares, not to mention adoption by Hollywood stars and big brands. It's a little tough to see the image adorned with Bud Light cans to form an equals sign and not feel a little put-off, though. There are, however, pretty fun manipulations of the image like the Burt and Ernie cameo (above) or the Grumpy Cat tribute. The Human Rights Campaign is even building a collage of all the variations:

But even with all the viral success, does the low commitment show of support actually do any good? Some have their doubts. After all, it's not like the Supreme Court Justices will make their decision based on counting the red avatars on Facebook. Brian Moylan made this argument in his column at VICE on Tuesday. He wrote:

Now you're just sitting there at your desk thinking that something you did on social media is freeing the oppressed. It might, in some small way, but if you really want to make progress, you have to work hard. If visibility is what you're aiming for, why not write a letter (hell, even an email) to your senator and let him or her know that you want marriage rights for everyone.

Strong point. What Moylan really hammers home is the fact that if you're joining the battle for marriage equality this week, you're basically too late. It's now up to the nine men and women in that white marble building on Capitol Hill to decide what comes next for the gay rights movement. It's been a whirlwind week so far, though — hard to believe it's only Wednesday and even harder to believe that we now have to wait months to know the fate of the pivotal cases.

So the question remains: Do you keep the avatar up until summer? What good could it do? And won't your friends get annoyed with the sea of red in their News Feeds and Twitter streams. It's starting to get really hard to tell people apart. The important thing to remember, though, is that the challenge of marriage equality probably won't be solved this summer or this year. It might not even get solved this decade.

Matt Buchanan ruminates on the issue in a new blog post at The New Yorker and visibly struggles with the efficacy of avatar activism. He quotes Malcom Gladwell who wrote about the issue during the Iranian Revolution, doubting that the passive gesture of doing something like changing a profile pic compares to "high risk" activism like taking to the streets. But Buchanan arrives at a poignant point that feels almost instructive:

The odds that the H.R.C.’s campaign, as wildly successful as it has been, will directly influence the decision of the Justices are nil, which speaks quite loudly to the limits of online activism: twenty million avatars are not twenty million people in the street. However, as Jeffrey Toobin wrote, as people and politics change, so does the Court. And online activism has shown, most notably through its role in the defeat of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act last year, that maybe it can change people.

So go forth avatar activists. Annoy your friends with the uniformity of that red and pink square in their streams. Customize it if you want. Send that custom version to your senator. Get it tattooed on your face. Do what you can to get involved in what's shaping up to be the civil rights battle of a young American generation. When you look back at this moment from old age, you might think, "I wish I'd done more." It's highly unlikely you'll wish you'd done less.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.