The First Virtual March on Washington

As the virtual gets more real, and more of our traditional modes of expression and interaction migrate online, it is likely that the recent virtual march on Washington will be the first of many to come.
04/08/2013 12:39 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

There is no question that the recent Supreme Court arguments on Proposition 8 and DOMA will figure prominently in LGBT history. But it was not only at the Supreme Court where we may have glimpsed the future. What happened on Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks during the week of arguments may have revealed the shape of what's to come in social justice activism. It raised the question of what the success of online, virtual demonstrations may hold for the future of physical, brick-and-mortar marches. Will we ever see another massive march on Washington for LGBT or other civil rights movements when this virtual march more successfully achieved the goals of traditional large demonstrations on the Washington Mall -- at a comparatively tiny price?

Two of the larger projects I worked on as HRC's first chief counsel between 1997 and 2002 seemed unrelated then, but now strike me as interestingly intertwined. I oversaw the federal registration of what became the "iconic" equality logo, and I helped execute HRC's role in the April 2000 Millennium March on Washington.

The HRC logo was principally the brainchild of Elizabeth Birch, who in 1995 became HRC's new marketing-savvy leader. Elizabeth envisioned a bolder, uncompromising mission for the LGBT movement's largest civil rights organization. She sought an organizational logo that sharply communicated that new vision. So, a stylized blue-and-yellow equality symbol replaced HRC's old "liberty torch" logo. To some, the change symbolized a disturbing shift from a demand for fairness rooted in the liberty to be different, to one rooted in sameness. Would equality require conformity? Would it marginalize those who were not, in fact, the same? Would it mean abandoning the qualities that made the LGBT movement iconoclastic and queer?

Valid concerns notwithstanding, the new logo and its equality message resonated much more strongly with the public than the older liberty (qua difference) message. The new logo became so popular, so quickly, that our Federal trademark registration applications were granted without much difficulty. But obtaining the initial registrations was only the beginning. We then had to police the logo's use vigilantly, protecting it against dilution, misuse and "genericide."

After more than 15 years of watchful care over a logo that had matured and become ubiquitous, HRC took a chance the week of the Supreme Court arguments, and offered up a red-and-pink marriage equality version of its logo for mashing, "re-mixing" and sharing on social media. The risk paid off. Richly.

The campaign quickly went viral. Within the first 24 hours, the marriage equality logo garnered over 9 million page views. Facebook estimated 2.7 million HRC-related profile pic updates. Corporations adopted their own mashups to show their support. A-list celebrities and politicians did too. One reporter called Facebook a "sea of red," and MSNBC reported the campaign was "spreading like wildfire on social media."

That so many LGBT community members participated itself was not newsworthy. We'd demonstrated the decentralized organizing power of social media before (see "It Gets Better"). What was most extraordinary was that so many straight people joined their LGBT friends in adopting marriage equality symbols as their social media avatars. But their support wasn't just symbolic. It was substantive. It had content and meaning. It talked.

The adoption of marriage equality symbols as profile pictures by straight allies enticed other friends on the fence or altogether opposed to marriage equality to take notice, to ask questions and engage in dialogue. Straight allies had the opportunity to speak about how the relationships of their gay friends and loved ones deserve the same government rights that protect and privilege their own marriages. How the children of same-sex couples are vulnerable without the "safety nets" undergirding civil marriage. How differences between civil marriage rights and religious marriage rites reveal the instability of religious arguments against marriage equality.

In a way, what we'd witnessed was a huge, visible and loud demonstration around an important national controversy. A virtual march on Washington.

Big issue-driven demonstrations on the Washington Mall - from the landmark 1963 Civil Rights March to more recent marches for LGBT rights - have pursued the same overarching goals: nationwide media coverage, a show of solidarity, an opportunity for allies to demonstrate support, and public education. But big national marches consume enormous amounts of time, money and other scarce resources, and present the challenge of marshaling diverse constituencies towards an uncluttered and resonant message.

Dan Savage pronounced the Millennium March, the last huge LGBT march, "a success," insofar as it managed to get "gay and lesbian issues an exhaustive airing in the middle of a presidential election year." It attracted "hundreds of thousands" of "exuberant" participants, including many political and cultural figures. Still, the Millennium March, like major civil rights marches before and after it, required a colossal investment of financial and other resources. It lost money. It had many detractors. It exposed "a major movement rift." And there were battles over control of the march's planning, agenda and execution.

Was it all worth it? Perhaps it was. Then. But would mounting a massive physical march make sense now, when there may be a radically cheaper, faster and more effective way of achieving the goals of a big traditional march by means of social media?

Nothing online can yet replicate the energy, camaraderie and spirit generated by an old-fashioned march on Washington. But social media are complementing and coming awfully close to displacing altogether brick-and-mortar platforms for visible and message-laden protests. And they have significant advantages beyond speed, efficiency and visibility. Instead of a limited number of messages delivered through one microphone, social media's accessibility, atomization and interactivity allow an unlimited number of speakers to rally around the same overarching themes with nuanced appeals to local and specialized audiences. There is dialogue and deliberation in social media that is impossible to achieve in large physical demonstrations. Social media also uniquely offer flexibility and elasticity of time and space.

The hybrid approach has worked well too. Although it attracted a crowd much smaller than its predecessor marches, the October 2009 National Equality March used social media to draw "tens of thousands" of "remarkably diverse" and mostly young activists to Washington to protest the Obama Administration's inaction on LGBT issues. The New York Times reported that the rally "encountered considerable opposition from within gay political circles," but then quoted activist Corey Johnson speaking directly to how the social media roots of the march transcended institutional opposition: "The points of power are...decentralized now. You have young activists and gay people from all walks of life converging on Washington not because a national organization told them to, but because they feel the time is now."

Yet there are big problems with social media. The digital divide has yet to be bridged. Many Americans remain offline, principally because of cost. There are problems with what Cass Sunstein has identified as online "fragmentation" and "balkanization," what Clay Shirkey has faulted with the "publish, then filter" digital media model, and with what Andrew Keen has bemoaned as disinformation, disorientation and predation on the Internet.

Still, there's no turning back. We've already crossed the social media Rubicon towards new and remarkably effective and efficient ways to organize, protest, and educate around a common issue. As the virtual gets more real, and more of our traditional modes of expression and interaction migrate online, it is likely that the recent virtual march on Washington will be the first of many to come.