Why Are So Many Facebook Profile Photos Purple Today?

If you logged onto Facebook this morning to find that some of your friends’ profile photos were tinted purple, you’ll be happy to know it’s not some overnight takeover by Instagram. Today is GLAAD’s Spirit Day and as people in schools, organizations, and companies around the nation (including the Facebook headquarters) wear purple today in protest of the bullying of lesbian, bi-sexual, gay, and transgender youth, Facebook is letting its users go purple as well—with the aid of Twibbon, the popular site that lets you enhance your profile photo with your favorite cause.

Here’s how it works: You go on GLAAD’s Twibbon campaign site. There, you have the option of tinting your Facebook or Twitter avatar a violet hue. GLAAD also provides a form post that explains that you’ve know that you don’t just find purple filters more flattering.

In an age where more people may be exposed to your Facebook presence than your actual physical presence, Twibbons have replaced LiveStrong bracelets as the leader in passive cause support. Since Twibbon’s inception in 2009, more than 12 million people have altered their Facebook photos in support of campaigns as varied as breast cancer awareness to stopping illegal wildlife trade. And while Twibbon calls itself the “number 1 place on the web for social good,” it’s also been used by users to voice their hatred for IE6 and jeer at Kanye West post-VMA fiasco.

More than two years ago, Mashable’s Adam Ostrow wrote about Twibbon hitting the 1-million mark and was impressed by more than 90,000 Facebook and Twitter users sporting pink ribbons in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. He later called it “one of the most viral ideas” on Twitter. At 118,727 Twibbons, Spirit Day appears to have already doubled that, and seems to be one of the most popular campaigns on the site.

Will this do as much for LGBT-bullying as women posting the color of their bras on Facebook did for breast cancer awareness? Probably.  The effect of “avatar activisim” is dubious at best—like in 2009, when Twitter users sported green avatars in a show of solidarity with Tehran protesters who, ironically enough, had no way of seeing due to their lack of Internet freedom.   

But while it’s easy to label this as another case in slacktivism, maybe it’s important to focus on what social media can accomplish in terms of exposure. If anything, more people will probably end up learning about Spirit Day after trying to find out the source of the purple Facebook photos.