Signaling and Solidarity

So folks on Twitter have been turning their avatars (little profile photos) green to show solidarity with the protesters in Iran. There are websites to help you do this. But why do this? How does it help? I want the Iranian people to live in freedom, just as I want all people to live in freedom. But the point of the gesture eludes me, unless the point of the gesture is to be seen making the gesture by others who will credit you for it. Like so many political gestures, it is vanity dressed up as elevated moral consciousness. It doesn’t help. Is it harmless? Unlike the stupidly grandstanding House resolution, the ruling regime probably won’t be pointing to verdant Twitter avatars as evidence that the uprising is an American plot. So I wouldn’t worry about that. Here’s what I do worry about. When people feel pressure to signal, and it’s free, they’ll signal. But sending the signal creates a small emotional investment in the overt message of the signal — solidarity with opponents of the ruling Iranian regime. As every salesman knows, getting someone to make a big, costly commitment is best achieved by getting them to first make a tiny, costless commitment. The tiny, costless commitment of turning Twitter avatars green is thin edge of the persuasive edge for the neocons who would like to sell the public a war in Iran. Since I would rather not be Bill Kristol’s useful idiot, I will conspicuously leave my avatar as is, and continue hoping for the best.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

75 thoughts

  1. Bill Kristol's trying to get a war started in Iran?I did not know that…

  2. I don't think it's obvious that this slide slopes in that direction. People may be embracing specifically the idea that moral, not military, support is appropriate here.

  3. So why do you feel the need to point out that you do in fact hope for freedom for Iranians. Are you for signaling as long nobody asks you to or as long as you do it in your own way? I can see that you are trying to convey ideas on your blog, but why do you need to let us know about popular opinions that you have?

  4. While agree with most of your points it seems disingenuous to claim that you don't see the value.The value is surely that the iranian protestors will be emboldened or at least comforted by the tiny gesture of support.The cost is only slighty higher than clicking 'like' in Facebook but the benefits are potentially much higher. (cf: always go to the funeral @ I don't fear that this small gesture will turn me into Tom Friedman, I am off to update my icon now.

  5. Although I'm equally ambivalent about the whole solidarity thing, I don't know if it would have that negative effect. To an extent yes, the more we care about Iranian democracy the easier it is to start a war to promote that end, but at the same time the more we care about Iranians the harder it is to start a war which will kill a whole lot of Iranians. So far most of the arguments for military engagement with Iran (as was the case for most of the pre-war arguments for the Iraq War) are of the “kill them so they don't kill us” sort. In so far as people are aware that Iranians are real people with their own internal conflicts, they might be more aware that going in and invading their country could be a bad idea. A big part of this depends on what the current mindset of the supporters is, though.

  6. Well, we have opposite estimates of the costs and benefits. You know that most Iranians don't have computers, much less Internet, and that Twitter is blocked, right?

  7. Insofar as Americans are invested in the idea that there is a good side and a bad side in the conflict, they will feel the force of calls to use our military to take out the bad side if the good side wins loses the staredown.

  8. Protester #1: I feel that the rest of the world does not care about us.Protester #2: Psst. Did you know that thousands of twitter users have changed their icons is a tiny gesture of solidarity? Pass it on.

  9. Insofar as Americans are invested in the idea that there is a good side and a bad side in the conflictAnd you think this is false? Likewise, it's hard for me to understand why you find the house resolution stupid and grandstanding. Is it because:a) there's no 'right side' to the current conflict in Iranb) there is a right side, and the house resolution supports the wrong sidec) there is a right side, and the house resolution supports the right side, but supporting the right side will have a perverse effect of harming the right side. (i.e., in this case true support is absence of support)If c (which seems to be your position), what exactly is your basis for this conclusion? I can think of a zillion plausible arguments for how the House resolution will influence events in Iran: positive, negative, no impact at all. Given that the consequentialist case is so indeterminate, why is it wrong for the house to say what you personally seem to believe to be true?

  10. What about your fear, Will, that Kristol's trying to get up an invasion?

  11. Sorry. I don't see anything about an invasion in that bit, at least in the transcript.I read Kristol (in other places) to be saying that a) We shouldn't be taking a military solution off the table, b) that the ideal military solution would be bombing the nuclear facilities (or covert operations, or both), not an invasion.I don't read Kristol trying to gin up an invasion.Your link doesn't show anything contrary, except assertions by whatever blogger it was…

  12. I can see a sweaty and paunchy aide nervously walking into Mr. Ahmadinejad's office.”Mr. President, um, sir…””Yes, what is it? This better be pretty goddamned important.” “It's… um, Will Wilkinson, sir. He turned his Twitter avatar green.”Ahmadinejad stares. Pounds fist on table.Now seriously, you're right, I think about it being vanity dressed up as political consciousness. But you're hitting on a cause I like, so watch out, buster. People should be committed to ending the Ahmadinejad regime. Who cares what the neocons think? That seems like quite a stretch.

  13. given that Iranian leaders do not care about international pressure outside of war, doesn't your non-sense hypothetical invite Will's slippery slope re Kristol? i don't know if Will's slippery slope is even in the ballpark, but the arrogance required to think that changing the color of your avatar has anything to do with anything but your own vanity is comical.

  14. Will,What commitment?There is an obvious difference between vanity and the spontaneous human response to enormity that occurred on twitter. For a brief period of time last weekend twitter actually mattered. Enough so that the users didn't need any prompting to hit the roof over planned maintenance.What I am truly puzzled by is your notion that a green avatars will somehow drum up support for another neocon disaster.

  15. The bigger danger is that the Iranian government will succeed in shutting down these protests and then the outrage about it will prevent Obama from engaging with Iran. We probably should let this play out for now, but eventually we still need to talk to the Iranians.

  16. “Whatever” on the Iranian Leaders. It's not for them.I don't have any misconception that I changed the world when I changed my icon and I still fear that the most likely outcome will be more like Tienanmen rather than the Gdansk shipyards.But I do think the protesters are incredibly brave and that gestures of support are likely, on the whole, to make them braver.As pointless gestures go, this ranks somewhere around “voting”. It only makes a difference if enough people do it – which is not a good argument against voting, IMO.

  17. Because it's relevant to his argument that he's taking issue with a means of expressing support, not questioning the worthiness of the goal supported. As would have been screamingly obvious if you'd thought about your own question for five seconds before posting it in a silly attempt at a “gotcha.”

  18. Will's is precisely the point that should be self-evident. This is a religious nut-hutch we're dealing with here. The mind-set of the Iranian people has been fashioned around a collection of magical ju-ju beings in the sky. Suddenly they're obliged to confront a big-ol' wad of cognitive dissonance; either their religiously inspired assumptions (The Supreme Leader is God's Representative On Earth And Would Never Lie To Us) are wrong, or their own petty concerns for freedom, equality, etc are misplaced. This is an entire culture built around those religious inanities. A small thing like being lied to by god about a stolen election sn't going to dissuade them from their faith. Not. One. Bit. Leave 'em to fester and fade. Let the inevitable disconnect between what the rest of the world call “reality” and what their bearded liars in turbans tell them undermine their power and influence.

  19. R Pointer – Currently a graduate student at the University of Toronto. My interests are varied. I love reading and playing chess. Both are addictions. And I am trying to find a way to make a living from both.
    R. Pointer says:

    So I am not sure why signaling should be looked down upon. I changed some of my photos to green. Some of my friends didn't, because they didn't care, know or want to. But why do anything on such websites such as “RIP so and so”. If we take this signaling thing really seriously it gets to be hard to act like a human being. As much as I am for breaking thoughtless habits, some might actually be at worst harmless.

  20. If Twitter is blocked how are you accounting for all the messages on Twitter and FB being sent from Iran? And btw this just in, one need not have a computer to record, post, and read comments on videos of protests. Are you doubting these things are happening or are you just shockingly unaware of them?

  21. That's patent nonsense. We can be invested in all kinds of ideas about good guys and bad guys without our palette of “solutions” being limited to just one—and that one involving armies and invasions.

  22. I know I'm risking hubris, but I'll go ahead and say that, in spite of his incomprehensible decision to give him a column in WaPo, nobody really listerns to Kristol anymore.

  23. hi Nimed! Glad you can join the conversation. Here's what I see on the intrawebs. Lots of people yelling 'God is great!'. None of the candidates is remotely secular. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the whole country has been run by bearded geriatrics. And now, the Supreme Ruler and his henchmen have lied to everyone about their election. Can you add more nuance to this? Are there any secularists in the electoral process? Is the Iranian Supreme Leader not revered? Is not the law of Iran shar'ia law, which to anyone who's lost their religious blinders is patently unjust? It all looks, to me, as bad as the Hapsburg Holy Roman Empire of the early 17th Century. Please disabuse me of my ignorance. My prediction: The protests will die away quietly over the next week as people are forced to choose between the god they have been thoroughly indoctrinated to accept, and their own human desires for freedom of thought and expression, and liberty of person. And it will be entirely due to religon.

  24. Touche! A point! Yeah. A “Yes Minister” moment … “I am standing on principle.””You are engaged in an empty gesture.””That person over there is grandstanding.”

  25. This “signalling” thing is a little too easy. Aren't you just signalling what a wonderfully independent-minded contrarian you are. The band was cool before all the posers started listening to them.

  26. I get the point of the potential uselessness of the gesture; much like wearing ribbons and the like. Having such an act be used as a public sell for war, however, is a little unrealistic given our current political environment. If Iran invaded our shores tomorrow, I doubt we would engage.If we were going to go to war with Iran it should have occurred Sept 12, 2001. One thing we can be sure of: the GOP can't be trusted to conduct a war properly and the democrats can only be trusted to retreat.

  27. Sure. Maybe I'm signaling that I'm wonderfully independent-minded or something. But I'm actually making a claim. That there is no clear upside to these signals of solidarity, except to those impressed with each other for making them, and that there is a subtle, potentially dangerous downside. That's not JUST showboating, but an actual claim I believe to be true.

  28. Liz – New York – University of Rochester grad with a BA in history. Attending law school at Syracuse University. Politics, fitness, Calvin and Hobbes, dudes.
    Liz says:

    The day internet solidarity has that much force was the day Ron Paul won the election.

  29. I made my avatar green, knowing that it was largely an issue of signaling. I do think it has benefits for a cause I support at the margin. I might also be marginally more committed to this cause, but isn't this always a risk with publicly expressing an opinion, whether encapsulated in an explicated argument or a user icon or any other medium? Why nitpick in this case?

  30. Will, wondering what your thought would be on a blog like Andrew Sullivan's changing its blog color green? Is this simply trying to get some sort of credit or do you think his platform is large enough that there is a good chance people in Iran will actually come across his blog and thus be directly impacted by the gesture?

  31. I think about the green tinting the same way that I feel about Iran protests on the streets of San Francisco — makes the locals feel good that they're doing something powerful but I don't see what the effect could ever be. As to making the protesters feel that that “people” are behind them, it's a pretty mixed message when the “people” are behind them, but Mr. Obama won't make any strong statements. Not that dissimilar from how they're treated by their own “supreme leader” (and how can any country with a “supreme leader” be thought of as a democracy?).

  32. “I will name only one principle, the opposite of the idea which is so prevalent today and which is responsible for the spread of evil in the world. That principle is: One must never fail to pronounce moral judgement.””It is not justice or equal treatment that you grant to men when you abstain equally from praising men's virtues and from condemning men's vices. When your impartial attitude declares, in effect, that neither good nor evil may expect anything from you—whom do you betray and whom do you encourage?””But in no case and in no situation may one permit one's own values to be attacked or denounced, and keep silent.”-Ayn Rand, “Rational Life in an Irrational Society.”

  33. Chris Yeh – Palo Alto, CA – Chris Yeh has been building Internet businesses since 1995. He is the VP Marketing for PBworks, the world's leading provider of hosted collaboration solutions. PBworks serves over 85,000 businesses, including 1/3 of the Fortune 500. Previously, he was the first investor in and interim CEO of Ustream.TV, which provides an open and distributable platform for live interactive online video. He also helped start numerous other companies, including Symphoniq Corporation, TargetFirst, and Juno Online Services and FarSight Financial Services (divisions of D. E. Shaw & Co., L.P.). Chris is an active angel investor and advisor to a wide array of startups ranging from network equipment makers to vertical search engines. He is also the founder and Chairman of the Harvard Business School Technology Alumni Association (HBS Tech:, the co-chair of SD Forum's Startup SIG ( and the author of the popular blogs, Adventures in Capitalism (, and Ask The Harvard MBA ( Chris earned two degrees from Stanford University and an MBA from Harvard Business School, where he was named a Baker Scholar.
    Chris Yeh says:

    In the end, green avatars are merely a low-commitment signal, but does that mean the signal isn't worth sending?I decided to color my avatar for one simple reason…to move the generally unaware and apathetic one step closer to actually engaging with the issue.Folks like us are generally aware of current events; to us, green avatars are merely one more bit of noise, and one which can seem self-indulgent and meaningless.But the majority of folks in the US and the Twittersphere are not so aware. I'm sure that there is a significant percentage of folks who see all these green avatars and think, “WTF? I should probably try to figure out what's going on, and make sure it's not an alien invasion or something.”

  34. No worries about that, Will. You are your very own useful idiot.I'm sure the current corrupt regime in Iran appreciates your support.

  35. Invasion of Iran is some strange Leftist fantasy so they can shout more about evilsbushhitlerchimpneoconwahwah.Bombing Iran isn't off the table, but no one is invading Iran.

  36. So what about those messages I've seen from Iranians and Iranian-Americans relaying messages from their relatives that they appreciate the support and are encouraging people to wear green and protest in various places around the world?You honestly believe that there is no upside to showing support to people protesting, fighting and dying for freedom? Those small images are just part of the overall bigger picture.It's sad you don't see it because you are so blinded by neocon-derangement-syndrome.

  37. This is probably your worst post ever. I've appreciated your thoughts and analysis on this blog for a long while now, but with the unholier-than-thou Plantinga bashing, the ridiculous and incoherent judicial “empathy” post, and now this grandstanding, contrarian-for-contrarians-sake claptrap — im just at a loss. The blog is devolving into a Sullivan-esque shell of what it could be. How in the world could a libertarian POSSIBLY be opposed to this…even in your convoluted theoretical view? It isn't about you Will…you used to understand this. No more moral preening on the almost improbable consequences of a simple and straightforward PRIVATE action. It isn't groupthink, its principles and common sense. Shame on you for lecturing down to a group of people simply trying to do the right thing and stand up for an important and symbolic movement.

  38. What do imagine I'm opposed to? Did you read the post? The point is that it's not about you or me. We can't help. Our solidarity does not matter. Our inability to reconcile ourselves to our impotence leads us into hollow symbolism that is more likely to do harm than good. “Principle,” “common sense” and “trying to do the right things” are among the most common names of moral self-aggrandizement. I have yet to see a single persuasive comment defending this practice. It is groupthink.

  39. Liz – New York – University of Rochester grad with a BA in history. Attending law school at Syracuse University. Politics, fitness, Calvin and Hobbes, dudes.
    Liz says:

    Hm, well I'm not saying your argument is entirely without merit. Similar thoughts about the implications of ALL solidarity displays (not limited to Twitter and avatars) have crossed my mind. But I do find it weird that you think solidarity doesn't help /any/, especially considering your interest in happiness studies. Why shouldn't other fuzzy intangibles – be it happiness or knowing folks give a flock about you – yield any benefits to people?If I had to guess, and perhaps this is me being pessimistic, I think seas of green avatars have more of an effect on mindset of the average Iranian than important men in business suits. They [politicians] tend to find ways to do things regardless of whether or not I signal approval.

  40. Almost no Iranians even know what Twitter is. The idea that it matters is a triumph of enthusiasm over sense. What Twitter users do matters to other Twitter users, i.e., a small minority of early adopting Americans. It seems like this should be obvious, but it is apparently not.

  41. Interesting argument that I had not thought about before. Let's say that I've been watching the news and as a result I have developed an emotional investment in the plight of the Iranian protesters. Are you saying that the decision to signal this emotional attachment amplifies my initial investment? It seems that any additional investment created by signaling would be quite small compared to the initial investment I obtained by watching the news and being a decently informed citizen.

  42. So the medium that is being used by a significant number of Iranians to get news out is now irrelevant because you say so?I'm sure CNN would be glad to hear that fantasy. As would the mullahs for that matter.Have you even looked at any Twitter pages in the past week? Iranians and their supporters have been communicating with all sorts of other people on Twitter. You honestly don't think seeing support from others helps them? It takes courage to go out into the streets to face tear gas and bullets.Some of these Twitter users with green avatars are interacting with Iranians. You don't think they notice that small action? Sure it's mostly signaling, but to claim it's nothing is a stretch.

  43. Liz – New York – University of Rochester grad with a BA in history. Attending law school at Syracuse University. Politics, fitness, Calvin and Hobbes, dudes.
    Liz says:

    To build on this, Twitter users are probably not the only people aware of such “signaling.” Unless Iranian Twitter users have a code of silence that prohibits them from talking about such displays to those who cannot or do not use Twitter. Or any other displays, for that matter.

  44. Unlike the stupidly grandstanding House resolution, the ruling regime probably won’t be pointing to verdant Twitter avatars as evidence that the uprising is an American plot.

    OTOH, if Obama faces Congressional and pundit criticism for not saying or doing enough on Iran, then that can be pointed to as evidence that the uprising is not an American plot, since all these people are upset that there isn't an American plot. Whereas your silence can be pointed to as evidence that you're satisfied that the American plot is being kept secret.But maybe that's just what we want them to think.You can turn this around all sorts of ways. The regime will claim that it's an American plot regardless. If the election really was stolen or altered on a massive scale, then Iranians won't believe them. The people most likely to fall for it are foreigners– but I thought we just said that their opinions don't matter.

  45. Maybe Twitter signals do not reach the protesters directly, but might have encouraged these people (see link below) to in turn provide signals which do help, I believe.I am glad some thinkers and doers throughout history were not deterred by the ubiquitous potential of abuse and misuse of their ideas and inventions by others. For some, I think, the cost of NOT standing for what one believes in is too great.

  46. You do realise that people all over the world are turning their avatars green? It's not like the entire response to the Iran uprising belongs to Americans.I for example have felt quite engaged with the evetns unfolding even though I am in London, and people here – who are definitely not likely to be under the sway of American neo-cons! – are turning their avatars green. It is a gesture of support when you feel there isn't much you can do.I'm sure Iranians interacting with people elsewhere on Twitter so feel and appreciate the gestures of support, in a similar way to how many hostages and political prisoners have said they were kept going by messages that got through to them, whether because of media campaigns of orchestrateed by Amnesty etc.Your advertising-based take on it is interesting, but I'd say that's just something Americans might have to watch out for. The rest of the world can just get on with supporting the protesters.

  47. So you think there's some possibility that the regime that held American hostages for over a year, killed hundreds of thousands in one of the bloodiest relative to population, and certainly most pointless wars of the 20th century, blew up the Khobar towers, sponsors Hezbollah in its activities trying to wreck democracy in Lebanon, hangs rape victims and gays, etc. etc. might be the good guys?No, of course you're not saying that. You're merely saying that the possibility of lending support to Bill Kristol's position outweighs all that!

  48. Funny you should use the term “Useful Idiots” since that was the term Stalin used to describe those who were helpful to him in promoting his tyranny. Useful idiots are the tools of the violent despots, not those who urge people to stand in solidarity with the oppressed.

  49. So you won't show solidarity with Iranian protesters because of some imaginary linkage to an imaginary policy preference held by someone you don't like?What a small mind.

  50. GregQ – I am a conservative libertarian who wants to win the GWOT. I used to be a scientist, but now I'm an engineer. What's that mean? It means theory is nice, understanding is nice, but what's important is "does it work?"
    Greg Q says:

    Well, congratulations. You're not the slightest bit useful.

  51. Will gets it so right here. If we show any support for these protestors, we're really just buying into Bill Kristol's war plans. It would make war basically inevitable. So tomorrow I'm burning my lawn. I wouldn't want anybody to think all the greenery in front of my house was supporting Bill Kristol or the nefarious neocons. In fact Ireland, the so-called “Emerald Isle” practically reeks of being a neocon conspiracy. Nevermind the Boston Celtics… the warmongering fools.

  52. Voting is a civic act, in and through which we become citizens. It is exactly the sort of “buying in” that sets the stage for costlier acts of citizenship.

  53. Read “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” (most excellent book) to understand how a small public commitment can turn into a big public commitment.

  54. Voting is a civic act, in and through which we become citizens. It is exactly the sort of “buying in” that sets the stage for costlier acts of citizenship.

  55. Read “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” (most excellent book) to understand how a small public commitment can turn into a big public commitment.

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