The Casual Bigotry of Facebook Messenger

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So today Facebook decided to turn the camera icon in the user interface of its massively popular Messenger app into an Easter egg. Not a metaphorical hidden-feature Easter egg. An actual graphic of an Easter egg. To some of you I’m sure that sounds innocuous. Others of you were probably horrified when you opened the app and saw it there today, or are horrified reading about it even if you don’t use Messenger. Signed me up in the horrified camp. Here’s why…

Easter is not a secular holiday. That bears repeating so I’ll repeat it. Easter is not a secular holiday. It’s a Christian holiday. All day long, it is a religious holiday that pertains to one religion. And just like Christmas, no matter how many Christians celebrate the day in a completely secular manner, to non-Christians the day remains absolutely and unquestionably somebody else’s religious holiday.

So while I think Easter eggs are beautiful, and grew up Catholic before I converted to Judaism, and don’t keep kosher and can devour a ham with the best of them, I really don’t want the graphical interface of the apps that I use on my smart phone suddenly turning into Easter eggs, or Christmas trees, or any other symbols of somebody else’s religious holiday. Would you?

The Facebook Messenger Twitter account (talk about mixing metaphors) today crowed about the wonderful benefit of Messenger adopting an Easter look for the holiday. I asked them why the user interface, itself was changed, and why it was done unilaterally without an opt-out, instead of letting users who celebrated Easter opt-in, instead. I also asked why they thought non-Christian users would welcome having someone else’s religious iconography inserted into their smart phone apps without their consent.

So far, I haven’t gotten a reply.

You have to wonder, how widely was this rolled out? Only in the United States? In countries where there is a majority population celebrating Easter? I know it’s not just me, because when I complained about the change to Facebook friends, all of them who use Messenger confirmed the same change on their smart phones.

You also have to wonder, how on earth can a company with more than one billion users make such an incredibly religiously bigoted decision like that?

Don’t think it’s bigoted? Are you a Christian? How would you feel if without your consent Facebook decided to turn the user interface of apps on your smart phone into Muslim iconography? Or Jewish iconography? Or atheist iconography? All fine and respectable traditions, but not your traditions? If every time you took a photo in your Messenger app, you had to press a button that without your permission suddenly looked like a Jewish Star of David? Or an atheist Darwin Fish? In those terms, does it still not feel like a religiously bigoted thing for Facebook to do?

Oh, and you don’t get to change it back until that religious holiday belonging to someone else is over, either. And if you’re a Jew, then today you’re actually smack in the middle of your own major religious holidayPassover—so Facebook Messenger’s decision in your case actually reaches Sean Spicer-esque proportions.

This is why brands need to be very, very, very careful about any assumptions they make whatsoever regarding holidays. The moment that you deign to assume that a holiday is secular because that’s how you and everyone you may know have always celebrated it? That’s the moment, especially if you represent a brand, that you should immediately rethink and re-examine your assumptions.

I know this wasn’t a decision made to deliberately exclude non-Christians on Messenger’s part. But in a way it was something equally unfortunate, because the decision to change the user interface for Easter in this manner had to have been proposed, and vetted, and sent to higher ups for approvals. So the equally unfortunate thing here is that none of the people involved in this decision at Facebook Messenger considered at all that non-Christians could possibly experience Christian religious holidays any differently than Christians.

Hear me now. We do.

For that to happen on an app used by a billion people that’s part of an even larger company run by a non-Christian is an extraordinary thing. Don’t let that happen to your brand. The beloved community, whether of citizens or customers, is blessedly diverse.

Ignore that diversity at your own peril.

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