The popular social networking site Facebook has already created a virtual world of friends and acquaintances who "gather" and update each other daily, if not hourly, of their mindset and whereabouts. Now it is becoming a gathering place for protesters, too, revealing how the online world is rapidly becoming a virtual town square.
For about a year now, breastfeeding proponents have been signing a petition on Facebook called "Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene," to protest the number of nursing photos deleted from the site. Some 61,000 people have signed up since it started in 2007.
Now they're whipping out a new weapon: a virtual nurse-in.
Just like the nursing mothers who lined the sidewalks outside Applebee's restaurants in 2007 when a waitress asked a nursing mother to cover up, breastmilk advocates (called "lactivists" in some circles) are calling for troops online to make a stand on Saturday . Pro-lacto Facebook members are asked to change their profile picture for one day to an image of a nursing mom or animal. They also plan to change their status lines — those pithy statements that reflect a member's state of mind — that day to "Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!"
Breastfeeding moms around Tampa Bay are joining — like Erin Phillips, 29, of Clearwater. She plans on changing her status and uploading some pictures from when she breastfed her two children, now ages 3 and 2.
"I just don't understand why it's such a huge deal," said Phillips, who works as a birthing doula. "It's not like the person who is putting up a picture of themselves is looking to attract anyone. It's to show that this is what they chose to do. It's not a sexual thing."
Calling this policy "highly discriminatory" the Mothers International Lactation Campaign (MILC) was formed on Facebook and expects some nursing mothers to show up in person at Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters on Saturday.
The MILC maids are particularly peeved at the notion that breastfeeding can be seen as sexually explicit or lewd. It is protected by law in most countries, and in the state of Florida.
"If women are allowed to nurse in public, they should be allowed to nurse on the Internet," said Stephanie Knapp Muir, 40, a Canadian mother of four and Facebook member who created the MILC protest group.
Muir says they want a change in the Facebook policy that says in the context of breastfeeding, even a fully exposed breast should be permitted. The discomfort, she suspects, is coming from the "goofy college boys that started this site." Facebook, which started in 2004, currently has more than 140-million active users around the globe.
"Young men in their 20s think it's really great to see a woman with cleavage selling beer, but as soon as you introduce a baby, it gets that icky factor," she said. "Breasts are used for more than just selling cars."
Facebook executives bristled at the suggestion that they are insensitive to women.
"Breastfeeding is a natural and beautiful act, and we're very glad to know that mothers' sharing of this experience with others on Facebook is so important to them," Axton said in an e-mail to tbt* noting that the company takes no action on the vast majority of breastfeeding photos. But those that show a fully exposed breast may be removed.
"These policies are designed to ensure Facebook remains a safe, secure and trusted environment for all users, including the many children (over the age of 13) who use the site," he wrote.
To prove their point, Facebook called the St. Petersburg Times advertising department and asked if an ad could be placed related to breastfeeding that showed a woman with her breast fully exposed. They were told that the photo would need to be reviewed but such a photo would generally not be allowed in the newspaper.
Muir, the protest organizer, questions why a woman is permitted to nurse her baby in public, but not on a social networking site "one of the most public of all places after all?"
"Their insinuation that the image of a whole breast within the context of breastfeeding in some way compromises the safety, security or trustworthiness of their site is questionable at best, and discriminatory and misogynist at worst," Muir said.
So is Facebook a virtual town square, where laws generally permit breastfeeding in public, or is it a private publication that invites users in by its own rules?
Jay Rosen, a professor at New York University who specializes in online journalism, says Facebook is "more of a walled garden."
"To take the concepts of the public square and simply import them to Facebook is kind of a category error," Rosen said. "From a legal point it is a private space. If you post a photo on Facebook you do not own that photo."
"But it's not a simple question either because the users have a lot of power," Rosen noted.
Like, for example, using Facebook to organize their very protest.
Sharon Kennedy Wynne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her and other parenting bloggers on Whoa, Momma! at gomomma.com.