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 mind-set 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, breast-feeding 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. About 65,000 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 waiter asked a nursing mother to cover up, breast milk advocates (called "lactivists" in some circles) are calling for troops online to make a stand 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 that day to "Hey Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!"
Status lines are somewhat of a Facebook calling card and an art form unto themselves. They are the pithy statement that members change regularly to reflect their state of mind, or just their location, that all their online friends can see.
Breast-feeding moms around Tampa Bay are joining. Erin Phillips, 29, of Clearwater plans on changing her status and uploading some pictures from when she breast-fed her two children, now 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 was formed on Facebook and expects some nursing mothers to show up in person at Facebook's Palo Alto, Calif., headquarters Saturday.
The MILC maidens are particularly peeved at the notion that breast-feeding 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 breast-feeding, even a fully exposed breast should be permitted. The discomfort, she suspects, is coming from the "goofy college boys that started this site."
"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.
"Breast-feeding 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," Axten said in an e-mail to tbt* (a sister publication of the St. Petersburg Times) noting that the company takes no action on the vast majority of breast-feeding 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 support that viewpoint, Facebook called the St. Petersburg Times advertising department and asked if an ad could be placed related to breast-feeding that showed a woman with her breast fully exposed. The caller was 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, takes issue with Facebook's reasoning.
"Their insinuation that the image of a whole breast within the context of breast-feeding 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 breast-feeding in public, or is it a private space 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.