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Equal Sign Wins "Symbol of the Year" Vote in 2013

A pink equal sign inside a red box: the Human Rights Campaign's logo for marriage equalitySymbolic Systems Program affiliates have chosen the equal sign ("=") as the Symbol of the Year in 2013, in our second annual vote for notable symbols. The equal sign, particularly as used by the Human Rights Campaign, was nominated by affiliated faculty member BJ Fogg (Consulting Professor of Education).

The citation reads: "The Human Rights Campaign's modified logo became a viral symbol for marriage equality in 2013 ahead of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in June. The embedded equal sign also featured prominently in similar logos, reinforcing an equality message that was echoed in the cracking of the glass ceiling for women."

Other Notable Symbols in 2013 that won substantial support in the balloting were the National Security Agency logo, and "the cloud".

The three recognized symbols were chosen from 17 nominations submitted between December 16th and 23nd, with voting taking place December 26th through December 30th. Nominations appeared on the ballot in the words of the nominators, without endorsement of any particular nomination from the program. One hundred and three alumni/ae, students, faculty, and staff affiliated with the Program cast ballots in a system that allowed each voter to say "Yes" or "No", or to abstain, on any nomination. When the results were verified, public web pages were prepared for the winning symbol as well as the two other symbols that received more Yes's than No's.

Symbolic Systems' Associate Director Todd Davies initiated the nomination and voting process last year on a pilot basis. All of the program's alums, current students, and faculty/staff were eliglbie to vote. The ballot stated that the purpose of the vote was "to recognize the important role that symbols play in our world" ("as affiliates of the Symbolic Systems Program"). "Last year's ballot asked voters whether we should do this every year," Davies said, "and they overwhelmingly said 'yes.' So we decided to make it an annual event, which we expect to evolve over time."

The idea of a "Symbol of the Year" was inspired by the many annual "of the year" designations and awards that are put out by various organizations, especially the American Dialect Society's annual "Word of the Year" vote. Creating such recognition for symbols was seen as a good match for Stanford's Symbolic Systems Program, which focuses on human and computational systems that use symbols to communicate and to represent information. Although program administrators are not aware of any other annual "Symbol of the Year" designations, the author Lindy West playfully invoked the idea a few years ago, when she wrote that the Twitter hashtag ("#") was the "Symbol of the Year" in 2010.

For "Criteria", the ballot stated the following:

"The Symbol of the Year need not be new to this year [2013], but should have achieved widespread cultural importance during the year. A symbol is both used and understood to represent a concept, object, location, event, or linguistic unit. Types of symbols include the following:

  • a flag or emblem (e.g. the Olympic flag, the red AIDS awareness ribbon)
  • a grapheme or written character (e.g. the "+" sign, the lowercase "e")
  • a hand signal or gesture (e.g. the "OK" sign, the salute)
  • an iconic object or being (e.g. the Statue of Liberty, the black cat)
  • an ideogram (e.g. the peace symbol, the caduceus symbol of commerce)
  • a logo (e.g. the Red Cross logo, the MTV logo)
  • a pictogram (e.g. the International Symbol of Access, the Universal Recycling Symbol)
  • a screen icon (e.g. the magnifying glass/search icon, the trash icon)
  • an auditory sign (e.g. the train whistle, the Intel bongs)
  • a tactile symbol (e.g. a braille character, a TSBVI Standard Tactile Symbol)
  • a symbolic event or action (e.g. the lighting of a candle, the sun setting)
  • an iconic photograph or image (e.g. the Migrant Mother, the Guerrillero Heroico)"

"Lots of things can be symbols," said Davies after last year's pilot vote, "but relatively few things actually are. Being a symbol is an acquired status, that gets established through use. Symbols can obviously become notable because the things they represent are notable. But we wanted to draw attention to the signficance that symbols themselves have, as symbols, beyond what they represent, and to get ourselves and others thinking about the role they play in contemporary life."

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