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Examples of twenty-first century social media-based activism are plentiful, but few have garnered 50 million YouTube views; launched affiliates in nearly 20 countries; and brought bullying to the forefront of mainstream media coverage and public policy debates. The “It Gets Better Project” (IGBP) is an ongoing campaign to prevent suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) adolescents comprised of videos created by LGBTQ individuals and allies of all ages.
IT GETS BETTER: Elder Rev. Kevin E. Taylor (Black, Gay, Christian and Proud!) / YouTube- taken on March 10th, 2015.
Blending global citizen engagement and digital technologies, the IGBP phenomenon is an effective form of modern civic participation.
Prompted by a blog reader’s desire to prevent LGBTQ adolescents’ suicide, Dan Savage and Terry Miller filmed a video about the harassment and bullying they were subjected to as adolescents and their adult familial and economic successes (“It Gets Better: Dan and Terry.”)
Savage and Miller uploaded the video to YouTube and invited LGBTQ adults to contribute similar user-generated messages of hope (Savage 2010). Setting an initial goal of 100, they received more than 1,000 videos in one week’s time, exceeding the channel’s limits and prompting YouTube engineer Carol Chen to hack into the mainframe and allot them more space (Phillips Honda 2014). Logistical constraints necessitated the launch of itgetsbetter.org on October 6, 2010 to accommodate the flood of submissions (“A New Website and a New Partnership for It Gets Better” 2010), and soon after the IGBP registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
Since inception, “celebrities, organizations, activists, politicians, media personalities,” and non-famous LGBTQ individuals and allies alike have contributed more than 50,000 videos (“About the It Gets Better Project” 2014). The IGBP’s breadth extends far beyond the original YouTube channel to include a multi-platform traditional and social media presence (BETTERMedia), legal support services (BETTERLegal), and merchandise.
Additionally, the IGBP has spawned other LGBTQ-centric social change projects, including the “Make it Better Project” and “Not All Like That” (“About the NALT Christians Project” 2014).
Online participatory culture researchers have found that individuals’ motivations for civic participation are varied and multifaceted (Brabham 2013; Jenkins 2006; Shirky 2010; Rheingold 2002), and IGBP video contributors reported doing so because of viewer camaraderie, desires for rectification, determination to broaden LGBTQ media representation, and the ease of participating in the project (Phillips 2013). The timeless quest for civic engagement takes both new and reimagined forms, and digital technologies such as YouTube continue facilitating more efficient global participation and engagement in activities once hindered by temporal, spatial, and other barriers to entry. Nevertheless, it is important to critically examine why the IGBP has been so successful in mobilizing citizens when most online-based social change initiatives routinely fail to garner substantial initial and/or long-term support.
As a long-time contributor to Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, Savage is a vocal — and controversial — activist with media access not afforded to most. Accordingly, Savage was able to use his celebrity status to solicit others’ support and action when launching the IGBP. Rather than embark on a K-12 school speaking tour to combat LGBTQ adolescent bullying and suicide, Savage opted to broadcast his message via a platform adolescents regularly use — YouTube (Purcell 2012) — igniting what would soon become an extensive compilation of videos from diverse voices worldwide (Kelly, Block 2010). Unsolicited celebrity backing bolstered the IGBP early on, and the nonprofit organization strategically used mainstream media outlets and maximized corporate support to draw public attention to the issue.
LGBTQ harassment and bullying remain pervasive problems in the U.S.: Among 13–21 year old LGBTQ-identified middle and high school students, approximately 74% report being verbally harassed; 36% physically harassed; and 17% physically assaulted (Kosciw, Greytak, Palmer, Boesen 2014). Moreover, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research showed that suicide is one of the top three leading causes of death among 10–34 year olds (“10 Leading Causes of Death, United States,: 2014), and LGB-identified adolescents are “four times more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide” (“Facts About Suicide” 2014).While this epidemic and related interdisciplinary scholarly research on LGBTQ suicide are not new (D’Augelli and Herschberger, Eliason 2010, Murphy 2007, Zhao et al. 2010), in-depth international media coverage of it is a more recent development.
Media coverage is intimately tied to U.S. cultural shifts pertaining to LGBTQ individuals, including public figures’ highly publicized coming out stories, same-sex marriage legislation, and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” All topics received extensive media attention within the last decade, and according to Gallup, U.S. citizens’ “moral acceptability” of lesbian and gay individuals has never been higher (Riffkin 2014).
In addition to garnering international media coverage of LGBTQ harassment, bullying, and suicide, the IGBP was bolstered by corporate support from YouTube’s parent company. Google officially sanctioned the IGBP one month after its launch; made a $50,000 contribution to IGBP benefactor The Trevor Project (Smith, Block 2010); and partnered with ad agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) to develop and nationally broadcast a commercial spotlighting the IGBP (Miller 2011).
Undoubtedly, civic awareness of and citizen engagement with the IGBP were strengthened by mainstream media coverage and corporate buy-ins. Additionally, the nonprofit organization has strategically planned for its future through the marriage of numerous online and offline ventures, and Savage intends to make the IGBP a long-term resource for adolescents (Savage 2012). Amid early criticisms of his video and the project overall, Savage stated that his overarching goal was for the IGBP to be a vehicle for nationwide LGBTQ policy change within the ongoing battles for equal rights (Savage 2010).
While battles for safe school legislation and LGBTQ equality are ongoing, the Webby award-winning IGBP has facilitated meaningful online and offline civic participation and contributed to to U.S. political action (Gouttebroze 2011). President Obama’s administration declared LGBTQ equality a focal point of international policy on December 6, 2011, bolstered by White House-led anti-bullying conferences, summits, panels, and workshops; Presidential endorsement of the Student Non-Discrimination & Safe Schools Improvement Acts; and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s United Nations proclamation that “gay rights are human rights.” Although federal LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bullying policies still do not exist, local and state policies have multiplied since the IGBP’s inception.26 While causality between the IGBP’s development and an increase in LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bullying policies has not been proven, the momentum for civic engagement and social change that the project fostered certainly contributed to the lengthy process of bills becoming laws. Thus, the IGBP has lived up to journalistic labeling as “a new kind of activism,” unquestionably serving as a contemporary model of civic participation (Mongillo 2010).
Brabham, Daren C. 2013. Crowdsourcing. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
D’Augelli, Anthony R., and Scott. L Hershberger. 1993. “Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth in Community Settings: Personal Challenges and Mental Health Problems.”American Journal of Community Psychology 21 (4): 421–448.
Eliason, Mickey. 2010. “Introduction to Special Issue on Suicide, Mental Health, and Youth Development.” Journal of Homosexuality 58 (1): 4–9.
Haas, Ann P., Mickey Eliason, Vickie M. Mays, Robin M. Mathy, Susan D. Cochran, Anthony R. D’Augelli, Morton M. Silverman, Prudence W. Fisher, Tonda Hughes, Margaret Rosario, Stephen T. Russell, Effie Malley, Jerry Reed, David A. Litts, Ellen Haller, Randall L. Sell, Gary Remafedi, Judith Bradford, Annette L. Beautrais, Gregory K. Brown, Gary M. Diamond, Mark S. Friedman, Robert Garofalo, Mason S. Turner, Amber Hollibaughy, and Paula J. Clayton. 2010. “Suicide and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Populations: Review and Recommendations.” Journal of Homosexuality 58: 10–51.
Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Murphy, Heather E. 2007. “Suicide Risk among Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual College Youth.” Doctoral dissertation, University of Washington.
Rheingold, Howard. 2002._ Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution._ Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
Shirky, Clay. 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. New York: Penguin Press.
Zhao, Yue, Richard Montoro, Karine Igartua, and Brett D. Thombs. “Suicidal Ideation and Attempt among Adolescents Reporting ‘Unsure’ Sexual Identity or Heterosexual Identity Plus Same-sex Attraction or Behavior: Forgotten Groups?” Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 49 (2): 104–113.
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