One of the defining characteristics of social media is how it gives one person the power to connect with the world, making it relatively easy for an individual to create change without the message amplification apparatus previously available only to large organizations. The constraint of needing a large bureaucracy being removed, any motivated individual with an Internet connection has the potential to generate a powerful campaign for social change.
In 2010, advice columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage had this very realization about a social cause close to his heart. Savage reports having been deeply moved by the story of 15-year old teenager Billy Lucas who, anguished by relentless bullying by classmates, hung himself on his grandmother’s property. It’s not known whether Lucas identified as gay, but Savage believed that no child should ever be made to feel so hopeless by the pressures of anti-gay bullying that they should take their own life. Identifying with his own adolescent struggles, and knowing how he became free to openly live his identity as an adult, he wrote in his advice column “Savage Love”:
I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.
Savage reported feeling frustrated that he couldn’t get direct access to the most effective forum for reaching out to bullied teens: public schools. Recognizing that the politics surrounding gay rights in America would make such a direct approach impossible, he eventually had the realization that he was “waiting for permission that [he] longer needed.” All that was necessary to start an awareness campaign was a video camera and a website to host the resulting file. With the help of a single YouTube video and supporting on-camera commentary from his husband Terry, the It Gets Better Project was born.
That initial 8-minute video contained a call to action, now stated on the Project’s website, www.itgetsbetter.org : “share your story of how it got better and provide countless young adults with the inspiration and hope that you wish you had while growing up.“ For those uninterested in contributing a video, the website encourages them to take the following pledge.
Everyone deserves to be respected for who they are. I pledge to spread this message to my friends, family, and neighbors. I’ll speak up against hate and intolerance whenever I see it, at school and at work. I’ll provide hope for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and other bullied teens by letting them know that it gets better.
When trying to measure the effectiveness of a social media campaign, there are a number of possible conventional metrics to look at such as monetary donations received, volunteers recruited, petition signatures collected, or even new legislation promulgated. Social media success is also measured in terms of “engagement,” the number of people who have seen the campaign’s content, “liked” its Facebook page, re-tweeted its message on Twitter, commented on its message, or re-posted it to another platform.
As for financial success, Savage decided to generate his own source of monetary donations by authoring an “It Gets Better” book containing a collection of essays by celebrities and ordinary people who shared their stories as part of the Project. He announced that all proceeds from the sale of the book would be donated to organizations supporting gay youth.
A clear measure of success — underscoring the power of that single YouTube video — is that the It Gets Better Project has become a globally recognized movement. As of September 17, 2015, the number of web site visitors who have taken the non-video pledge by adding their name and email addresses to the pledge list exceeds 602,000. The @itGetsBetter Twitter account has 135,000 followers, and the Project’s Facebook page has received 298,348 likes. The Project website now boasts a catalog of 50,000 user-created videos with total combined views exceeding 50 million. Of those uploaded videos, many have been authored by individuals capable of generating additional publicity for the Project by virtue of their fame. Notable examples include no less than President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, comedian Stephen Colbert, singer Ke$ha, comedian Ellen DeGeneres, the San Francisco Giants baseball team, the staffs of The Gap, Google, Facebook, Pixar, and the Broadway community.
Lest it be thought all is rosy in a world in which an individual with a video camera can change the world, it should be noted that Savage has been subjected to the social media’s peculiarly double-edged sword. While Internet access may confer great power to a single person, so too does it allow criticism — some of it surprisingly unexpected — from any connected corner of the world to flow back.
Not everyone has been entirely pleased with the tactics used in the Project which has been criticized for relying too heavily on celebrity videos (diminishing the impact of personal stories contributed by ordinary citizens), and skirting issues of racial and gender diversity in the LGBT community by focusing primarily on the plight of university-educated white men. Savage has refuted the latter criticism saying that not only were the flood of original videos created by non-celebrities, but that kids feel empowered when they see that celebrities like Lady Gaga are on their side.
But what good did it do?
These criticisms aside, by any of the engagement or public awareness measures cited, this social media campaign has been a tremendous success. But what about success beyond statistics? What about “real world” success? The Project’s original aim was to reduce the number of teen suicides caused by anti-gay bullying. In the absence of detailed epidemiological data, it’s impossible to measure what impact, if any, the Project has had on that goal. Even with complete data, and even if it is shown that such deaths have declined, it may never be possible to prove that the It Gets Better Project was causative.