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Civic Media Project

Eric Gordon, Author

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It Gets Better Project

Examples of twenty-first century social media-based activism are plentiful, but few have garnered 50 million views, launched affiliates in 17 countries, and brought bullying to the forefront of mainstream media and public policy debates. The “It Gets Better Project” (IGBP) is an ongoing campaign to combat suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth comprised of videos created by LGBTQ individuals and allies of all ages.1

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Blending global citizenry, digital technologies, and citizen engagement, the IGBP phenomenon is an effective form of modern civic participation.

“It Gets Better Project” Overview

Prompted by a reader’s expressed desire to prevent LGBTQ youth suicide, columnist Dan Savage and husband Terry Miller filmed a video about their childhood harassment and bullying victimization and the familial and economic successes they achieved later as adults,2 uploaded it to YouTube, and then invited LGBTQ adults to contribute similar, hope-filled user-generated messages.3

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With the initial goal of 100 contributions, they received more than 1,000 videos in one week’s time,4 exceeding the channel’s limits and prompting YouTube engineer Carol Chen to hack into the mainframe to allot more space.5 Logistical constraints necessitated the launch of on October 6, 2010 to accommodate the flood of submissions,6 and soon after the IGBP registered as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

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Since inception, “celebrities, organizations, activists, politicians, media personalities,” and non-famous LGBTQ individuals and allies have contributed more than 50,000 videos.7 The IGBP’s breadth extends far beyond the original YouTube channel to include “BETTERMedia,” which includes a multiplatform social media presence, television specials, a book, comic books, an online docuseries, and Google+ Hangout sessions with LGBTQ youth.8 “BETTERLegal” provides advocacy and legal organizations with pertinent LGBTQ information,9 and merchandise. Additionally, the IGBP has spawned other LGBTQ-centric social change projects, such as the “Make it Better Project”10 and “Not All Like That.”11 

The IGBP as Contemporary Civic Engagement

Online participatory culture research has shown that individuals’ motivations for civic participation are varied and multifaceted.12 IGBP contributors attributed their motivations to viewer camaraderie, desires for rectification, determination to broaden LGBTQ media representation, and the ease of participating in the project.13 The timeless quest for civic engagement takes both new and reimagined forms, and digital technologies 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 and/or long-term support.

A long-time contributor to Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, and a vocal - and controversial - activist with media access not afforded to most, Savage was able to use his celebrity status to solicit support and action from others when launching the IGBP. Rather than embark on speaking tour to combat LGBTQ bullying and suicide, Savage opted to broadcast his message via a platform youth regularly use, YouTube,14 and ignited the development of an extensive compilation of videos from diverse voices worldwide.15 He garnered celebrity backing initially and sought their continued support in new ventures (i.e., the “It Got Better” docuseries),16 while strategically using mainstream media outlets and corporate support to draw public attention to bullying and suicide.

LGBTQ harassment and bullying remain pervasive problems in the U.S.: Among 13-20 year old LGBTQ-identified middle and high school students, nearly 82% report being verbally harassed; 38% physically harassed; and 18% physically assaulted.17 Moreover, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) research showed that suicide is the second leading cause of death among 10-24 year olds,18 and LGB-identified youth are “four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.”19 While this epidemic is not new and interdisciplinary scholarly research on LGBTQ suicide has increased substantially over the past four decades,20 in-depth international media coverage of the epidemic 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 received extensive media attention within the last decade, and according to Gallup, U.S. citizens’ tolerance of lesbian and gay individuals has never been higher.21 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 launch, made a $50,000 contribution to its benefactor, “The Trevor Project”,22 and partnered with Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) to develop and broadcast a national commercial spotlighting the IGBP [figures 6, 7, 8, and 9 here].23 

Undoubtedly, civic awareness of the IGBP and citizen engagement with it was strengthened by mainstream media 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 endeavors to make the IGBP a long-term resource for youth.24 Amid early criticisms of his video and the IGBP, Savage stated that his goal was for the project to be a vehicle for nationwide policy change and broader LGBTQ civil rights.25 

The battles for safe school legislation and LGBTQ equality are ongoing, yet the Webby award-winning IGBP has facilitated meaningful online and offline civic participation as well as U.S. political action.26 President Obama’s administration declared LGBTQ equality a focal point of international policy on December 6, 2011,27 bolstered by White House-led anti-bullying conferences, summits, panels, and workshops28 Presidential endorsement of the Student Non-Discrimination & Safe Schools Improvement Acts,29 and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s United Nations proclamation that “gay rights are human rights.”30 Although federal LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bullying policies still do not exist, state and local policies have multiplied since the IGBP’s inception. LGBTQ-inclusive anti-bullying policies are not a direct result of the IGBP alone, yet 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,” and it serves as a contemporary model of civic participation.

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