This #case study focuses on the emergence of a grassroots organisation responding to the suicides of young teens bullied at school about their sexuality. It examines two questions:
- What might we learn from the case about the effective use of YouTube as a platform for advocacy?
- How can participatory media be used to attract and engage with a diverse range of publics?
As we move through the case you will be asked to post responses on your blogs. There are three sections and I’d like you to respond with three separate posts. Take your time with this. There’s no face-to-face meeting this week so use the time wisely.
1. The Issue
In 2010 Dan Savage, a journalist in the US wrote a column reflecting on the story of Billy Lucas, a 15 year-old school pupil who committed suicide after being taunted by his classmates for being gay. In that column Savage wrote how he would have liked to sit down with Billy for just five minutes to tell him that however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better. What he soon realised however, was that in fact he could talk – sadly, not to Billy Lucas – but to all those other young people who were being bullied because of their sexuality. He sat down with his partner, Terry Miller, and recorded a video in which both men talk about the horrific bullying they had endured throughout school and how, slowly, it got better; how life improved and how both have experienced moments of great happiness. They uploaded the video to YouTube and called it ‘It Gets Better.
In the first week after they made that video, over 200 other videos were uploaded echoing the same idea. By the following week the YouTube channel collating these uploads reached its limit of 650 videos. By October 2010 Savage and Millar decided to harness the power of this support by starting their own organisation as a registered charity; the It Gets Better Project.
The Project constitutes a hub where LGBT individuals and friends can share their own stories, find mutual support and solidarity. Since it was established the project has inspired more than 50,000 video commentaries which have been viewed over 50 million times. With Barak Obama lending his support through a video uploaded to the site in October 2010, the ‘It Gets Better Project’ has been the subject of much media attention in the US and some academic analysis.
Prompted by the Project, Stonewall, an established campaign and lobbying group on behalf of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals in the UK (it started in 1989), began a campaign in the UK titled It Gets Better … Today.
Homophobic bullying is no less visible in the UK than in the US: in The School Report, Stonewall cites research showing that of 1145 lesbian, gay and bisexual pupils, two thirds had experienced homophobic bullying. As Obama did in the US so David Cameron added his message of support to the campaign.
Spend some time examining both of these websites; It Gets Better and It Gets Better Today.
- How are they different? How are they similar?
- What tools/platforms do they use? Do they use these in the same ways?
Make notes and write a short blog post summarising your findings.
For our purposes in exploring how participatory video campaigns can reach diverse publics, the US organisation, the It Gets Better Project, is I think, more instructive than the Stonewall campaign. This is because:
- It emerged from grassroots efforts, almost spontaneously, and was able to grow by mobilising different groups on the web.
- This mobilisation was achieved because of the participatory nature of the medium, and in particular the harnessing of the power of the YouTube ‘story’ to mutually create and nurture its audience(s).
What we need to do now is explore exactly how this organisation used the media and in particular, YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.
We then need to analyse how these platforms actively create and nurture different publics. And finally, we need to explore the vexed question of effect: has the campaign changed anything? How do we measure impact in this sense?
The opportunity of using a platform that allows you to upload video material has not been lost to campaign groups. There are many ways in which advocacy groups can and do use YouTube (and/or Vimeo) to campaign for change. What we see with It Gets Better is an example of horizontal campaigning where the target of the change lies in a peer group: “lets all stop Xing”; ”lets all do Y”. The idea is that by making, uploading and getting people to view a video we can effect change in particular groups of people.
Importantly for this kind of horizontal campaigning, the job of making and uploading videos is decentralised: Savage inspired others to make similar videos and share them. The result has been the creation of over 50,000 videos very, very quickly. Clearly some very influential allies helped here: actress Anne Hathaway and singer Ke$ha have both uploaded videos to the channel.
The statistical monitoring of campaign videos is obviously useful and can give a quite detailed picture of the level of participation: so over 50,000 people made videos which have received over 3.8 million views. The YouTube channel where the videos are collected together has 47,000 subscribers.
Does that mean that the campaign was a success?
I don’t think so. The number of views or hits of a video or website is not in itself a sign of success. In order to say whether It Gets Better has been a successful campaign we would need to be clear as to its goal. What was the campaign trying to achieve? Once we have identified the goal, then we are in a position to measure the extent to which that goal has been achieved.
Look again at the campaign website and its different components.
Write a post summarising the campaign’s use of Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter in the way I have done for its use of YouTube. Identify what you think are the goals of the campaign and how these might be measured.
The videos collected by the It Gets Better Project challenge the (in some places normalised) bullying of teenagers because of their sexuality. The videos tell the teenagers that such bullying is wrong, that they are victims of cruelty and not freaks who deserve the treatment meted out to them. Their cultural icons reinforce the message. Their peers reinforce the message. And they are encouraged to reinforce the message themselves.
Enabling people who have been abused to understand themselves as victims of abuse rather than in some ways responsible for that abuse, is a vital step in any form of effective abuse therapy. As a campaign however, we need to question whether, in fact, things have got better (whether it was successful) and whether the strategies used to promote its goals could be improved upon.
Here are two articles that do question whether It Gets Better has had or indeed could have a significant impact on the issues it raises. Read the articles, make notes and summarise the main points they make.
Why I Don’t Like Dan Savage’s ‘It Get’s Better’ Project as a Response to Bullying
Does ‘It Gets Better’ Make Life Better for Gay Teens?
There is a more general point underlying these critiques which I think we can begin to address now.
If you think about it the internet should be opening our eyes to a range of ideas, thoughts, perspectives and experiences of life. It’s an enormous database of information which we can explore and learn from. However, there are some people who suggest that, in fact, the web is becoming increasingly tailored to individual needs. The personal web or personalised content is what we are increasingly being told is the new thing. We are given what we (think) we want; things that immediately correspond to our interests, whether in music (instant playlists based on what we’ve been listening to), books (Amazon recommends our reading based on what we’ve already read), fashion (if you liked those shoes, you’ll love these ones) or entertainment options. That content seldom includes anything that might take us out of our comfort zone and there is a risk that all of this me-ness might distort our view of the wider world outside of our browser window.
The desire to package the web as a personalised service is not new. In 1993 Pascal Chesnais at MIT’s Media Lab designed a piece of software called the Freshman Fishwrap. The idea emerged from a series of seminars speculating about the future of newspapers:
Imagine turning on a computer, punching in a few commands, and accessing a newspaper filled with articles on the topics you’re most interested in-say the space shuttle, MIT people in the news, and regional stories from the area where your Grandma lives. How about an advice column that you can submit questions to with answers appearing in the next day’s issue?
This was the first customisable newspaper on the web and, according to Nicholas Negroponte, heralded the personalised future possible in the fully digital age. It was as, he said, the Daily Me. Remember, this was in 1995 when most of the things we now do on the web weren’t even thought about. And, on the surface, this constant personalising of our experience of the web has had a positive effect on advertisers who target their products at us and for the consumers who enjoy free content funded by the targeted advertiser. So, if you use Amazon you are provided with a set of recommendations on the basis of your interests (i.e. buying and browsing habits). If you use Netflix, the same applies. On Facebook friends-of-friends-of-friends are suggested to you as possible friends. Twitter suggests who you might follow based on who your peers are. There are now many platforms that automate this process to give you a daily me-fix. Here are some examples – click through to have a look at them.
Whilst there is convenience and comfort in this idea, there is also a downside, a change in the culture. One of the most popular critiques of the move to personalisation came from Eli Pariser and internet activist and president of MoveOn.org in a video in which he introduced the idea of a filter bubble:
US legal scholar Cass Sunstein also saw the Daily Me as a threat, rather than a promise. In his book Republic.com, he expressed his own fear of what he called echo chambers. An echo chamber is where you only encounter views that you agree with. In a digital echo chamber you’ll only ever be surrounded by like-minded people doing like-minded things. You’ll never have to brush up against things that you’d rather avoid – whether those be friends, experiences or viewpoints. In this scenario Sunstein worried that if individuals only encounter ideas they agree with then we would see increased political polarisation and a shift of moderate views towards extremes. In short, he thinks that the echo chamber is a threat to democracy.
Again, the premise that if we surround ourselves with people who have the same opinions as we do, then those opinions will be reinforced in our mind as common sense, has a long history. It’s the idea that we construct the world around us differently to others for a variety of reasons. For example, people who speak different languages construct the world differently and one of the difficulties of learning a new language is entering that new world which the language affords. Bejamin Lee Whorf referred to the phenomenon as linguistic relativity: our version of the world is shaped by the language we speak and the people we speak with.
Every version of the world is biased.
This bias exists in a variety of forms: the newspaper you read, the TV shows you watch, the clubs you go to, the particular dialect you speak. The problem presents itself when the different worlds meet, when dissenting voices criticise the ‘common sense’ of a particular group. Notice here the way in which the idea of dissenting voices has morphed into the ‘troll’ as the echo chamber has expanded. We have reached the stage where anyone expressing a dissenting opinion is viewed as deliberately trying to wind others up – a troll who can’t really be serious and who should simply be deleted as a virus. The orthodoxy of the community must be allowed to continue unchallenged.
There is a danger here. It becomes very, very difficult to challenge deeply held views. People seem happier to seek out those who can confirm what they already believe rather than wandering through life encountering those who constantly challenge those beliefs. (See the theory of cognitive dissonance by Leon Festinger). The Daily Mail publishes stories that appeal to its echo chamber of right-wing readership. Those stories are spread around Twitter and are commented on by left-wing voices which in turn encourages the right-wing voices to retreat into their own echo chamber for reassurance and validation. The poles are set well apart and there is rarely a meeting on neutral ground.
- the personalised web is leading to the entrenching of various echo chambers
- these echo chambers are self-referential: they preach to the converted
- whilst we think the web has made it easier to challenge entrenched views, it has, in fact, made it more difficult.
Now write your final post on the It Gets Better case examining it in the light of the criticisms leveled at its claims to success together with the emergence of echo chambers making it arguably more difficult to challenge entrenched views.