Social change needs to occur in real life, not on the Internet

On September 21, author and activist Dan Savage sat down with his partner Terry Miller to respond publicly to a rash of suicides by gay teenagers via a YouTube video.

On September 21, author and activist Dan Savage sat down with his partner Terry Miller to respond publicly to a rash of suicides by gay teenagers via a YouTube video. The couple wished they could have had an opportunity to talk directly to the most recent victim, who was just 15 years old, to offer him a little hope. While too late, their simple message was clear and has now been seen by millions: "It Gets Better."

Flash forward to Lexington, KY, six weeks after Savage and Miller's first video post. Hundreds of supporters gathered to raise awareness and funds for Savage's cause. It is just one of many events, with dozens more being spontaneously organized across the country, in bars, churches, schools, and living rooms.  

So has Savage's project truly made a difference? Will it continue?

My answer is a certain yes, but, at the core, it has very little to do with YouTube, Facebook, or the project's website itself. 

As a partner in a digital agency that specializes in advocacy, cause marketing, and online fundraising, my cynicism of so-called "viral campaigns" might seem surprising. Though massively unpopular among the digital elite, I agree with some of Malcolm Gladwell's recent New Yorker essay, "Small Change." In it, he states, "[Social media] makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact." 

The It Gets Better Project stands out because it managed to break through the clutter and sustain media interest by inspiring real-life, offline engagement. It even caught the eye of President Obama, who posted his own video from the White House on October 21.

The project puts real, heartfelt stories into consumable online content and asks people to take public actions that can't be ignored. The 5,000-plus videos that have been added to Savage's are the sparks that create real-world conversation and, ultimately, action. This is where the project's potential to touch and save lives exists.

Gladwell was right: the simple act of clicking "Like" on Facebook or watching a YouTube video will not shake the forces that cause bullied teenagers to contemplate or commit suicide. Such easy actions will not change the makeup of school boards or awaken parents to their child's quiet everyday misery. To achieve real social change, it takes more than watching videos online.

Thomas Gensemer is managing partner of Blue State Digital, which provides technology and online strategy counsel to the It Gets Better Project.

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