My monthly Social Good podcast for the Chronicle of Philanthropy features Dan Savage, a Seattle-based journalist. Dan and his husband, Terry Miller, are the catalysts for a viral video phenomenon called the It Gets Better Project.
This fall has been a dismal and disheartening season for gay teens. Several bullied gay teens felt so alone and hopeless than they committed suicide; Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas to name just a few.
Dan and Terry wished that they had had just a few minutes with each of these boys to tell them, from their own experience, that life gets better after adolescence, after high school. And then Dan realized that he had been sitting back waiting for permission from someone, somewhere to talk to these kids. But in the Connected Age no permission is required, social media allows anyone to say anything to the world. So he and Terry went to a local restaurant and created a video with their own, personal message to gay teens – it gets better, they promised. They uploaded the video to YouTube on September 22nd. Dan then announced the video in his newspaper column and on his podcast. Here is their video:
And the video took off, over 250,000 views in the first two days. And it kept climbing. But then something even more remarkable happened; other people, regular people became to upload videos of their own stories. Mormons and Muslims, big city and small town, men and women, people from every stripe and corner of the country began to respond. And then, of course, the movie stars and politicians followed, including the President and the Secretary of State.
I assumed that since this effort was called a “Project” that Dan had some infrastructure, maybe not professional staff but at least volunteers, who had been driving outreach and encouraging regular and rich and famous to upload videos. Here is President Obama’s video:
But when I interviewed Dan I learned that no one had reached out to anyone! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a free-agent effort take off in quite this way before. Free agents is the term that Beth and I use in The Networked Nonprofit for individuals who create an activism campaign on their own using social media. A free agent campaign that is often cited is Dave Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars”, one man’s grievance against the airline which cavalierly treated his instrument and has been viewed near 10 million times. Here it is:
But the difference is that only Dave was making videos. The It Gets Better Project is spectacular because Dan and Terry provided an opportunity for hundreds of other people to share their stories as well. Unasked, unbidden, uncontrolled. Extraordinary. I hope you’ll take a listen to Dan.