“It Gets Better”: Transmedia Storytelling Aims to Stop Suicides

Last month’s rash of teen suicides prompted a national discussion on bullying in schools. This discussion has been facilitated across a multitude of platforms including entertainment media, news media and social media. This transmedia method of advancing on all fronts has resulted in a successful awareness meme.

The power of storytelling is the core principle of most of these awareness activities, but can storytelling save lives and halt an epidemic? Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage certainly hopes so. Savage’s brainchild, the “It Gets Better” campaign, has become the most virally active anti-suicide

approach in recent weeks. Savage and his husband took to YouTube to showcase the trials and tribulations of their personal coming out journeys and to directly tell young gay people that it gets better. Thousands of people have followed Savage’s lead and created their own “It Gets Better” video messages, including my humble contribution. The best part about the campaign is that it has an actual chance of working. By hosting the campaign on YouTube and sharing the best videos on Facebook, “It Gets Better” is penetrating sites that are already daily destinations for the target demographic.

The campaign also plays an important role in engaging adults in the fight to create awareness. The option of creating a personal video empowers people, who otherwise would feel pretty helpless, to feel like they have the power to make a difference. It also can be very cathartic as Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns found out when he gave his “It Gets Better” speech during a council meeting. Burns emotional personal story has been viewed on YouTube 1.5 million times, it is featured on TED.com and he has been interviewed by a slew of national media programs. More importantly, Burns has reported that he has already heard from young people who were impacted by the video.

A criticism of the “It Gets Better” campaign is that telling young people to just wait it out doesn’t do anything to stop the torment they are enduring today. This is why a group of young people have taken Savage’s campaign to the next level by creating the “Make It Better” project, which provides the tools to young people to take back their schools from bullying and not have to wait for it to get better.

Social media is the natural home for these and other campaigns, because cyber bullying is a substantial part of the problem. Facebook is working with gay advocacy organizations to reduce anti-gay cyberbullying, but it is not easily navigated terrain for social networks. A Facebook representative said, “We have policies that prohibit hateful content and we have built a robust reporting infrastructure and an expansive team to review reports and remove content quickly.” But he added that it is important to strike a balance between removing egregious posts and still maintaining users right to free speech.

The campaigns are also playing out in entertainment media. Glee has promised to dedicate an entire storyline to the troubles of anti-gay bullying, several celebrities have cut PSAs for The Trevor Project, which is the main organization dedicated to eradicating gay suicide, and even more celebrities have produced their own “It Gets Better” videos. Anderson Cooper and Ellen Degeneres have used their respective platforms to be extremely vocal on the harms of anti-gay bullying and each has already achieved results. Cooper’s casual mention of a movie trailer’s use of “That’s so gay” prompted Universal to remove the phrase from the trailer for Vince Vaughn’s “The Dilemma,” while Ellen’s heartfelt message to gay teens was another viral wildfire.

Recent events have caused other celebrities to act out of character. Celebrity blogger Perez Hilton put on his most responsible looking outfit as he proclaimed that he will substantially change the way he runs the website that made him a millionaire. Perez realized the hypocrisy of condemning bullying while making his living by bullying celebrities.

Another surprising moment could also be the most effective in this entire meme. Last week, FOX News rabble-rouser Glenn Beck reported on the awful anti-gay attacks in the Bronx, where three men were systemically beaten and sodomized with foreign objects. After explaining the despicable details of the crime, Beck looked deep into the camera and asked, “who are we and who are we becoming?” He said the attacks represented “a whole new level of evil” and he said, “This is not only anti-gay, it is anti-human. It is bigotry for sport.”

Glenn Beck was not speaking to the youth of America, but he was perhaps speaking to the parents of America. The Trevor Project reports that over 2/3 of the calls to their suicide line are from the Midwest and South, also known as Glenn Beck country.

This multi-platform approach has successfully created a national dialogue and hopefully some hearts and minds have been changed, but the challenge will be maintaining a lasting action plan to stop the bullying after the meme floats away.

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