Social media played a significant role in many of the major news events in 2011. This week, The Globe's #yearinhashtags project examines the impact social media had on five of the year's biggest stories: Arab Spring, Charlie Sheen, B.C. riot, Occupy Wall Street and the "It gets better" campaign.
Here's the life cycle of a typical viral video: It's uploaded to YouTube, picked up by a high-traffic site such as BoingBoing and then shared widely on Twitter, Facebook and corporate e-mail. Traffic soars and after a few weeks, or sometimes even days, it flat-lines. We've all seen them: mildly amusing, occasionally shocking, ultimately forgettable.
But a funny thing happened when sex columnist Dan Savage uploaded a video he created with his long-time partner Terry: YouTube became an agent for grassroots social change.
The video featured two gay men (Mr. Savage and Terry) explaining, in an 8½-minute confessional, how they were bullied as kids, came out to initially unsupportive parents but later thrived as adults. There were no baby seals in the video. No celebrities. No toddlers dancing to Beyoncé.
Still, it spread in a way no other video has. It wasn't the number of views it scored that made it remarkable (a relatively modest 1.5 million compared to the 180 million views on Rebecca Black's Friday video). Rather it was the ripple effect it created. Tens of thousands of users recorded their own videos, spreading the message to bullied teens that as rough as it may be, "it gets better."
The movement truly took hold in Canada this past October, when Jamie Hubley, the 15-year-old son of an Ottawa city councillor, took his own life and reignited a national discussion on bullying against members of the LGBT community. And it continued to gain momentum after the late NDP leader Jack Layton, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty added their own recorded assurances. They joined hundreds of Canadians from Victoria to Moncton. The phrase became a touchstone for discussions in schools, around the dinner table, at the work place and in counselling sessions across the continent.
Videos are added every day. The hits keep climbing, pushed forward one day by a Rick Mercer rant on bullying and the next by a teen's suicide. It's a phenomenon that has made us re-evaluate the power and longevity of a meme.
When Mr. Savage, who lives in San Francisco, came up with the idea, he and his partner had long been waiting to share their story with youth – but weren't sure how to reach them. With their natural draw to social media, YouTube seemed like the place to broadcast their message to one person at a time.
"We could look in the camera and speak directly to them and with them," Mr. Savage says from his home in San Francisco.
At YouTube's offices, where analytics are obsessively tracked, employees were struck by the way the project spread.
"It wasn't one video being passed along," explains Aaron Brindle, a company spokesperson based in Toronto. "What happened was other people started to contribute their own videos, building on that theme. They created a structure for dialogue around this very important issue."
The videos carry an air of authenticity that's unusual for a public service campaign. Most are shot on webcams and subjects usually identify themselves by name and city.
For Chris Koene, a 29-year-old Calgary wireless service manager, it took a decade after he graduated from high school to feel comfortable coming out to his family and peers.
Growing up in a conservative Christian family, he repressed his sexuality and even married a woman. This summer, around the time he discovered the It Gets Better videos, he split up with his wife and came out of the closet. Some took the news better than others.
"Not everyone in my life is fully supportive. There are people who consider me to be a sinner and need to be saved and such," he says.
But the It Gets Better videos have offered Mr. Koene comfort, including one from a U.S. soldier deployed overseas who came out to his father during a video chat soon after the "don't ask, don't tell" policy was repealed. Since Mr. Koene posted his own It Gets Better video last summer, many users who are closeted have messaged him for support in coming out.
While general curiosity or personal circumstances have drawn many to the campaign, often the lure is tragedy.
Google search data for the query "it gets better," suggest interest in the campaign corresponds, at least in part, with news reports of teen suicides triggered by bullying.
"I think the sad reality is that this kind of stuff keeps happening and as a result, the message seems to be one that needs to be repeated," Mr. Brindle says.
One of those spikes happened after news of Jamie Hubley's death broke on Oct. 14. The Ottawa teen suffered from depression but his father, Ottawa councillor Allan Hubley, says his son also struggled with bullying from peers as a result of being openly gay. Jamie had watched many It Gets Better videos, his father said, and referred to the project in one of his last blog posts before he died.
"I dont want to wait 3 more years, this hurts too much. How do you even know It will get better? Its not," he wrote.
Jamie's story made news headlines and prompted many YouTube users to record their own It Gets Better messages as a tribute to the teen. One was even filmed on Parliament Hill and featured members of the Conservative caucus, including cabinet ministers Vic Toews, John Baird and Rona Ambrose.
In the second half of October, there was a 35-per-cent spike in Google searches for "it gets better" in Canada, Mr. Brindle says – the year's peak. While they may have entered the search based on news of a tragedy, users, in the end, were often directed to the abundance of reassuring messages on YouTube.
Two weeks after Jamie's death, comedian Rick Mercer, who is openly gay, filmed a rant about how the message isn't enough.
"It Gets Better is a great initiative but it's not the ultimate solution. It doesn't solve all the problems," he said in an interview.
His YouTube video has since netted more than 450,000 views and pushed the debate on gay bullying forward.
In Ontario, that call for action has been heard by Mr. McGuinty, who made his own It Gets Better video in late November and has used it as a vehicle to publicize proposed legislation that would allow schools to hand out tougher punishments – such as expulsion – for bullies. It's a move Jamie Hubley's parents, who spoke to members of the Ontario Legislature in early December, have endorsed.
That the It Gets Better message wasn't enough for Jamie is "heartbreaking," Mr. Savage says, but the takeaway shouldn't be that the movement is useless.
"We've heard from other Jamies who didn't commit suicide. Listening to and hearing from a person who had suffered exactly what they had suffered and had been as depressed as they believed themselves to be helped them hang in there."
2011's Top 5 social activist videos on YouTube
1. It's Time by getupaustralia
A man in love with another man argues "it's time" for marriage equality in Australia
2. Thank you Farmville Farmers! by WorldFoodProgram
A thank-you from the World Food Program to Farmville players who donated $1.5-million for emergency food relief in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake
3. Dear 16-year-old Me by DCMFCanada
People reveal what they wish they could have told their 16-year-old selves: how to protect themselves against malignant melanoma
4. Beagle Freedom Project - Second Rescue by BeagleFreedomProject
Rescue of nine beagles who had spent their lives in cages in a research laboratory
5. I Want… by AnimalHumaneSociety
Anthropomorphic homeless animals, mostly voiced by children, explain what they'd like in a new home