A Voice for Every Audience: Collective voice and individual voice in “It Gets Better”

Recently a number of public figures in the USA have added their voices to the “It Gets Better” campaign, which aims to share hopeful messages with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth who may be wondering if life will always be bad. The campaign was launched by the media pundit and writer Dan Savage in the aftermath of a number of highly publicized suicides of young LGBT teenagers.

“It Gets Better” is a good example of a campaign that uses co-creation to offer a relevant voice for every viewer. Rather than trying to make one voice and one video speak to every potential viewer it offers a choice of who you’d like to listen to… a celebrity, someone like you, someone you relate to, someone you know already. So if you love “Jersey Shore” (on MTV), then listen to Vinny explain why it will get better, and why bullying is wrong; love “Law and Order” (a detective show) or relate to B.D. Wong? Then watch him, or watch the heartfelt and direct statement of a City Councilman  in Texas. Admire Hillary Clinton, love Ke$ha, think the folks who work at Google or Facebook are people you’d like to be like when you’re older?… And so on. Or just want to watch a group of LGBT seniors or a self-described ‘rural dyke‘ reassure you that it will get better, and that they are living proof?

Increasingly this type of co-creation of campaign messaging is a part of effective video advocacy. It seems to work best when you’re engaging with localized measures, a wide range of target audiences, or attitude change, rather than specific policy advocacy goals (though see our campaign with STAND for an example of co-creation that is more specifically policy-0riented, and I’d love to hear of more policy-specific examples). It also is often driven by initial mass media coverage or celebrity engagement – in the case of the “It Gets Better” campaign, videos by Tim Gunn (of “Project Runway”), US Secretary of State ClintonZachary Quintothe staff of Google, and President Obama ignite initial and continuing major news coverage and persuade or motivate ordinary citizens to join in the co-creation.

Candles 4 Rwanda: Inspiring communities to share their voice

Another of my favorite examples of this type of co-creation to reach multiple audiences is the Candles 4 Rwanda campaign. Candles 4 Rwanda was organized in 2009 by the UK-based Aegis Trust to memorialize fifteen years since the Rwandan genocide, build awareness about what happened, and raise funds to support survivors. They asked people to light a candle, film it, and share it on YouTube. Here, participation seems to have been driven less by the celebrity submissions (Tony BlairDanny Gloverfootballer Didier Drogba) but more by the leadership of someone at the center of an intra-YouTube community – in this case the vlogbrothers. John and Hank are a pair of thirty-something American brothers who publish a regular whimsical blog, “vlogbrothers” subscribed to by over 410,000 YouTube users, including many teenagers and young adults. Each year they also organize a project called “Project for Awesome” that mobilizes their fan base to create videos for charity and to take over the YouTube ‘most discussed’ page on a given day.

In 2009 John and Hank, alongside the Harry Potter Alliance (which is “dedicated to using the examples of Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore to spread love and fight the Dark Arts in the real world” and creatively combines pop culture, new media and social action – you can learn more in this informative interview) pushed out the Candles 4 Rwanda campaign to their channel followers with a characteristically conversational vlog.

Hundreds of the vlogbrothers channel followers as well as supporters of the Harry Potter Alliance responded, creating videos such as that of YouTube User HEH28 – who’s apparently in her late teens, lives somewhere in the USA, and from a brief look at her YouTube channel page, is into vampires, a show called “Castle” on US television and Harry Potter. Most of her uploads relate to these interests, and include examples of vidding remixes of these pop cultural touchstones, except for this one human rights themed video:

Hundreds of other of mainly young women  – such as ZfrogGirl, HatofDoom, TheOneEyedOwl – did this, in each case watched by 50-200 of their friends.They spoke to a small audience, they did it with a simple act, they experienced the act themselves directly, and they reached people who would never have known about the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. In the face of critiques that this type of activism is an example of ‘slactivism’ or ‘clicktivism,’ it is worth considering such an act in the context of a ladder of participation that offers initial opportunities for action, and where participation in and of itself helps shifts people from being bystanders to participants, with an opportunity to make an active contribution to a cause.

In forthcoming posts I’ll be looking at more of the implications of this kind of video advocacy  – de-centralized in creation, and individualized by those co-creators for different audiences. I’ll be looking at it in terms of its advocacy effectiveness, how it contributes to civic dialogue, and how it builds advocacy participation in a younger, more media-literate produser generation.

But I want to hear from you – please share your favorite video advocacy co-creation campaigns – and what you think made them work – in the comments or on twitter – @witnessorg, #video4change.

This post was initially developed during a residency at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center.

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