The amazing story of It Gets Better

It Gets Better is a grassroots campaign in America launched by sex columnist Dan Savage in response to a horrific spate of teenagers killing themselves after being victimized for being (or being perceived to be) gay. There were 5 suicides in September alone. After another one of these tragedies Savage wrote in his column that he wished "I could have talked to that kid for 5 minutes and been able to tell them it gets better." In that same column, on September 15, he announced he was setting up a YouTube channel for those who were bullied but survived to tell their story, to tell those going through hard times that it gets better. Since then the channel has had more than 1.8 million views and 21,000 subscribers, making it the fastest-growing channel on YouTube right now.

Here's Dan's original video with his husband Terry:


On MSNBC last week I saw Joel Burns, a member of the Fort Worth Council in Texas, share his story, a story he told us he had never told anyone before, in a speech before the council. It's a speech unlike many you will ever hear from a politician. It's raw, personal and courageous and had me in tears.


It Gets Better is another inspiring example of the possibilities of social media to aggregate individual actions, share otherwise-unheard stories and to connect us across borders, classes and generations. This campaign wasn't cooked up in a strategy session and launched with fanfare by a national gay rights organization. It wasn't backed with millions of dollars in funding. It didn't even require its own website. It was one person's idea, a single video uploaded online, and an invitation to participate.

Now, yes, this particular person had a mainstream media platform from which to promote his idea, but without the enabling environment of the internet he would simply have expressed his sadness and, presumably, moved on. Thousands of readers would have nodded in agreement but then what? Now, instead of just an expression of grief there was a call to action, an invitation to participate in something, and a simple, humble, personal video to get things started, and show how it could be done.

As Dan said in his column:

"Gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

"Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don't have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids."

He's right. Thanks to social media, we can.

Six weeks later the videos continue to roll in and the conversation around the issue continues. Employees at Google and Facebook have contributed videos, as have Project Runway's Tim Gunn, American Idol's Adam Lambert and Star Trek's Zachary Quinto. Videos have come in from Muslims and Mormons, gays and straights, teenagers, parents and grandparents. And hundreds of thousands of teenagers have found out that whatever their situation they are not alone, that others went through difficult times and survived and that they need to stick around and give their lives a chance.

Favourite videos of the moment

I love video on the internet, the combination of the most powerful communications medium with the most powerful distribution platform ever invented. Here's some videos I'm loving at the moment:  

Banksy and the Simpsons

The brilliant Banksy directed the 'couch gag' (ie. opening credits) for a Simpson's episode that aired earlier this week. It's very dark and a very pointed comment about the corporations behind The Simpons. It's hard to believe it was okayed by the network exec's. So how to read the fact that it was? They have obviously calculated the doing so won't hurt their image in any meaningful way. And here we all are, talking about The Simpsons, which could probably use the publicity boost. So is this then an example of anti-corporate art being used for the benefit of a corporation? Brilliant subversion or sell-out? You decide:



When Memes Collide

Blendtec are famous for their brilliant and innovative use of online video for marketing. They've been at it for a few years now making "Will It Blend?" videos where they reduce the buzz topic of the day (the iPhone for instance) to dust in one of their industrial blenders. Here they get really meta and blend this year's social media darling Old Spice in the blender while blending their format with the famous Old Spice ad. Well played.



Envision: Step Into the Sensory Box

Amazing, gorgeous light art. These guys must have a pretty amazing projector.



Social Media Revolution - Refreshed

Social Media Revolution is a classic YouTube video created by Erik Qualman, author of Socialnomics, now with 2.3 million views. A couple of months ago he released an updated version. If you haven't watched it, you should:


Favourite Videos This Week

I love online videos. This is a semi-regular column of my favourite recent finds, whether they are artistic, political or data visualizations. You can see the previous collection here. COMBO: A collaborative animation


An incredible street art/video collaboration. It's almost mind-blowing to think about how much work went into this, the animation is created by a sequence of graffiti artworks painted  inside an abandoned building. They have painted and re-painted and re-painted, a true example of the transient nature of street art, here captured by thousands of photos put together to create a wonderous and surreal animation.

NY gets Pixelated


A very cool video of space invaders and other early computer game characters invading New York City.

World Air Traffic Over a 24 Hour Period


An amazing data visualization of all airplane flights over earth in a 24 hour period. I love data visualizations - for the visual learners amongst us it can convey a huge amount of data (in this case, flight patterns) in a gorgeous and visually-stimulating format. Very sticky.

16 Deaths a Day


Given the recent deaths of 29 miners killed in a West Virginia coal mine disaster and, last week, another 11 workers being lost, presumed dead, after an offshore oil rig explosion, I wanted to share this important video from the ever-productive team at Brave New Films.

DC joins the future

Two weeks ago, relatively quietly, the world changed in DC. On Wednesday March 3 the government of the District of Columbia began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The video below is of the first same-sex wedding in DC, a week later. [youtube=]

DC has joined five states in allowing same-sex couples to wed: New Hampshire, Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont and Connecticut.

This is the civil rights issue of our time, but the change it brings is barely noticeable. It's almost amazing how completely non-disruptive it is, even to those most opposed to it. As despicable as it was segregation was a way of life, and giving up a way of life and the set of traditions and beliefs around it is very difficult for many people.

Those opposed to gay marriage however are defending a way of life only in their minds. As the five existing states in America have shown, nothing happens when you allow same-sex marriage other than people of the same sex getting married. Heterosexual marriage continues as normal. Even for those most opposed daily life continues exactly as it did before. They are required to give up no traditions at all and it can only be a matter of time before most realize that the only belief they are giving up was a mistaken one: that gay marriage in some way threatened heterosexual marriage.

I feel fairly confident that most of those casually opposed to gay marriage will get over it pretty quickly. It will be hard to continue to make claims about the destruction of the institution of marriage when the institution continues as before, if not stronger. It's harder to be scared of something that happens routinely around you without any negative repercussions. And as the states and jurisdictions which allow gay marriage slowly increase in America, it will become harder and harder to make a credible argument against it anywhere.

6 countries currently allow gay marriage: Belgium, Canada, Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Sweden. I suspect the institution of marriage is getting along just fine there as well.

Favourite videos this week

The moving image is the most powerful communication medium yet invented and the internet is the most powerful distribution network yet invented. Together they're a pretty great combination. I'm constantly looking out for videos I like and am going to start sharing my favourite finds every couple of weeks, whether they are art, music, politics or marketing. The New Dork:


I always say that it's mostly random what goes viral and what doesn't online, but this video really does have the perfect set of elements to give it the best possible shot at stardom: satire, music, pop-cultural hooks and sub-culture-specific in-jokes. It's made by the pantless knights for, a company big on promoting entrepreneurship (and social entrepreneurship), and is a spoof of Empire State of Mind by Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. This was released three days ago and has racked up 269,000 views already.

NZ Book Council - Going West:


Here's a much less obvious viral success, an animated excerpt from a book to promote the New Zealand Book Council. Consider that New Zealand has a popular only a little over 4 million and 721,000 views since mid-November for a video from a local non-profit is pretty extraordinary. Amazingly it's the only video they've ever uploaded. They're going to have really unrealistic expectations from now on. But this video deserves it - it's beautiful, unique and, importantly, doesn't feel like marketing collateral. It promotes the organization by promoting something bigger than them: a love of reading.

The Sandpit:


A really different perspective on New York City: familiar but strange; ordinary but beautiful; removed but somehow intimate. I love this.

Glen Beck Attacks Tom Dawkins

I don't seem to be able to embed this but check it out here. This is a brilliant and creative use of Facebook's API, creating an interactive video featuring... me! (Or you - create your own here). And of course I have shared this on Facebook and numerous people have reacted to it there. Because it's got an element of game and a strong dose of fun about it many probably made their own, and posted on on Facebook, and on it goes. This interactivity allows virality to be designed in, not just hoped-for. And once again it isn't a fundraising pitch or blatant advertisement, it's about the issue.

Kiev: City of Love Episode Two: A Very Special Date

Finally got the next couple of episodes of Kiev: City of Love online. If you haven't spend the last two months desperately hoping for more of Vlad and Kiev you clearly haven't seen Episode One. I hope you enjoy these next installments: [vimeo]


The Obama Adminstration one year in

This is an exerpt from an interview I did with Alex Steed for the Millennials Changing America blog. He has been collecting perspectives from  youth organizers about the successes failures and dynamics of year one of the Obama administration and was interested in my "outsiders perspective". I'm now officially a token Aussie. [youtube=]

DC Snow Weekend

As you might have heard (or lived through) DC got a bit of snow on the weekend. A record-setting amount of snow actually, an amazing 20 inches in 24 hours, near shutting the city down. Lots of funny and strange things seem to happen at times like this, and perhaps the strangest story to come out of what was dubbed snowpocalypse09 was a huge public snowball fight on the corner of 14th and Ust NW, in the heard of the U St shopping and dining district, at 2pm on Saturday. At some point during the ruckus, which had about 200 participants, some snowball enthusiasts decided to target passing cars, and in particular a massive Hummer. I can understand their desire, there's no car that more makes me want to participate in acts of civil disobedience than the Hummer, a converted troop carrier for god's sake. Anyway this particular Hummer contained an undercover police office, who got out of his vehicle brandishing his gun. At people bearing snowballs. Madness. It was all captured on camera thankfully and the detective is now “confined to desk duties” while the incident is being investigated.


This was all odd enough, but what's really revealing is what happened next. Here's how the local news reported it:

A lively snowball fight on D.C. streets took a dark turn Saturday when anti-war protesters dressed in anarchist garb showed up, and a D.C. police officer pulled his weapon out of his holster.

But things started to turn for the worse when the crowd -- some carrying anti-war signs and dressed all in black with masks -- began to pelt passing cars. A plain clothes D.C. police detective emerged from a Hummer -- it's unclear whether it was his personal vehicle or an unmarked police vehicle -- after it was struck. The detective began yelling at the gathered crowd. At one point, he pulled back his jacket, exposing his service weapon -- it's unclear if he did this intentionally. That's when things took a darker turn.

So they blamed a group “dressed like anarchists” for causing the problems, and indicated that the undercover detective only showed his weapon rather than brandished it, and that the only gun drawn was by a policeman who arrived later. Okay, a couple of things here. Firstly, the “dressed like anarchists” bit. By this we can only assume they're referring to people wearing balaclava's and scarfs around their faces. But aside from the seemingly omni-present anarchists (and bank robbers) who wears this sort of get-up? You got it – people in cold places! Like places where it's snowing like crazy. Like DC on Saturday.

Secondly, re the gun, see the video above. There's enough evidence online that there's no excuse for a professional news operation, reporting hours after the event, to get this wrong.

So besides being an example of a police officer completely overstepping the bounds of their authority it's also an example of the media completely overstepping their bounds of reporting, adding their own spin while blatantly mis-representing the facts, and doing so on the side of authority. This happens all the time of course, and this particular incident may not be the most important example in the world, but it is illustrating nonetheless. Protests in particular always get this treatment by a new media which is part of the status quo being protested. Not that this was even a protest, but the media were all too keen to fit it into their knee-jerk protest narrative of rowdy kids and put-upon police.

On a more personal note I had a productive snow weekend. Firstly K and I made a film with our flatmate D entitled Kiev: City of Love. It's a beauty I think you'll agree, we're very proud of it (My second film ever!).


What do you think, time to get a pilot to the networks?

Then our visiting mate Scott and I made this snow Loch Ness Monster which is honestly the best snow sculpture I've seen since the dump. A weekend well-spent!

Snow loch ness monster

More Carrot at Burning Man: The Movie

Kate and I finally finished editing together the footage we shot at Burning Man. We had intended to get much more but the persistent dustiness of this year's event made this impossible, and given how long it's taken us to edit perhaps it's just as well. It's the first film we've ever made and we wanted to do it as a gift to our Burning Man crew, More Carrot, but we hope others will enjoy it also. [vimeo]

Young social pioneers

On Wednesday night I attended the YouthActionNet Awards nights at the gorgeous Finnish embassy. YouthActionNet is an awards program run by the International Youth Foundation which recognizes young social change leaders from across the world. To enter you must be the founder of an organization or initiative aged between 18-29. Meeting and hearing the stories of these emerging social entrepreneurs was uplifting and inspiring. They are tackling some of the hardest problems in the world; creating a culture of non-violence, moving a community towards sustainability, providing quality education to slum communities. It's impossible not to feel more hopeful when hearing of their commitment to addressing these issues and feeling the heart that goes into their efforts.

Despite this I had mixed emotions as I watched the ceremony and the preceding panel discussion. Two years ago that had been me up on the panel, speaking with passion about the work of Vibewire, the organization I founded. Even though at that stage, in November 2007, I already had a departure date set and a succession plan in motion, I remember the intensity of my feeling of commitment to both the organization and our cause, the sense of deep personal connection born of seven years hard work to get to that point.

A year later I was back at the ceremony having just moved to Washington and started work at Ashoka. Life was a wonderful blur. I had been through the desperately-difficult process of leaving Vibewire, had travelled for several months, landed in America, got a job, got married, attended Burning Man and finally settled in DC. So: exciting.

Now a year later I'm just another mid-career mid-level staffer at a big NGO. Don't get me wrong, I love my work and find it challenging and fulfilling, and I'm inspired by our mission. But it's obviously different. It's what I need and where I want to be right now, but I do sometimes miss the unique sense of destiny you get when you're running your own show, convinced of your own power to change the world, and the community you feel when you spend time with other people on a similiar journey.

Thinking about this reminded me that my friend and fellow YouthActionNet alumni Anna Rose filmed me speaking at the 2007 Awards night so at the risk of self-indulgence I'm going to post it here:


Look how young I was!

Read more about this year's YouthActionNet Fellows here. It's also very cool to see the first group selected as "Young Social Pioneers" by the Foundation for Young Australians, a national version of the YouthActionNet program.