Fraternity and Social Change in the Digital Age: The It Gets Better Project in the March of Online Fraternity
IN THIS ARTICLE
Throughout the ages, communication has impacted human interactions and relationships. The dawning of the digital age has changed communication, facilitating individual and group interaction in previously unimaginable ways. However, has such transformation fundamentally changed human relationships, or more specifically, the establishment of fraternity amongst people? This study of the It Gets Better Project investigates the nature of online fraternity and interpersonal connection in the digital age.
Our daily lives require interaction with others; there’s no way to avoid people entirely. We categorize relationships with names: some people are friends, others family, coworkers, enemies, heroes, celebrities, in-laws. But one of the most powerful relationships that can exist between people is fraternity. It straddles the defined boundaries between friendship and family, affection and obligation, desire and necessity, floating elusively within the human psyche as an indefatigable bond between individuals. It enables discussion, understanding, unity, and respect, though differences may exist amongst those who preserve it. Few have tried to define fraternity, and even fewer have succeeded in any memorable way, but nevertheless we recognize it in its many manifestations when and where it exists.
However, for something so fundamental to the human condition, and society generally, fraternity’s prevalence has ostensibly waned in America. Ideological differences have polarized people, and respect for one’s fellow man or woman – as man or woman – has deteriorated. Tolerance is diminished, and people segregate themselves on any number of arbitrary bases. This dysfunction is so severe that the Tea Party’s vitriol represents the greatest example of modern day fraternity: they interact, debate, and work together in the political and social arena. However, this fraternity is so different from what we have traditionally recognized as fraternity, and it is devoid of cooperation or respect for political difference whatsoever.1
The digital age, with its flexible tools and forums, presents new opportunities for social interaction. The Internet, in particular, allows users unprecedented methods of connection, communication, and cooperation, despite the skepticism that exists.2 Its ability to foster change in society is disputed, but its potential to do so is enticing. Might powerful relationships formed over the Internet be considered fraternal? On a very basic level, the Internet provides unprecedented and accessible tools to people regardless of wealth and placement in society. However, fraternity, I will argue matters less among the powerful than among the powerless.3 The Internet presents a potential, however contested, for organized counter-hegemonic debate and communication; it can be a forum for those considered ‘apart.’ My overarching question, therefore, presents itself: if the Internet becomes a vehicle for counter-hegemony, does it do so by fostering fraternity amongst oppressed or powerless groups of people?
To answer this question, this paper analyzes an Internet phenomenon called the It Gets Better Project. In doing so, it answers the three inquiries listed above, namely: 1.) can fraternity exist online? 2.) how might this fraternity have political influence? and 3.) does Internet fraternity potentially act as a vessel for marginalized group power?
Fraternity And The Internet: A Blueprint
Communities consist of citizens who must live amongst each other. When the bond between people in such a community becomes strong, durable, and unavoidable, one may call it fraternity; this basic bond has played a large role in historical movements worldwide.
The French Revolution famously pursued liberty, equality, and fraternity in attempt to bring Enlightenment ideals to fruition in a people’s republic. However, fraternity was not so much a goal as a byproduct of many revolutionaries’ striving for the loftier ideals of liberty and equality. At every stage, the Revolutionary leadership (Robespierre, the Directory, Napoleon, etc.) remained relatively silent or indifferent on outright questions of fraternity, instead stressing equality or liberty (Mason & Rizzo, 1999, pp. 334-336). Later thinkers largely ignored it as well, and concentrated primarily on equality in itself, as opposed to its rumored end: fraternity. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, recognized “[respect] for man, as man, [as] the foundation of every noble sentiment” (Wollstonecraft, 2009, p. 132). In order to attain such mutual respect, however, she proposed more societal equality (2009). Even Immanuel Kant saw the values of international hospitality to the establishment of perpetual peace, but identifies the spread of liberty as the means to such an end (Kant, 2006). Fraternity is, therefore, an afterthought for Kant.
Few contemporary works deal overtly with fraternity. Fortunately, The Idea of Fraternity in America, by Wilson Carey McWilliams, presents an eloquent analysis of fraternity’s role in civic life throughout American history. His comprehensive work provides a solid backdrop against which I may construct a formal definition for fraternity. His original definition is as follows:
For McWilliams, fraternity is an intimate bond between people, based on “intense interpersonal affection” (McWilliams, 1973, p. 7). However, fraternity is inherently discriminatory, and “limited in the number of persons and in the social space to which it can be extended” by nature (1973, p. 7). Shared “values or goals” of the utmost importance build the foundation for fraternity between individuals (1973, p. 7). Over time, this fraternal group affects the “development” of members’ “‘identity’” (1973, p. 8). McWilliams hints at a need for mutual understanding within a fraternal bond. This includes an understanding of and identification with another’s values and goals. Perhaps the most significant element of McWilliams’ conception of fraternity, (and our soon-to-be-established definition), lies in his recognition that fraternity affects the development of identity. This is not so much a condition for fraternity as much as an enduring result; people who share a fraternal bond will likely encounter powerful emotional experiences which profoundly affect the identities of those involved. However, simple participation in a fraternal group necessarily changes one’s attitude, behavior, and responsibilities. According to McWilliams, group members learn to: recognize his or her fellows’ “shortcomings and failure[s]” in the pursuit of common goals, give each other “the emotional encouragement and sense of worth” necessary to “endure” challenges without “betraying” one’s “values,” and lastly, create “tension” between group loyalty and “loyalty to society at large”4 (1973, p. 8).
The exact contours of my definition will be explained shortly; simplified, I assert that fraternity exists as an establishment of obligation buttressed by deep mutual understanding and, as McWilliams notes, interpersonal affection. This affection need not be friendship, though friendship is common among fraternal brothers and sisters.5
The familial connotation of fraternity alludes to mutual affection and understanding generally expected within a family, but this allusion is not entirely accurate. Blood relations are often aggressive, competitive, and disdainful. Negative feelings between siblings do not always mean that mutual affection and understanding are absent, but when they demolish affection and understanding between them, then one cannot consider the relationship fraternal. Among those who do experience mutual affection and understanding, mutual obligation arises as well, for there exists interconnectedness. We might call this interconnectedness ‘fraternity,’ and because it is mutually exclusive from any literal familial connection, fraternity’s familial connotation is figurative, not literal.
Equality is another factor that influences fraternal significance. Social and political status or power can separate people indefinitely, and under hierarchical duress, one is likely neither honest, nor comfortable, expressing him or herself. Also, great inequalities often create barriers to mutual understanding, simply because inequalities between people often imply different lifestyles and experiences.
Despite these obstacles to understanding, inequalities themselves are dependent on situational context, insofar as the positions from which people interact alter their perceptions of their interactions. A parent and child, though disparate in political and social status while in a familial setting, are equal as fellow United States citizens with equal rights. A homeless person and a wealthy person, though dissimilar in property ownership, become equal when attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as fellow alcoholics. The inequalities still necessarily exist, but are overshadowed by other characteristics that occupy higher priorities in other various contexts.
These contexts have affected equality, or perceptions of equality throughout history, and Studs Terkel’s Working provides several examples of this phenomenon. Frank Decker, an interstate truck driver, talks about the hierarchies that exist at work: “At the bottom of the ladder, there’s the hooker on your truck. He wants to feel that he’s better than somebody…So you get constant animosity because he feels that the corporation looks down on this steel hauler, and he knows he can order him around…It’s a status thing. There’s a tremendous feeling”(Terkel, Frank Decker, 1972). This work environment, therefore, contains obvious and overt tensions based on job experience, and status. However, Decker also notes that “[e]verybody in that mill that is under union contract has some dignity, [and] some respect from management,” suggesting that the rights and privileges granted by the union create some sense of equality for those involved, regardless of job experience or status (1972, p. 210). The context of the union renders workers equal, while the context of the work environment renders workers subject to hierarchy. Each context is composed of the same people, but their relations to each other are different depending on which one matters at a specific moment or location. Union workers represent but one example of groups who have both established fraternal connection, and used it to promote social and political change in American history. Numerous other professions, including the police and the fire department, continue to provide contexts conducive to the mutual understanding and affection necessary for fraternity.
Again, McWilliams offers some provocative suggestions about the effects of fraternity, and gives us some insight into the mechanism by which fraternity affects identity. It gives people an insight into their strengths and weaknesses, revealing the fallibility that lies beneath any personality. Each person’s recognition of his or her fallibility, in turn, lends members of a fraternal group the knowledge and responsibility to support one another. This support, however, is naturally discriminatory. A person’s feelings of obligation to his or her fraternal brothers or sisters can only be directed towards particular groups of people, for community is often limited in scope, and a person’s resources for compassion even more so. The significance of exclusivity will accompany our conception of fraternity to some degree throughout this essay.
According to our discussion of the history of fraternity, a revitalized definition of fraternity requires an analysis of the following qualities:
1) the degree to which feelings of affection are shared by those involved,
2) the degree to which mutual understanding, including shared values and goals, exists;
3) the degree to which a compelling sense of obligation is felt,
4) the degree to which relative equality in social and political status exists.6
Once established, fraternity affects the development of identity for those involved, as well as group identity as a whole. Support emerges from each member, for all are aware of their strengths and weaknesses, and connected by their shared drives.
Humans are social animals, and groups provide an explicit venue for interaction with others. There is, therefore, no question that groups influence members, just as individual members influence groups; the degree to which groups impact members and vice versa, however, remains to be answered. The role of authority on group formation helps explain this dynamic. As mentioned above, those who form groups share values and goals which compel them to social activity. On the one hand, one might consider this commonality a force, or some otherwise authoritative entity in an abstract sense, for it moves people to action. A group’s members, then, share allegiance to the same authority.7 On the other hand, group members might naturally associate authority with a “particular person” supposed to exemplify “ideal values” (1973, p. 14). These two types of authority, one with concentrated administrative entities which I will call ‘closed authority,’ the other concentrated in a shared ideology which I will call ‘open authority,’ help determine the context of member interaction, and thus the potential for fraternity.
The notion of context-via-authority requires elaboration here. Because a strong perception of hierarchy can constrain relations between people, the potential for openness and expression under such constriction decreases, and the environment becomes less likely to foster the mutual understanding and affection necessary to develop mutual obligation. Without open and active communication, one cannot learn about his or her fellows, let alone their values; fraternity requires that members “share” the notion of “what is most worthy of devotion, emulation, and obedience,” but such information is likely latent under closed authority (1973, p. 21). Though the group may effect a change in members’ identity, the change is probably not founded on their perception of equality, a context which fosters fraternity. A group with closed authority, therefore, encounters difficulties fostering an environment conducive to fraternity.
A group with open authority, which draws out conscious commitment to the pursuit of a common end, creates an environment more conducive to fraternity. Indeed, the “shared encouragement” more common in a group with open authority, over time “may make...unity more important than the object it set out to win;” one sees the ideological commitment fostered by open authority diffused within each member (1973, p. 51). Open authority potentially creates a group environment that invigorates members with newfound strength and zeal, characteristics that empower the individual to cooperate and participate in friendly discourse. Any particular group-oriented change that follows might resemble fraternity, a semblance less likely within a group with perceived closed authority. To reiterate, the environment, or perceptions of work members are what fosters fraternity, and open or closed authority groups could imaginably foster environments perceived differently than what I have described. The perceptions of the members, their ability to communicate freely and work together, are always the more defining factors in whether fraternity emerges among group members or not; this is probably more likely in a group with open authority than one with closed authority.
Because open authority allows members access to authority, or shared authority, it will describe most groups that fosters fraternity. At the same time, the “separateness of each [sibling] from the others and of all from the common ideal” is exceedingly important to the development of fraternity, for the total “annihilat[ion]” of the private self would actually represent “a terror of dependence” and “a flight from life itself” (1973, p. 49-50). A group of people without self-knowledge or strength generally cannot make competent judgments about the conduct of others or a group’s direction. Reciprocal sympathy and empathy between people is more effective in building mutual affection and understanding if those people have an awareness of themselves. Fraternal relations “do not reveal identity to the individual: they provide him with the assurance of identity which is necessary for him to seek to know its nature,” and the courage to “move forward in the [individual] search for identity” (1973, p. 58). At the least, identity requires a recognition, and acceptance, of one’s “finitude and mortality” (1973, p. 42). Personal limitations, in other words, and one’s awareness of them, allow one to discover his or her “moral standards,” and “control” his or her “passions” (1973, p. 43). This individual sense of identity plays an important role in fraternity:
“In a vital sense...purposes and goals are the source of unity among men. A physical barrier prevents sensation from ever being common; ideas and values, in themselves, are not subject to the same limitation. Too, if values and purposes free men from dependence on – or even divide them from – others, they may also free men from anxiety regarding others. Any close bond between men depends on value, on the capacity to attach worth to a particular human being because of qualities he is thought to, or does, possess” (1973, p. 44).
The very qualities which divide certain people unite others. This discriminating factor, inherent in fraternity, both enables fraternal union and makes universal fraternity impossible. No person can feel affection indiscriminately, and this fact has aroused contempt in some for the concept of fraternity generally. “Humanity,” declares James Fitzjames Stephen stridently, “is only I writ large, and love for Humanity generally means zeal for MY notions as to what men should be and how they should live” (Stephen, 1993, p. 180). In this view, universal fraternity betrays an underlying brute selfishness. Such an establishment sounds oddly suppressive of the human spectrum of emotions, which is an area that requires freedom for even the slightest opportunity to learn about and trust one another.8
Fraternity requires individual, as well as group strength. Where individuals are weak, the group will compensate. Here we might see how the drive to survive, as an evolutionary echo, helps create the feelings of obligation so important to fraternity. Members trust themselves and other members; each is both aware of his or her obligations to others, and their obligations to him or her. This trust follows the obligations derived from affection and mutual understanding, and allows for the openness and free communication within the group to foster fraternity.
Fraternity, then, exists in groups of people, rather than universally. Members with an awareness of their limitations and those of other members are likelier to grow close. Their shared authority and the perception of an open environment can simultaneously instill in each a sense of power and direction, and shared obligations ensure productive collective action. Those who share “the same authority” have “an emotional as well as intellectual comprehension of [it],” which, alongside the above characteristics “constitutes fraternity” (McWilliams, 1973, p. 21). Group life enables this sort of fraternity, given the above discoveries.
The Stories Of My Life
The narrative itself plays a prominent role in both individual and group identity formation. In Francesca Polletta’s revealing study of political narratives, she identifies how “storytelling helps to make sense of the anomalous” and “channels emotions;” not surprisingly, these qualities make storytelling critical to “sustain[ing] individual and group identities”(Polletta, 2006, p. 7). That many narratives exist in every community suggests that every community is one of narratives, as well as individuals and groups. They serve to foment “discourse,” communicate “ideology,” and even organize “collective action” (2006, p. 11). As such a powerful tool, however, the narrative can be abused politically. Just as one’s image is subjective, so is his or her story; “narrative is a distinct way…of apprehending [reality],” and as such, usurpers can potentially damage marginalized groups’ identities by spinning their story negatively, as King identified was occurring with segregation. Polletta explains, “In telling the story of our becoming, as an individual, a nation, a people, we define who we are” (2006, p. 12). Stories are not static, they move and change with social and political tides. Indeed, according to Polletta, stories cause change in themselves: they change how we see and define ourselves, and change how we see and define our world. Our identities are curiously dependent on the stories of our identities and their circumstances. Identities are literally the stuff of stories.9
American history is rife with stories of prejudice that served to subdue certain underprivileged groups politically for centuries.10 But despite this dangerous political tactic, narratives “may [contrarily] be employed strategically to strengthen a collective identity…[or] make possible the development of a coherent community” (2006, p. 12). One especially rich example today is the It Gets Better project (IGB), in which members of the LGBT community, among many others, are reconstructing a narrative of “tragedy” and turning it into one of “triumph,” which I will investigate in greater detail later (2006, p. 12). Nevertheless, by wresting control of its narrative, an entity (again, a group or individual) may begin to reshape the dominant interpretation of its story in a way that changes public and private perceptions of that entity’s identity generally. In the digital age, he Internet in particular, alongside other relatively new tools of the digital age, has changed the way group and individual narratives are formed and perceived. This new dawn of human communication, therefore, presents some interesting opportunities for fraternal development.
Technology has provided humans the means to progress time and again, be it fire, the printing press, or the credit card. The Internet started off small, with a select few users, generally programmers, all relatively computer savvy. The dawning of sites like Wikipedia, Facebook, and Twitter, however, are changing the ways that people communicate, and the way people perceive each other and society. More specifically, however, they are changing the way groups11 are formed. If what I claimed above is true, that humans are social animals and groups are both natural and important to individual and community growth, then “anything that changes the way groups function will have profound ramifications for everything from commerce and government to media and religion” (Shirky, 2008, p. 16). The wide network of sites and social tools offered users via the Internet makes “unsupervised effort” both larger and more “sophisticated,” all because “forming groups has gotten a lot easier” (2008, p. 18-21). Because of these new tools and changes, does the digital age help us to answer McWilliams’ challenges?
Due to the changes the Internet has introduced to communication and information technology, people can find other like-minded people with greater ease. The biggest change, though, is that these groups can have goals as strong as (or stronger than) groups that exist outside of the Internet. Indeed, Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody hypothesizes that “the loosely affiliated group can accomplish something more effectively than the institution can,” in which case, even groups with small amounts of personal contact and independent schedules can produce something of value and quality via the tools of the web. (2008, p. 46). For Shirky, the Web is efficient, and efficiency brings people together.
Despite optimistic accounts of the Internet’s potential, like Shirky’s, many have challenged the supposedly ‘democratic’ nature of the Internet. Among these skeptics is Matthew Hindman, who comments heavily on the digital divide, and the “difference between speaking and being heard” (Hindman, 2009, p. 9). He notes that search engines conduct most of the online browsing activity, and discovers that “[s]ites that are heavily linked become prominent; most other sites are likely to be ignored” (2009, p. 43). Considering this, most online ventures flop, attracting little to no public or private attention. Also, search engines “allow citizens to find new Web sites, but they also make it easy for users to return to known sources” (2009, p. 81). However, why must this contradict the potential Shirky envisions? Though Hindman’s analysis might warn readers of rosy illusions that the Internet provides greater access to business ventures and wider competition, it says little about ventures maintained purely out of interpersonal affection, or shared values and goals. Though search engines make ‘the familiar’ more accessible, perhaps this quality is the very one that enables wide arrays of people to find others who indeed share their ideas and values.
A group on the Internet exists in a forum with perceived equality between members. The group can also encourage mutual understanding by exposing members to each other’s shared values or interests, and foster affection for the group, the forum, and the other members working together. These developments, then, can lead to greater fraternity among different types of groups and people from across the globe. Imagine a powerful supportive group with a compelling narrative, composed of disadvantaged people who before felt misunderstood and alone. Might such sweeping changes in the identities of disadvantaged people and groups produce visible political effects? More specifically, might such changes produce greater fraternity in America? McWilliams reminds us that:
“Groups which must endeavor to change not merely the distribution of values, but the values themselves, not their position in the system, but the moral assumptions of the system, find themselves at a disadvantage. The bias of the system works against them” (McWilliams, 1973, p. 111).
The Internet changes the system of which McWilliams speaks. It creates a vessel for the stories of the disadvantaged, and a venue for unity and solidarity against bigotry. This unity can transform the identities of those involved, in turn transforming the group’s story from one of humiliation, to one of triumph. Can the Internet unquestionably attain this power? Maybe. This is the potential the Internet offers, and it is this image of the Internet that guides my study of the It Gets Better project and its promise of fraternity.
It Gets Better: A Mirror Into Digital Fraternity
Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, began the It Gets Better project with their first video on September 21, 2010. In the weeks leading up to Savage’s premier video, there was a rash of teen suicides, the causes of which were widely attributed to bullying at school. Tyler Clementi’s death, among several others,12 was referred to and mourned in particular, though it occurred the day after Savage’s video premiered. There was extensive news coverage of the tragedies, candlelight vigils, and other debate that ensued over how to respond to these events. In the two weeks following Savage’s post, the YouTube channel reached its 650 video limit, and the project was moved to its own website, itgetsbetter.org. Now, there are more than 22,000 entries total, a number that is steadily growing every day.
The videos posted are relatively formulaic, with variations depending on the person making the video, and the amount of people in the video. To a certain extent, this formula is inevitable because of the project’s title, “It Gets Better” – a narrative form that implies a happy ending. There are indeed a few identifiable ‘tenets’ of IGB videos: 1) the evidence that ‘It’ (life) improves, as proved by the speaker’s own experience and/or personality, 2) the affirmation that you (the presumably gay viewer) are not alone, and 3) the imperative that you seek help and stay safe. Videos can be in-depth, complex, and long, or they can be quick, superficial, and content to exist solely as a reinforcing video for the larger narrative. For example, Chris Colfer, a cast member of the popular television show Glee, made a video that is only 59 seconds long; it quickly and eloquently communicates the tenets of IGB without dawdling in rumination or extensive explanation (Chris Colfer for The Trevor Project - It Gets Better, 2010). Alternatively, videos like “It Gets Better: Apple Employees” are around 6 minutes long, featuring commentary from multiple people, telling multiple stories about why and how ‘It’ got better for them(AppleEmployees, 2011). There is no proper structure for an IGB video, and as I will discuss later, the different types of videos sometimes communicate different types of messages to different types of people. What is most fascinating, however, is the girth of videos now available for large audiences, and the effects of this testimony on those who watch it.
It Gets Better’s Forums
The forums on which It Gets Better (IGB) videos are made available are YouTube and http://www.itgetsbetter.org/, but because each forum is different, I will discuss the structure of each separately.13
There are numerous views of IGB videos on YouTube, but because the amount of views, “likes,” and “dislikes” are unreliable variables in determining the impact of videos, I will focus on analyzing the comments sections in particular. The comments sections for YouTube videos are generally more complicated than one might first imagine. Users can comment if they are signed onto a profile, and respond to other users’ comments. Comments vary in their intended audiences, motive, and purpose. Sometimes a few people argue, others insert non sequiturs, others genuinely comment on the videos, though not always in response to or in conversation with anyone else. A lack of policing results in Internet ‘trolling,’ which is an activity that involves posting negative, irrelevant, or offensive propaganda repeatedly in an inappropriate online setting for one’s own amusement. Regardless of the trolling, I will be using user comments to illustrate significant aspects of IGB’s narratives below.
The structure of the IGB website, on the other hand, encourages viewers to explore many testimonies from different groups and people. Over 400,000 people have taken the website’s pledge, which entails support for equality, resistance to “hate and intolerance” against LGBT people wherever it exists (Take the Pledge, 2010). From the home page, one can also donate money, or buy various IGB paraphernalia in support of the movement and its goals.
The “Making It Better Blog” presents a news feed showing events about either IGB or LGBT equality and political events. There are about eight full pages of events on August 8th, 2011, each with its own forum for comments, much like YouTube. However, the IGB forums are much cleaner, friendlier, and more serious. There is less tolerance for trolling, and far more openness to giving and asking advice. It is a supportive environment, where legitimate and progressive conversation is the norm. I will use discussion on the IGB forums alongside YouTube forums to illustrate the narratives of IGB.
It Gets Better: Is It A Home, Or Just A House?
Before we can make any conclusions about whether IGB has fostered fraternity among anyone, we must first establish 1) that IGB constitutes a group or community, and 2) that membership in this group matches our criteria for fraternity established in the above passages.
The pledge is a good starting point for determining group membership. Because the pledge encourages individual effort to promoting the well-being of the LGBT community, and pursuing that well-being in the face of opposition, one can safely assume that those who have taken the pledge are sincere. But the pledge is not the only criteria that might qualify someone for membership into the IGB community. Perhaps one who has not taken the pledge, but nevertheless supports IGB, and participates on the forums, stands up to injustice, and generally supports the LGBT community might also be considered a member of the IGB community. These people are not difficult to situate, for they obviously feel an obligation to the IGB authority, to put it in familiar terms.
However, we must be cautious not to align anyone supportive of the LGBT community with IGB, for some are critical of IGB’s message, and find it misleading and omissive. Others may support the LGBT ‘agenda,’ but not use IGB. In this case, as long as one is committed to the ideas expressed in the IGB pledge, and uses the site’s forums on a regular or semi-regular basis (watching videos, commenting on the “Making It Better Blog,” making videos, etc.) then he or she may be considered a part of the IGB community, or group. One can be a member of both communities (IGB, and LGBT supporters generally), but the IGB community requires participation specifically in IGB’s discourse, for without that one has no connection to others involved in the community.
At this point, another question emerges: what type of group is IGB? Because the Trevor Project, a supporter of IGB, primarily provides emotional support and counseling for LGBT youth, one might consider the Trevor Project to be support oriented in its outlook; its main goals are more social than political. Most of the IGB videos mention the Trevor Project as a resource to gay youth watching the video, which may be one aspect that aligns the goals of IGB with the goals of The Trevor Project. In many ways, then, the IGB serves as a supportive group. While this may seem obvious to some, the dimensions of this support are not. Many participants (arguably most participants) are not in high school, or part of the LGBT community, so what might this group mean to them? Do they also receive support, though in a different light, than the LGBT youth? In order to answer this question, we must further analyze the motivations behind IGB.
Another organization, GLSEN, is another benefactor for IGB. It has more political motivations than the Trevor Project, notably appealing to politicians and schools in an effort to foster safety, tolerance, and acceptance among youth. One might, then, characterize GLSEN as instructive rather than supportive, although this instruction is intended to support. IGB works alongside GLSEN, and necessarily shares its goals, which reveals another dimension of IGB. The supportive aspect of IGB is intended to provide support for those in need, which is more passive than active. It encourages youth to listen and believe rather than politically act out. However, the instructive aspect, as embodied by the members who want to act, give support, and encourage endangered youth, is more active than passive. Interestingly, IGB is not divided by the instructive members and the supported members, but rather united.
The interactions within IGB represent not a combination of the instructive and the supportive, but rather a fusion of the two. Those who participate are both the supportive, and simultaneously supported. IGB can be described as a support group par excellence, for those dedicated to its ideology have desires and obligations to connect with one another on an equal emotional plane. Everyone wins; the LGBT youth in danger feel better by participating, as do the adults who participate.14 Whether this membership fosters fraternity among members is the next question we must investigate.
Siblings Under The IGB Roof
One unique aspect of IGB is the importance of narrative to the group. The title, as mentioned above, is a simple narrative: things are not so good, but over time “It” (life) gets better, and you live happily ever after; at least this is the story toted by a majority of videos in some way or another. As I mentioned before, the stories can be long or short, detailed or vague, told multiple or told by one, but in the end they have a familiar formula. In a sense, this formula is what makes the project’s message compelling; as explained on the website: “While many of these teens couldn’t see a positive future for themselves, we can. The It Gets Better Project was created to show young LGBT…that they are not alone – and it WILL get better” (What is the It Gets Better Project?, 2010). The premise is that if endangered teens could see the thousands of success stories, they might realize that happiness is imminent, if distant. However, to truly understand this formula we must perceive the IGB story from different perspectives in order to understand its political, and fraternal, significance.
What It Means To Be A Character
If IGB is to be analyzed from different narrative perspective, then we must also analyze members of the IGB community as characters. The act of being a character is important, and part of what lends the narrative its power regarding social or political identity. Considering the fact that one’s perspective of IGB changes the narrative framework of which they are a character (as relates to IGB), we must investigate the discrepancy between the messages received by youth, and the intended messages from adults.
Because there are so many participants in the IGB community, I will separate them into two groups: the youth, and the adults. I make this classification because participants who fall in one or the other group have relatively predictable roles in the project. Just as these roles are somewhat predetermined, so are the responses (amongst the members of the IGB community). As Donald Spence notes in his Narrative Truth and Historical Truth, to “the extent that…context has been provided, the reader [or viewer] can come to a well-crafted text with no expert knowledge and come away with a good approximation of what has been intended by the author” (Spence, 1982, p. 51). As characters in a narrative framework, both adults and youth are aware of what constitutes an appropriate or logical response to the texts (testimony and commentary) in front of them.
Perhaps the most important aspects of character action are its limitations, and its motivations. Characters, when fraught with the tensions of plot, cannot understand life without that tension. They always act “in response to the particular situation [they] perceive at that moment” (Aristotle & Fergusson, 1961, p. 11). Only in “hindsight” do we recognize that “the conscious purpose with which [our actions] start is redefined after each unforeseen contingency is suffered;” in other words, characters cannot realize the “truth” of their actions until the end of the story (1961, p. 13). This becomes critical in determining the discrepancy between the youths’ narrative, and the adults’ narrative, for the youth must endure the bullying, and thus cannot fully understand the supposed ‘life without bullying’ that the adults speak of. As will be discussed, the youth only understand part of the adults’ collective message.
In analyzing both the youth and adult narratives of IGB, I utilize the dialogue in the videos and the commentary that ensues in response. Because such dialogues compose the narratives, and reveal the various attitudes of members in the IGB community, it will provide the best evidence of characters’ behaviors and attitudes in their respective narrative frameworks.
Narratives Part 1: The Youthful Eye
The first viewpoint to be analyzed is the narrative perceived by LGBT youth (or other bullied youth) watching the videos. In this story, the beginning is wrought with bullying and sadness, but as time passes you enter a new world, and become aware of a loving and accepting community. In the end, you find the love of your life, become comfortable with yourself, and you live ‘happily ever after.’ At least, this is the presumable end, for the youth watching have not encountered this happiness or this community, IGB videos simply speak of it. As mentioned before, the youth, as characters, find it difficult to understand a life without bullying – the IGB videos cannot, then, possibly make the youth aware of this future per se; they might see it, but they surely cannot experience it (yet). However, the IGB videos do make the youth watching aware of a larger, more accepting community. As YouTube user BillyNillesDUH says in his message, “here’s the first thing you need to know: you’re not alone…there are so many of us out here; we’re rooting for you, we’re cheering you on, we love you without even knowing you” (BillyNillesDUH, 2010). Such a message is encouraging to youth who feel alone. One user, ZurmaG15, commented below, “This has lifted me :) thanks and im thankful for this video… :)” 15 (BillyNillesDUH, 2010). In response to Chris Colfer’s IGB message, user AsianEyes declares, “I’m an 11 y old bisexual and thanx 2 u I can now be who I want because I now know that I am loved no matter what my sexuality is :)” (Chris Colfer for The Trevor Project - It Gets Better, 2010).
On one video made by Oliver Forbes, username oforbesy, one viewer, wild2dreamer admits “i got disowned by my family… i feel hated by my school… even my parents told me that nothing could make me the daughter they wanted… i honestly want to die. :(” (oforbesy, 2010). Startled, oforbesy responds: “I know exactly how you feel. Where do you live? I’ll look up some information for you and a number for you to call right now – you should speak to someone and pour it all out…And trust me – it gets better. Hard to believe when you’re at rock bottom, but it seriously does get better. Hang in there.” (oforbesy, 2010). As a user, and one who empathizes, he reaches out to this user, wild2dreamer, without personally knowing her. He feels a sense of obligation to help her, and she feels an obligation to open up completely about her problems in a public forum.
This openness is not uncommon. Chris Crocker’s video, an Internet phenom, inspired user abaffledking to “come out to [his] closest friends”(itschriscrocker, 2010). User impacto10 commented under the video that popular blogger and journalist Kate Bornstein posted, “you have saved my life today” (katebornstein, 2010). There are countless examples of users sharing their happiness at the realization of other people who care and empathize with them, and these are only a few taken from a great many.
Others with different life experiences and backgrounds often voice their support as well. In the comments under Adam Lambert’s IGB video, coy935 says “Im straight and catholic though I baelieve that everyone deserves to be treated equally” (PerezHilton, Adam Lambert: "It Gets Better", 2010). In the comedian Brian Gallivan’s video, user 567Walnut explains, “my parents are trying to send me to a super religious high school. I am gay so that will be hell,” and another user quickly advises “Hang in there!...it does get better and there are a lot of people out there…who care about gay youth-you! :)” (TheSecondCityNetwork, 2010). This community, previously latent to the LGBT youth, reveals itself with open arms. Thus, in the IGB story perceived by youth, the main enemy is loneliness, and the solution is unity and community with others who care. We might identify the catalyst for this solution as an awareness of community. As the story goes, the community has always been there, the youth just did not know about it. Now that they are aware, they may become integrated into that community.
Narratives Part 2: The Parental Eye
The next perspective from which we might view IGB is from the perspective of adults (or young adults) who make videos and participate in the forums, sharing their advice with youth. Many of these people may be survivors, people who experienced severe bullying when they were young and can speak having experienced the “Better” part of the story. Others may not entirely relate, but can speak knowing that others like them are sympathetic, thus creating a “Better” environment as part of a supportive community. Regardless, the message they communicate revolves around a better future, and community is only one aspect of that future. This future offers a freedom from bullying, fear, and hate. The concentration on the future is subtly different from a concentration on community. As the youths perceive the IGB videos, the only aspect of this future self they experience is the supportive community. As the adults perceive the IGB videos, they try to visually communicate the complete future self, but as the youth are but characters in a story, they likely only understand the more readily visible community aspect of the intended message.
Many videos explain that the break with the past led to the “Better.” In a video posted by Jeffery Self and Guy Branum, Self admits that when he “got the FUCK outta Rome, Georgia…it got a lot better” (JefferySelf, 2010). He had two lives, a past self in Rome, Georgia, another future self outside of Rome, Georgia. The speakers perceive their future selves as better, because their future self is free. They are surrounded by friends and family, and are happy in their work. In another video by Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Eric Stonestreet, two actors in the show Modern Family, Ferguson admits “I had to leave eighth grade and go to another school because it [bullying] got so bad,” but shares all the benefits and privileges he now enjoys, contrary to his past self. User SomeoneToShoutFor tells viewers “whatever your feelings are now…the hate that’s directed towards you…it’s gonna get better. If you’re a kid and you’re still in the home and your parents don’t support you, you’re gonna move out eventually” (SomeoneToShoutFor, 2010). The break with the past brings with it the introduction of opportunity; the freedom makes possible the future self. To those making the videos, the dawning of the future self is inevitable, for they have experienced it. However, their certainty is not fully communicable. The youths watching see a new community, one of which they were previously ignorant. They become members in a group, and a movement, bigger than themselves – a community of support. This is the reception of the adults’ support and advice. Giving support, however, makes the significance of IGB altogether different for the adults.
The story for adults follows an alternate path. The beginning finds adults faced with a rash of LGBT teen suicides. Tragedy provides a call-to-action for them, and alongside Dan Savage, they post their testimony explaining how it gets better. In the end, the world is a better place because of their contributions, and it was all so easy. Participation in IGB becomes a way of contributing to something important. The Internet makes this participation possible, one need not seek out more interactive ways, donate money, or write letters; rather, one can simply sit down and post a video, then celebrate their participation, knowing they ‘did something good.’
This feeling, for doing something good, characterizes the type of support adult contributors receive from participating in IGB. User 18ewilson urges users to “take advantage of social networking sites” in order to find a “good support group,” mostly because he knows this is one of the few activities a lonely LGBT youth has access to if he or she is in a constraining environment (18ewilson, 2010). He also addresses adult viewers to “get out there, [because] something needs to be done,” for he knows that the more liberated ‘future selves’ who have survived to see the “Better” are liberated from the social constraints endured by LGBT youth (18ewilson, 2010).
Having identified these patterns, we can classify how these discrepancies between the story perceived by youths and the story perceived by adults manifests itself on a larger scale. For adults, the main problem is constraint for the youths, and the solution is future liberation. The catalyst for this solution is an awareness of the future self which is liberated, rather than a more limited awareness of a supportive community. Whether adults are successful at communicating the ‘full picture’ of the future self to LGBT youth who cannot fully empathize (due to their constraint) is not as relevant here as the perception of those adults trying to communicate the ‘full picture.’
Reconciling The Narratives: Do The Youthful Eye And The Parental Eye Make A Pair?
These two narratives, that of the youth, and that of the adults, are both present in IGB. Indeed, these different perspectives affect the way members of the IGB community see and influence others. Both groups participate, and both groups support the other, but in very different ways; the youth are comforted by the visions of a larger, more accepting community; the adults are comforted by their altruistic actions, and the promise that their ‘two-cents worth’ made a difference to someone.
The condition of anyone involved in IGB is one characterized by perspective based on life experience. Depending on one’s life situation, he or she will see IGB and those participating in it differently. This is why responses to IGB are so varied in the first place. Adults advise and receive satisfaction from the act of advising, while youth listen and receive satisfaction from the act of listening; some communicate a message of liberation from constraint, while others perceive a message revealing a supportive community.
So how can there be fraternity if IGB has different narratives? To better phrase this question, we must situate it alongside our previously established measures for fraternity:
1) the degree to which feelings of affection are shared by those involved,
2) the degree to which mutual understanding, including shared values and goals, exists;
3) the degree to which a compelling sense of obligation is felt,
4) the degree to which relative equality in social and political status exists.
As regards the first measurement, the passages above should plainly show that both the LGBT youth and the adults who participate regularly, and have allegiance to the ideas expressed in the IGB pledge, feel compassion for each other. They share stories, confide in each other, and trust each other enough to speak personally and express oneself openly. Their behavior resembles affection, so this criteria is not a problem. Requirement number two, however, potentially presents an interesting obstacle to fraternity between members of the IGB community. That there are different stories means members have different life perspectives. As mentioned above, the youth can probably only understand that a supportive community exists outside of high school, but they cannot empathize with the adult’s message that liberation supposedly comes with the future. Though subtle, this discrepancy can prove significant, especially if the differences between IGB’s narratives interfere with its unity of purpose and dedication.
Our burden in this case study is to find out if IGB members’ interactions reveal mutual understanding, obligation, and perceived equality. While there is affection, the development of mutual understanding helps determine whether both groups can establish mutual obligations,16 or the perception of equality. These concerns occupy everything we have discussed thus far regarding IGB.
In the above ‘Blueprint’ section, we established that stories affect both our self-perception, and our impressions of the world around us. Stories necessarily alter both, because they are the expressions of human perception. If someone recognizes a change in his or her own plot, a ‘twist’ that changes his or her perception of the world and his or her circumstances, then that person’s character changes. In our discussion of IGB’s narratives, we thoroughly analyzed how the different narratives characterized others, but never truly discussed how these stories fundamentally changed the ways that participants, youths or adults, perceived themselves.
Interestingly, the changes that IGB’s narratives cause in identity are more straightforward than the narratives themselves. Considering the fact that both the adults and youths involved are committed to the ideas present in the pledge, their identities have simply evolved to embody those ideas. Though a middle aged straight man may not be able to understand a fifteen-year old, bullied lesbian, they both may proudly claim to stand up to injustice and support others when possible. That this support is contextual, and connected to IGB, does not prevent a sense of obligation from taking root between these individuals once they recognize that they share the same values and goals. One might say that IGB creates a context which streamlines the process of understanding other people – the relevant aspects of personality become ideological, and membership in itself ensures relative uniformity among members’ ideological perspectives.
Having established that IGB fosters both affection and mutual understanding, we may move to consider whether it fosters mutual obligation and perceived equality. When one considers the fact that IGB sprang from the tragedies of several gay suicides attributed to bullying, then one might note that from the beginning IGB’s preoccupation has been with death. Those opposed to these deaths have joined and participated in the movement, which suggests that anyone seriously involved in IGB takes their involvement seriously. Not responding correctly to others, behaving inappropriately, or failing to support one who really needs it could result in pain, depression, or potentially death. Members are intimately concerned with the wellbeing of their fellows, and this degree of sincerity gives members a hefty awareness of their potential importance to others, and thus a sense of obligation to other members in the IGB community. The obligations are potent, and felt whether one participates casually or religiously.
As revealed by IGB’s different narratives, different life experiences and perspectives change the way one approaches participation in IGB: does this mean that the adults and youth cannot be equal? After all, an adult sees the youth as youth, or children who need reassurance, while the youth see the adults as adults, or mentors who can give them some guidance and reassurance. Do not the social stigmas and contingencies of being a youth or an adult carry over to IGB community members’ interactions with each other? Possibly, but the dynamic between members is not so simple. Despite the differences between them, we established that mutual understanding exists (or can exist) because such understanding, in the context of IGB’s online forums, relies on ideological likeness rather than intimate personal knowledge. Indeed, IGB’s context moves the emphasis of members’ interactions from material concerns (work related gossip, social stratification between adults and youth, etc.) to ideological concerns (unified commitment to LGBT justice, anti-bullying, and suicide prevention). Mentoring, which necessarily creates mentoring and mentored people, emerges from these more generalized ideological commitments; it is not the origin of the commitments. Therefore, people’s specific actions, like providing or accepting advice, creating or watching a video, become minute manifestations of their commitment to deeper ideological concepts. To analyze surface relationships, such as advice giver and advice receiver, merely skews our perception of deeper connections between people. Such inequalities, which certainly still exist between people online, do not matter in the context of IGB. Therefore, we may observe a relative perception of equality among IGB’s members, which overrules actual inequalities between members.
This case study has so far confirmed the Internet’s potential to foster fraternity, as the IGB project has. However, the political implications of this fraternity are interesting as well. If IGB successfully spreads awareness (of a supportive LGBT community, of liberation from the constraint of school and youth, of bigotry, etc.) then what might this awareness accomplish more outwardly in the political sphere?
It Gets Better Offline Too
Having identified the potential for fraternity within IGB, we are left to consider the other questions identified in the introduction, namely: 1) what political influence might Internet fraternity have? and 2) does the Internet offer more power to marginalized groups through this fraternity? Though the second is more specific, the two questions are intimately related in their implications for American social change.
Though the discrepancies between online fraternity and offline fraternity are numerous,17 for the purposes of this essay I will simply assert that traditional fraternity is generally characterized by personal knowledge developed through mutual necessity, whereas online fraternity is more characterized by impersonal empathy through ideological association. This distinction allows us to view the relationships between people online realistically. I have come to this definition because it allows for a sturdy foundation of affection, understanding, and obligation without direct contact or awareness of another distinct person. People online who participate in IGB, or other similar online movements, are constructing a narrative together; the act of which draws out mutual commitments from those involved. Though this definition omits examples other than IGB, or direct comparisons to offline fraternal relationships, it will serve the purposes of this essay well. This does not mean that people who disagree cannot respectfully converse; rather, participation in a common endeavor is respected for its value as participation in itself. Some might criticize this notion as altruistic, but it allows us to better understand the differences between the two types of fraternity, a valuable insight when investigating online fraternity’s cultural and societal role.
But at this point we must ask ourselves, can online fraternity really replace traditional fraternity? McWilliams’ challenge resurfaces to echo our earlier concern:
“Groups which must endeavor to change not merely the distribution of values, but the values themselves, not their position in the system, but the moral assumptions of the system, find themselves at a disadvantage. The bias of the system works against them” (McWilliams 111).
If traditional fraternity has always been the bulwark against loneliness, idleness, and individual weakness, how can it then grow outwards from one group’s constriction and change the system working against them? Moreover, if such change proves difficult to traditional fraternity, how might its replacement, online fraternity, stand up to an oppressive system? The potential that the Internet offers weaker fraternity, broad as it may be, is troubling. One way to understand online fraternal potency, then, is to study its footprint in society.
The Disadvantaged Advantage
Though discussed above, the relevance of stories to fraternity is pertinent here. Narratives help establish coherence and direction for groups; they unite disparate individuals with a common sense of purpose. Earlier, I use unions and professions as examples of traditional fraternities bolstered by a collective narrative, but the Internet allows a broader and arguably more effective use of narrative for disadvantaged groups. Instead of several officers dedicated to exacting justice upon criminals by following a dignified code of conduct, a shy 11 year-old bisexual girl, like YouTube user AsianEyes, can form a fraternal connection with a straight, middle-aged woman with no children. They may not share social status, life experience, topical understanding, or general intelligence, but they nevertheless have access to each other via their shared values regarding LGBT equality and bullying, which in turn serves to build fraternal connection. Such broad interpersonal identification and participation is simply impossible in any offline forum; the conversation, along with the story, gets constrained by geographic and cognitive limitations of members.
This breadth and fluidity of cooperative narrative construction online gives clues about the political utility of fraternity to powerless, marginalized, or otherwise underprivileged groups. The powerful, hegemonic narratives do not require fraternity, though they may indeed inspire it among powerful people, because the powerful have resources, drive, and socio-political organization. Countless examples18 show that the powerless lack organization and resources, while the powerful have both. The benefit narratives provide for those without power, then, is a community building tool. When marginalized groups assert control over their narrative, they can forcefully challenge opposing, hegemonic narratives. These divergent perspectives can dethrone dominant societal stories, and give previously isolated individuals agency through unity. Fraternity is therefore 1) a vessel for political social change, and 2) an end in itself. By combining these qualities, fraternity makes the latter quality (the purely therapeutic) consistent with the former (the political). The Internet facilitates fraternal development through cooperative storytelling, and we must speculate on the dynamics of this disadvantaged advantage.
The IGB site offers several hints about its impact. As mentioned above, Dan Savage began IGB in an attempt to reach out to bullied or disadvantaged LGBT teens who were considering suicide, and deter their efforts by assuring them that life ‘Gets Better.’ The YouTube channel grew quickly, and the project moved to its own website, where it hosts a theater to view testimony and a blog about LGBT political and social topics. The project released a book along with various paraphernalia, and has inspired wide debate about bullying in schools, and LGBT equality generally. But besides the story behind IGB, one wonders what impact the project has made.
Since September, 2010 when IGB debuted, calls to the Trevor Project hotline have “increased by 50%,” suggesting a greater willingness to reach out among depressed LGBT youth (What is the It Gets Better Project?, 2010). They also reported the donation of $100,000 from some 2,500 plus donors across the country. Users of the IGB site have donated the recently released IGB book to hundreds of schools and libraries in each state, and the book itself quickly became a New York Times bestseller. However, as impressive as these numbers might be, the degree to which they depict social influence is limited to those donating the money, and thus intimately tied to IGB.
Indeed, IGB has emerged at a time when America’s political climate today is shrouded in overwhelmingly negative narratives. David Brooks isolates two negative narratives within both the Republican and Democratic ideologies today: 1) “If you ask a conservative Republican, you are likely to hear that Obama is a skilled politician who campaigned as a centrist but is governing as a big-government liberal,” and 2) “If you ask a liberal Democrat, you are likely to hear that Obama is an inspiring but overly intellectual leader who has trouble making up his mind and fighting for his positions”(Brooks, 2010). Both of these conceptions, he claims, are “entirely predictable” (Brooks, 2010). Howard Kunstler, author and blogger, speaks pessimistically about the future oil crisis: “I’ve noticed that what’s being clamored for is a set of rescue remedies – miracles even – that will allow us…all the trappings of comfort and convenience now taken as entitlements,” speaking of future crises that threaten to demolish American culture (Kunstler, 2010). This is one of the many voices warning of energy crises, climate change, disease, and the imminent ravages we must suffer for our past ignorance. These negative narratives constitute the IGB narrative’s opposition.
On the other hand, the positive language of IGB has come to resonate outwards from the more explicitly IGB-related forums, as evidenced by the actions of politicians and organizational leaders, and the patterns of debate over recent LGBT and anti-bullying policies. Despite Dan Savage’s reminder that “[t]he whole goal of the campaign all along has been to reach kids,” the project has inspired numerous others to take action (AtGoogleTalks, 2011). Congressman Jim Himes, in his IGB video, tells viewers “as a country, we’re moving; we’re moving slowly, but we’re moving in the right direction,” and as evidence he cites lawful gay marriage in Connecticut, and the “dismantling” of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell restrictions in the military (congressmanhimes, 2011). Senator Al Franken’s video, entitled “We Will Make It Better” uses the language and story of IGB to show his and other senators’ commitment in Washington: “We’re working hard to pass a law that would provide you with the same legal protection against discrimination and bullying as other students have now” (SenatorFranken, 2010). Fifteen states have passed at least one anti-bullying bill since the first IGB video, including: Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, Texas, Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, West Virginia, Rhode Island, Alabama, Virginia, Montana.
One of New Jersey’s bills, called the “Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act,” drew direct influence from some of the suicides surrounding IGB, although Clementi died a day after Savage’s video. When his family released a statement, they announced their gratitude that, though tragic, Tyler’s death had begun a “’nationwide discussion and awareness of the need for a renewal of…particularly for young people in this time of rapidly evolving technology’” (Black, 2010). Though Clementi’s suicide occurred after his roommate broadcast a private video of him on the Internet, the Clementi family’s clarification, “particularly for young people in this time of rapidly evolving technology” is interesting, for the Internet, with the IGB project, was to become an online bastion for fraternal interaction, a quality contrary to that experienced by the family (Black, 2010). Politicians are willing to devote their time and effort to supporting an optimistic narrative; their inspiration indeed reaffirms the supposed truth of the narrative. Events of progress are viewed as part of the ‘Better’ in a larger narrative context, instead of promising, but altogether isolated incidents of success. Such a narrative challenges even the most pessimistic political narratives. Indeed, when the issue of New York gay marriage emerged again in June of 2011, the conversation on LGBT equality and justice had changed in this more positive direction.
Working up to the passage of gay marriage in New York was certainly a battle, but one now faced with the confidence of a ‘tragedy’ to ‘triumph’ narrative rather than pessimism. Richard Socarides19, in an interview with CNN, claimed, “we’re very optimistic…poll numbers  show increasing support for marriage equality across the country and that’s even more so in New York” (CNN, 2011). This sort of optimism is not as evident even a few years before. When Proposition 8 was overturned by a federal judge, Anderson Cooper interviewed conservative leader, Maggie Gallagher, and Evan Wilson from the organization Freedom to Marry; Gallagher, however, expressed optimism, while Wilson, when asked if he thought the Supreme Court would uphold the ruling, responded tentatively: “Well, we’re gonna have to see what the Supreme Court does, and there are many twists ahead,” explaining that “the more people have a reality to judge this, instead of scary right-wing rhetoric and fear-mongering, the more people move in [our direction]” (CNN, 2010). Even though Wilson’s party just had a victory, he spoke from a defensive position, quite contrary to the stance gay activists have recently taken, as evidenced by Savage’s video statement: “If [you are] watching this video, what I’d like you to take away from it really is that it gets better”(itgetsbetterproject, 2010). He does not hesitate, or provide a disclaimer, but rather asserts this statement as truthful, inevitable, and universal.
When the bill legalizing gay marriage passed in New York, the language of IGB appeared even more prominently. Senator Duane, himself a gay man, explained the social change at hand in an explicitly narrative form.
“Republicans, Democrats alike, we passed hate crime legislation…last year, we passed dignity for all students, again, both sides of the aisle, together. Landmark legislation. And again, here we are. My parents were right about some things, I did get beaten up, I did get bloodied, but I hope that on one thing and I know now they would be fine with this, I hope that today we’ll say that I can get married…” (LGBTQNation, 2011).
Duane speaks of a perpetual state of progress and improvement. He notes the turbulent beginning (‘It’), the process of progress (‘Gets’), and the happy ending (‘Better’) as political justice, including marriage equality in New York. Also, this narrative is about political and cooperation between party lines. “There are no villains here, there are only heroes,” he claims (LGBTQNation, 2011). In victory, Duane’s satisfaction with the proceedings reaffirms his sense of LGBT political progress and improvement, regardless of ideology. He is willing to overlook the villains, they are but other characters in a grand narrative of improvement, and thus deserve positive recognition. Governor Cuomo, too, illustrates a positive story of progress, remembering that the “gay rights movement was birthed at Stonewall, and what this state said today brings this discussion of marriage equality to a new plane…we reached a new level of social justice this evening;” he even says that this progress is “really about…our brothers and sisters looking at us and saying ‘we want equality’… ‘we want full recognition’”(SuchIsLifeVideos, 2011). Though subtle, fraternity has inserted itself into the narrative of LGBT progress. This is not just to say that legislators’ actions, as apparent in various IGB videos, have changed, but that significant progress in LGBT equality has been made concretely as well, and described in the language of fraternity.
Despite the narrative likeness between IGB and the current LGBT equality narrative, how can I be so bold as to draw a connection? Without having done an empirical study of opinion polls, or having catalogued information for years on narrative patterns within the LGBT political community, any conclusion that IGB has influenced the pervasive language of progress politically might seem overreaching. However, to suggest that it has had no influence on the attitudes, behaviors, and expectations of the community exposed to it, is also erronious. The fraternity it creates between those involved is apparent, and thousands of testimonials and comments lend credit to its influence. The guiding narrative of IGB does not just create internal coherence, for it is also an outreach tool, inviting people (including legislators in New York) to join the grand fraternal narrative.
Whether necessary or superfluous, real or imagined, the great narratives that occupy the American zeitgeist are negative, directed against ideologically different people, government, corporations, and other entities. The suicides that inspired Dan Savage constitute another of these negative narratives. Despite the myriad negative narratives, however, IGB emerges as a hopeful voice, one with a comfortable message of improvement and love. Those inspired by the project have, and are, reflecting that inspiration both through their participation in it, and their outward language and behavior. Moreover, the influences of IGB’s language and narrative, when carried into the social and political sphere, have contributed to evolving conceptions of LGBT equality and progress. Joel Burns, like Senator Duane, told a tragic story about his own struggles in the Texas legislature, “coming out was painful” he said, “but life got so much better for me”(joelburns, 2010)http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ax96cghOnY4. The IGB project has influenced the conversation about LGBT equality and discrimination, the way people talk about it, and the problems associated with acquiring it. It has spread public awareness of injustice against the LGBT community that alleviates the tension associated with speaking openly and honestly about it. This freedom from the constraints of ignorance and privacy is what seems to follow the fraternity established online through IGB.
Our question returns; can fraternity developed online provide marginalized groups with political power? In a sense, the answer is yes. The increased awareness of issues brings latent problems to the public fore, and this in turn sparks political discourse. Because the influence of fraternity accompanies the spread of awareness, those involved in the discourse align themselves with the language and narrative of the fraternal group. To say that fraternity causes this change is too radical, but to notice its pervasive presence within the public discourse suggests some, if not significant influential power. This process, as regards IGB is relatively apparent given the state of discussion that it has sparked. Not only is fraternity possible online, but the awareness it spreads has the potential to align the narratives within society, at least somewhat, with the narratives of the fraternal group. Online fraternity, therefore, can grant the power of societal inclusion and familiarity.
As an online group, IGB has established fraternity between members. What began as an optimistic response to a horrible situation resulted in thousands of participants collectively fashioning a story of LGBT triumph despite innumerable travails. The language visibly carried over into the greater public realm, winning support from various politicians and organizations moved to change a system that allowed the discrimination from which IGB sprung. Whether these changes become as comprehensive as many would like, the attitudes of those pushing them are oddly reminiscent of IGB’s growing membership.
The success and scope of the IGB project has signaled a new technological discovery: online fraternity. Such fraternity, though different from the traditional fraternity seen in unions, social groups, and various professions, presents us with the potential for a revitalization of fraternity in America. This revitalization could create broader fraternal groups, with a firmer foundation in optimistic narratives of progress, and more open forums for discourse between people from different walks of life. The potent perception of equality could even carry over into offline attitudes, spreading greater awareness of inequalities and discrimination that might pervade increasing attempts at reform. This is the promise of Internet fraternity, and its offline consequences in the continuing digital age.
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1.) One particular song, “Rise Up” by Jeremy Hoop, was used to advertise for Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally. It declared, “Don’t be afraid of those wicked men [non-Tea Partiers], there’s more of us than there are of them, come join the fight”(GetHoopified, 2010). This tendency to cast political dissenters as ‘the enemy’ is pervasive throughout Tea Party rhetoric.
2.) This skepticism will be discussed in more detail later, but it involves the structures of Internet discourse, patterns of control over Internet traffic, and access to websites.
3.) Those with power assume their entitlement, while those without power find it difficult to challenge this claim. Fraternity challenges this entitlement, though, by asserting a counter-narrative. Fraternity gives the disadvantaged a way to mobilize politically through a sense of organization. This will be discussed at greater length later.
4.) Fraternity’s two-fold tendency, to both unify and factionalize people, emerges as an interesting dynamic, the implications of which are contested, and will be discussed at a later point in this essay. Though McWilliams suggests a fracturing of society between fraternal groups, one might consider instead a general code of etiquette for discourse and interaction among people that emerge out of a fraternal sense of respect for other persons’ virtue of personhood in itself.
5.) I would like to clarify that I use fraternity as a non-gender-specific establishment. To think of fraternity in strictly male terms would give us an antiquated view as to what drives people to connect with one another and work together. Though I dare not pretend that complete equality exists either socially or politically between men and women across all cultures, the purposes of this essay require that we think about the bonds between people free from the inequalities of gender specific concerns. Only in this way will we successfully probe the depths of human emotion and connection.
6.) These qualities cannot necessarily account for every aspect of fraternity. It also differs from McWilliams’ definition. McWilliams places greater emphasis on a tension with society at large, and the geographical and social limitations which bind fraternity to specific groups and situations. Indeed, he makes no overt mention of equality whatsoever, which is the primary point at which McWilliams and I diverge, equality is quite subjective in its meaning. Nevertheless, I believe that equality is critical to the development of fraternity, and will treat it as such.
7.) This abstract conception of authority departs from McWilliams more narrow definition. While I find the idea of authority residing within an administrative body sensible, however, when that body’s power is either distributed relatively equally across all group members, or hidden, then authority might be interpreted as constituted by ideological rather than material entities. However, this dichotomy is, in a sense, misleading, for the perceptions of group members do not always align with the type of authority that exists, as I will show.
8.) Affirmations of universal accountability, which some often mistake as a plea for fraternity, have always encountered staunch resistance from those who emphasize liberty. Kant’s categorical imperative for example, a system of morality similar to his indirect notions of fraternity listed above, essentially argues for universal abeyance to the golden rule. Friedrich Nietzsche famously described such ideals as “soaked in blood,” and declared “the categorical imperative smells of cruelty” (Nietzsche, 1989, p. 65).
9.) The Bible grants us an interesting display of this phenomenon. Just as Adam’s ability to name the world around him gave him symbolic power over that which he named, those with the ability to manipulate stories also have control over the subjects therein. This phenomenon becomes more complicated in the digital age, for the ease with which one might express him or herself publicly potentially creates numerous Adams all trying to name the world. In actuality, the digital age is not so amorphous, but nevertheless, those with power and influence arguably have even greater power to reach wider audiences with more information. Alternatively, however, the digital age also potentially gives marginalized groups and peoples more access to control over their story, as we shall see in discussing the It Gets Better project.
10.) When people interact, the myriad small judgments and impressions made about another based on his or her behavior, and the listed social factors, amount to what constitutes his or her image. A person’s image, though no doubt subjective, is recognized as that person’s identity to others. The struggle for sovereignty over others seems to revolve around one entity (group or person) controlling another entity’s image, or more accurately, its story. Control over one’s story becomes control over that person’s identity, and the damage that such usurpation causes is immeasurable, as illustrated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s condemnation of segregation (King Jr., 1963).
11.) I’m most interested in support groups, (or rather groups with a supportive element) for their structure presents great potential for fraternity between group members, and thus greater influence over the formation of group and individual identity. Group business and attendance is voluntary, and undergone for its value in itself. Also, the context of a support group renders all members equal. Members’ values and goals are mutually held and supported. Though there are dangers to support groups, (abdication of the will, lack of political direction, etc.), the supportive element is important, for its combination of consciousness raising, which follows from the therapy of support groups, and political action, characteristic of more politically oriented groups, is incredibly powerful.
12.) The deaths surrounding the creation of IGB are as follows: Raymond Chase, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Ryan Halligan, Asher Brown, and Seth Walsh.
13.) My access to the specific viewing patterns and web traffic that occur in both forums are limited, so I cannot pretend that my observations reflect formal conclusions established using thorough statistical analysis. I did not, and could not, conduct a formal study. However, I observed and recorded numerous IGB videos, and familiarized myself with the IGB website in an effort to more completely understand and portray IGB as it exists online.
14.) The dichotomy between the instructive and the supportive, (or the adults and the youth, to put it in simple terms) certainly affects the IGB context, and thus becomes an interesting factor when viewed in relation to equality, or the perception of equality between members, as will be discussed later.
15.) Users’ comments on YouTube utilize grammar and spelling in non-traditional and creative ways. Assume that any misspellings or misuses of grammar within quoted comments are intentional.
16.) This criteria necessarily brings up questions of what obligation might entail in an Internet relationship. Because an Internet relationship is so different from a direct personal relationship, the expectations for, and types of obligations are different. If the relationship is strictly online (potentially anonymous, variable with each conversation, mostly occurring in a public or semi-public forum, etc.) then obligations might largely exist in the moment: responding correctly or appropriately; agreeing to continue or discontinue the conversation; referring people to other more helpful sources. They also might entail behavior offline in accordance with agreements made online. Such commitments could be small, or very large. For example, if my Internet friend and I chat about politics, and he or she recommended I watch a particular movie, I may feel obligated to do so if this was important to him or her. Contrarily, if my Internet friend recommends I go out and vote after a conversation about political apathy, I might feel obligated to go vote. Such obligations do not require personal contact with my Internet friend, but instead rely on my willingness to abide by my word, making trust among Internet friends a more complex item of interest. Though I’d like to discuss this in more detail, I believe this brief explanation will suffice for the purposes of this paper.
17.) Fraternity as it exists online, regardless of our qualifications, is different than traditional offline fraternity. There exists a split between the online and offline types of affection, understanding, obligation, and equality. While traditional fraternity requires intimate personal knowledge for affection and understanding, online fraternity may follow impersonal intimacy within ostensibly anonymous forums; and though fraternal obligations traditionally involved direct personal contact, obligations among Internet relationships entail more indirect support and commitment.
18.) Insurance providers have wealth, manpower, and organization, and thus are able to fight for their interests in government, while the uninsured have none of these resources. Likewise, banks and homeowners have the ability to gain representation in government, while the homeless simply have no voice whatsoever.
19.) Richard Socarides is the president of Equality Matters, a gay rights organization.