The “It Gets Better” videos as historical sources

Word cloud based on six "It Gets Better" videos, by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joel Burns, Perez Hilton, Tim Gunn, and Google employees.

The “It Gets Better” project, initiated by sex advice columnist Dan Savage this September in response to a series of suicides by boys and young men bullied by their peers for being gay, or being perceived as gay, has become an undeniable cultural force. Thousands of ordinary people, celebrities, non-profit organizations, and elected officials have created online videos to tell LGBT youth that “it gets better.” Some—most notably the one featuring a public statement by Fort Worth, Texas, city councilman Joel Burns—have gone viral, with over 2.3 million views.

From the perspective of LGBT history, this is a remarkable phenomenon. On the one hand, the participation of so many non-gay celebrities, liberal politicians, and large corporations seems to signal how accepting and embracing gay people has become completely matter-of-course within a large and powerful segment of American society and culture—even extending to the once-taboo, and still always-controversial, matter of gay young people. On the other, much like the growth in straight support for gay people during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, the phenomenon relies, to a degree, on depicting gay people as tragic victims. Either way, the outpouring of videos from LGBT people, famous and anonymous, reveals how technological innovation continues to transform the ways LGBT people connect with and contact one another.

The “It Gets Better” messages people have filmed and shared, if properly compiled, cataloged, and preserved, will also be an invaluable resource to future historians studying LGBT life, culture, and politics in the United States in 2010. Even right now, I think they can reveal a lot. Inspired by Cameron Blevins and Julie Meloni, I realized word clouds might offer a quick initial glimpse into the language and themes contributors emphasized in their messages. So I pulled transcripts of six of the most popular videos—President Barack Obama’s, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s, Burns’s, reality TV fashion mentor Tim Gunn’s, gossip blogger Perez Hilton’s, and gay and lesbian Google employees’—from and fed them into Wordle.

The image above is based on the transcripts of all six videos together, and it’s fairly predictable, given the project’s mission. In fact, know, school, life, get, better basically sums up the project’s core message.

But the individual word clouds quickly illustrate some revealing differences and peculiarities. Have a look at them, after the jump.

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Obama’s message, for instance, focused about equally on bullying and discrimination and the possibility of something “better.” Clinton’s video, by contrast, emphasized “opportunities” and the “better” future a bit more strongly, as she likened progress for LGBT people to the progress made by women and other groups. Indeed, comparing the words used most frequently in the two videos—people for Clinton and the abstract (albeit informal) adverb just for Obama—recalls a lot of the unimaginative, superficial expert analysis of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign.

Burns spent the majority of his address talking about the recent teen suicide victims and his own teenage years, and less time on the present. Gunn’s message, similarly, focused on youthful “despair”—his own and others—and promoted the Trevor Project as a resource. Hilton, probably unsurprisingly, talked a lot about himself, being gay, and talking. In comparison to these individual, confessional videos, the group format of Google’s contribution encouraged a stronger repetition of a “things get better” message.

Although I’d hardly call myself a full-on digital methods historian, I think this little experiment demonstrates one of the very many ways in which a robust, comprehensive, searchable, permanent database of the “It Gets Better” contributions would be a fantastic step toward documenting the future LGBT past. Calling all techies?

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