It Gets Better: the inside story of Ithaca College's viral video

October 19, 2010 by Rob Engelsman

It wasn’t supposed to be as big as it was. Matt Timmons, a senior at Ithaca College and station manager of VIC radio, had sent a few of us an e-mail on Thursday the 7th with an idea. We all knew about the recent string of suicides and other tragedies in the LGBT community, he said, but had we seen the "It Gets Better" campaign? He suggested we shoot a video of our own, just four or five student leaders from Ithaca College, and maybe the Dean. We e-mailed back and forth for a few hours and agreed to meet the next day,  then shoot the following Monday.

Rob Engelsman and Stephanie Wisniewski shoot the video. Photo by Lauren DeCicca.Rob Engelsman and Stephanie Wisniewski shoot the video. Photo by Lauren DeCicca.In the meantime, I did some more investigating about the campaign. It turns out that columnist Dan Savage started it in September in an effort to show that people care. There are a few hundred videos on YouTube from all walks of life, everyone doing their best to leave an impression on the viewer that life, no matter how difficult it may be, is still infinitely better than no life at all.

After watching, I was convinced we needed to do more. Ithaca College is, after all, one of the top gay-friendly schools in the U.S. Why not show that off? Why not open ourselves up to that community and see what happens?

It was in this spirit that I approached our Friday meeting. I convinced Matt to allow me to make a Facebook event and invite a few people. We’d keep it simple with a white background in a lighting studio in the basement. So I went about creating the event and laying out what we were looking for. I invited about 35-40 people and let it go for the night.

Later on, I got a text from Matt saying that college president Tom Rochon had agreed to participate. That’s when things started to roll. I thought that if Rochon was coming we should invite the head of Ithaca’s LGBT Center, and she quickly agreed to come as well. She also asked if she could invite a few others. I said sure, it didn’t matter to me, and that we were interested in hearing people’s stories.

By the time Matt went to bed at 1am, less than eight hours after I started the Facebook event, nearly 100 people had said they were attending. Friends were telling friends and inviting friends, and all of a sudden it took on a whole new feel.

By Saturday night, a little over a day after it had started, we had 211 people listed as attending, and an e-mail had been sent to the faculty across campus about the project.

When Monday morning finally rolled around, Matt and I were both feeling a little nervous about who was actually going to show. That only deepened when I got a call from the college’s media relations office letting me know that some local news had gotten hold of the story and were coming by to see what was up. If no one showed up for the news cameras, well, that would have been bad.

The crew shoots sophomore Sarah Hesseltine's message. Photo by Lauren DeCicca.The crew shoots sophomore Sarah Hesseltine's message. Photo by Lauren DeCicca.People came. Lots of people. In a span of four hours, we shot 107 people giving their support. Some were scripted, some not, and all in all it was a very emotionally draining afternoon.

Editing was next. We knew who had told amazing stories and who had made us want to cry. The trick was being able to convey that in a short time span. Originally we had planned on a four- or five-minute piece, but we ended up with around six minutes of video, featuring only a little over half of the people we filmed. Part of this was an effort to get the video up quickly. Matt and I knew that the message was far more important than the production value, and definitely cut a few aesthetic corners throughout the whole process to speed it up.

The video made it onto my YouTube channel by 11pm on Tuesday night, mere days after Matt had thought of doing it. It got over seven thousand views on Wednesday, and hit ten thousand within 48 hours. The traffic has slowed down, but I've been overwhelmed by the response to the message the video brings. My hope is that more and more people will be able to see it, and that others will be inspired to shoot their own, as well. (Word on the street is that Cornell shot one this weekend, prompting me to tweet that I hope they were “big red” in the face for taking so long to jump on the bandwagon and support this good cause.)

I discovered throughout this process that the current college generation doesn’t see being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender as a big deal at all. Some students who came in didn’t even talk about being LGBT, but identified with them because of their own bullying problems and their own attempts to overcome adversity. Students face scrutiny for being OCD, ADD, ADHD, color blindness, the clothes they wear, and the way they smile. They face bullying for their hairstyle and their favorite song. And they are now standing up with the rest of the online community in saying that enough is enough and that something needs to be done. It does get better, and people need to know. This project is a great step in that direction and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

It gets better. Until then, get help if you need it.

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