Cyberbullying: When social media hurts. Making it help.

Inside my workplace at SAP, we’ve got a vibrant intranet.  I was asked recently to contribute a story to a “Social Media Experiences” collection, and below is what I wrote today, which I also wanted to share on the extranet.

I also want to hat-tip @Karoli, with whom I’ve been having a vibrant conversation on Twitter about what we could do to help prevent online bullying among other things.  She’s got smart ideas around identity and authenticity online.  Being anonymous online can be incredibly liberating, but it also makes it easy to say incredibly mean things to people that you would not otherwise have said to their faces. We must work to prevent yet more cyberbullying that leads to suicide — and owning what we do and say would help.  As Karoli said: “It all goes to having some kind of reliable identity system. Not necessarily a real name, but a verified identity.”

Please let me know if you know of people working in this area.  I’d love to collaborate.

About Me: Being Out at Home and Work

I married my wife Leanne legally in 2008 in California. Shortly thereafter, California banned same-sex marriages.  We’re in a legal netherworld and are federal strangers, as long as the Defense of Marriage Act exists. I’ve been working at SAP for over 10 years, but only within the last couple of years have I been actively involved in our local LGBT community. One of our most recent and successful initiatives – and nothing short of a career highlight for me – has been to release the It Gets Better: SAP Employees film to great support and success.

Social Media Usage Scenario: It Gets Better

There are many ways LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people are helped by being able to be themselves and connect online on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, formspring, blogging, and beyond.  There are also many ways it hurts – often tragically.  According to this recent infographic from The Advocate:

  • 7.5 million Facebook users are under the age of 13 (despite the minimum age requirement being 13)
  • 800,000 kids report being bullied on Facebook
  • Bullied kids are twice as likely to commit suicide as non-bullied kids
  • 1 in 5 cyberbullied teens think about suicide
  • 1 in 10 attempt it
  • 4,500 teens succeed in killing themselves every year

The It Gets Better Project, founded in September 2010, is a collection of over 50,000 videos submitted by individuals, celebrities, employees, and organizations in response to an increase in suicides of LGBT teens or those perceived to be gay or different. The goal of the videos is to counter bullying influences by telling personal stories about how life gets better – to offer hope by speaking directly to people at-risk of suicide.

I managed the making of SAP’s It Gets Better film, which we released on June 7. During this process, we discovered that SAP colleague Steve Fehr had recently lost his own son Jeffrey to suicide after years of anti-gay bullying.  Jeff was 18 years old.

Making the film was a profoundly transformative process for all of us.  Please watch and share here:

The effort involved in making this film was huge – over 100 people from around the company came together to create and support the release of this film, many being interviewed and sharing highly personal stories in service of making it better.

The Impact: Preventing Further Tragedies

As Steve Fehr said shortly after I met him: “I will do anything I can to prevent just one person from suffering what Jeff suffered and one family feeling the agony that we feel.” At the end of It Gets Better films, there is a phone number for The Trevor Project you can call if you are in trouble and need help.  Had Jeff known about The Trevor Project, Steve asks himself, would he still be here?  Steve and his family are not prepared to stop asking that question until they’ve done everything they can to spread the word that help is out there.

SAP’s It Gets Better film has been seen as of this writing nearly 23,000 times, making it the second-most viewed video on SAP’s YouTube channel in just over one month.  Publishing this film, and achieving the reach we have, would not have been possible without social media and all of us eager colleagues and supportive friends who helped spread the message (Cathy Brooks’ Huffington Post piece currently accounts for the highest percentage of referrals to YouTube).  The challenge is to take some of the very same channels and environments responsible for some of the staggering statistics above and turn the tables.

The It Gets Better Project shows how hard work every day in social media channels themselves can bring balance to the cyberbulling.  And the films can come from individuals as well as organizations.  This comes from all of us, and comes down to all of us, to make a difference every day and speak up where we see bullying happen, online or off.  As individuals.


PS: The night we released the film at SAP, we had a great panel of anti-bullying experts present.  Watch highlights from the post-event interview reel here:

Be the one that helps: SAP Employees Release “It Gets Better” Film

From the SAP Community Network today:

What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?
-George Eliot

SAP employees release our It Gets Better film today in support of LGBT youth in crisis. As we do, we reflect on what makes a community, who belongs to it, and how communities can hurt – and how communities can help.

I am proud to be an SAP employee today as we release our own It Gets Better film. I’m also humbled, regretful that we didn’t make this by December 31, 2011, and vulnerable. I will explain.

The It Gets Better Project, founded in September 2010, is a collection of over 50,000 videos submitted by individuals, celebrities, employees, and organizations in response to a number of suicides of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) teens or those perceived to be gay or different. The goal of the videos is to counter bullying influences by telling personal stories about how life gets better – to offer hope by speaking directly to people at-risk of suicide. In the video, I join my incredible colleagues with my heart on my sleeve. But I was absolutely compelled to help fellow colleagues make this happen, even more so after I learned about Jeffrey Fehr.

On January 1, 2012, 18-year-old Jeffrey Fehr of Granite Bay near Sacramento made the devastating decision that he could no longer go on living and took his own life. He had recently graduated from Granite Bay High School where he was a pioneer as the first male cheerleader. He was well loved by his friends and his family, and was a bright light and inspiration for countless peers. He was also an out gay youth who had endured years of teasing and bullying.

In the words of his father, SAP employee Steve Fehr:

Jeff chose a permanent solution to a temporary problem not realizing the pain, heartache and agony he was leaving behind. Please do not do that to the ones who love you the most. Please reach out for help now to the many resources available.

On January 2, Graph Desino, schoolmate of Jeff’s at Granite Bay High School, posted on the blog Graph’s Crap:

When I was a freshman, I wrote a Gazette article about Formspring and its uses/abuses. It was pretty dull stuff, truth be told. But somehow, while I was fiddling with my own Formspring account, I stumbled upon Jeff’s. … I don’t remember any specifics, but the hate and anger thrown at this kid, holy shit.
[Jeff’s] Formspring archive remains etched in my mind for a reason. I’d always felt very uncomfortable here, with my bisexuality, and all those knowing glances, but I thank God I never had to deal with what he did. It was unrelenting. Often obscene. Always anonymous.

But he replied to them without animosity. That was the really incredible part.

We can’t see Jeff’s Formspring account anymore but we can imagine what sort of stuff that was that he had to deal with. In a Granite Bay Gazette article from November 2010, shortly after the It Gets Better project’s inception. Schoolmate jcologna writes stories from close to home about how gay students are impacted by bullying. Teacher Katrina Wachs says in the article:

“Since I came to this school I have been shocked by how many times a day I hear ‘that’s gay,’ ‘fag’ and a myriad of other slogans and verbal slurs,” GBHS teacher Katrina Wachs said. “I think it’s a real human rights issue.”

The author goes on to talk about others struggling with bullying:

“It’s gotten pretty overboard, I got hit in the face last year,” the anonymous junior girl said. “I have had people go on Myspace and post ‘yes on prop 8’ on all of my pictures and I have gotten texts like ‘oh you’re a stupid lesbian you probably have aids’ and just stuff like that.”

Jeff Fehr himself is quoted in the article. And the junior girl who is bullied remains nameless, but we know there have been other teen suicides. She concludes: “I feel like maybe if it was talked about more in class then maybe it would be less of a problem.”

So we’re talking about it.

In making and releasing this film I had countless conversations with SAP colleagues and beyond that I shall never forget. Many of these conversations necessarily, given the track record of sustained bullying and cyberbullying as we’ve sadly grown to see above, revolved around how to react if people are going to say bad things. Many of the conversations however have been nothing short of inspirational, and these sustain me.

Recently I was asked something by one of our beloved community advocates right here on the SCN that I shall also never forget. The project resonated with her and she wondered whether, if she wrote about it, it would be inappropriate to talk about suicide and bullying in general and not specifically LGBT suicide and bullying.

And I answered about how she should absolutely do so — that she should apply the message in whatever direction speaks her truth.

Because what is a community? The LGBT community may all-too-accurately point out that suicides within our community are markedly particular — the fact is, in U.S. surveys, lesbian, gay, and bisexual adolescents and adults have two to six times higher rates of reported suicide attempts compared to comparable straight people. Among transgender people the rates of suicide attempts are markedly high but not well measured.

And yet LGBT people are our communities; and our communities at SAP and on the SCN represent diversity at its finest — we represent.

Communities are the sum of their people. And companies are the sum of their employees. And SAP helps companies run better. This film is about being better to each other, valuing differences – being the best people we can be.

Communities can hurt – and communities can help. Watch, share, talk, and help us be the kind that helps.

Tonight in Palo Alto we premiere the It Gets Better: SAP Employees film to a live audience in Cafe 1 at 5:30pm, where we welcome Granite Bay High School teacher Katrina Wachs to participate on a panel to talk about what is going on here. We also welcome local Gunn High School teacher Daisy Renazco and prominent LGBT suicide prevention organization Trevor Project CEO Abbe Land, as well as Seth Levy from the It Gets Better project.

If you are in town, please join us at 5:30 tonight. If you are not, please watch the film and share widely. Help us help even one person realize that they are not alone. My deep thanks.

The Human Transaction: Door-to-door; Click-by-click

In the fight for LGBT equality we are often told that voters have already — several times in fact — disapproved of this concept, and presumably we should therefore just give up and yield “to the will of the people,” or certainly at least shut up about it already. While I fundamentally disagree with this conclusion (not to mention with the idea of silencing a minority according to majority will), here is one small and powerful element of truth: To win votes, if people don’t know you, sometimes you need to go door-to-door.

While it may seem unfair to treat matters of civil rights like regional sales campaigns, I think it’s true that the heart of lasting and meaningful social change is in the profundity of the human transaction, person-to-person, in ordinary, daily life. In fact, hard-working folks such as those at EQCA have been redoubling just such a “Sinead’s Hand-like” door-to-door effort at gaining acceptance ever since Prop 8 passed. And of course few know about the importance of going door-to-door as well as the Mormon Church.

During the past few weeks at work I’ve been thinking a lot about the “door-to-door” element of diversity. My company (a giant global enterprise software company), has an annual celebration of Diversity Days during which it reaffirms the commitment that the key to success is in embracing the value of the rich diversity of its workforce. One of the featured talks during this year’s Diversity Days was about people working with disabilities. It was good to get a look at this form of diversity in our workforce, often only all-too-invisible in my experience. There is such unique “explosion of value” in any particular form of “disability” or diversity, as presenter Gary Karp cited, for example, with IBM “master of invention” (and deaf person) Dr. Dimitri Kanevsky.

The 2002 movie Door to Door about American salesman Bill Porter brought the humanness of the sales and disability diversity transaction to light: “He tries everything and even goes door-to-door:”

Though I’ve never really liked the concept of “salesman” and probably would be more likely to slam doors in his face, from the early days of the door-to-door salesman humans have engineered ways to make the seemingly heartless financial transaction seem more human. I love this example of Bill Porter because it shows how elements of acceptance and tolerance also come down to the great sales job.

In an age where we transact more and more online, this notion of going door-to-door seems at the very least, at first glance, ironic. I would venture to guess that many of us prefer shopping online not only because we can find things more easily from around the world, but exactly because we feel socially inept, and maybe it’s Scary to Actually Meet Real People.

But this is the very thing that makes all the difference. Not so long ago a man from a place called SaveEnergy Company visited our house and chatted with us about our family and our lives and learned what was important to us. It was a low-stress visit, hardly what seemed like a sales call, and we were not intending to contract for new windows that day, yet by the end of the day — of course you know how this story ends — we had contracted for the new windows.

In this case, money seemed to change hands among friends, at a friendlier, less lonely, human occasion. Were we tricked into transaction feeling like we were acting socially rather than financially? Does it matter if in the end the windows – and the experience – were good? Is it possible that many people choose online transactions specifically because they are afraid of feeling “tricked” to be human in exactly this way?

Nowadays we Yelp and Facebook and Twitter to find out what our peers and community think about local vendors and beyond and we regularly connect with friends we know to vet a business before we go. This is of course not new — it simply replicates the in-person experience of door-to-door salesmen or earlier bartering communities online.

Recently I did just this for a major purchase decision — a new (used) car with the help of car broker Bay Area Hand Picked Cars. I read the glowing Yelp reviews and transacted with this business, and in the end I had not only a new car but a new perspective. Now I don’t feel like I ever want to consider large sales transactions in any other way (here’s not looking at you, Target). I also feel like we have a friend in Ioanna Stergiades of Bay Area Hand Picked Cars who would go door-to-door for us, should the need ever arise.

The point is that today the online transaction is hardly less human than the in-person transaction, and becoming less and less so every day. The massive “in-the-moment” coexisting, casual status updates that lead to stronger connections, “accidental” business-to-friend conversions, and particularly my pals at my company who follow me on Twitter and then happen to see my live-Tweeting from the courtroom trial against Prop 8 — and then DON’T unfollow me: These are how the keys to humanity are played these days. Far away from the temporary online momentary monetary transactions we’ve come to presume, I submit even these tiny transactions alter us, little by little, every second of every day.

Back at Diversity Days at my company, I could not help comparing battles for LGBT civil rights with the battle for the rights of those with disabilities. The fact that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of a disability — whereas 20 years later we still can’t pass a similar protection based on sexual orientation (ENDA) — was not lost on me. We may yet learn a lot from the patience and persistence of someone like Bill Porter, the true salesman, whether we interact online or offline.

We may think we go to the Web to avoid people, but we don’t. Every transaction we make, door-to-door, click-by-click, matters. Be maybe afraid, yet utterly human.

PS: End Don’t Ask Don’t Tell THIS WEEK — find out how.