Addressing the very private nature of intimacy remains the most difficult aspect of sex-ed on the social web. While “Public Health 2.0″ is a top priority for related causes and organizations, it can be difficult to approach from a social media standpoint. Because it’s the most private and sensitive of issues, many people are embarrassed or offended by conversations about sex.
However, many organizations, from mass media outlets to cause-specific efforts, are still attempting to use social tools to address reproductive health issues. The difficulty in running a successful effort lies in navigating the troubled waters between an individual’s right to privacy and the public need for sex education online.
Finding the Balance Between Public Education and Privacy
A very provocative effort may raise some eyebrows, but at the same time fail to generate conversation. The issue may be too sensitive for most — except for a minority of outgoing, extroverted online citizens.
For example, Sex Really discusses violence towards women in dating situations. Sex Really takes the initiative on pointing out tough topics and assumes conversation will occur offline, though some folks do choose to interact with the Sex Really team online. The effort uses a variety of media from its own site, as well as a Twitter account.
The site takes a rightful strong stances against violence towards women, yet the public conversational results vary. That doesn’t mean the effort isn’t successful in educating readers.
“This campaign has made effective use of social content, messaging related to social behavior change, and content aggregation,” said Beth Kanter, author of the popular Beth’s Blog. “It’s hard to tell why there isn’t more conversation on the site from the target group (e.g. comments on the podcast posts) — they do have an active Twitter stream. They also have a link to [Planned Parenthood] where [users] can get private information or connect with a health counselor for advice.”
Another example of an open site that gets some decent participation (but still less than similar non sex-ed campaigns) is MTV’s GYT (Get Yourself Tested). Because the effort is tied into the popular TV show 16 and Pregnant, there are a lot of eyeballs landing there.
Integrating traditional media into a social web campaign is one way to incite conversations about getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). While educating themselves, participants not only sound off, but in some cases could win an opportunity to appear on the cable network — a great motivator to get people talking. There’s a GYT Facebook Group with 2,500 fans (which is comparatively low, considering other teen-oriented Pages get tens of thousands), and some decent online conversation.
Clearly, though, openness can actually act as a barrier to communication for such a sensitive issue.
Full disclosure: Beth is a business partner of mine.
Privacy Protections Can Drive More Participation
One organization committed to the sex ed space is ISIS, Inc., a non-profit organization based in Oakland, CA. They have had two very successful efforts: The Say What Contest and the inSpot notification service. ISIS efforts use technology to provide privacy guarantees first, then encourage the social conversation. By putting privacy at the forefront of what they do, ISIS is able to boost participation.
The Say What Contest uses incentives to get youth and young adults to talk. Specifically, the contest asked teens and twenty-somethings what the worst advice they got from their parents was. The goal was to highlight misnomers passed on from generation to generation. User stories are posted in podcast format.
“Youth used their own cell phones or landlines to call a private digital phone number and tell their stories,” said Deb Levine, Executive Director and Founder of ISIS. “Entrants’ phone numbers were stored in a data file that was password-protected and only available to contest sponsors in order to contact contest winners. We used a moderation feature for the widget such that we only included entrants who did not state their full name or location. No phone numbers were associated publicly with entries selected to be included in the widget.”
“The Say What campaign was a compelling contest that focused on the gold mine of good and bad sex advice teens have heard,” said Scotty Hendo, principal at CauseShift. “I liked how they used the telephone to capture stories directly from the teens. Plus, creating a widget helped spread the word and offer more people the chance to listen and rank contestants … [T]he campaign was a creative way to get teens to critically question what they’ve been told by their peers and adults.”
ISIS’s other project deals with an even greater social taboo. Many people experience great shame in finding out they have contracted an STD, and don’t want to admit it to their past and present partners. In an effort to stop the spread of STDs, the inSPOT network allows users to sign on to a private local community and send an anonymous e-Card to partners from a “concerned friend.”
“80% of senders choose to send their e-mails anonymously, and 80% of senders also choose to include a personal message,” said Levine. “The site has no backend database to collect information on sender e-mail addresses, recipient e-mail addresses, or personal messages. Currently, most users of inSPOT are using dynamic IP addresses which cannot be traced back to their computers or computer networks. We also use CAPTCHA to discourage spammers and bots from sending out multiple cards.”
The “Share it if You Like it” Approach
Making traditional media sharable on the web is another approach. While this strategy doesn’t break much ground in terms of social media, it hinges on creating content compelling enough that people will want to share it on their own networks using a service like AddThis or ShareThis.
Consider the original and critically acclaimed PBS TV program The Education of Shelby Knox, which discusses abstinence versus sex education in the deep South. The website assumes you will want to sound off about the show positively or negatively (and thus sex education) on your own social networks using the ShareThis service, or even go so far as to plan an event in your neighborhood.
“In terms of using a video with someone like Shelby, I do think it makes it much easier for people to discuss the issues because it’s not about ‘their kid’ — because no parent wants to believe their kid would be the one having sex in the school bathroom or whatever,” said Kivi Leroux Miller, president of Nonprofit Marketing Guide.com. “Making the conversation about Shelby and her friends allows people to share their opinions, fears, etc., while giving them some cover, since it’s not about them personally.”
Whether or not that cover translates into real social media discussion of sex education is another story. However, the site is still getting comments years after the show’s original air date.
More social media resources from Mashable: