Q&A With MTV’s A Thin Line — A GennY Award Winner A Year Later

A Thin LineToday we’re checking in with A Thin Line, MTV’s campaign against digital abuse and winner of Ypulse’s 2011 GennY Award, which recognizes best practices and new techniques in youth marketing campaigns. A Thin Line hasn’t stopped innovating in its mission to reach Millennials, taking it’s campaign international, creating a movie based on the knowledge it’s gained, balancing the inclusion of youth and celebrity voices, and, just today, announcing an exciting partnership with Rovio’s Angry Birds Space! Jason Rzepka, MTV’s VP of Public Affairs, fills us in on what the program has been up to since winning the award…

Have you put a new twist on traditional advertising, gone grassroots or guerilla, sparked social interest with Pinterest, or made the most of mobile marketing? We want to hear about how your company or brand has developed a unique program to target youth and Millennials for our 2012 GennY Award case study competition. This year’s grand prize winner, announced at the Millennial Mega Mashup, will join the stellar ranks of past recipients, including MTV’s A Thin Line. Submit your application by March 31, or click here for more details on the GennY Award.

Q&A With MTV’s A Thin Line — A GennY Award Winner A Year Later

Ypulse: MTV’s A Thin Line campaign won the GennY Award in June of last year. Since then we see that you’ve gone international, allowing visitors from outside the U.S. to post their stories about how they’ve been affected by bullying. What prompted that? Are bullying and digital abuse the same all over the world, or are there differences?

Jason Rzepka: We recently created several new ways for young people around the world to engage with the campaign, from joining in the conversation on which digital behaviors “cross the line,” to posting examples of how they’re taking action to stop the spread of digital abuse. “A Thin Line” was specifically designed to address the challenges young people in the U.S. face with this issue, based on research we conducted to understand how it plays out for Millennial Americans. That said, the Web is borderless. Youth from around the world have reached out to us and said they wanted to get involved. We’ve also been fortunate to have MTV channels in Canada, Latin America, and Europe promoting the campaign as a resource for their viewers — which has helped carry it beyond our primary target audience here in the States.

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In regards to how digital abuse, bullying and discrimination play out around the world, it’s safe to say that everywhere young people are digitally connected, they’re confronted with the challenge of establishing a code of ethics for the digital age. Unfortunately, very little research has been done to compare and contrast the issue across continents and regions, so we don’t have a clear global picture yet.

YP: How important is it for Millennials to demonstrate publicly (posting actions on the site, sharing their involvement on social media, wearing “stand connected” gear) that they’re taking a stand against bullying and digital abuse?

JR: I think it’s absolutely critical – perhaps the most important facet of the campaign. Nearly every expert will tell you that social norms are what dictate the presence (or absence) of bullying in a community, be it online or off. If a critical mass of young people makes it clear that respect, civility, tolerance, and positive actions are the norms, those will be the norms. Given our broad reach and cultural relevance, we gear much of our work towards supporting youth efforts to foster these positive social norms.

YP: The campaign has been around for more than two years now, and people are much more aware of bullying than when it began. How have the issues (and the project’s goals) changed since the project started?

JR: It’s funny you ask, I was just reflecting on this at the recent launch of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation. I remember people openly scoffing when we launched “A Thin Line” in December of 2009. “Really? Digital abuse and cyberbullying? Are they that big of a deal? Feels like a waste of resources.” Fast-forward a year and bullying and digital ethics were at the forefront of the national conversation. We recognized early on that this issue touched virtually every member of our audience, and we committed to partnering with them to address it.

Today, we no longer need to raise awareness on why these issues matter. With over two and a half years of work under our belt, we also have a more nuanced understanding of how these issues are impacting our audience. We have a variety of evergreen resources, and a strong base of advocates (including more than 250,000 fans, friends, and followers across Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc.). Also, we’ve seen some encouraging news: trending data from our 2011 research study with the AP found that a majority of young people now report they would step in when they see abuse online – up significantly from 2009.

At its core, the macro goal of the campaign remains the same: to empower young people to draw their own line between digital use and digital abuse. We also now have a much better understanding that digital dating abuse and cyberbullying typically don’t happen independent from physical dating abuse or bullying. So the big question moving forward is, what’s our tolerance for “mission creep” – or focusing more on offline bullying and abuse – vs. staying explicitly focused on the unique challenges young people encounter on the digital frontier.

YP: Last fall, MTV premiered the movie (DIS)connected to show how digital abuse affects people’s lives. How did the stories and actions shared via A Thin Line inspire/inform that project?

JR:The storylines in the film were directly informed by the conversations we’ve been fostering via the “A Thin Line” campaign daily since 2009. We also harnessed the extensive research we’ve done the last few years, the expertise of our advisory board and worked collaboratively with our young cast members to bring their experiences into the picture.

YP: A Thin Line is fully integrated into the culture of MTV, from the network’s stars like Snooki, to a street team of fans who want to make a difference. Giving a voice to celebrities and regular people in the same venue is powerful; how has that helped spread the message among Millennials?

JR: We’ve been very careful and intentional about striking the right balance between youth voices and celeb voices. Celebrities can be a powerful engine to amplify and spread the message, but if their participation doesn’t come from a genuine place, it can really be counterproductive. When we have stars involved, they’re raising awareness about the resources available for those struggling with these issues, they’re recounting how they overcame similar challenges when they were young, they’re celebrating young people who are taking action…and they’re never wagging their finger at our audience or delivering an empty slogan like “don’t be a bully.” The messages celebrities deliver need to be authentic.

There’s no question celebs have contributed to the success of “A Thin Line,” but the campaign has really been fueled by young people. We created a safe space for our audience to have conversations about digital abuse issues and come to conclusions on the line between innocent and inappropriate – but we don’t dictate the answer. We created platforms where they could share how they’re stopping digital abuse – and their actions are the featured content. We’ve been honored to work with a great roster of celebrities who truly care about these issues, but the pistons propelling the campaign forward continue to be the young people who are taking action.

YP: And finally, what goals does the campaign hope to address next in 2012? Any upcoming initiatives you can share with us?

JR: There are three key things I can mention:

1 – We’re actively exploring new ways to address hate speech and slurs online, given some of the disturbing findings that emerged from a study we did on the subject last year with the Associated Press.

2 – We’re about to debut some innovative new features on athinline.org that have come out of a partnership with the MIT Media Lab – which was the result of a call to action from the White House. The features will help us better connect our audience with relevant help resources, and based on how the pilot project works out, this technology has the potential to help social networks more effectively respond to cyberbullying on their platforms.

3 – Just today we announced a first-of-its kind partnership with Rovio to use Angry Birds for good. On March 22, we’ll begin rewarding every young person who takes positive action to stop the spread of digital abuse with access to a secret level of Angry Birds Space. We even collaborated with them on a PSA featuring the pigs and birds! This is Angry Birds first youth activism effort, and we’re thrilled they are helping to amplify the “A Thin Line” message globally.

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