Deb Levine started her online sex education company because she was bored putting condoms on bananas as a way to teach students about safe sex.
What began as a simple Internet sexual Q&A column nearly 20 years ago — Go Ask Alice! — has grown into a nonprofit corporation that disseminates sexual health information via electronic tools such as text messaging and social media.
"It seems like nothing now but it was quite groundbreaking," said Levine, who created ISIS — an acronym for Internet Sexuality Information Services and homage to the Egyptian fertility goddess of the same name — in 2001 amid a syphilis outbreak in San Francisco. Back then, Levine's goal was to reach men congregating online in sexual chat rooms.
"What it showed me was this incredible power of the Internet to reach large numbers of people with sensitive information," said Levine, who was included among PopTech's 2009 Social Innovation Fellows, a class of roughly 20 cutting-edge thought leaders.
"I became an evangelist," she said of her passion for using information technology to deliver public health messages.
Her small but broad-reaching organization, which employs a full-time staff of six, has built a reputation around bringing sexual health and prevention information to teens and young adults using non-preachy methods. Often, that calls for following audiences to the spots where they congregate in cyberspace.
"We spend a lot of time integrating our messages into sites where people already are," Levine said.
Consider the "SayWhat?" contest ISIS ran earlier this year that challenged youth to present best- and worst-case sexual advice received from adults. The winner's voice message was transformed into a comic video featuring a cartoon, and they were flown to California to attend ISIS's annual Sex:Tech contest with their parents and visit FunnyorDie producers in Los Angeles.
To help spread the word, ISIS turned to MTV.com, comedian Will Ferrell's satirical website FunnyorDie.com, and SayNow.com, an online service that sends individual voice messages to groups.
"We find partners, usually unconventional partners who want to offer something extra to their audience," said Levine, who currently works with more than 25 for-profit entities.
The "Say What?" response confirms what many in the world of public health are discovering.
"We know that the IT world is how students are interacting with one another on health information on a variety of topics," said Paula Staight, director of health promotion at the University of Oregon's health center in Eugene. "We need to be moving in that direction."
Trial and error
Among ISIS's current efforts is the website inSPOT, the first online notification system to inform the sexual partners of those who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases, and Hookup, a weekly information service about sex and related topics delivered via text messaging.
"We basically move from public service messaging on social media platforms to deeper information on the Web and then try to increase access to services to have the one-one-one," Levine said.
Levine, who is currently trying to raise funds to take ISIS's free anonymous online sexually transmitted disease testing platform (STDtest.org) national by the end of the year, hopes to double her operating budget of $1.3 million within the next three years. Levine said her revenue comes from diverse sources, including corporate sponsorship, grants, and fees from clients. The latter includes local health departments around the country, for whom ISIS is replicating projects such as the text messaging initiative and public health websites.
"We're not nimble and laser-focused enough to do some of this stuff," said Miles Orkin, national director of Web and mobile for the American Cancer Society and an ISIS board member. "ISIS can deliver a kind of refined product that would take a larger NPO or health system a while to get to."
Through trial and error that included stringent public health evaluation methods, ISIS learned which means of communication were most effective for specific goals. Early on, the group abandoned attempts to foster in-depth one-on-one interaction between at-risk individuals and public health professionals online.
"Because the Internet is an open medium, the best way to use it is to reach large numbers of people," said Levine, who has also worked extensively with advisors from the private sector on project strategies, including Silicon Valley tech engineers.
"There's a lot to learn," she said.