The KONY 2012 video has clocked more than 70.6 million views in only seven days on YouTube (and millions more since appearing on Vimeo two weeks ago), which is fairly amazing considering 1) it’s about something most people have never heard of and 2) it’s a half-an-hour long. (The average viral video on YouTube is two minutes or less.) This earnest effort to bring Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony to justice and free the thousands of “invisible children” that he has abducted and pressed into soldiering and sex-slavery has encountered a fair amount of blowback as well.
Most criticism focuses on their finances and the relatively small proportion of donated funds that go to actual in-country programs in Africa. The group behind the video, Invisible Children, Inc., (IC) has issued a detailed rebuttal to the backlash including a detailed breakdown of its finances. Most of the issues go away, I think, if you look at the group as a social media startup (whose main product is conflict reduction) rather than a purely humanitarian organization.
More troubling are the possible unforeseen implications of the project’s success. First, some critics have pointed out that IC’s presentation of the situation in Uganda is dangerously oversimplified. Joseph Kony, for instance, has not been in Uganda for many years and could be hiding in the bush in one of three neighboring countries. My favorite of the debunkers is Jack McDonald on his King of Warblog, who shows that the area to be reconnoitered is equivalent to the size of the State of South Carolina. Think of how long we looked for Osama Bin Ladin in similarly murky circumstances. Second, what happens if this effort succeeds? Will foreign policy be guided by social media fiat? Think of how the citizens’ initiatives have bolloxed up California politics. I am not a foreign policy expert. I am interested in how IC is using social media to achieve their goals, not in debating those goals themselves. Suffice to say, even the harshest critics acknowledge the group’s good intentions. And in terms of their use of media, they clearly know what they are doing or else this current debate would not even exist.
IC make their vision of activism seem joyful and unconflicted. As 350.org founder Bill McKibben says of changing the world, “the secret is to have more fun than other people have.” ICs visibility projects owe a lot to the successes of 350.org in mobilizing people around the world to address climate change. There large-scale public actions have shown that doing social good doesn’t have to involve self-flagellation and hair-shirts. What both groups have in common is a native embrace of the virality of social media to get their message across.
In fact, if IC has any real hidden agenda it is less likely about wanting to draw the U.S. into armed conflict in Africa and more likely to be an advertising relationship with Facebook. Feature by feature, from the like counter to the new timeline, KONY 2012 shows how Facebook can be used to engineer social change.
So what can social media startups, and practitioners of social media of all sorts, learn from KONY 2012? Here are 12 lessons in the order that they appear in the video (with time markers for easy reference):
1. Be Positive: The first part of the video just shows people connecting with each other, the birth of a baby, the pride of parenthood and the value of friendship. Joseph Kony doesn’t even appear until8:46.
2. Get Their Attention: Early on [1:38] the voiceover tells you, “The next 27 minutes are an experiment. But in order for it to work, you have to pay attention.” A bit presumptuous, but you’ve been warned.
3. Make It Personal: At 1:55 we see a child being born in what looks like an American hospital, and by 2:39 we understand the identity of the voiceover and the baby: ”My name is Jason Russell and this is my son, Gavin.”
4. Invoke the Mainstream Media: KONY 2012 is peppered with references to “old media” for validation. ”This has been going on for years?” Russell says on camera in Uganda. “If that happened one night in America it would be on the cover of Newsweek.” [5:56] There’s and a fake TIME cover of Kony that reads “Worst in the World,” next to a real TIME cover of supporter George Clooney [23:35] and a fabricated New York Times front page that reads “KONY CAPTURED” [22:27].
5. Pull the Heartstrings: Russell uses his son, Gavin, and his young Ugandan friend, Jacob, for raw plays on emotion: Jacob’s is introduced through Gavin’s pointing to picture on wall and saying, “Jacob is our friend in Africa” [3:56]; Jacob is the first thing you see on the Invisible Children’s Facebook timeline [4:00]; Jacob breaks down in wailing sobs when discussing his despair at living and the murder of his brother [7:14]. It’s manipulative, yes, but boy does it work.