5 Lessons from Kony 2012

Kony 2012 began as an unexpected viral video that Invisible Children, a California-based non-profit, uploaded to Vimeo on February 20th and to YouTube this past Monday. Today those two videos have over 65 million views, “Kony” is a trending topic on Twitter, and the phrase “Kony 2012” returns over 4,000 hits on Google.

Yet, perhaps because of its wide reach, the video has had an effect that is rather different than what the creators intended. Here are some lessons learned:

1) Long and serious can go viral…

“Viral video” is a byword for visual chewing gum: short, stupid, easily sharable entertainment. Of the top viral videos of 2011, as identified by Time.com, the longest was 3 minutes and 48 seconds long. The most popular was the so-bad-it’s-almost good autotuned monstrosity “Friday”. In my digital activism trainings I tell participants that 3 minutes is the absolute upper limit for an advocacy video. After that, people would just stop watching.

These two truisms about viral video – that short and goofy are most likely to be shared – have been presented with a significant opposing argument: Kony 2012, the longform video on a serious subject, has been passionately shared and viewed.

Kony 2012 did not break the rules of video construction. Rather, it abided by them with rare skill. The video proved that by living up to the requirements of advocacy video – visually appeal, strong emotional hook, accessible narrative structure, inspiring call to action – one can break the seemingly iron law of distractibility: if an advocacy video is good enough, its length can stretch to several times what was previously possible.

2) … but the model is problematic.

Yet I wouldn’t recommend that other NGOs blindly follow the Kony model. The first reason is cost. While we don’t know how much the Kony video cost, we do know (from Invisible Children themselves) that the group spends 46% of their annual budget on “media and film creation,” “awareness products,” and “awareness programs.” The video also features sophisticated motion graphics (animation), computer-generated effects, and a soundtrack of recognizable pop songs, all of which costs money. Is a massively popular video a better way to serve their cause than building another school or another early warning system in Uganda?

The second problem with this model is that in order to uphold the strong narrative structure that made the video engaging (good guy, bad guy, struggle, climax), the film-makers were forced to greatly over-simplify the situation in Uganda. First of all, Joseph Kony, the war criminal they want to bring to justice, isn’t based in Uganda anymore, and is far less of a threat than he once was. The list goes on.

You can’t have it both ways. You can discuss your cause in an accurate and nuanced way, or you can simplify it to make it easily comprehensible and immediate. The question is where to set the balance between accuracy and accessibility. I think Amnesty succeeded in this video, which is also creatively ambitious and features high production values. In it the scene of one political prisoner being saved by supporter petitions is told intentionally in symbolic terms as a dramatic allegory. The question of whether Kony 2012 set the right balance between accuracy and accessibility is harder to answer. They reached many more people by presenting a misleading message. Was this the best way to help their cause?

3) Popularity won Invisible Children the blessing of mass awareness… and the curse of mass scrutiny.

Most organizations that create sharable content want the content to enhance their organization’s brand as well as achieving the campaign’s objective. There’s nothing wrong with that. An organization with a recognizable and credible brand (think Amnesty, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders) can fundraise and campaign more easily. Invisible Children probably hoped that the campaign would help them achieve their goal of seeing Joseph Kony arrested and also enhance their own brand recognition.

The video certainly did increase their brand recognition, but not in the way they intended. From the first day that video starting spreading quickly – around March 7th – skeptical stories began appearing. These stories weren’t just coming from liberal academics and Africa-watchers but from mainstream news outlets and pop culture blogs.

Invisible Children was not ready for the institution scrutiny they received. They could not have known that their video would go viral, but that was certainly their intent. The video is clearly ambitious. They should have made sure their own house was in order before taking an action to increase their public profile. At the very least, they should have ensured that their scores on public nonprofit monitoring services, like Charity Navigator, were above reproach. They also should have come up with better responses to potential criticisms. As it was, they responded with a rather petulant Ke$sha quote, which did not raise their credibility.

4) When your medium is social media, you really can’t control the message.

Invisible Children relied of a sympathetic public to share their video. The people were their medium. Yet users of social media do not just pass along content. They comment, they challenge, they respond. This is not what Invisible Children wanted.

It’s telling that Invisible Children’s action kit, which they pitch at the end of the video, includes posters. A poster can be distributed socially, but it is not meant to be interactive. You either hang the poster or do not. You’re not expected to doodle on it or add your own message.

Invisible Children hoped supporters would pass along their videos and post their posters passionately but uncritically. They treated the public as a social media audience, one that would help them out without engaging them critically.

Yet this is not how social media works. Journalist Paul Ford says that the fundamental question of the web is “Why wasn’t I consulted?”. Asking a supporter to share content is implicitly asking them this question. For all the care and skill they put into their video, Invisible Children had no control over how it was ultimately perceived. None of us do.

5) The campaign was a success… but in an unexpected way

On Friday I unexpectedly spent spent several hours at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport (personal lesson: do not fly standby to SXSW). While in the airport I did something I rarely do: I watched network nears, CNN to be specific. During the 10 hours I was in the airport their were at least three segments on Joseph Kony and the situation in Northern Uganda on CNN (the only channel playing in the airport). Sandwiched between segments on poisonous face creams and the founder of Spanx there were three news segments about human rights abuses in Africa. That was pretty amazing.

It would be true to say that the Kony 2012 campaign changed the agenda, pushing this ignored issue into the mainstream (and new) media, but this is only part of the story. After all, the human rights abuses in Uganda are not new, it is a situation that has been going on for years. So what made it newsworthy?

The controversy of Kony 2012 was the real news hook. None of the news segment took the video at face value. One asked Mia Farrow (yes, a celebrity) about her criticisms of Invisible Children. Another segment was called “Kony: Setting the Record Straight.” Kony 2012 was successful not because it generated attention, but because it generated controversy. It was an imperfect campaign, but people will look back on it as a success, not for Invisible Children as an organization, but for the issue of child soldiers and for raising awareness of the human toll of conflict in Africa.

2 thoughts on “5 Lessons from Kony 2012

  1. Pingback: KLPR | The 5 myths of viral content

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