Friday, 9 March 2012

Will video kill it's viral star?

Justifying his hatred for The Sound of Music a comedian once reasoned that any film which made you root for the Nazis can't be a good thing.

I was reminded of this yesterday watching the viral sensation “Kony 2012” as my repulsion at the actions of a particularly despicable Ugandan warlord was offset slightly by my desire not to side with the cloying “anything is possible if we work together” sentiment of the American charity workers.

For the uninitiated, (are there any left?), Kony 2012 is a campaign video made by the charity Invisible Children to raise the profile of Joseph Kony with the intention of bringing him to justice for the devastation he has wrought on many children in northern Uganda. It is a story of child soldiers, sex slaves, murder and mutilation. But as bleak and depressing as this subject matter is, the video is anything but, made in the style of the most emotive and uplifting of Americana.

Like a Richard Curtis directed Coldplay video, or an endless loop of the Rocky montages, there is something both kitsch and euphoric about Jason Russell’s short film. It’s clearly heavily influenced by the social media activism which helped Barack Obama take office in 2008. Indeed although it doesn’t feature in the half hour, Obama’s “yes we can” slogan and "audacity of hope" world-view is an accurate shorthand for Invisible Children’s unwaveringly confident ethos. And much like the Obama campaign, Kony 2012 worked. Yes Kony may still be roaming around central African states with impunity, but no longer with anonymity. Invisible Children's goal to make the world aware of Kony and the actions of the Lord Resistance Army has been an unmitigated success.

Lack of effectiveness is not a criticism you can level at Kony 2012. Lack of taste however, as subjective a minefield as this is, is another matter. Some people like Bob Geldof and Bono and Jerry Springer's final thoughts, others, myself included don't. Some people will find the narrator's "we're going to stop them" tone reassuring and defiant in the face of adversity. Others will think it condescending, preachy and naively idealistic; which was how I personally found the scene where the narrator explained to his son Gavin that Joseph Kony is the world's “worst” "bad guy" to be.

And while I may know next to nothing about the situation in Uganda I'd imagine it's a little more complicated than Russell leads us to believe. A foreign policy that assumes everything will be okay if you put US troops on the ground wherever there is trouble has some pretty high profile contradictions of late. I did come to resent being addressing in the same manner as his primary school aged son. But then I'm an unashamed and unreconstructed cynic, I have a heart of stone and an aversion to anything that tries to connect with me on an emotional level. I'm sure nobody at Invisible Children is loosing any sleep because I feel they may have laid it on a bit thick in their 50 million plus viewed video.

I do however feel there is a more wide ranging and legitimate criticism that can be made of Kony 2012. It is a criticism not exclusive to Invisible Children's video, but also one that applies to requests to join Facebook groups to show support for various causes, or e-petition invitations to "save our hedgehogs", “ban goldfish bowls”, or my personal favourite “don't listen to idiots who sign e-petitions”.

All of the above, including Kony 2012, could, according to the OED no less, be categorised as instances of clicktivism: “the use of social media and other online methods to promote a cause.” In a 2010 New Yorker article "Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted" Malcolm Gladwell summed up why he felt the plaudits for the revolutionary capacity of social media were undeserved. Facebook activism he wrote "succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice." The idea that signing an e-petition, joining a Facebook group or sharing the Kony 2012 video is a poor substitute for genuine activism will hardly come as a shock to those who participate in online campaigns. But Gladwell's argument that social media is "effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires" seems to lead to a more extreme conclusion. Could clicktivism actually be counterproductive?

No doubt Invisible Children and their millions of followers want to put an end to the violence in Uganda. Who wouldn't? But following the charity's particular call to arms to "sign a pledge and show your support" and "above all share the movie online" is a course of action that may assuage millions of consciences, placating the need for further action and achieving...what? Popularising the video ever further, getting more people to sign the pledge. Will this create a critical mass driving intervention up the political agenda? Or is it simply adding to a open but self-referential feedback loop? If the course of action Invisible Children advocated required greater motivation - lobbying political representatives for example or donating to charities on the ground in Uganda - no doubt less people would participate, but perhaps the overall real-world impact would be greater.

Kony 2012 is a marketing tool and a slick one at that. It's succeeded in putting a long ignored issue at the forefront of people's minds. And it's flouted every convention of successful viral videos in doing so - i.e. it's longer than 1 minute and it doesn't feature a single kitten trying to drink from the tap. It's makers have also done more for their admirable cause than I ever will. But just because you support the cause doesn't mean you have to agree with the course they have taken to popularise it.

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