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Can “Viral” Videos Really Create Social Change?

The 30-minute “Kony 2012” video produced by the nonprofit Invisible Children, which generated over 70M views on YouTube over the past week, has caused a firestorm in the nonprofit community. The $700K budget video is powerful, provocative and tells an incredibly emotional story about Joseph Kony, a Ugandan guerrilla group leader, head of the Lord's Resistance Arm (LRA). Since 1986 the LRA has abducted 66K children, and turned them into child soldiers. The LRA are responsible for displacing 2M people since their rebellion began in 1986. While Kony was indicted in 2005 for war crimes, he has never been captured. Invisible Children is hoping to change that. Their goal is to make Kony a household name in the U.S.  This video is what we believe to be the first part of a multi-pronged approach for their 2012 campaign to lobby the U.S. Government to help capture Kony.


Great Storytelling Can Go “Viral”

The video follows important storytelling principals, such as the three-storytelling elements crafted by renowned Harvard Professor Marshall Ganz. The three elements are: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. “A story of self communicates who I am: my values, my experience, why I do what I do. A story of us communicates who we are: our shared values, our shared experience, and why we do what we do. And a story of now articulates the present as a moment of challenge, choice, and hope,” says Ganz. The Kony 2012 video incorporates these principals exceptionally well.

More importantly though, the video has captured widespread attention through multiple channels. People have been so moved by the video and story that they are sharing it across social networks, like Facebook and Twitter, by the minute. It quickly made the front page of Reddit, and people have been re-pinning “Kony 2012” images on Pintrest. The mainstream press and niche blogs are adding their viewpoints to the story as well. Bottom line - millions of people who had never even heard of Joseph Kony, or the brutal civil war that the people of Uganda have endured for years are finally learning about it, and listening. Seeing so many people moved by this story and sharing it with all of their friends, family, and colleagues is a beautiful thing. And it makes me feel that collectively we can make a difference. But then reality quickly sets in.


But Now What? How Will the Needle be Moved?

What will all of the 70M YouTube viewers do about Kony, or the war in the region? Will they sign up to Invisible Children’s list? Will these people be properly cultivated and start to lobby the U.S. to get involved in the regional conflicts? Will the U.S. even care to get involved since there is no oil at stake? Are the YouTube viewers donating money to Invisible Children and other relief organizations to support the people affected by the civil wars in the region? According to Seth Godin, the money raised so far “is significantly less than a dime donated (on average) per viewer.” 


Strategic Questions Remain

A lot of discussion around the strategy of the video and overall campaign has arisen too. For example, is trying to “make Kony famous” even the right strategy to raise awareness and generate action on the atrocities that are happening in the region? Why has it taken 26 years to make a video like this? And while the $700K video was well produced and edited, is this the type of large financial investment nonprofits should be making to generate attention around the issues they work on? If it is, the nonprofit community is in serious trouble because very few organizations could ever afford $700K to make a video. And even if they could raise the funds, it’s a huge gamble to take. It’s worrisome that some nonprofits will now think that slick videos with a high price tag will automatically go “viral.” It could not be further from the truth. Very few videos go viral to this extent no matter what budget is spent.

And while we are on the topic of viral, what does 70M video views and lots of “Likes” on Facebook and RT’s on Twitter really get from an organizing perspective? Raising awareness is awesome and a great first step as part of a longer ladder of engagement. But unless these new people are immediately cultivated properly, and remain committed to this issue, Kony 2012 will be just another blip on people’s radar. No matter how the Kony 2012 campaign plays out, this is one nonprofit case study that will be discussed for quite some time.

Reader Comments (5)

Yeah, three words: call to action. If it's not there, not clear, not simple, not effective -- so many ways it can go wrong.
March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTinu
Hi Allyson,

I think the question you ask, "Can videos create social change" is answered in your first sentence: Stop Kony has "created a firestorm."

One of the saddest, most misdirected, most significant opportunities lost in this whole experience is that activists, advocates, pundits, and strategists - everyone except, it seems, the young people themselves - have failed to pick up the pieces where Invisible Children left off.

Let's rewind: almost ten years ago Invisible Children set out to make a movie that would bring the story of the "hidden holocaust" in Sudan to American audiences. They got sidetracked by Uganda, which at that point was maybe a sideshow to the Rwanda genocide in most people's minds, if anything (host of the RPF...never mind). So, for the next ten years these guys built a movement on what they'd learned. And they kept going back - to connect with friends, to build schools, produce bracelets, gather more footage. Whatever it took to hustle the story and feed their growing movement back home.

And the movement back home was growing. From their Global Night Commute to the Schools for Schools campaign, Invisible Children has been building an army of young people who are educated about the issue, passionate about making the world a better place, and committed to action - whether a bake sale or a school improvement trip.

And then, a week ago, Stop Kony was launched, and everything changed. Suddenly, this vocal, passionate, outspoken group that had been dedicated, on point, committed, consistent, was on the firing line for everything that it was not. Instead of the nonprofit, NGO, academic, punditry saying holy sh!t this is our moment, they recoiled. When they could have stepped up to fill the gap, they tried to make it larger. By pushing stories and criticisms - some founded and some not - they've created a climate of doubt and suspicion where if, instead, they'd said, "Hey this is incomplete, learn more here" or "military action is not the only option, consider these," or "clicking "like" isn't enough: sign this petition" they've lost their single biggest opportunity to claim their piece of the moment, to ride the Stop Kony juggernaut.

Its too bad. Because 2/3 of what they ARE doing, from a visibility standpoint, is missing the mark I think.
March 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlhtorres
Thanks Tinu and Lars. I agree. Lars you definitely raised some of the key pain points the community has been feeling.
March 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllyson Kapin
I have very mixed feelings about this video. Yes, it is a highly effective piece of story-telling, but it's also a real appeal to vanity--the film-maker's and the prospective supporters'. It's really “the making of” the movement, the celebvocates and the feel-good, self-empowerment tropes that are now the subtext to “marketing” every cause, candidate and consumer good. The film focuses unrelentingly on the wonderfulness of Russell himself, which is off-putting in the extreme. (Did we really need the birth cam shots?) Its very meta-ness makes me uncomfortable as does the Invisible Children “army” of mostly white, well-off young advocates raising their arms and shouting slogans in unison. I don’t doubt Russell’s altruism. He has spent the past nine years working to bring the Invisible Children to the world’s attention. All, well and good and admirable. But like so much in life, it’s not what you say, but how. And the self-congratulatory nature of the campaign, amplified by social media and the film’s manipulative vibe, gets in the way of the good works. As my millennial son remarked, “I bought the poster but now I feel had.” So I wonder: is it the new face of advocacy and engagement or old-school propaganda in new form? And what lessons can we learn about the intrinsic virality of stories? Why is the LRA, allegedly weakened and no longer in Uganda, more compelling than the Syrian government bombing its own people?
March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Bodiker
hi susan, if your son feels "had" have him take a look at tools and partners of IC's track record, like: http://www.lracrisistracker.com

"crisis mapping," as you probably know, has emerged as a very legitimate and useful practice. but only if backed by authority aka boots on the ground. IC is asking the US to maintain its commitment to 100military advisors during this election cycle, a time when such support could easily *easily* disappear.
March 16, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterlhtorres

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