Kony 2012: The Anatomy Of A Viral Success

    March 11, 2012

Funny thing about the internet: you can’t smell anything on it, but certain stories sure can cause a stink.

Two days ago, we told you about the meteoric rise of the latest viral video, Kony 2012, that didn’t make the rounds on the internet so much as it grabbed the internet by the eyeballs and forced everybody to look directly at it. In the four days since it was uploaded to YouTube, the video has amassed nearly 58 million views while viral news of it has no doubt permeated your Facebook and Twitter feeds.

The video, in the impossible case it that hasn’t yet osmosis-ed itself into your brain from at least one kind of media outlet, was created and released by Invisible Children, an organization that’s been trying for years to draw worldwide attention toward Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. The Lord’s Resistance army is a special breed of awful because, aside from being Kony’s personal army, it’s made up of kidnapped children-turned-soldiers responsible for horrors ranging from hacking apart victims’ bodies to using abducted girls as sex slaves.

At any rate, you can see how there’s high emotional appeal that would likely resonate with most people containing even a sliver of sympathy. More, as with all things that finally have A Moment in the media, there is now the inevitable backlash against Kony 2012 criticizing Invisible Children’s approach.

So it goes.

What’s odd about Kony 2012’s success, though, isn’t that it went viral so quickly but rather why it went viral in the first place. Invisible Children has been trying to raise awareness about Kony since 2004 when the eponymous “Invisible Children” film was released, the group’s first attempt to bring attention to Kony’s atrocities. Invisible Children have released 11 films in all yet this is the first one to truly achieve a viral, nigh-zeitgeist status. In fact, it’s taken Invisible Children so long to finally land a hit with their films that Joseph Kony isn’t even in Uganda anymore (he reportedly left in 2006).

Some of the success has been attributed to Invisible Children’s goal of enlisting the help of “culturemakers.” Others have asserted that Kony 2012 succeeded due to clever marketing on social media. Both of these belie Invisible Children’s previous efforts by assuming such endorsements and technologies weren’t used to propel their videos into the limelight. For one, Lady Gaga endorses a ton of things but not nearly all of them catch on the way Kony 2012 has. She and others have got a magic, but it’s far from being a true Midas touch.

The most salient difference between Kony 2012’s world and the world of Invisible Children’s previous videos, I believe, is something far more simple: timing. The towering success of the anti-SOPA movement, Planned Parenthood supporters organizing to turn back Susan G. Komen’s decision to de-fund the organization, or even the recent backlast that has sent supporters fleeing from Rush Limbaugh due to his misogynistic remarks about Sandra Fluke – all have helped build and fortify the edifice of social media’s power. It could be argued that Kony 2012 was a beneficiary of those previous campaigns that, one, established the social media political infrastructure, and two, demonstrated that it works.

As these movements cycle more regularly and enjoy an ever-quickening ascent-descent with the world’s favor, though, do we run the risk of diminishing the potency of the viral campaign-as-political device the more these campaigns happen? I’m in no way saying that it’ll be Invisible Children’s fault were viral campaigns to falter in the future – whatever your feelings about the group’s methods, good on IC for finally getting the world to pay attention to how horrible Kony is – but rather highlighting the fact that these viral campaigns seem to be happening an awful lot lately.

Indeed, you can have too much of a good thing and so I fear that, after eventually growing tired of the endless parade of Next Big Things from the internet, instead of catching wind of political campaigns that really deserve our attention, the public will begin to simply hold their breath until the trend passes along and disappears into the trunks of internet fads.

Then again, maybe that’s how we’ll define success from now on: brief but explosive attention on subjects that, after a few days, are quickly supplanted by the Next Big Thing all while we reload our interest from one to another.

Why do you think Invisible Children finally succeeded in amassing massive media attention on Joseph Kony only now after trying for nearly a decade? Feel free to chime in below with your thoughts.