Thursday's "unfortunate incident" involving Jason Russell, co-founder of Invisible Children and director of the Kony 2012 documentary, will possibly change the focus of conversations regarding the now-international social media campaign. I hope it doesn't, but as I'll discuss in a moment, the public's attention span is short enough that it easily could.
There's already been some great, thoughtful commentary on the campaign, including its smashing success as a viral film that spread like wildfire across social media networks, as well as its assets and liabilities as a tool of advocacy and public awareness. (The two preceding links direct to blog posts written by a couple of my friends and former colleagues, who did a terrific job analyzing the Kony 2012 phenomenon from two different angles.)
Any social movement of this sort whose documentary unexpectedly receives more than 81,000,000 views on YouTube (as of the time of this writing) will naturally be subject to intense levels of scrutiny. Regardless, it's worth noting the potential roadblocks that Invisible Children faces in its quest to bring warlord Joseph Kony to justice. From my perspective, there are two huge ones that need to be reckoned with before success can be realized in this campaign. Here they are. (If, by chance, you haven't watched the film yet, the following will make more sense if you do so first.)
1. The public has the collective attention span of a hyperactive 5-year-old.
Ironically, the Kony 2012 video highlights this problem at the very beginning by playing clips of earlier YouTube videos that went viral very fast (the speech by the little kid learning how to ride his bike; the cute elderly couple trying to figure out their computer). Though I’d seen both of those videos many months back, I had already forgotten about them, even though I thought they were noteworthy at the time.
Kony 2012, unfortunately, has a high chance of realizing the same fate unless Invisible Children manages to keep public interest intact. To their credit, they’ve made a whole campaign of this that spans over an extended period of time, with tangible calls to action in an effort keep people’s attention — wearing the wristbands, signing the pledge, putting up the posters and graphics in cities on April 20. Whether all of that is enough isn’t yet clear.
There are, however, at least a couple predictions I’m comfortable making: 1) 81 million views alone — or even double that amount — won’t achieve your goal or keep the momentum going; and 2) between now and April 20, there will be plenty of new headlines and social media campaigns that will threaten to steal Kony 2012's thunder. Jason Russell's public transgression is just the tip of the iceberg. What else will transpire between now and then that people would rather pay attention to instead of this — or, at the very least, is more fresh in their minds?
2. Joseph Kony is not Osama bin Laden — and never will be.
But consider this: After the attacks of 9/11, Americans and our allies everywhere wanted Osama bin Laden's head with a fiery passion. Following the tragedies of that day, he became the face of evil for the American psyche. Why? Because we felt as though he had attacked us each personally. The men and women who perished in the Twin Towers, Pentagon, or Pennsylvania field were not some distant, unfamiliar "others." They were us. Bin Laden may have just as well crashed planes into our houses, where our loved ones sleep. Even so, it took nearly a decade to accomplish what everyone wanted done on September 12, 2001.
In her post, my friend points out that Kony 2012 has all the elements of a great, inspiring story — main characters, including the narrator, the villain, and the hero; a repeated description of the problem and the solution; and clear ways that the audience can become directly involved.
That’s all awesome, but I’ve seen that same strategy applied in almost every good documentary I’ve ever watched about social, political, and economic ills (and, believe me, I watch a lot of them). The far bigger obstacle to success is convincing viewers that this matters to them and affects them personally. Don’t just tell me that capturing Kony is the right thing to do; tell me why my action or inaction will have a direct impact on me. If you convince me that the food I’m eating will give me cancer, you better believe I’ll take action and not forget about it until it’s resolved. If you don’t, I’ll eventually be distracted, because our society is filled with nothing but distractions, and I only pay long-term attention to stuff that has a direct bearing on my daily life. People are self-centered, and this will have an impact on whether or not Kony 2012 just becomes another forgotten social media fad.
No one needed to convince anyone that Osama bin Laden was a threat to everyone. The opposite is true of Joseph Kony. A month ago, he could have been the next-door neighbor we'd never met, and our lives were just fine. How does Invisible Children change this?
To be sure, it's a formidable challenge. Kony will never be bin Laden in our minds — even if the atrocities he's committed are every bit as evil as those of the al-Qaeda leader (and they are, if not more so). The key is figuring out how to convince the public that Kony matters enough to us to pursue him. Invisible Children may have missed an opportunity by not first waging a large-scale public education campaign about Kony before releasing a flashy documentary about him — one that garnered as much attention as the video itself did. Without that, the whole endeavor comes across as random, and that doesn't help its cause.
What also doesn't help is the reality that Joseph Kony almost certainly now knows that a target is trained on his back. Bin Laden eluded capture for so long in part because he knew he was being pursued. Kony, on the other hand, may have developed a sense of complacency in recent times. No longer.
I don't want to portray myself as a naysayer. To be clear, I fully support the capture and prosecution of Joseph Kony, an individual who has done terrible things to little children and has caused fear and destruction across east-central Africa. But if we want to realize this goal, we should not kid ourselves about the obstacles we must face first.