First thing’s first: the Kony 2012 video is not about African children or justice for war crimes. Produced by Jason Russell of Invisible Children, this video, which has garnered over 50 million YouTube and Vimeo hits, is not about saving Africa or world peace or justice for the oppressed. Quite simply, this video is about you.
“Viral videos” are exceptionally rare, as those of us who work in this field are consistently telling people. That said, there are lessons we can glean from videos that do make it to the promised, far-away land of “virality.” Here are just a few reasons why this video is making the rounds:
1) Using Familiar Imagery and References – People like to be where they’re comfortable. We enjoy cultural references because we understand the jokes and we feel like we are connected to something bigger. This video doesn’t just tell the story of Jason’s mission or of Ugandan children. It tells the story first by connecting us to the larger world, drawing examples of how people and movements all over the globe are sharing information and stories to relate to one another. It then narrows in on this particular story, telling it via a medium we all recognize and can associate with – Facebook Timeline.
While many of us are still getting used to the new features, the familiar logo and cobalt blue coloring are comforting to us, and we feel like we understand what’s happening on the screen in front of us, even if the video switches often to Ugandan children and rebel troops. Being comfortable means we are more likely to stay involved and engaged in the storyline.
2) Emphasizing Connections, not Contrasts, to Appeal to the Viewer – Filmmaker Jason Russell’s American son makes repeated appearances in this video. According to short clips of conversations between the two, this son thinks abducted and abused children is sad, and he wants to grow up to be just like his dad and go to Africa and fight bad guys. The video also features Jacob, a Ugandan boy who was a victim of Koby’s campaign. Jason isn’t making us feel guilty by contrasting the two lives these boys have led, but instead, he makes connections, saying that these two boys really are very similar, repeatedly switching between clips of each of them. Connecting instead of contrasting – highlighting similarities instead of differences – leads to positive emotions, not negative ones, which makes us happy to keep watching.
3) Highlighting Past Successes – There are a lot of problems out there, and we hear about them all the time. Between hunger, poverty, child abuse, sex slavery, kidnapping, gun violence, and everything else, it’s hard not to feel discouraged by the state of the world. While Kony 2012 does highlight the problem and the challenge, it also tells the story of success. Everybody wants to be a part of something successful, instead of feeling like they’re forever fighting a losing battle. This video says “we’re moving, we’re successful, we’re on our way to even bigger things – come join us!” Making your campaign seem powerful and effective will make people want to participate.
4) Conveying Urgency – Timeliness and urgency are key components to any call to action. The question is not just “why?” but “why now?” Kony 2012 address this in two ways. First, this video will expire on December 31, 2012. No matter that that date is almost 9 months away, it still highlights a short, concentrated push for action, instead of asking you to care for some indefinite period that could stretch on for all of eternity. Second, Invisible Children has designated April 20, 2012, as the day of action – the day it will make Kony famous, by putting up posters, and spreading the word all over major cities. That day is fast approaching, and we have only a few short weeks to secure action toolkits, organize our actions, and prepare. This encourages people to get involved now.
5) Making the Video About Us – Effective storytelling is at the heart of inspiring people to care about an issue and then to take action. While everyone loves a story about good people triumphing over evil forces, such stories don’t encourage us to become a part of the narrative. This video has a wide cast of characters – Joseph Kony (war criminal), Jason Russell (the filmmaker), Jason’s son, then Jacob (the Ugandan boy), the Invisible Children crusaders, U.S. lawmakers, celebrities, and then most importantly of all – you. You, the viewer, want to know that you can make a difference, that you have that power, that you are, in essence, the hero of this story. Making this jump is crucial to making your viewers feel invested in the cause.
It should be noted that not everyone is in love with this video. Some have argued that it inspires a simple reading of complex issues and feeds into a western, white-man-as-savior narrative. Others claim “the point is to “literally cry your eyes out”, having been moved into a frenzy of moral clarity by the quite revolting mixture of generalised disgust at black Africa, infatuation with white American virtue and technological superiority, and a dose of good old-fashioned blood-lust.” And a digest of the response of blogs to not just the video, but also the organization, points to a contentious relationship (as always) within the activist community about the best way to bring about change.
All of that said, whether you liked, hated, or were ambivalent towards this video, understanding why millions of people are watching it is a good start to looking at how we can unleash that interest and passion in our own causes. Just remember: your media doesn’t have to have 50 million+ views to inspire your community to take action for a good cause and create positive, lasting change.