At the conference, we have several panels on the use of social media to effect change. But how is social media most effectively used? We’ve seen instant youtube hits, such as “Charlie Bit My Finger,” and most recently Kony 2012. What made the latter video so popular, despite its length and relatively upsetting content?
In a recent blog post, “The Art of Going Viral,” the author attempts to explain why the Kony 2012 video acquired 100 million views in only 6 days. This makes Kony 2012 the fastest spread online video to date, followed by Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent at 9 days and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance at 18 days to 100 million views. He breaks down the analysis into three sections – source of the message, content, and diffusion network. Ultimately, he argues that Kony 2012 was not popularized because of the source; in fact most people still don’t know the names of the three Americans who made the video. Nor was it the content; a 30 minute documentary about an obscure African warlord isn’t really the hottest topic for youth to be tweeting about.
The diffusion network was key – Invisible Children has been working since 2003 to raise awareness about the situation of child soldiers in Uganda and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Over the years, they’ve reached out to colleges, churches, and high schools and mobilized a following of over five million supporters who host film screenings, speakers and other awareness events in their community. Mapping out the first 5,000 postersof the video, it is easy to see the concentration in the deep south and Midwest- places where Invisible Children already had followers.
Thus, the author argues, Kony 2012 became popular for two reasons: 1) it built off a network of pre-existing relationships that were made face-to-face during Invisible Children’s original outreach, and 2) the makers leveraged the religious calling of its followers to post and re-post the message. I’ll ignore the religious theory and focus on the former. Maybe organizations and causes would be more successful, in terms of their social media traffic, if they had a pre-existing network of supporters that had been cultivated through face-to-face interaction.
For better or worse, I think worse, the digital age in the US has made human interaction a rarity. My roommate gets visibly nervous talking on the phone, so I always have to call the landlord when we have an issue or call to place our dinner delivery order. But the makers of Kony 2012 realized something about Americans, at least those not in big cities like NYC or LA – we like human interaction. Social media, while having the incredible potential to connect people in new ways, cannot replace an actual handshake. As we gear up for the conference (next Friday), I think it’s important to acknowledge that social media has real power to catalyze change, but ponder if that change could be augmented with face-to-face outreach and fostering a network of supporters that actually meets together, not just via Skype conference calls.