From Kony2012 to Horny2012
Twelve days ago, I opened Twitter on my way to work and, like you, found the KONY2012 hashtag running amok. The hashtag hounded me all over the web and everyone, it seemed, was asking me to spare 30 minutes for the invisible children of Uganda. The guys who tweet reliably and exclusively about the quality of their nights out and hangovers had changed their tune, today they implored me to make Joseph Kony famous. Even Rihanna told me to watch and tweet, just like she had.
Populism, slactivism and memes as movements
It seems the line between memes and movements has blurred beyond the pale. We live in a world where we #occupy everything on the same platforms that gave rise to the Arab Spring. As the most successful viral campaign ever, Kony2012 grew bigger and faster than the Arab Spring did in social media terms (at their peak, tweets per day for Arab Spring and Kony2012 were 230,000 and 3.6 million respectively).
Thing is, two weeks ago it was Kony2012, today it is Otters who look like Benedict Cumberbatch. Yes the scale is incomparable, but I'm not entirely convinced the tone is. Presented with the same evidence as Jason Russell's five-year-old son, huge swathes of first-world, middle-class, social media users found themselves hoisted onto a bandwagon by friends, celebrity endorsements and high production values - and just like his child, their ambition was simple: stop Joseph Kony.
But is it simply a case of slactivist populism? And does it even matter if it serves to raise awareness and get people talking? In the age of Ushahidi and the Arab Spring, I believe it does matter for people to know the difference -- or to, at the very least, be curious about what lies beneath.
Of course, a few people did take a closer look and what they saw was a curious mix of hardcore Christian Evangelists, dodgy money trails and cringe-inducing music videos that would slacken the worldliest of jaws. Soon, people were asking questions: who was this smiley hipster and his friends? What, pray tell, was he was doing with his followers' money? And is this, in fact, a thinly disguised Christian recruitment scheme?
Then, the unimaginable happened. Jason Russell lost it. On 16 March, he was found naked, ranting and allegedly masturbating on a San Diego sidewalk. It took little more than an hour for Kony to become Bony and then Horny2012.
Disloyal followers and über schadenfreude
Twitter erupted with the same energy it had just days earlier. Only this time, they were having one hell of a laugh. To be honest, it was hard not to. When I first heard I didn't flinch before tweeting: "You know how sometimes the stress of work gets too much and you end up wanking in public? No? Me neither." I was not alone, the crowds showed no mercy.
Our cruel ability to seek delight and entertainment at others' clear anguish isn't anything new, but social platforms channels amplify and normalise it. Gone are the days when we'd jeer with a small group of friends, now we're sharing on all our social platforms and all the sharing makes our cruelty feel normal, giving us license to comment more. We are all broadcasters of dark humour and opinion and our audience is the same. In 2008 we followed Britney Spears as she bed-hopped, shaved her head and smashed things up with umbrellas. It entertained us. Today, we are in the adolescence of an era of über schadenfreude.
When the Invisible Children video went viral it graduated for better and for worse from being a conversation into a community. A community is as much a responsibility as it is an asset. We regularly have this chat with clients at TH_NK and the message is singular in its simplicity: a community is always two-way, whether you like it that way or not. Once you put yourself out there you lose the right to turn communications on and off, or dictate its terms -- and the bigger your community asset, the bigger your responsibility to it becomes.
Your followers will quickly become disloyal if they feel hoodwinked, or lied to. On the flip side, every time there's a negative perception an opportunity to right that wrong will only make the relationship you have with your followers stronger. It's the basics of human relations, on a super-sized scale.
Eleanor Roosevelt or an extraordinary hoax?
After witnessing in the last few days the epic rise and dramatic fall of Kony2012, I can't help wondering where this leaves the grooving hipsters in the high schools we saw on the video but far more importantly, the tragic lives of those invisible children in Uganda and I'm left with two lasting thoughts.
Firstly, Eleanor Roosevelt famously encouraged us to "learn from the mistakes of others. You can't live long enough to make them all yourself." I hope those of us with lofty ideals and passion for making the world a better place aren't dissuaded by the apparent misfortune of Jason Russell and his colourful crew.
Finally there's a niggle that I just can't shake, which if true would reframe this entire subject. I suggested to a friend last night who is a screenwriter that if he'd written this story into a script I'd say it was a little too far-fetched to believe. If I'm completely honest part of me still just doesn't believe in the egomaniacal characters, overly-designed insignia and far-fetched decline of it all. What if - just what if - this is an extraordinary hoax? A social experiment? A marketing campaign? It's not completely insane to suggest it might be.
This article by Lea featured on wired.co.uk on 20th March 2012