Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video was an unprecedented viral success, having achieved over 100 million views, including some 88 million on YouTube alone, with its plea for mass support for the ongoing effort to apprehend Joseph Kony, the leader of Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army and a notorious exploiter of child warriors. Tonight, we will find out just how much of an impact it really had.
As readers who watched the video may recall, Invisible Children is planning a “Cover the Night” event for the evening of April 20, in which supporters are supposed to plaster the downtown area of every city and town in America with posters calling for continued support for the U.S.-assisted manhunt in East Africa.
The idea is to keep up political pressure on U.S. lawmakers and President Obama so U.S. forces remain in Africa until Kony is caught, ideally, by the end of 2012.
Thus, “Kony 2012” and “Cover the Night” will provide an interesting case study of the efficacy of social media for not only organizing events but also -- the important part -- inspiring real commitment. What proportion of those 100 million viewers will actually care enough to turn out tonight?
It would be unreasonable to expect most (or anything even close) of the viewers to turn out, as mass recruiting is always a hit-and-mostly-miss affair. But one out of 100 viewers would still work out to about 1 million people hitting the streets tonight -- a huge number. Even just one of 1,000 would work out to 100,000 people -- still one of the largest public demonstrations in the U.S. in years.
It’s true that Invisible Children has faced criticism for its approach to this cause, including allegedly commercializing the plight of African children, and Invisible Children founder Jason Russell’s public meltdown threw another wrench in the works.
But in a way, that’s the whole point of creating a “crowd-sourced,” decentralized organization: at this point “Cover the Night” can probably go forward without Invisible Children -- provided the grassroots are committed enough. The cause is still good, Kony is still out there, kids are still being enslaved -- and now everyone knows it. So what happens next?
All these issues go back to the question I asked in a previous post, following the initial success of “Kony 2012”: How do you maintain interest and commitment in a cause in the long term, for the period of time -- however long it may be -- required to actually solve the problem?
An international manhunt in the African bush is difficult, meaning Kony might not be brought to justice for years. Once you have forged a connection via social media, how do you keep someone inspired about a cause that may take weeks, months or years to resolve?