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#Kony2012 and the Elements of Virality

MLC was in a bit of a social media bubble last week at SXSW, but one thing that was impossible to ignore – and that clearly had impact outside the insular circle of digerati and penetrated the actual culture – was the #Kony2012 campaign. A viral awareness campaign designed by the non-profit Invisible Children, the video, website and associated hashtag are designed to inform Westerners about a Ugandan rebel named Joseph Kony, infamous for abducting children and using them as soldiers or sex slaves.

I had heard of Kony’s group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, before – mostly because a former colleague now works in Uganda – and US actions against the group were the subject of a minor political kerfuffle a few months ago. And Invisible Children has been around for a decade or so. But this campaign rocketed the charity and the situation in Uganda into the stratosphere of public awareness:

In the aftermath, the campaign and Invisible Children have come under some well-deserved criticism; the video drastically simplifies the issues in Uganda and takes a few liberties with the truth, and the lack of Ugandans (or Africans in general) in the leadership of the organization has given the whole effort a sort of neo-colonial feel. It’s entirely possible that the way the campaign was executed will ultimately do more harm than good for Uganda, particularly if the immense viral success proves to be inadequate in sustaining long-term pressure on various international authorities to stop Kony’s activities. (Ethan Zuckerman has some analysis along these lines that’s well worth reading.)

Of more interest for us, though, is how Invisible Children managed to – if only for a moment – get everyone aware and talking about something that for most Westerners is as remote and abstract as unicorns or the moon. Luckily, some quick and dirty visualizations from SocialFlow give us a clue. First up: a word cloud of the bio fields of early #Kony2012 tweeters:

Notice any clues here? “Love life” is a common phrase in Twitter bio fields, but there, in the center, top right, bottom left, we get our first clue as to who, by and large, the early #Kony2012 tweeters were: female Evangelical Christian university students. SocialFlow also analyzed the networks of retweets and followers, cross-referencing it with location data:

If you’re not super-familiar with American culture, you might not realize that areas of the US like the south and midwest (where most of these cities are) are thought of as areas of higher religiosity than, for instance, the east and west coasts. According to SocialFlow’s analysis, #Kony2012 began trending in Birmingham on March 1 – a few days before the video was even posted online.

So, to extrapolate a little: the #Kony2012 campaign started not through internet wizardry – that was just fuel for the fire. The spark came in a real-life network of people: evangelical Christians in particular cities. And when we look at Invisible Children’s operating model, we find that they’ve spent considerable time organizing in places like Alabama, Oklahoma, and Ohio; they have aired their documentaries at countless churches, high schools, and colleges during that time.

Having painstakingly cultivated a cultural “base”, Invisible Children activated it by making activism easy. They picked out leaders and “culturemakers” – celebrities, actors, musicians, and geek-leaders like Mark Zuckerberg – and made sending a tweet to them as easy as clicking a button on their website:

What’s the parallel for brands? If you expect the magic of social media to make your messages and causes relevant, you might be in for a disappointment. There is no substitute for real-world, shoe-leather relevance and a cultural “base” for excursions into the broader world – then making their jobs as the absorbers and carriers of your message as easy as humanly possible, from learning all the way down to sharing.

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