« Perverse outcomes of Kony 2012

So the Kony 2012 video doesn’t exactly jive with reality. There’s still some really interesting and important stuff at play here: we’re in danger of letting slacktivism appear legitimate.

It used to be that if you cared about something enough to share your thoughts with your elected representative, it took a good deal of effort to do so: you picked up the phone, wrote a letter, or visited them at their office. That’s to say, you paid for the message to be delivered with your time.

Today, and in the Kony 2012 example, the information delivery cost is basically zero: it’s not at all inconvenient to send a message to the powers to be “demanding” action. This means a whole lot more messages are going to be sent–and people will speak up about issues that they cared about, but not enough about to write a letter. Given how easy it is to write a letter, we need to be honest with ourselves about how little we actually care about most of what happens in the world.

The Kony 2012 campaign risks making slacktivism appear legitimate in two ways: politically and socially.

  1. Slacktivism will be politically legitimized if politicians actually respond to the campaign and instigate military involvement. Clearly this is the goal, but given that the campaign requests going into Uganda for a guy who hasn’t even been there in six years, this kind of response would be to placate misinformed constituents rather than to actually do good. The situation overseas is far too nuanced to be solved by a populist reaction before attention drifts to the next thing.
  2. No matter what happens in reality, if Kony’s caught, social media will credit itself for capturing him. If he were captured today by people not even aware of the campaign, social media users would pat themselves on the back even though their behavior had no causal link to the outcome they seek. This socially legitimizes slacktivism in the minds of the participants, meaning that we’ll see more of this behavior. It’s dangerous to incorrectly ascribe consequences to your behavior.

The instigating video itself was incredibly well produced, and the fact that a 30-minute video has been watched over 100 million times is remarkable. The problem is that stuff like this only works the first time. Invisible Children found a new formula for social media secret sauce, and soon everyone will find it tastes bland. The solution proposed by the Kony video isn’t systemic or sustainable; this one shot campaign has been used on the wrong issue.

A country only has so many resources, politically legitimized slacktivism means those resources will be at the whim of whatever issue is currently à  la mode. People want to do good and make the world better and social media is probably the second-best tool for them to do so.

Social media is a lever, not a magic wand. There’s a big difference between clicking share on facebook and actually investing in growth, like through Kiva.

Seriously, go sign up on Kiva right now, they’ll even give you $25 to get started.

« What do you think?