Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Kony2012 - just when you needed another analysis

Wow. Today was extraordinary. I had never heard of Joseph Kony when I woke up. My sleepy head was immediately inundated on all sides by *by far the most massive instance of online activism/discussion on a single issue I have ever encountered*. People were going crazy for this new campaign that promised to save thousands of children from slavery and death. By lunchtime I'd spent a couple of hours researching the issue, and had decided that the situation was a lot more nuanced than the campaign made out. I went back on facebook and said so. No sooner had I refreshed my feed, however, than just as quickly as it had arrived, all the hype had miraculously vanished. Suddenly the only thing anyone was talking about was how misguided and problematic Kony2012 was. What started as euphoria had melted into cynicism in a matter of minutes, but still on an absolutely unprecedented scale, like nothing I've ever seen. Inevitably, this second trend quickly relapsed into a yet more cautious aftermath in which people (myself included) said things like "well at least everyone's talking about it".

At the end of this article, for reference, I will briefly present the pros and cons of today's incredible events, as I see them. But first I will draw a largely unrelated point of interest from the whole thing.

Today has demonstrated in no uncertain terms the awesome twin powers of trend-following and trend-bucking in public debate. I've never seen it so clearly and breathtakingly displayed. Think of this: every year, hundreds of thousands of social change campaigns are started around the world, probably a few dozen on any given day. A surprisingly large proportion of these have access to excellent social media strategies and inspiring videos that have all the right proportions of hard-hitting info and emotional appeal. So what on earth made Kony2012 stand out? Why did this one go viral? It's not particularly large or narrow in its scope, and it's not focusing on an issue that's any more inherently interesting for western audiences than other campaigns.

In my opinion, its success lies in the way in managed to portray itself as a massive movement. The message I got from the video was: we will do this because everyone believes in us. Everyone wants us to succeed. Everyone cares about this - the only tragedy is that they don't know it yet. Hence the amazing impulse we all felt to hit the "share" or "retweet" buttons immediately afterwards. Basically, the video made me really really want to join in with a massive movement of, well, everyone. An imagined community incorporating every decent human. The only place I've ever seen this to the same extent before was Obama 2008, but that took months to reach the same pinnacle of trend-following, not hours.

So why the fall from grace? If it was such a powerful, successful movement, why was everyone against it by teatime? Because of trend-bucking. The same as when your favourite band doesn't seem so appealing when they finally make it. The same as how, in the Republican primary elections right now, each candidate's momentum is their own albatross - any candidate seen as doing well suffers a massive voter backlash, so that the one furthest ahead in the polls a week before the election always does worst. No one wants a predictable or easy outcome. No one wants to feel they're following something too popular.

It's tempting to say that those who abandon their favourite bands when they get famous are shallow - they were never in it for the music but only for the social status that comes with it. The inherent coolness in being different. This misses a basic point about music, as well as everything else we use to define ourselves - its obviously a social tool. Of course we're in it for the social status. Music only sounds good if the right people are listening to it. This isn't a bad thing, it's just a way to build your own identity, same as humans have done since they were invented. Equally, when Kony2012 went sour, this was because of a backlash against populism. Suddenly everyone noticed the massive trend, and they couldn't bail fast enough. The sneaking suspicion that supporting the campaign marked you out as an intellectual dope or a cultural sheep was creeping up on us all. And equally, this wasn't a bad thing - in fact it led to a lot of productive information-spreading and discussion.

I was far from immune to these processes. I normally like to think of myself as engaged, knowledgeable, thoughtful and uninfluenced by the mere fluctuations of popular opinion. But sure enough, as soon as I'd seen the video I decided that I would be the one to buck the trend and fly in the faces of everyone else. I read the tumblr before I'd seen it posted anywhere. I posted my own "provocative" facebook update. I remember the strong feeling of dismay when I suddenly discovered that the tide had already turned, and I'd been part of the turning - I wasn't different or unique after all! I hastily returned to facebook and added a statement about how actually Kony2012 wasn't all bad, but by this point it was hopeless, any opinion I could possibly muster was already common currency, diffused a thousand times through the endless comment threads growing like bamboo everywhere you could look. Only then did I truly stop and reflect, leading to this blog post, which even still I expect anyone could have written.

The fact is that if the morning had started with the onslaught against Kony2012 (which actually came in the afternoon), my first post would have been one of support for the campaign, not one of disapproval. There's no way I can deny it. My opinions were almost entirely shaped by (and in reaction against) what I perceived as the mainstream. I didn't give a full and balanced appraisal of the issue, I merely stated the side that I felt needed extra weight to achieve equilibrium.

This common reaction to public opinion is not necessarily an unhelpful one. For example, in dinnertime conversation, if someone states an opinion, you don't reply by giving all the pros and cons on both sides of the issue. You either agree with them, if you want to be polite, by adding arguments that support their own opinion. Or you disagree with them, if you want to have a discussion, by giving arguments that undermine their position. I'm always catching myself arguing against my friends on issues that we basically agree about. Being truly balanced is boring and a bit weird in most social situations. One feels it's one's duty to redress the scales if one perceives imbalance, but not to tilt them if they're already balanced, which is never. This is all fine and good. In fact, I think Kony2012 demonstrates the wonderful Habermasian nature of the internet as a public sphere - a realm where we can have free and informed debate that, given enough participants and time, ultimately arrives at balanced and useful perspectives for everyone, through a reaction of one opinion off against another.

The process to get there, especially on the internet, is often tenuous and unpleasant, because as I've just described, it necessarily involves everyone being very opinionated, at least to start with. On old issues like religion and economics we tend to develop these positions very little because they're already so entrenched as a part of who we are; thus debate can be self-defeating and make you want to strangle yourself. But when a new issue that no one's been exposed to yet - be it Coldplay, Newt Gingrich or Joseph Kony - comes along, well then the good old trend-following vs trend-bucking dynamic comes into play, and as we saw today, this can be harnessed on the internet to generate something truly glorious to behold.

In case you were wondering, here are my general, non-specific opinions about Kony2012 after the dust has settled:

  • At least it got everyone talking (ha!) about an important issue.
  • It has almost certainly brought the career of Joseph Kony to a more rapid end (though probably not a smooth one, possibly with unpleasant side effects, and probably not much more rapid).
  • It has raised awareness about the power of grassroots activism for achieving positive results on important issues.

  • It misled people by portraying the situation in Central Africa as straightforward, both morally and pragmatically.
  • It has not suggested any practical solutions to the problem it identifies without major flaws.
  • It has presented the issue as if it were a unique case - as if child soldiers and related horrors have not been a major focus of international diplomacy for many decades in many different parts of the world. This could mean that many people will become less willing to take on and seek out other instances of similar war crimes because they feel that Kony2012 has taken care of them all. In reality, of course, Kony is a relatively minor cause of suffering within the general conflict of his region alone.

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