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Why “Shares” and “Likes” Won’t Really Change the World

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It’s been a hell of a couple weeks for Invisible Children, the organization behind the viral video KONY 2012,” and its founders. First the group attracted a firestorm of criticism concerning everything from their financial transparency to their motives. Then the co-founder who stars in the video was detained by police for roaming the streets of San Diego naked and raving in what seems to be a stress-induced psychological break caused by the backlash. Now this old IC video has surfaced. (Wow. Just wow.) You’ll notice that most of this news is not, in fact, about capturing Joseph Kony.
Without delving into the worthwhileness of the campaign or the political complexities behind KONY 2012 (which have been well covered elsewhere), the movement is a fascinating illustration of the power and the limits of social media. In ten days, the KONY 2012 video had over 80 million views on YouTube. Like never before, it’s remarkably easy to mobilize people and to mobilize them fast, but do we really know what we’re being mobilized for? And once we’re mobilized, are we really effecting positive change, or just making ourselves feel like we are? In an instant—half an instant—we can “like” something, we can share it, we can give it credence without really knowing to what we’re attaching legitimacy and our name. It’s my generation’s version of “saving lives for the cost of a cup of coffee a day.”
I first came across the KONY 2012 video when a friend shared it on my Facebook wall. I was moved. You see that kind of unimaginable suffering, and if you have any compassion at all, you want to help. And when “help” is marketed as being as easy as clicking “like” and buying a $30 action kit with an awareness bracelet, what heartless bastard wouldn’t?
I “liked” the video and Invisible Children on Facebook and replied “yes” to a local screening of the film sponsored by a friend’s organization. My response was immediate, emotional, almost unthinking. It’s just so easy. Joseph Kony is clearly a bad guy. And I want people to know that I care about bringing bad guys to justice. (Because, let’s be honest, the desire to project a certain persona is a major facet of social media, just as it was a facet of the KONY 2012 video.) Mine was exactly the response social media marketing is intended to produce.
A day and some googling later, however, I was unliking Invisible Children and changing my response to the video on my wall. I had too many issues with the group and their presentation. With the short memory of Facebook, I figured it was a correction made in the dark—who would notice, as the online world had moved on—but it was the principle. Part of me was kicking myself for my itchy “like” finger. The other part of me felt a little manipulated. IC got what they wanted—I know who Joseph Kony is, I want him caught, I spread the word—but they lost me.
The immediacy and fleeting nature of social media is what makes it a powerful but risky tool for cause marketing. It’s certainly not limited to KONY 2012. The same goes for breast cancer and animal welfare and planting trees and even for-profit campaigns.    It’s not that these movements are not good or valuable or noble, or that they don’t deserve getting behind. It’s that we’re getting a little bit trigger-happy with our “like” buttons. We’re not informing ourselves, which means we might be supporting something, based on savvy social media marketing, that we wouldn’t so readily support if we knew more. With each click, are we diluting the impact of such campaigns, becoming passive in our advocacy, and opening ourselves up to cause fatigue? And do likes and shares really mean anything when we’re just as likely to share a cat video as we are a human rights appeal?
We all want to be heroes, but most of us are heroes without a cause. Social media movements like KONY 2012 offer us a cause with the click of a mouse. Whether or not the efforts of Invisible Children will be instrumental in bringing Joseph Kony to justice remains to be seen, and it is far more complicated than their watered-down-for-public-consumption video makes it out to be. But what the movement has shown us, is that just because a cause is successfully marketed doesn’t mean it’s successful. In fact, we’ve seen just how quickly the social media tide can turn. As IC is quickly learning, “famous” and “infamous” are not the same thing. Which is why we’re talking about nude arrests and not the invisible children.

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