There’s a little African child trapped in me, or ruminations on Kony 2012 and slacktivism

Is Kony 2012 still trending? Or is it already dated? I can’t keep up with the speed of the Internet these days.

In case you’ve lived under a rock (i.e., your wireless’s been down) for the last week or so, here’s the gist. Nonprofit organization Invisible Children posts a 30-minute video raising awareness of guerrilla leader Joseph Kony and his usage of child soldiers. Celebrities like Justin Bieber, P. Diddy, and Rihanna get involved, and the video goes pandemic viral. As with anything popular, cue inevitable backlash.

I finally got around to watching the video earlier today, and here are some quick impressions:
1. Impressive production values, but does the White House really tap out letters and other correspondence on old typewriters?
2. I don’t know whether they will succeed in making Joseph Kony famous, but they’re doing a great job making Invisible Children and Jason Russell famous.
3. Is it hypocritical to use your toddler as the emotional centerpiece of a movie about child exploitation?
4. Jason Russell looks like a hipster Prezbo with good hair.
5. The video totally has an Infant Sorrow African Child vibe to it.

For those of you who found the video inspirational, my apologies. It’s just that my cynicism-dar totally goes off in White People Saving Black People scenarios.

Anyway, I’m not going to go in-depth about the criticisms surrounding Invisible Children. There are plenty of excellent posts out there pointing out IC’s questionable finances (their directors ball pretty hard for working at a nonprofit), possibly misleading facts in their video, and their oversimplification of a complex situation. All things considered and any naysaying on my part aside, Joseph Kony is probably a “bad” person blah blah blah who should be brought to justice blah blah blah and Invisible Children is probably doing a “good” thing in bringing awareness to this issue blah blah blah.

What I really want to talk about is slacktivism and clicktivism. One thing that the video does very well is to highlight the role that new technology and social media plays in how we communicate and share information in this modern age and, subsequently, how we’re made aware of various issues. There’s been an outcry that this video promotes slacktivism, the idea that sharing or Liking or retweeting things online has no effect other than to make the sharer/Liker/retweeter feel a sense of satisfaction and righteous indignation.

(Now, charges of slacktivism could certainly be levied against me, especially if you follow my Facebook feed, where I share a bunch of “important” articles that nobody ever reads.)

But to the key question: how do we create real change? I think it comes from three things: awareness, education, and action. With all our new-fangled technology, awareness is becoming ever easy. Of course, education and action are progressively harder. Rather than criticize slacktivism, I think it’s important to recognize that technology, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and social media play a key role in the first step of awareness. With ubiquitous smart phones and wireless Internet, awareness can happen almost instantaneously. This was seen with the Arab Spring and Occupy protests from last year, and even this past week with the Kony 2012 viral video. To that end, slacktivism actually has some value.

Of course, once we’re made aware of an issue, we’re individually responsible for doing some research, educating ourselves, and engaging with the issue in a critical manner. Then comes the hardest part: we need to actually translate what we know and have learned into direct action. Which means getting off our butts and cellphones and laptops and doing something that doesn’t involve the clicking of a button.

Gah, work.

Maybe somebody will make a “volunteer” app or something.

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7 Comments on “There’s a little African child trapped in me, or ruminations on Kony 2012 and slacktivism”

  1. Matt says:

    I used to read your “important” articles on facebook, but then I quit facebook. I was likely the only one.

    Here’s a link to a really interesting thing (in large part) on social networks and activism. It’s bit dense but worth the slog. http://harpers.org/archive/2012/01/0083740

  2. Anthony K says:

    This meme happened faster than I could follow. I very highly recommend Teju Cole’s 7-tweet warning against the back-patting and hollow self-congratulating this kind of video thrives on: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2012/03/08/teju-cole-on-american-sentimentality-towards-africa/

    • Jonathan H. says:

      This is great, but one thing to consider of is that P. Diddy and Rihanna (along with other celebs) were instrumental in the video blowing up the way it did, so it’s not purely a “White Savior” matter. Class and American exceptionalism play a huge role as well.

      Obviously there are a variety of factors all at play here. One area of fascination to me in all this is the “viral” aspect of what happened. Rather than focusing on the debatable content of the video, I think there’s something useful to be gleaned by how Invisible Children was able to use their media savviness to garner so much attention for their cause. I think this is the first time that I’ve seen a political cause blow up like this… normally it’s just kitten videos and other trite memes. If it’s now a fact of modern living that social media can drive something like this to the forefront of the national consciousness, other, “more important” causes should take note.

      Or do you think the popularity of the Kony 2012 video stems not just from its marketing, production, and packaging but also from white sentimentality?

      • Anthony K says:

        Without having watched more than a minute of it, the film seems squarely in the Bono, Jolie, et al genre of conspicuous consumption that says ‘I’m rich but I still care about real things.’ Calling it white sentimentality was a shortcut, but it gets the point across. It helps that the production value was high, but the role of celebrities here was enormous in making it spread. That alone wasn’t what seemed to bother people though, as much as the ‘West knows best’ attitude. Am I going to end up watching this video?

  3. Mike says:

    What interests me was how quick the analytical pieces about the Kony phenomenon were written. The video is posted all over Facebook, and the next morning every thinking journalist (or blogger) is writing about it.

    I think there is some complicity on behalf of the chattering class when things like this go viral–there is the analytical version of a news hole to fill, and this is a pretty simple thing to write about. I wonder what the average person’s engagement with the video is, and if it deserves as much spilled ink as we have had.

  4. Diana says:

    More from Teju Cole on this in the Atlantic.

    • Jonathan H. says:

      This is great stuff. Teju Cole is thoughtful, nuanced, and reflective. Thanks for sharing this, Diana.

      Edit: the other links in Cole’s piece are also worthwhile reads. I wonder whether mass “awareness” via social media is a positive thing if it doesn’t lead to critical and sophisticated engagement with issues at hand. Perhaps awareness for awareness’s sake is overstated and overrated.


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