Kony2012, the final indignity

So, after all the hype about the Kony2012 viral video and the wonderment at the very public meltdown of one of the project’s principal actors, tonight is the night of action: April 20th, when the 100+ million who watched the video are supposed to ‘cover the night’ with Kony posters and other paraphernalia.  Well, the night is still young but as of 8.26pm in New York at least the only evidence I could find of Joseph Kony was a video projection — basically, an abridged version of the viral video — being shown above the Deitch wall on Houston St and the Bowery.  This smacked of official action and nothing like the sort of spontaneous, social network-driven, groundswell response that the whole project was supposed to encourage.  A small crowd — I will round up substantially and say there were forty people — had gathered on the south side of Houston in the red neon glow of the Pulino’s restaurant sign to watch the video projection, almost all of them wearing official Kony2012 t-shirts and receiving a pep talk from the organizers.  Mostly, though, they were documenting themselves: cameras clicked and video cameras whirred as Kony2012 organizers gave interviews to other Kony2012 agents in one great closed circle of self-regard.

I happened to be standing near what might have been one of the only legitimate interviews taking place, between a woman I did not recognize and a blonde man who identified himself as Invisible Children’s Director of Programs for Central Africa — that is, Adam Finck.  At one point the woman rather bluntly suggested that the miniscule turnout must be a disappointment and noted that in the preceding days many had argued that this ‘Cover the Night’ event should be called off.  Finck said he had “an on-the-record and off-the-record answer to that” and proceeded to talk about how the goal had been to make Kony famous, that the video views had surpassed all expectations, etc.  I can attest that his off the record answer was every bit as anodyne, attempting to shift the focus from the failure of the big night.  Not far away, another organizer was trying to corral her flock into going up to Times Square where some other totally unorganic Kony2012 happening was to take place.

As I wrote some weeks ago, the way the Kony2012 video structured the narrative, watching it was really just an act of vanity that affirmed our own power.  So what does this night say about the dynamic people power this project was supposed to harness?  Was it the bad publicity surrounding Invisible Children that doomed this night?  Our callow inattentiveness as a nation?  Or was the Kony video just one of those internet memes that seemed interesting for a little while, like LOL cats or the ‘Downfall’ mashups?

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Not only did I previously write about the Kony2012 project, I wrote about the cool Retna graf on the Deitch wall visible in the picture at the top of this post — and about the JR mural that appeared earlier on the Deitch wall. Click here to see more of my photographs of street art.

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Update (24 Apr): A little late to the non-party, Megan Garber at the Atlantic has a post-mortem today trying to explain the failure of the ‘Cover the Night’ event.  Her answer: we identified the campaign too closely with Jason Russell, the narrator of the viral video whose kid was our naif guide through the thicket of Kony’s crimes, so when he lost his mind and wandered drunk and naked through the streets of San Diego he took the whole campaign with him.

Partly, of course, things got personal because the video made them personal: “Kony 2012” starred not only Kony himself, and not only Jacob, one of the Ugandan children affected by the warlord’s tactics, but also — famously, infamously — Jason Russell and his son. The video forced viewers to see Kony’s story as an extension of Jason Russell’s story, and of Jason Russell’s organization’s story, and of Jason Russell’s kid’s story. That was supposed to be what made the thing “relatable.” That was its power and its pitfall.

But it also meant that the campaign’s fortunes were connected to the person — which is to say, the persona — of Russell himself. When he fell, publicly and embarrassingly, the campaign fell, too.

Well, yes, but then Garber loses the plot:

Here’s the thing, though. Kony 2012 had, in reality, really very little to do with Russell. The rightness or wrongness of the campaign’s message is right or wrong regardless of the guy who’s amplifying it. As integral as Russell was to the creation of the video — and to the story it told — he was separate, actually, from the video’s message. And from the moral weight, such as it was, that that message conveyed.

In the age of social media, though, that separation is easy to forget. When our information is increasingly mediated through the filters of our friends, we are taught to treat information itself as a function of the person who has delivered it to us. This is how we make sense of the Internet; it’s how we know what to trust and what to dismiss, what to click and what to ignore. Our friends are our filters. And that’s a good thing: It helps us to know and to navigate the chaos that is, almost literally, the free flow of information.

But the flip side of the web’s ever-expanding social layer is that layer’s tendency to layer all knowledge, indiscriminately. It socializes us to assume that all information is social — that all information can be judged according to he or she who passed it along.

This gets the Kony2012 campaign exactly wrong.  As I argued in an earlier post, in reality it had really very little to do with Kony and everything to do with Jason Russell — and with his organization, Invisible Children, and more specifically with the millions of newly-motivated youth it was trying to rally to this cause about which they knew little and Invisible Children did not deign to inform them beyond some simple platitudes about evil.  This social phenomenon of mass American do-goodery could have been set in motion by any catalyst; that it was Joseph Kony was a historical accident born of the fact that Russell and his gang had visited Uganda and not, say, Sudan or the Congo or North Korea.  It was never clear how treating Joseph Kony like he was Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant was going to help anyone in Uganda.  In the end, people figured that and decided not to participate.  Bless them.

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