On March 5, a non-profit called Invisible Children released a video on video-sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo. The video, called Kony 2012, urged its audience to help capture a brutal African warlord named Joseph Kony by doing something very simple — ”sharing” the video on social media networks and using social media to get the attention of cultural and political leaders who could help capture Kony, an international war criminal.
According to Zach Barrows, Invisible Children’s movement director, their campaign was successful at getting people to view the 30-minute video and talk about Kony 2012 — way more successful than they could have ever imagined.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Barrows told Weld. “Our hope was for 500,000 people to have seen this film by the end of the year, and right now, geez, it’s well over 130 million people have seen it. Obviously, it’s completely blown us away.”
The film went viral. According to the Visible Measures blog, it reached 100 million views in only six days — three days faster than the second fastest video to reach 100 million views, Susan Boyle’s audition video from the British TV program Got Talent.
And, perhaps surprisingly, Birmingham, its suburbs and the students in them had an awful lot to do with that success. As you’ll find out, Birmingham was hip to #Kony2012 way before Oprah, Justin Bieber and Sean “Diddy” Combs were tweeting about it.
Social media wizardry
“First of all, this is the most viral video we’ve ever witnessed spreading online, so is itself an extremely interesting case study,” Gilad Lotan, the vice president of research and development at SocialFlow, told Weld in an email. SocialFlow does for the internet and social networks what Nielsen’s ratings do for TV. In a post on SocialFlow’s blog, Lotan performed some social media wizardry and used an algorithm called OpenOrd to graph out the geographic locations of the first 5,000 people to use one of two Twitter hashtags — #Kony2012 and #StopKony — associated with the Kony 2012 video.
What resulted is the image below. See that big cluster on the top right? The real big one? The one that’s bigger than any other cluster? That represents folks in Birmingham who used Kony-related hashtags.
“The cluster is substantially larger than the others, leading us to believe that Invisible Children had strong roots in Alabama,” Lotan wrote in that blog post. “Additionally, the hashtag #Kony2012 initially trended in Birmingham on March 1, a few days before the video was even placed online.”
The video’s strong roots were due to what Invisible Children calls “roadie teams.”
“We send teams around the country — we call them roadie teams — and they actually screen these films, our films, in person,” Barrows told Weld. “These are teams of five people who travel around in vans.”
These roadie teams screened the Kony 2012 video in schools, high schools, colleges and places of worship. The teams interact with the students, answer their questions and educate them about Joseph Kony’s habit of abducting children — an estimated 66,000 so far — for use as sex slaves and child soldiers (hence Invisible Children). The team that was in Alabama also included a Ugandan named Santo Openy who survived a war with Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. According to Barrows, students react strongly to meeting, in person, someone who has experienced Kony’s terror.
These events established what Lotan calls “pre-existing networks” which can be activated to spread the word about the #Kony2012 campaign. These networks were also cultivated in other medium-sized cities across the country, and Lotan said they were essential to the video’s meteoric rise.
“This movement did not emerge from the big cities, but rather small-medium sized cities across the United States. It is heavily supported by Christian youth, many of whom post Biblical psalms as their profile bios,” Lotan wrote in his blog post. In an email to Weld, Lotan said it was “rare to see such incredibly visible trends emerging from medium-sized cities.”
Barrows, too, thought it was a bit odd that the bleeding edge of the #Kony2012 phenomenon began in medium-sized cities. He said that Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and yes, Birmingham “are not what you think of as hot spots that are really, you know, tastemakers, but those are the places that really set this film on a trajectory.”
The Invisible Children roadie team was in Alabama from Feb. 27 until March 4. Barrows said one roadie team event in Birmingham was particularly successful.
“I know that, for us, it was at Oak Mountain High School, which was by far the largest response we saw in Birmingham and, actually, throughout this entire tour, that was the screening that had people most excited about sharing this film,” Barrows said.
More than 1,500 students saw the video at Oak Mountain High School on Feb. 29, Barrows said.
“It looks like that was the screening that really set things off for us in the Birmingham area,” Barrows said.
The easy ask
At the end of the 30-minute long Kony 2012 video, there is what some folks call an “ask.” In many presentations in the non-profit and for profit world, the ask is for money. In Kony 2012, the ask involves no money at all. The video and the accompanying Kony2012.com website simply ask that viewers share the video on Facebook or talk about it on Twitter and message any one of an influential group of 32 “culturemakers” and “policymakers.” The list includes former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton along with George Clooney, Lady Gaga and minister Rick Warren.
According to Lotan, the Kony2012.com website mechanics were instrumental to the video’s virality. He described the site as a “1-click-easy-way for folks to ping @LadyGaga or @Oprah and put pressure on them to participate.” After the culture makers receive the tweet or message, they can watch the video and express support and, in the process, share the campaign with their millions of social media followers. It worked. According to Lotan, Invisible Children got nine major celebrities to respond in the initial push of the #Kony2012 campaign, a feat “which, in itself, draws massive numbers of eyeballs.”
Lotan said he thinks the success of the Kony 2012 phenomenon will lead other campaigns to use “similar celeb-spamming mechanics.”
“Honestly I worry about this, as I suspect that the more campaigns that do this, the harder it’ll get to actually reach celebs, as they’ll be less attentive to audiences on social media and much more picky about content they respond to,” Lotan wrote.
Barrows attributes the effectiveness of their ask to the roadie teams. “It’s such an easy ask, you know, to ask someone to push something forward,” Barrows said. “But I think that so many times in social media, you know, it’s easy to send something along to someone else, but a lot of times we don’t do it. I think that it happened so much in this case because these students that saw this film, they had an experience in real life. They got to meet people, and so they were deeply affected by it.”
“I think that their energy really translated to the online world.”
Here in Birmingham, we may not be tastemakers but, by God, we can tweet with the best of them.