As of today over 82 million YouTube viewers have seen Kony 2012, the video which aims to make Joseph Kony, militant leader of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, public enemy number one.
The video is a viral phenomenon which makes no secret of targeting social media users -- images of people using Twitter, YouTube and Facebook are woven through the film, particularly as the narrator outlines the call to action. The plan is simple -- create a siren of voices throughout the world, via letters, videos, phone calls and yes, social media, to get our government to take Kony down.
The video possesses the perfect blend of elements needed to turn a good cause into a social explosion: a clear bad guy (Kony abducts children and forces them to become brutal soldiers), an inspiring plan of action and, most importantly, an invitation to find the compassion in our hearts. It goes beyond simply showing a photo of a victimized child or a war-torn land. The film zooms out to show us, literally, our world, inviting viewers to think about how connected Facebook and the Internet has made us. Given the film's record number of views and shares, viewers clearly got the message and took it to their networks.
However, since the wildfire spread of Kony 2012, a backlash has arisen against the film and its supporters. A main complaint is the over-simplification of the issues at stake coupled with a sneer about the supporters' "slacktivism." This derisive label is applied to those who support causes through simple measures, like sharing on social media, putting up posters, starting online petitions and in the case of Kony 2012, ordering an Action Kit.
It is true that volunteering inside a war zone and posting about a war zone on Facebook are two very different things. However, it is also true that the "slacktivist" label is unwarranted. The word implies that Kony 2012 supporters are lazy, and that their actions are not particuarly helpful.
But is posting online about an important issue really "slacking"? If so, what would doing nothing be? Kony 2012 didn't just go viral because it simplified the issues. It appealed to the growing sense of connectedness between human beings that was first made possible by the Internet. It tapped into the common empathy of a group of people all focused on one screen, impelling them to move beyond the solitude of sitting at their computers towards telling everyone they know, and donating.
This desire to act cannot be dismissed as slacktivism. In fact, it is a new and powerful type of activism, all the more so because it combines the efforts of millions of people.
As social media becomes more integral to our lives, the proportion of people performing "small" actions, like sharing a video or status update, or donating $5 through Paypal, will increase. But that's a good thing. Most people are not inclined to help if the tools to do so are not directly in front of them, and frankly, who can blame them? On the whole, we conform to a simple imperative of human nature: we do the best we can with the resources we have available. So rather than railing against those who are moved to use their resources to help others, why not make the resources even more available and more powerful?
Ten years ago, most communities did not have recycling bins in every home, office, and classroom. Therefore, far less material was recycled. And while some scoffed at the idea of lasting change resulting from individual efforts, when we pushed to get recycling bins in more places, we found that most people were happy to make the effort. On their own, they couldn't be bothered to drive down to a facility with bags full of sorted paper, plastic and aluminum. But over time, we made the task of recycling easier, one bin at a time. It is now much more the rule than the exception.
It is neither admirable nor fair to rail against people who seek convenient ways to act. If we did that, we'd also have to condemn people who take advantage of public recycling bins instead of sorting and personally transporting their trash to the proper facility. Rather, it is the responsibility of change makers -- nonprofit professionals, politicians and concerned citizens -- to make it easier for people to take action.
For the same reason, we should not condemn the Kony 2012 supporter for not boarding the next plane to Africa; instead, we should be using technology to make activism more accessible at all levels. Indeed, this is exactly the use of technology we have been working toward. Social media's power lies in its vast reach, and using it we will soon be able to accomplish more with a few mouse clicks than was possible with a small army a hundred years ago.
Ask yourself: have the millions of dollars people have donated to Invisible Children made the world better, or worse? I think you'll find that, while the group is not perfect, it is making progress. The same is true of the millions of people on social networks discussing the cause -- they may not be accomplishing all they would like, but they are making progress.
Kony 2012 will not be the last movement of its kind. The secret is out: people care, and want to do something about issues that matter. It's time to stop viewing social media as an easy way out, and see it for what it is: a new tool for improving the world through emotional and social awareness, with uses still to be discovered.
When we have a common purpose, we will inevitably find solutions.