Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Kony 2012: The Anatomy of a Viral Video
Kevin Allocca's recent TED talk, Why Videos Go Viral is prescient in the face of the surging popularity of Kony2012, a spectacularly infectious viral video originating from YouTube and Vimeo, asking viewers to join the effort to capture international war criminal, Joseph Kony. The video was produced by Jason Russell of Invisible Children, Inc. and is a paradigmatic example of the viral media.
Allocca, who works for Google analyzing YouTube videos, identifies three influential factors causing videos to "go viral." First, there are the tastemakers, (established celebrity voices) who serve as a posteriori gatekeepers of generally available content on media sharing websites like YouTube. The television program Tosh 1.0 is a good example of this, as his program functions to elevate obscure online videos to viral status, but any tastemaker who shares obscure content has the power to confer status to that content through association. Second, Allocca discusses how community participation through parody videos further promote and maintain the popularity of the original product. Lastly, Allocca identifies a vague sense of unexpectedness as a critical feature in viral video proliferation.
The most critical of these influential factors for Kony2012, are the numerous celebrity tastemakers Russell points to, including, Oprah, Mark Zuckerberg, Lady Gaga, George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres, Ben Affleck, Ryan Seacrest, and Bono, among others. To a lesser extent, unexpectedness plays a role as well, insofar as Kony and his atrocities are relatively unknown to the average American. However, the mechanics behind the film's popularity don't end there. Upon closer analysis, additional devices including narrative context, emotional connection, participation, immediacy, and zeitgeist are also central to the success of the Kony2012 strategy.
The film begins by forging unity among viewers, declaring that "humanity's greatest desire is to belong and connect," and goes on to illustrate this connection through reference to earlier examples of viral videos and familiar social media interfaces. From here, the film establishes a compelling narrative context through recourse to traditional techniques such as voice-over narration and clever scene transitions. In this way, the film tells the story of Russell's quest to keep a promise he made to stop Joseph Kony. Everything that follows is premised upon that narrative context.
Through this narrative, Russell also develops an emotional connection with the audience. In fact, the first five minutes of the 30 minute documentary are dedicated exclusively to Jason Russell and his toddler son, Gavin. The first ten minutes (fully 1/3 of the entire piece) are about the human relationships among Russel, his son, and a boy he met in Uganda named Jacob. By including scenes of his son's birth, home videos, and emotionally stirring interviews, Russell lulls the audience into identification with his mission: the promise he made to Jacob that he would stop Joseph Kony.
Two additional related factors to the film's super-viral status are participation and immediacy. Within the first few minutes of the film, Russell places the viewer in the role of collaborator by saying, "The next twenty-seven minutes are an experiment, but, in order for it to work, you have to pay attention." By positioning the spectator as a participant in a larger project, Russell calls for the connectedness and collaboration essential for a successful viral video. By the end of the film, once he has held audience attention long enough to gain credibility, he follows this up by asking viewers to participate by ordering an "action kit" intended to be used in preparation for April 20th, 2012 a day he plans to make the villain of the story, Joseph Kony, (in)famous by plastering his image throughout the nation. Included in the kit along with other promotional materials are two bracelets with identification numbers so participants can register themselves online as official members of Kony 2012. This is clearly intended to offer a sense of belonging to participants.
By providing a date for the culmination of this effort, Russell also makes the video urgent and immediate. He says, "The fight has lead me here, to this movie you're watching." In an effort to emphasize this immediacy, he foregrounds the immediate present by telling the audience that the film itself will no longer be available after December 31, 2012, thus transforming it into an ephemeral product of the moment, which is the essence of cool, participatory media. "This year, 2012, is the year we can finally fulfill it," he says. When introducing the "action kit," he says, "Here it is... ready?" So, you're either with it or not, on board or have missed the bus. As if this weren't enough, he also repeatedly foregrounds the running time of the video by revealing the time code reading on the screen. All possible strategies are aimed at reiterating the urgency and immediacy of the video.
Finally, Kony 2012 is peppered with references that resonate throughout the cultural zeitgeist. Endorsements from contemporary cultural superstars like Tim Tebow and Mark Zuckerberg are an example of this, but so is the use of the subdued colors of the famous Obama "hope" poster and the interview with it's creator, Shepard Fairey. At one point, Russell narrates, "The problem is that 99% of the planet doesn't know who [Joseph Kony] is" - an oblique reference to the Occupy Wall Street movement, which made 99% an iconic statistic.
In closing, Kony 2012 can serve as a tactical case in point for creating viral media. Unlike much of the content which receives disproportionate attention, it was designed for the specific purpose of going viral and it employed tastemakers, community participation, unexpectedness, narrative context, immediacy, and zeitgeist in order to achieve success.