Friday, March 9, 2012

Kony and beyond

I'm on an OPB radio show this morning called Think Out Loud. My friend Courtenay Hameister suggested they invite me, so they did. They invited me to be part of a segment called Culture Club, where a handful of locals talk in conversation about the events of the week.

They asked that I give them a list of three or so topics that had caught my attention this week. The other guests would do the same, and then the Think Out Loud team pick what we'd discuss on the air.

Yesterday I gave them four topics that had grabbed me this week. It wasn't hard; it's been an interesting week.

First, the Neil DeGrasse Tyson interview! It trumps everything, as far as I'm concerned.

TIME magazine has a video series where they ask leading thinkers 10 questions. The video being passed around this week is excerpted from their interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History.

The interviewer asks: "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?"

I won't botch it, you have to watch it, and hear Neil's precise language, along with the spectacular visuals that accompany it - but in a nutshell, he tells us that we are not just in the Universe, we are the Universe. We are made of the Universe. What are the implications of that? Too much for words. (Not picked. Darn!)

The second topic I suggested was the Kony 2012 campaign. I'm sure I don't have to describe it, it's exploded so big and so fast on the Internet. 50 million views of the thirty minute video since Tuesday? Wow. I had to buy a copy of the New York Times this morning when I saw it had made the front page, above the fold. Wow.

The third topic I suggested was "Super Tuesday," and the Republicans' failure to construct a relevant or working narrative.

Finally, I told them as a Timbers fan, I can't help but spend a fair amount of time this week thinking about Monday's opening game. Mostly I'm thinking about heaving log slices, but it's also pretty interesting from a social/cultural perspective...

Yesterday they called me back and told me they had selected Kony as our primary discussion topic. It made me a little nervous but also excited. It's a fascinating and rich topic.

This Monday I'd never heard of Joseph Kony. Few had. That morning I got an email from a colleague I'm working with, a web designer, also a critical theorist. "Have you seen this?" she wrote. "Smart and targeted storytelling with meaning."

I clicked on the link. It was a landing page with instructions that I was to watch the video (thirty minutes!?) and then share it on Facebook because it was going to be the biggest thing ever!

I was immediately dubious, but respected the source, so I thought, okay, I don't have time to watch the whole thing, but I'll watch a few minutes and see what it's about.

Thirty minutes later, with tears in my eyes. I sat stunned, staring at the screen. Betsy and Mark had both come in while I was watching, and were sitting at their desks. "You have to see this," I told them.

And, since Monday, that's happened several million times.

What's the film about? Well, nominally the campaign is about stopping an obscure Ugandan warlord named Joseph Kony. But for me, the reason the video is remarkable is that it's the best combination of cause marketing, emotional storytelling, internet swellery, power to the people and Hope marketing I've ever seen. Yellow band meets Girl Effect meets Obama '08 meets Arab Spring. I'm sure it's being studied by all the marketing folks already (How can we do this for Bleu Cheese Pringles?), it'll be a college case study next semester.

And even as I suppressed my cynicism, my emotional reaction was evident that there's something undeniably powerful about the storytelling here, especially the people who tell their story in the film, particularly the Africans. You haven't seen it? Take a look. It's gone up by 5 million views since I started writing this blog post. Holy cow.

Four of us discussed the campaign over coffee Wednesday, all of us astounded by it. In barely a day, 11 million had watched it. Yes, a couple of us also had some problems with aspects of it, particularly how the filmmaker exploited his young son - and his suspiciously egoic and charismatic central role - but mostly, we were impressed by the way the team had combined a lot of tools and best practices around a meaningful cause and the reaction it had created.

Later that afternoon, the friend who had turned me onto the video was now sending me a link from Wil Wheaton's blog with a critical counterbalance to the Kony video. Wow. Confirmed some of my initial instincts... Hm. How am I to think about it now? Out loud. Live. On the radio. Shortly.

Well. It's a lot to think about. I have to take a deep breath. It's complex.

I still have an optimistic and positive to reaction to it. Wheaton's criticism seems fair to me, with important questions asked about the people behind the project and efficacy of the proposed solution. But the center of the energy of the story for me is just how many people have been drawn to it, wholeheartedly. My guess is that this energy will translate not to the filmmaker's desired outcome necessarily, but thoughtful discussion around the issue.

It's inspiring to me to see the internet being used as a force to draw us together around our greatest aspirations. I wonder how the Internet's presence might have accelerated progress on Apartheid in South Africa or Civil Rights in the US, or Hitler's rise in the thirties? What will it mean for the future? It's mind-boggling to think about.

I also believe the Kony phenomenon is evidence of our hunger for meaningful story. We're story-deprived right now, socially. Many of the stories we've depended on in the past are bent and distorted and broken and no longer relevant. This is the cause of a lot of our cultural confusion. How we behave as a people and in our systems, aligned with old and broken and irrelevant stories, is not consistent with the deepest truths that we know about ourselves and the Universe. Buckminster Fuller was saying it years ago, and it's even more true now. All the churn we feel around us, is, I believe, us struggling to write and create and step into and live new (old) stories, relevant to the world we live in, and the people we are, at this moment.

We're hungry for a uniting story, a narrative that feeds and nourishes our greatest potential. That's what Kony is about, to me.

I'm not sure if we'll get into this deep on the radio, but we'll see. Tune in and ask questions at 9:40 this morning! I think it's live! I'm nervous!



SheilaHamilton said...

Hi Jelly,
Huge fan. Loved your other worldly presentation at the Creative Conference.

Caught your views on Kony on OPB and couldn't agree more. When my fifteen-year-old is talking about a war criminal how can we find fault?
Haters are just jealous they aren't persuasive storytellers.

But I thought you missed a huge opportunity in seeing the "bigness" of the Rush Limbaugh story. Yes, Rush is always a pig, but this time enough people galvanized to stop his hate talk. 120 advertisers have dropped him and Rush may have to finance his own show. It also prompted lots of advertisers to evaluate where their money actually goes rather than leaving it up to their agencies.

Okay, enough for now. I follow your agency and love your brain. Thanks for being in the world.
Sheila Hamilton
News Director, Morning Host 101.9

Anonymous said...

They should also study the freak show within the mind of Jason Russell.

The problem with this "stuff" is that it fools many people much of the time. Reaching someone's emotional center is a cheat way of influencing a human. Too bad.

By the way, the Kony violence is years old. Christopher Hitchens did an article in 2006 if anyone was concerned.

The more social media exists in our lives, the more folks like Jason Russell will take advantage. Lets see him produce an income statement by and independent auditor. That will tell the true story of this viral epic production and what it has meant in the lives of the affected Ugandan children.


I'm principal of a said...

Thanks Sheila. You're right about the watershed - but it's unbelievable that ANY advertisers would ever have been attracted to his hate fest? I guess angry people spend money...

I'm principal of a said...

Sad stuff about Mr. Russell... The FB comment that summed it up best for me was: "That was fast."

There's a million things to say about Kony - people's reaction to it has been so fascinating. Different lessons that everyone took from it, or projected onto it...

I agree about the disturbingness of 'emotional hook' = flashpoint/trendy involvement & people's sheepiness... Can't help but think about its relationship to - sorry - Obama '08... Even Obama said something about how this year, supporting him is not trendy...

Still, I'm uplifted.

I love how people were drawn to something that appealed to our better angels, I love seeing the potential of the internet for us to share a meaningful story, I love how sophisticated the discourse about it was afterwards. To me, the whole thing points upward.

I believe it was in The Fourth Turning where the authors talk about viewing time/progress as either linear, chaotic or spiral? I'm spiralist, all the way.

We are driven forward, but as in a spiral wave, sometimes it feels like we're moving backwards. Parts of that Kony story point to some of that, the backwards churn all around us - but I'm attracted to the larger pattern I see - the massive and shared struggle to work out a new story that serves us better as a people and planet.

Back to work!


DJ Bunny Ears said...

Hey Jelly,
check out this article "Backlash against Kony 2012: Where are the voices of Ugandans?"


Anonymous said...

You discuss story. Found this which you may have seen. In case you haven't, it is entitled "the power of words".

Anonymous said...

Nothing to do with this post. Stumbled onto this little video of Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello. Notice the woman in the car with Eugene.