Art, Empathy, and Kony

Before I was brought on board, some of my fellow ArtQuake bloggers wrote about what draws them to art. These posts sparked self-reflection on my own relationship with art. I’ve come to the conclusion that what  draws me most to art is its ability to communicate other people’s lives, perspectives and emotions. A photograph can capture a moment, a sculpture can symbolize strength and defiance, and a poem can grant entrance to the vulnerable thoughts of a mourning grandson. Thus, I was particularly drawn to displays in the National Media Museum’s recent exhibition of the work of Daniel Meadows, who describes himself not as a photographer but as a documentarist and a storyteller. Powerful art evokes empathy and human connection.

* A sample of Daniel Meadow’s storytelling through photographs.

This reflection on art and empathy was recently brought back to my mind with the meteoric spread of the KONY 2012 film. I have never seen anything spread across Facebook like this has, and I’ve been astounded by how this has resonated across ALL demographics of my Facebook friends (age, interests, gender, race, geographic location etc.)—which I believe has a relatively wide scope. If nothing else, that’s an impressive accomplishment.

I was even more baffled, when I actually watched the film and felt none of the emotional attachment that I expected. Perhaps it’s because my internet connection’s been shaky and so I had to watch it in five minute intervals (leaving plenty of time to digest what was actually being said) or maybe it’s because the video’s many flaws are apparent in many of the other issues that I think about both in my studies and in my own time or maybe I’ve just turned into a cold-hearted cynic, but I could not understand why this video was spreading like wildfire, while so many other advocacy videos—including, if my memory isn’t misleading me, previous Invisible Children productions—have not.

Now this is not going to turn into another critique of the campaign because that has been done quite well already by people who are far more educated about Kony and the LRA than I am. Instead, I am interested in why this 30-minute video, despite its many flaws,  defied the rule that only short videos go viral, and resonated enough with millions of people that they were inclined to share it with others.

                                                                                        * Co-Founder of Invisible Children, and film-maker of Kony 2012 uses his son’s perspective on “what a bad man looks like to convey the message of his power to the world*

In his blogpost about the phenomenon, Ethan Zuckerman attributes the video’s spread to the oversimplification of narratives:

“This narrative is so powerful because ‘certain stories resonate more, and thus are more effective at influencing action, when they assign the cause of the problems to ‘the deliberate actions of identifiable individuals’, when they include ‘bodily harm to vulnerable individuals, especially when there is a short and clear causal chain assigning responsibility’; when they suggest a simple solution; and when they can latch on to pre-existing narratives.’

Sound familiar? The Kony story resonates because it’s the story of an identifiable individual doing bodily harm to children. It’s a story with a simple solution, and it plays into existing narratives about the ungovernability of Africa, the power of US military and the need to bring hidden conflict to light.”

Upon re-watching the film, a couple more elements stood out to me: the inflated sense of power attributed to social media particularly through imagery from the Arab Awakening, the immediate sense of urgency created by a big flashing deadline, and the sense of integrated intellectual and moral authority conveyed through Luis Moreno Ocampo and the filmmaker’s son respectively.

My mother forwarded me this other perspective from Kevin Allocca, Youtube’s trends manager. Allocca identifies three main elements that make videos go viral: tastemakers, participation and unexpectedness. KONY 2012 brilliantly uses one element, an appeal to participation, to go after the second element, the tastemakers. As for unexpectedness,  from what I seem to glean from reading articles and comments on the internet, it certainly seems that those who are pushing KONY 2012 the hardest are those who didn’t know who the LRA was before watching the film.

This feeds back to Zuckerman’s argument. Both Zuckerman’s observations and my own identified elements would seem to convey that widespread support can only be gained through engaging otherwise uninterested people with an oversimplified and misleading message. But is that all there is to it? It seems to me like KONY 12 is adhering to my ideal of what art should be—a source of human empathy—by twisting itself to appeal to the flawed mindsets of many of its viewers. Could a more nuanced film ever have the same impact?  Rather than adjusting to appeal to viewers, can a film gain the same widespread circulation by forcing viewers to adjust to it? I’d like to think so; however, despite considerable reflection, this blogpost is more about questions than answers. I don’t know the answers. This is why I would like to open it up to you. What made KONY 2012 spread quicker and more widespread than any previous video campaign? And can this be harnessed in a more constructive manner?

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One thought on “Art, Empathy, and Kony

  1. How Matters says:

    Thanks for linking to my post on how-matters.org. @InnovateAfrica & I hosted a live chat on Monday to reflect more the issues that came up from our posts on #StopKony. Read more at: http://www.how-matters.org/2012/03/12/searching-for-closure-a-kony2012-postscript/

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