Kony 2012's online activism doesn't guarantee offline success
It would have been pretty difficult to miss the Kony 2012 campaign that has been hyped by both its supporters and its detractors for the past month and a half.
A viral video first uploaded at the beginning of March culminated in a social media frenzy, and a local TV network even screened the campaign in full during primetime — just in case being bombarded via your Facebook and Twitter feeds wasn't enough to bring it to your attention.
One of the main calls to action from the video was the Cover the Night event, held across the world on 20 April. It was supposed to be a gathering on city streets involving plastering areas with Kony posters and stencils, or wearing T-shirts emblazoned with logos to promote awareness for the cause.
But according to numerous reports from Australia and internationally, Cover the Night wasn't exactly a resounding success.
In fact, despite close to 19,000 people saying they would attend the Sydney event on Facebook, a mere 25 people showed up. The scenes from other major cities around the world were strikingly similar. It could easily be seen as another vote for slacktivism.
So why didn't thousands of online activists follow through in the real world?
For starters, there was a pretty significant gap in time between the campaign going viral and the event calling its followers to action. They say a week is a long time in politics, but a month on the internet is even more significant.
When memes and viral videos can jump the shark in a matter of hours, if not minutes, who can blame anyone who "liked" or shared a video almost two months ago for forgetting to follow through?
The posters themselves, of which there were a scattered handful still gracing Sydney's inner-city streets come Sunday afternoon, weren't really a call to action, either. There was no hashtag, no Facebook link and nothing that actually explained what this was all about if you somehow did happen to miss the hype. It seemed at odds with a campaign born out of online activism that no mention of its origins was made on the streets.
According to Dr James Arvanitakis, senior lecturer for the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, at the University of Western Sydney, it's always incredibly difficult to convert "armchair activism" from the comfort of a computer screen into the real world.
"One of the issues here is that online activists simply say, 'all you have to do it click here'. We need to stop saying that to people, and say, 'this is the first step ...' Online or offline requires the need for people to feel like agents for change, and this requires organising, empowerment and information.
"Each campaign requires a different strategy, but the key here is for people to build a networked community, sharing and encouraging with actions that mean something: offline and online is the same thing in this way," he says.
Ironically, #Kony2012 failed to gain traction on the very platforms that brought it success in the first place. Nothing trended on Twitter to the same extent as when the campaign first launched, and a look at the hashtag used over the weekend proved that it was just as fruitless.
Perhaps the lack of enthusiasm for the latter part of the Kony campaign could be put down to "media disruption". Studying the aftermath of the political unrest in Egypt, in which social media was considered to be a catalyst for inciting change and organising protests, a PhD student came to the following conclusion: "full connectivity in a social network sometimes can hinder collective action", Navid Hassanpour wrote in his paper, as quoted by The New York Times.
Being totally connected all of the time is too much of a distraction from the cause at hand, which certainly goes some way to explain how Cover the Night failed to capture the imagination of us in the real world, compared to our clicks and keystrokes online.
Online accountability, according to Arvanitakis, should be held in the same regard as anything you endorse in the offline world. "The Kony campaign was basically promoting military intervention to an issue of poverty ... is this what people really felt was the right thing to do?"
"This is why some online groups are struggling to move offline, because they are good at articulating issues, but not a philosophy. So you think of it like a smorgasbord: I will have this, but not this, [which makes it] easy but does not crystallise into something that helps define what you stand for."
What can Kony 2012 and Cover the Night teach us about social media activism, and the medium in general? A click, like or share doesn't guarantee action in the real world.