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My timing was a bit off on this – reports have emerged of the head of Invisible Children and filmmaker behind KONY2012, Jason Russel, being detained by the police while having some sort of emotional breakdown. I have never questioned Russel’s motives and feel awful for him, the stress has clearly taken a terrible tole on him and I hope he gets rapidly better. I think the conversations raised by the KONY2012 campaign are important and it will be a shame if, as is likely, this event ends those conversations. It doesn’t feel right to remove the blog post below – which I actually wrote on Tuesday on the train – and I hope it is clear that my critique is not aimed at Invisible Children but rather at the reaction of some of my peers in the social media for social change space.

I’m sure most of you have seen or heard of the KONY2012 video recently released by the American organization Invisible Children, which gained 70 million views faster than any video in history, and the resulting controversy over the content, framing and approach of the video and organization. I’ve participated in these debates on Facebook and Twitter, mostly passing along links to articles written by people far more expert in the situation in Central Africa than I. This blog is not to further hash out those issues, please read posts here, here and here if you want to learn more (if you have watched the video but have not yet read these critiques, I really encourage you to do so).

What I want to address here, specifically, is the commentary I have seen from several of my peers in the social media for social change space describing KONY2012 as one of the most high-impact social media for social change campaigns ever. Irrespective of how you feel about the video itself and the approach it takes to the issues in Uganda and Central Africa, I think this is a reaction that should give anyone who cares about the use of social media for social change pause.

The key question, as I said in reply to one of these sorts of statements, is to define what we mean by “impact”.

Think about it this way: if a car ad went viral on social media, receiving 70 million views in just a few weeks, but afterwards there was no increase in the sales of the car being advertised, would the marketing industry describe it as “the successful social media marketing campaign of all time”? Of course not. Success is not having a video go viral, success is something changing in the real world. If it didn’t have a measurable impact on sales the advertising firm that produced it would be unlikely to be retained, despite their social media success (see for instance Burger King’s recent decision to dump Crispin Porter & Bogusky, creators of the hugely viral campaign “subservient chicken”).

I believe in social media-enabled activism. I believe in the incredible power of these tools to connect, inform and inspire us. I believe they have created new forms of activism and have supported the creation of global campaigns and alliances which have had an impact on many issues and in many places. But when we lose sight of this real-world impact and become infatuated with youtube views as a measure of impact in and of themselves, we sell short the incredible potential of these tools. In our adoration we risk becoming the caricature of the social media slacktivist the media likes to deride: caught up in the act of sharing, content to click ‘like’ or to retweet and then move on, satisfied our work is done. But for social media activism to have an impact the work is only ever just beginning at this initial point of engagement. I believe that creating a world of changemakers requires not just the sometimes-too-easy work of generating outrage but rather the complex work of building better futures together in communities fueled by positivity and participation. But this is another discussion.

Now this isn’t to say KONY2012 won’t have an impact; it just hasn’t yet. And any impact it does have will be hard to judge based on the somewhat confusing goals of the campaign. Invisible Children want the US Government to be involved in bringing Joseph Kony of the Lords Revolutionary Army to justice, and this, in fact, is exactly what the US government is already doing, as Obama dispatched 100 soldiers to aid in the search for Kony and the LRA late last year. Invisible Children are calling on Obama to not withdraw these forces, but there’s been no indication he was considering such a thing. They also call on the International Criminal Court to focus on arresting Kony, but he is already their most-wanted suspect.

The point I’m trying to make goes beyond this particular campaign and to the heart of how we believe social media can affect change. Awareness is undoubtedly a critical part of this process – you can’t act on an issue you are unaware of – but it is still a means to an end.  If you were organizing a rally around an issue, do you consider your impact to be the number of people who turn up to the rally? Would Martin Luther King Jr. have considered the March on Washington a success just based on turn-out? I doubt it: success is judged by the extent to which the rally helped influence decisions and actions taken afterwards. Success is social or behavioral change, not simply awareness.

Two of the biggest protest marches ever held in Sydney were against the Iraqi War and in favour of an apology to the indigenous stolen generation. Neither could possibly be claimed as “the most successful march of all time” because, despite their enormous numbers, they simply didn’t create the change they were looking for. Australian forces still invaded Iraq in support of the US and the then-government continued to refuse to budge on the apology. It was only two elections later, with a change of government, that this issue moved forward.

Those of us who work in and believe in social media for social change need to judge the success of campaigns on the ends, not the means. Not page views, not YouTube hits, not even money raised, but on changes affected in the circumstances of people and issues in the real world. We can complement and be impressed by the amazing spread of the KONY2012 video, and people can (and naturally will) look to learn lessons about how to generate a similar response, but we have to reserve labels like “most high-impact ever” for when we see actual impact being generated. When we get caught up in virality as an end in itself we diminish the potential of social media rather than celebrating it and we risk losing sight of what must matter most.

Do you think KONY2012 deserves to be called impactful yet? What are some examples of social media campaigns you’ve seen that did create real-world impact?

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