The most viral video to date is “KONY 2012,” produced by Jason Russell in conjunction with his non-profit organization Invisible Children. The video was uploaded to YouTube March 5, and in 72 hours it had received over 60 million page views.
Though no one could have predicted the stellar success of this video, it was painstakingly crafted by its creators, a ‘masterpiece’ that will be studied for years (or until something similar eclipses it). The film depicts the plight of child soldiers who have been abducted into Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, which operates in the border region of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. An astonishing 30 minutes long, the video primes viewers from the start to prepare for a lengthy viewing, promising that the reward will be an opportunity to change the world. It then tells the story of Kony’s crimes and advocates for the U.S. to engage its 100 U.S. military advisors in Uganda to step up the search for him. It also solicits donations for Invisible Children in the form of a poster kit that the viewer is encouraged to purchase to spread the message in public places.
There was a strong backlash to the video. Criticisms centered on its over-simplification of the Ugandan political situation. Uganda experts, including, unusually in Western discourse, some African commentators who were able to find an audience in the wake of the video, argued that Kony was only one of a number of regional players who had committed human rights abuses, and in fact he is no longer the menace he once was – his army has been beaten back over the past few years and is no longer present in Uganda. Further, any attack on his army was certain to endanger the very child soldiers the video was trying to save. Increased support to the Ugandan army, with its own record of human rights violations, might cause more harm than good. And finally, the video ignored the work being done by Ugandans seeking non-violent solutions, and in fact granted Africans no agency in the problem whatsoever. This was another white Western problem to solve.
Ethan Zuckerman weighed in with a long post about the video, in which he concluded:
As someone who believes that the ability to create and share media is an important form of power, the Invisible Children story presents a difficult paradox. If we want people to pay attention to the issues we care about, do we need to oversimplify them? And if we do, do our simplistic framings do more unintentional harm than intentional good? Or is the wave of pushback against this campaign from Invisible Children evidence that we’re learning to read and write complex narratives online, and that a college student with doubts about a campaign’s value and validity can find an audience?
II . ROBERT MCKEE AND NARRATIVE STRUCTURE
There is a small cottage industry of screenwriting gurus in Los Angeles, and the king of them is Robert McKee. McKee teaches at seminars around the globe, during which he espouses his theories of how to craft stories which resonate with viewers (and, of course, Hollywood producers). Drawing as much from Aristotle as from classic cinema, McKee has grown such a following that he was semi-satirically depicted in Adaptation – a film about a screenwriter struggling to adapt a popular novel for the screen (and one that is slyly structured to break many of McKee’s rules.)
I do not agree with all of McKee’s dicta, but I think his framework for understanding narrative structure is sound. He presents the universe of plot as a triangle:
Archplot is what we recognize as classical story structure. There is usually a single, active protagonist, who confronts an external conflict within a consistent reality. Events are causal, proceed through linear time, and reach conclusive, irreversible endings. Archplot is the structure of Gilgamesh, the Greek dramas, the Hindu Epics, the Iliad and Odyssey, and oral traditions throughout the world. It is our first and primary mode of telling stories.
Later authors, bored with the strictures of Archplot, began defy these conventions by miniaturizing some of the elements. Conflicts were reframed as internal, emotional struggles, or stories ended on an ambiguous, unfinished note. McKee calls this Miniplot. The other approach was to nullify the elements of Archplot completely, by breaking the fourth wall, pin-balling the protagonist through a series of coincidental or nonsensical events, or chucking out the protagonist completely. Stories can draw elements from each corner, and great works have been created all over the triangle.
But McKee warns that as an author moves her story down from the apex of Archplot, her audience will shrink. This is because Archplot is how we subjectively experience the world – it has an in-built resonance. We are all the heroes of our own lives; everything we experience, after all, is happening to us. When we recall incidents from our lives, we seek causal explanations, we experience time as linear, and we hope for a definite conclusion in the achievement of whatever goal our story turns around. It’s not a coincidence that this was the first narrative structure and remains the most enduringly popular.
Jason Russell is a professional filmmaker who resides in Los Angeles. I have no idea whether he has read McKee, but Hollywood certainly has – the blockbuster, invariably structured as Archplot, is the bread and butter of the industry.
The genius of Kony 2012 is that in its first two minutes it not only braces the viewer for its long run time – it primes him to place himself in the position of protagonist. The North American satellite photo (in a story about Africa), the frequent images of mouse pointers clicking send and share buttons, the flashes of viral videos with a convenient reminder of their viewing numbers – in the first two minutes Kony 2012 has told the viewer: “You are the hero of this story. You have the agency to end to this atrocity. You just have to click.”
So to answer Zuckerman’s first question, I believe the answer is yes. If Russell had produced a video which said, “The situation is very complicated in Uganda, there is no single clear solution, many actors are attempting to influence the country through means fair and foul, and you as a spectator can have a small impact by helping us to bring one rogue to justice,” he would have moved the narrative way down into Miniplot territory. And no one would have watched.
But the inverse of that question is in my mind far more interesting and troubling. Propaganda is as old as media, and we know that populations can be swayed if it is used skillfully. The remedy that’s usually recommended is to ensure that all voices have access to the public sphere. But in the Internet world, where increasingly the remedy is true, can a skillful narrative drive public support for an unjust action before a corrective push-back can occur? With access fading as the decisive advantage in a propaganda war, does narrative skill become the new deciding factor? Narrative skill, that is, defined narrowly as the ability to generate attention.
There is now a fair likelihood, with 5000 African Union troops committed to the job, that Kony will indeed be caught. For Invisible Children, it’s mission accomplished. But what if Kony hadn’t been such a bad guy? Would the push-back from the more nuanced views of the story been able to check the momentum of 88 million viewers and counting?
III. CREEPING NARCISSISM
Here is an advertisement for a watch from 1921:
From our 21st-century perspective there is something almost comically naïve about this advertisement. Like most advertising from the era before broadcast media, it describes the excellent qualities of the product, its reasonable price, and where to purchase one. Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s about the watch.
Here’s an advertisement from the 2000s:
In case that’s not legible, it says, “It’s not your car. It’s not your friends. It’s not your job. It’s your watch that says most about who you are.”
With the burgeoning of broadcast media, advertisers were forced to compete in an increasingly competitive market. Over time, they discovered that the best way to sell a product is to create a narrative whose subject is not the product, but the intended purchaser. They have, in other words, found that by climbing to the top of McKee’s pyramid, they increase their audience. Products now offer to enhance or reward the purchaser as the heroes of their own lives. This is so effective that it is now nearly ubiquitous.
“1 – From Sachs to Kristof to Invisible Children to TED, the fastest growing industry in the US is the White Savior Industrial Complex.”
“2 – The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.”
“3 – The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”
“4 – This world exists simply to satisfy the needs-including, importantly, the sentimental needs-of white people and Oprah.”
“5 – The White Savior Industrial Complex is not about justice. It’s about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.”
“6 – Feverish worry over the awful African warlord. But close to 1.5 million Iraqis dead from an American war of choice. Worry about that.”
“7 – I deeply respect American sentimentality, the way one respects a wounded hippo. You must keep an eye on it, for you know it is deadly.”
In points 4 and 5 particularly, Cole reveals the frightening emotional murk beneath these massive outpourings of ‘charity.’ This formulation – charitable action as a self-gratifying experience on the part of people who are unwilling to consider the broader context of the problem they hope to alleviate – could apply equally well to consumerism. Kony 2012 is the commodification of altruism.
Lurking at the top of McKee’s pyramid, at the apex where the largest audiences naturally gather, is narcissism. The race for attention has drawn, and continues to draw, all cultural products closer and closer to this apex. Meanwhile, surrounded by these products, the message is internalized and becomes an assumption. We are constantly told we are the most important person in the world. We are effortlessly heroic. We deserve it. We have our own style. We expect the best.
So narrative skill, to return to the previous question, is closely related to one’s ability to appeal to the narcissism of the audience. You can draw more people into a show that is about them. And in a saturated, competitive media environment, every viewer counts.
IV. FERMI’S PARADOX
The Physicist Enrico Fermi once observed that the universe is so vast and so old, it is vanishingly unlikely that life and intelligence would evolve only once. And yet, the time it would take for an intelligent species to colonize a galaxy even at sub-luminal speed would be orders of magnitude shorter than the time it takes for intelligent life to evolve. So where is it? Why is there no trace of evidence that we are not alone in the universe? This became known as Fermi’s Paradox.
Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, proposed a novel solution. He wrote that since organisms are unable to objectively assess the adaptive fitness of their actions, they evolve ‘fitness functions’ which serve as a shorthand to help guide them toward adaptive behaviors and away from detrimental ones. We experience these fitness functions as pleasure and pain. For example, fatty and sugary foods are energy-dense, so there is an advantage in seeking them out. We evolved a preference for them.
However, Miller goes on to say that any intelligent species will learn to manipulate its environment. And once it is able to manipulate its environment, it will find ways to stimulate its positive fitness functions without doing the work the function was supposed to motivate. In our ancestral environment, sweet foods were rare; in the environment we create for ourselves, they are everywhere, much to the detriment of our health. We tame the wilderness, build roads, and use them to bring us fast food and pornography. Miller posits that this is a temptation every intelligent species would have to face, and many would succumb to the temptation to wrap themselves in artificial environments that cater to the siren song of their fitness functions.
In 1992 a pioneering new computer game was released. Wolfenstein 3D was the first First-Person Shooter – a game in which the player negotiates a 3D on-screen environment as though she were seeing it through the eyes of a person in that environment. The player and the protagonist of the game were merged. More powerfully even than cinema (the most immersive previous medium), video games were able to place their audiences squarely at the center of a fictional world, to create the illusion that the world existed for the player. In 2008, the video game industry eclipsed the movie industry in net sales.
The 2000s also saw the first recorded deaths from heart failure after extended bouts of video gaming.
For any issue, politically or culturally, there will always be a gradient of concern. People range from the most dedicated loyalists to the perfectly apathetic. It is very likely that the majority of Kony 2012 viewers were enlightened to a situation about which they were not previously aware. But the picture they were given was crafted especially to invite their consumption.
The dream of every activist is to move people up the gradient. I would be amazed if not one of the 88 million who watched Kony 2012 went on to gain a deeper concern and more nuanced view of the situation. I certainly did. And odds are that some, maybe just a handful, found in Kony 2012 the doorway to a fierce and lasting effort at genuine assistance to the people of Uganda.
I do not mean by anything I’ve said to suggest that there is no genuine altruism. But one of the primary dilemmas of modern life is that our concerns always outstrip our influence. No one has the bandwidth to commit to more than a small fraction of the changes they would like to see in the world. In the ecosystem of attention, the competition is already fierce, and getting exponentially fiercer. Kony 2012 was an attention-bomb – a model for how to wrench some valuable minutes from a world where minutes are precious. Unfortunately, the model is the same one that advertisers discovered fifty years ago – win friends through flattery.
But as with advertising, when the transaction ends so does the friendship. The bright promise of a moment’s heroism is replaced by the hollow ache of reality reasserting itself. There are only two solutions for this ache. To recognize that heroism is impossible without work, or to go out and swallow another empty promise. The number of people who choose the harder solution will determine the fate of humanity.
[N.B. This was my final paper for Clay Shirky‘s Politics of Social Media class.]