The Power of Digital Narrative: Kony 2012 as Case Study

Almost anyone tapped into social media has likely been exposed to the viral digital video “Kony 2012″ that has garnered an astounding 80 million views in a relatively short period of time. The 25 minute video created by the non-profit organization “Invisible Children” has received a great deal of attention, both positive and negative, and many have speculated as to its peculiar power to reach young people long assumed to be self-absorbed and alienated from geopolitics in general and the suffering of those in the poorest countries in particular.

How did the video’s creators reach this demographic where so many others have failed? How were they able to entice so many young people to watch a 25 minute long video about child soldiers in Uganda when the average attention span is just over 8 minutes and dropping? I believe the key to the video’s success is its appeal to personal narrative and the identity of its viewers.

The video opens not with a scene of carnage in Africa but the birth of a child in the United States. He is Gavin, the son of the video’s director and co-founder of “Inivisble Children” Jason Russell. Gavin serves as a narrative device throughout the video, connecting the American children (and young people) to the children who were abducted by the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and forced to commit atrocities as soldiers in his rebel army. Gavin’s birth is also an important touchstone of Russell’s personal narrative, which he relates to the viewer in some detail. He discusses his early work in Uganda, his relationship with a young former child soldier named Jacob and how the goal of preventing the suffering of these children became the mission of his life.

Throughout, Russell adds personal touches – handheld video footage, photographs, family movies, etc. in order to provoke the viewer to identify with his story. Ironically, Russell spends more screen time on his own narrative than the narrative of Jacob, the boy who had actually experienced the wrath of Joseph Kony firsthand. At one point, Russell awkwardly attempts to explain his work and Jacob’s story to his young son, only to find that he can’t go into detail. His emphasis in this scene is on Gavin’s intuitive moral response that Kony is a bad man and that he is saddened by Jacob’s plight. The message is clear; even a child understands that this is wrong. This is not a complicated issue. We need to act together to stop it! The fact that Kony has been in hiding and his army largely disbanded is not addressed. Why should the objective of capturing him be the top priority of Americans trying to address suffering in Africa? It seems that it is more important for Russell to keep it simple and avoid nuance. This may explain part of the movie’s appeal, but is also one of its weaknesses as a strategy for meaningful social action.

Presenting a powerful personal narrative is only one half of the video’s persuasive power. The other is to actively construct a personal narrative for the viewer as well. Footage of individuals clicking links on computer screens and engaging with digital media is linked to uprisings in Egypt and Iran. The message is that the casual user of social media is part of a larger movement that can address oppression abroad. Slick footage of attractive, young, white activists “making a difference” takes up more screen time than footage of the Ugandans themselves. Ironically, they are almost invisible and their voices are largely silent. The implicit message of the piece is that young westerners are special and they have the power to “change the world.” This clearly has an appeal to many who feel atomized and alienated from the world and want to feel a part of something larger.

Unfortunately, in crafting the video to appeal to young westerners and give them a sense of purpose, it strips the events in Uganda of any context. Structural causes are ignored and the events are presented as a simple matter of good vs. evil. Joseph Kony is evil – you are good. What could be clearer than that? Many have criticized the simplicity of this message and its exclusion of African voices as part of the narrative. Some have argued that the video merely reinforces a sense of western privilege and masks the root causes of such events. In response, many counter-narratives have emerged, many of them Ugandans expressing their reactions to the video and the issues it purports to address. Here is one strong example: Response to Kony 2012

Kony 2012 has, perhaps inadvertently, provoked a dialogue about western approaches to Africa. It has also shed light on the power of viral videos and the use of digital narrative to open avenues for discourse.

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Omeka: Strengths and Weaknesses

Using Omeka to create an online exhibition has been an intriguing experience. A persistent problem related to online exhibits is the variation of approaches to incorporating meta-data. The Omeka platform presents the possibility of standardizing source data in a way that may make this process more intuitive and easily translatable in the future. Utilizing Dublin Core as the stable system of categorization of this data and allowing the user to simply embed this data within the exhibit is a step forward.

During the process of creating an Omeka based database of images, I quickly became aware of the difficulty in tracking down comprehensive source data for online images. Some merely referred to the author/artist of the original piece, with no reference to who had digitally duplicated (and hence altered) the image. Omeka provides the user with a simple way to include such information in the meta-data. However, one can never be completely sure as to what may have been omitted from such descriptions.

Another area of concern is related to the “description” field. Often I found that the designers of online exhibitions who adhered to Dublin Core fields used the description field not only to describe the item, but also to interpret it. This may blur the lines between objective observation and subjective analysis. In creating a database of political cartoons from the first decade of the United States, it was helpful when the describer provided historical context for the images, but there were times when context drifted into speculation or interpretation in ways that could lead the viewer astray.

I would suggest separating the two fields or, at the very least, delineating description from interpretive analysis within the text.

Overall, the process has opened my eyes to new avenues by which to explore my period of study and I hope to incorporate an analysis of these images both in my dissertation and classroom lectures.

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The Pope on Twitter

To update my post on the Vatican website and its twitter outreach: The Daily Show profiled the Pope’s recent efforts to tweet gospel messages for Lent.


Daily Show on the Twittering Pope

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Navigating the Vatican’s Website

The official Vatican website is a tad difficult to navigate. What is going on here? Is the layout based on some type of primitive sun dial? It is somewhat striking to the eye in its non-linear approach, but the photoshopping of the Pope onto a background intended to resemble ancient parchment paper is rather jarring.

It seems wrong that the Vatican even has a website. To stoop to the level of the common medium undermines the mystical authority the Church has labored so long to establish. I am especially surprised to see the “Vatican Mobile” application. Does the Pope accept text messages?

Of course, I understand the need to reach out to Catholics worldwide. You would think, however, that an institution with its very own country domain distinction could employ web designers capable of moving beyond templates from 1998.

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Resting by a Stream

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Political uses of Flickr

Aside from the obvious uses of Flickr as a means of storing and sharing photos with friends and relatives, the use of the site to disseminate photographic documents from political protests has proven a useful tool for raising awareness of events on the ground that may be suppressed by the traditional media.

Documenting the repression of protesters, including physical wounds, aerial photos, etc. aids in the effort to bypass official censorship in countries with authoritarian regimes and connect with sympathetic individuals in other nations.

Here are some examples I came across while browsing Flickr:

Iran protest photos

Egypt digital globe

Occupy Wall Street

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Google Art Museums and Virtual Space

An overlooked new Google project brings major art museums from around the world to your computer. Utilizing the same method as the streetview on Google maps (which was influenced by an early virtual space project called the Aspen Moviemap in the late 1970′s), the  Google Art Project allows one to tour galleries in such museums as the Tate in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. One of the most visually striking examples is the Virtual Palace of Versailles.

Are these virtual art museums an adequate substitute for the real thing? Of course they can’t truly replicate the experience of navigating the corridors of the Louvre or observing a sketching art student sprawled on a bench at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Nevertheless, they do offer an experience much closer to physically occupying the space than do digital collections of thumbnailed artwork from such galleries. They don’t, however, offer an upgrade in truly experiencing the artwork. The paintings themselves are rather blurry and do not even approximate the impact of viewing them in person. These are best experienced in collaboration with access to the thumbnailed images. The virtual space helps create context- a sense of place – for the artwork and the way it is often experienced by those who visit these museums in person.

These were definitely a lot of fun to explore and should serve as a valuable access point for interested people without the means to travel to all of these locations in the flesh. Thoughts?

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Romney is No Painite

Mitt Romney recently quoted the democratic radical Thomas Paine (actually misattributed a quote to Paine) in an attack on Obama. Now, for those of you who know me, you are aware that I have written on Paine in some detail, so I just had to respond to this development.

Actually, I’ll just let Paine speak for himself:

“I care not how affluent some may be, provided that none be miserable in consequence of it. But it is impossible to enjoy affluence with the felicity it is capable of being enjoyed, while so much misery is mingled in the scene.”

And from his classic work Agrarian Justice:

“All accumulation, therefore, of personal property, beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society; and he owes on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.”

There it is. Thomas Paine, American revolutionary, founding father and undoubtedly, in the eyes of the Republicans, a redistributing communist liberal engaging in class warfare. As for Romney , he’s “not concerned about the very poor.”

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Twitter: Amusing Ourselves to Death Redux?

I was compelled to open a Twitter account for my New Media class and reluctantly joined the ranks of the twits. After toying around with it for a few days, I can see both its utility and its limitations. I followed some institutions, including a few local museums, libraries, etc. The format suits their purposes well – allowing for short announcements on exhibits, new holdings, bulletins, etc. I then added some individuals- people who just randomly came to mind: Cornel West, Bob Dylan, Paul Krugman, etc. I tried to add Noam Chomsky only to find that he apparently dislikes Twitter.

In a rather informal interview Chomsky expressed his view that Twitter is a “shallow” form of communication. He said, “My grandchildren, that’s all they do. I mean, of course they talk to people, but an awful lot of their communication is extremely rapid, very shallow communication. Text messaging, Twitter, that sort of thing.” He concluded, “I think it erodes normal human relations. It makes them more superficial, shallow, evanescent. One other effect is there’s much less reading. I can see it even with my students, but also with my children and grandchildren, they just don’t read much.”

Of course this sentiment isn’t new. With the spread of radio many feared the decline of literacy and later television was excoriated by some for encouraging passivity and social isolation. As recently as 1985, media theorist Neil Postman lamented, “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” With the passing of 1984, many recalled George Orwell’s distopian warning from about three decades prior, however Postman viewed Aldous Huxley’s earlier cautionary tale A Brave New World as more prescient. He writes:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism.”

After spending some time in the “Twitterverse” I promptly found that both Chomsky and Postman have a point. As a forum for exploring deep and complex issues, Twitter is clearly an inappropriate platform. It does seem to cater to a superficial “soundbite” culture. However. as a technically advanced digital bulletin board – it appears useful. Just in the last day I was directed to an a few interesting news stories, made aware of a new album release and received an update on my intramural basketball team.

I can also see the efficacy of Twitter for political organizing and social networking. It is well suited for communication via smartphone and should be a useful tool in coordinating demonstrations, meetings, etc.

It seems that it may get out of hand as the Twitter feed grows and one becomes bombarded with perpetual tweets from all a plethora of sources. For example, I added the New York Times and was immediately inundated with updates – to the point that they seemed to be crowding out everything else. I would probably be better served to just check the website. I imagine that the more sources one follows, the more cacophonous the experience becomes. A narrow and focused list may be the key to managing it and maximizing its utility for ones own purposes.

Glancing at the “trending topics” and the people with the most followers revealed how most people are engaging with the technology. I read recently that celebrities with millions of followers can be paid upwards of $100,000 for a single tweet endorsing a product. It is clear that Twitter can be used as a powerful tool for advertisers to directly market their products under the veil of a personal endorsement. It is incumbent on those using the technology to recognize when they are being marketed to in this way.  Overall, however, Twitter can be an effective social networking tool if used cautiously.

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Monkey Business

With the Academy Award nominations recently announced, I was surprised to see that one particular film about an intelligent ape did not receive a nomination. No…I’m not referring to the blockbuster “The Rise of the Planet of Apes,” although I did find it entertaining, if a little ridiculous (it did receive a single nomination for visual effects). Rather, it is the documentary Project Nim directed by James Marsh, who won the best documentary feature Oscar in 2008 for “Man on a Wire.”

Nim Chimpsky

Marsh’s recent film centers around the efforts of a dedicated, while over-zealous, scientist to teach a chimpanzee sign language from birth. What he and the chimp’s surrogate parents found was that Nim Chimpsky continued to exhibit the behaviors of an animal in interesting and perhaps unexpected ways.

Professor Herbert Terrace, who is still on the faculty of psychology at Columbia, stated as his goal to “communicate with a chimp and find out what it was thinking.” Terrace was hardly the first to study animal cognition and communication. One such predecessor was R.L. Garner, who about 120 years ago also sought to communicate with apes and understand their inner thoughts. Interestingly, Garner took the opposite approach, attempting to interpret the utterances of monkeys in an effort to establish the existence of a “simian language.” He wanted to communicate with these animals on their own terms.

Garner and his experiments have received little attention from scientists and historians alike, but they offer an interesting window into human assumptions about animal cognition in the late nineteenth century and even the use of new technologies in scientific inquiry. Gregory Radick penned an article entitled, “R.L. Garner and the Rise of the Edison Phonograph in Evolutionary Philogy,” which examines the subject. In it, Radick contends that the novelty of the phonograph and its involvement in Garner’s experiments fueled coverage in the print press and made Garner a temporary national sensation.

Edison’s phonograph was used to record the utterances of apes so that they could be more closely scrutinized. With the use of the phonograph, not only was Garner able to closely examine the sounds – slowing them down to analyze their phonetic structure- but could also play them back to the subjects themselves. Garner claimed to communicate with monkeys by playing back recorded samples of their “speech.” Such a provocative claim was sure to arouse some critics. Among them were those who saw Garner’s experiments and the print media’s coverage of them as promoting Darwinism. Garner and Edison were part of the culture wars of their day. Radick demonstrates how the technology of a new medium, that of the phonograph, was applied scientifically in unexpected ways and then promoted through the old media in ways that could be “mutually enabling.”

Today there is much debate about competition between new media and the old. The recording industry often expresses consternation over new media methods of consuming their product. The film industry also seems anxious. After much lobbying from the film industry, Congress has recently proposed legislation which would target web piracy and impose restrictions on the internet. In reaction, the increasingly powerful new media interests have flexed their own muscles in protest – effectively tabling the legislation for now. Both sides can learn from this historical example. The phonograph, in its day, was also frequently perceived to be in competition with print media, but the two mediums often intersected, effectively reinforcing one another. Similarly, new media intersects with old media in ways that are not always as clear cut nor adversarial as they may seem.

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