On March 5, Kony 2012 popped up so many times in my Facebook newsfeed that I had to watch it right away. I was moved to tears — I knew I had to do something to take action against Joseph Kony. I tweeted the video and shared it on Facebook to inspire my friends to join me.
When I noticed all the mean articles criticizing Invisible Children (IC), I realized that they needed my support. I decided to buy the Kony 2012 action kit: $30 for a good cause and a cute bracelet sounded like a great deal. I also signed the pledge calling for Kony’s arrest. I felt great. Here in the U.S., across the world from Uganda, I was making a difference.
I was pumped for Cover the Night on April 20, to take the streets with Stop Kony posters and make Kony so famous that the international community would have to catch him. In the week leading up to April 20, IC sent out daily “missions” to all of us who had signed the pledge: These missions asked us to share the pledge on Facebook (check), tweet at the leaders of the African Union (check), the United Nations (check), the U.S., U.K., European Union, France (check) and our own heads of state (check).
On April 20, I didn’t get an e-mail about the day’s mission. I wanted to wear my t-shirt all day, but it was the wrong size and I just wore it to the gym. I wanted to go put my poster up, but I didn't see a single one on the streets. I checked Facebook, which said the campaign was happening “anywhere” and “everywhere,” but where? None of my friends had status updates about Cover the Night, either. So I tweeted #coverthenight @invisible and felt satisfied that I had done my part. Stop Kony2012!
The culmination of the Kony 2012 campaign, Cover the Night, was the anti-climax to the online brawl that ensued in the weeks following the video’s release. When the moment arrived for the millions of tweeting, pledge-signing, Facebook-liking activists to get offline, they were stumped. Watching Kony 2012 and even participating in the online conversation about its impact was easy: it made the world’s problems appear solvable through a click. But when the same online activists were urged to serve their local communities, they didn’t know where to go. The world suddenly seemed like a larger, more daunting place again.
Invisible Children assumed that the campaign’s online success would be enough to motivate their supporters to get off Facebook and take to the streets. It failed to recognize with no offline direction other than a vague call to community service was unlikely to inspire the slacktivists the campaign had attracted in the first place.
To paraphrase a recent article on the flight from conversation to online interaction, we are tempted to think that “little sips” of online activism add up to a “big gulp” of real change. But they don’t. A movement that begins without face-to-face contact between its supporters is unsustainable—online activists are not accustomed to devoting their time to putting up posters when it is far easier to click on a link and sign a petition. Unless online campaigns find meaningful ways to engage their supporters offline, their impact will remain confined to computer screens.