March 8, 2012 at 12:24 PM ET
There's no planking or other pranks in it -- no cats walking on iPads, no babies riding on Roombas. And instead of being 30 seconds, this video is 30 minutes long. Nevertheless, a short film about a campaign to capture a Ugandan warlord has gone uber-viral in a matter of three days, reaching more than 40 million views on YouTube as of Thursday.
No matter your politics, the video -- made by Jason Russell, a member of the San Diego-based activist group Invisible Children -- is searing and difficult not to watch once you start. But, like any viral sensation, it had to start somewhere.
At around noon PT Monday, "Kony 2012" was posted on YouTube, where it got about 66,000 views that day, according to Invisible Children. The team did plenty of outreach to its followers, calling on them to show support by sharing the video on social media and posting a banner on their own Facebook and Tumblr pages.
On Tuesday, the word started spreading farther and faster. A young woman from Australia with 29 Twitter "followers" tweeted to Oprah about the film. The mega-star, with 9.6 million followers of her own, responded to the tweet supportively, then continued to tweet about it. Other celebrities, the Biebers and Kardashians, each with their own private army of devotees, joined in. By the end of that day, "Kony 2012" had 9.6 million YouTube views.
"You guys are making Kony famous and you're breaking the Internet," Invisible Children said Tuesday on its Facebook page, which ballooned from 444,461 subscribers on Monday to more than 2.1 million as of Thursday. On Twitter, the group's followers jumped as well, going from 54,375 followers before the release of "Kony 2012" to more than 333,000 on Thursday.
P. Diddy joined in on Wednesday, tweeting to his millions of followers: "Dear Joseph Kony, I'm Gonna help Make you FAMOUS!!!! We will stop YOU #StopKONY ! All 6,OOO,OOO of my followers RT NOW!!! Pls!" (He's actually got 5 million followers, according to his Twitter account, but that's plenty.)
"One of my friends posted the video to his Facebook feed, and said, 'It's 30 minutes — I figured I'd watch the first 3-4 minutes, but I watched it all,'" said Jack Krawczyk of StumbleUpon, a social bookmarking site where user share links, photos and videos they like.
And while "Kony 2012" has been splashed all over Facebook and Twitter, Krawczyk says it is email and instant messaging that are really being used to spread word about the video.
"Longer videos tend to get shared through more intimate channels," he said. "About 10 percent of all the 'Kony 2012' views on YouTube have come from social media; 90 percent are from people directly searching for it, or it has been emailed or sent through an instant message, from people that you really trust to view it."
The heart of the matter
"Kony 2012" takes a serious subject happening on another continent and brings it home, literally, to a conversation between the young filmmaker/dad, Jason Russell, and his son Gavin. We see Gavin's birth. His love for his dad. And his response when he sees pictures of the bad guy, Joseph Kony, head of the Lord's Resistance Army, accused of committing atrocious acts against Uganda's children.
"My name is Jason Russell and this is my son, Gavin. He loves jumping on the trampoline, being a Ninja and dancing … but he was born into a pretty complicated world, and as a dad, I want him to grow up in a better world than I did," Russell says in the first minutes of the video, which has the feel of the "The Social Network" trailer to it, with a splash of "Love, Actually" thrown in for good measure.
The theme: Every individual can make a difference, and you don't even have to be a registered voter to do so. Shots in the video of young people around the world protesting Kony may also explain the demographics of those who have watched the video. The largest number of YouTube viewers have been teens ages 13 to 17, and males ages 18 to 24. This may be surprising, that this youth category, often considered the ADD generation, is enamored with a half-hour-long video.
And while the highest number of viewers are from the U.S., the video is also striking a chord with those in Australia, Europe, South America and parts of Asia, according to YouTube.
"Thank you for posting this ... My kids picked up on it before I did and were telling me about this," said one San Diego mother on her Facebook page.
Not all click "like"
Some Ugandans themselves are not as enamored of the video, despite its good intentions.
"The Kony 2012 campaign will primarily succeed in making Invisible Children, not Joseph Kony, more famous," writes Angelo Izama, a Ugandan journalist, writer and founder of the the think tank, Fanaka Kwawote, based in Kampala.
"It will also make many, including P.Diddy, feel like they have contributed some good to his capture. For many in the conflict-prevention community, including those who worry about the further militarization of Central Africa, this campaign is just another bad solution to a more difficult problem."
The Visible Children blog, which is viewing the video critically, also had concerns. Wrote Grant Oyston on Wednesday: "Is awareness good? Yes. But these problems are highly complex, not one-dimensional and, frankly, aren't of the nature that can be solved by posturing, film-making and changing your Facebook profile picture, as hard as that is to swallow."
As a meme image circulating from the social blog network Tumblr reads, "One does not simply destabilize a Ugandan warlord by liking a status."
"Regardless of whatever political beliefs you have, it's a conversation starter," says Krawczyk. "The personal nature of it, the way the video is told, told from your perspective, what you can do, you as the viewer feel empowered.
"We see a 5-year-old kid learning about this; we were all 5 years old at some point — it sparks all these emotions, regardless of what your leanings are. This is a personal story — this story is as much about me and what I can do, as it is about the horrible dictator."
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