Tag Archives: journalism

Kony 2012

The unintended consequences of going #viral

Kony 2012When you craft a message, you generally have a target, or audience, in mind. You probably also have an agenda, or goal, that you wish to achieve, such as awareness, education or a call to action. And both the message and the agenda are typically driven by both your own ideas and those embraced by your target audience. Your message must match your audience, or it’s difficult for them to embrace it.

If all works well, your message is received by your audience and your agenda and goals met by their actions and response. But we live in the age of pervasive communications where your message has the ability to go viral, to spread like wildfire around the globe – not just through one medium, but through many. It may be shared on dozens of different “new media” social networking sites, it may be emailed around the world, it may even be featured (or the viral spread of it) in traditional media (broadcast, print) or their online hybrid counterparts (tra-digital media).

Reaching an audience beyond your intended audience has consequences

In the end, your carefully crafted message goes well beyond your target market and reaches a much larger group of people that you never intended to be part of your audience. If you are trying to build/energize a community, you may find yourself with a mob, on a global scale.

#KONY2012

Take the case of the Kony 2012 campaign. It’s a documentary film about Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Liberation Army (if you haven’t seen it, you should). Starting in Northern Uganda, Kony (a man  indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court) has, over a period close to 30 years, maimed, killed and enslaved children (some put the estimate at 66,000) into military service to support his cause. His reign of terror has moved well beyond the Ugandan borders into the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and the South Sudan.

The documentary was created by the Invisible Children organization with what appears to be all the right intent, including a humanitarian agenda, a desire to raise awareness of, and funding for, those who suffered at Kony’s hands, and to ensure (from the Kony 2012 website):

  • “That Joseph Kony is known as the World’s Worst War Criminal” and
  • “That U.S. and international efforts to stop Kony are bolstered with a more comprehensive strategy for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR).”

The target audience of the documentary, as evidenced by both the narrative and the logo (featuring the U.S. Republican and Democrat symbols), are centered in the U.S. and the political arena. And within that target, it had its desired result. But it didn’t end there.

IT’S CALLED VIRAL FOR A REASON

This documentary, and the horrific crimes it highlighted, hit such a sensitive nerve with people (within its intended audience) that they leveraged pervasive communications to do what humans have always done since the beginning of time: THEY SHARED!

What started as a focused, but relatively unknown movement, went viral as the Kony 2012 documentary began to spread throughout the U.S. and the world. The Twitter hashtag #kony2012, for example, became a top trending item on Twitter at the peak of the viral distribution while Facebook showed an equally amazing number of shares and likes for the documentary (not to mention the publicity and momentum it gathered when national and international traditional media outlets began reporting on the viral spread of the documentary). In the process, it gained a level of global fame well beyond the producer’s original expectation as well as a global audience that didn’t fit the “target profile” of its original audience.

The result? A response that the producers were unprepared to handle (or at least well beyond what they expected to have to deal with). With increased awareness came both massive support (good) and increased scrutiny and negative pressure (bad). They also faced a global audience that was viewing a documentary film that wasn’t intended for them in the first place (including those in Northern Uganda). Yes, it was intended to help them, but culturally, it wasn’t intended for them to consume.

 WHEN MESSAGES MEET THE WRONG PEOPLE

The western-oriented message simply didn’t fit the various non-western cultures that had access to the Kony 2012 campaign through its viral spread. While it has done a tremendous job at raising both awareness and funds to help Kony/LRA victims, it also became, for many, the wrong message for the wrong people, leading to questions about intent, accuracy and a resulting impact that was very different from the original, anticipated goal.300px-Ugandan_districts_affected_by_Lords_Resistance_Army

What started as a unified U.S. base of positive support has also led (through increased scrutiny) to those (and it is their right) who claim it oversimplifies a very complex issue, and takes mind-share away from other, more pressing problems that Ugandans, and others in Africa, face today, such as the debilitating nodding disease that is striking an alarming number of children in Uganda and the ongoing slave trade in Mauritania.  

It has also had a direct, non-desirable, impact, and intrusion, into the personal lives of those involved in the creation of the documentary.

THE IMPACT OF PERVASIVE COMMUNICATIONS

This phenomenon will likely become increasingly common – especially when the primary means of distribution is social media – a content distribution & sharing medium that by its definition and role in pervasive communications knows no borders. None.

Content no longer knows or respects borders

If an idea, a documentary, or a story has the ability to generate a massive emotional response (either positive or negative), pervasive communications allows it to spread – to go viral -and there isn’t any way to stop it (again, this includes traditional mainstream media, digital/social media and tra-digital media). If the consequences of this viral spread are unanticipated, what begins as a proactive messaging activity can quickly become a reactive damage control operation.

What does this mean for cause-based content in the future? Ultimately, it places a much greater responsibility on choosing the “right” channel(s) within our pervasive communications network, as well as crafting messages that are either by their nature self-limiting or have universal appeal. The case could also be made for non-cause (i.e., commercial) content as well – pervasive communications doesn’t discriminate in its ability to impact a message, regardless of media.

Either way, what the Kony 2012 phenomenon has shown us is that the rules of content distribution that applied only a few short years ago no longer apply. It is a different world that we live in today, and we’re only just now beginning to understand the rules.

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ipad1

APP-etizing Journalism with the iPad

I’ve been waiting for Apple’s iPad for about 10 years, ever since the first real “tablet” PC prototypes began to hit the market, and I’ve been logging some serious time on it since it came out — enough to say that if AT&T retains its newly announced tiered data plan structure, I’ll be in the top 2% that will take advantage of the unlimited plan.

But there are still a few ingredients missing from the media’s recipe for the iPad.

Yes, I’m impressed with the iPad. Great book readers. Perfect for email and social media sites, not to mention web surfing and tons of cool apps (even though many of them are still suffering from Rev 1.0 Crashing Syndrome). And I’m sure I’ll be equally impressed with many of the coming Droid-based dPad’s and the Microsoft-based mPads that I’ll also buy, analyze and try to break.

But what I really like about the iPad is the device’s “concept” – it’s not a “touch-screen PC” or laptop replacement and is clearly not a true “content creation” device, as evidenced by the fact that writing this piece on my 64Gig 3G unit — without an external keypad — is like watching my 2 yr old try to unlock my cell phone (slightly amusing at first, but ultimately annoying when he figures it out and starts deleting emails).

Rather it’s a new breed of device with a form, fit and function radically different from its bigger brother (the Mac) and its smaller siblings (the iPhone/iTouch/iPod, etc.). While the iPad is not bad for email, taking notes, social media sites, etc., this device is more dominantly a “content delivery and consumption” device.

With this in mind, I expected the iPad to be a phenomenal tool for getting news/ analysis online. But after visiting about 40+ different “media” sites, I realized that:

  • Most “news/analysis” sites have not yet figured out the iPad’s real function or how to present information in this new X by Y format, not to mention the internal inconsistencies that abound (such as sites that routinely mix Flash and non-Flash video on a page by page basis, or those that offer different page layouts based either by author or subject matter — a major turn-off).
  • The iPad highlighted differences between “blogs”, “analytic” and “journalistic” sites (Mashable, btw, still comes across as a blog, CNN as more of a newsy site, the WSJ as a clear journalistic site and the NYTimes as a hybrid split personality “not quite sure” site), and
  • Nobody has yet figured out how to appropriately use different media formats to best convey their news/information on the iPad (a great example being a five-page, text-only news story that I read — I don’t remember what the story was about but I do remember it made me feel like I was sitting on a runway tarmac for five hours without bottle of water).

Clearly there are issues with the iPad – and everyone seems quick to highlight them. But these issues are technical in nature and they will be solved (for example, fixed-size images work great on a laptop, but “tappable” thumbnails that expand are ideal for an iPad device).

Without doubt, a new type of “content creation model” or “content creator” is required to match the capabilities of new interactive, highly-mobile, media rich pad-type delivery devices.

But the most significant theme that kept coming to mind as I cruised from site to site involved the shortcomings of the individuals who were actually producing the online content — the editors and writers themselves! It wasn’t that their content was bad, but that more often than not their “content creation” approach just didn’t match up to the UI (user interface), screen size and “application-oriented” potential of the iPad.

Having spent much of my career working with businesses that involved cutting edge technologies or thought methodologies, I really appreciate that the iPad allows for an amazing interweaving and mixture of different media contents: text, graphics, video, audio, etc. in ways that you just can’t achieve on a typical laptop/PC (or mobile phone). The possibilities for innovation are endless. And that could cause a major discontinuity as technology innovators and news/analysis publications continue to rapidly change the ground rules for content delivery but leave the content creators out of the process! What makes it even worse is the current cost-cutting trend of making journalists and analysts responsible for the entire writing, graphical, editorial, and publishing process.

Without doubt, a new type of “content creation model” or “content creator” is required to match the capabilities of new interactive, highly-mobile, media-rich pad-type delivery devices. Look at it this way, you would not use the same content style to write a newspaper article that you would to cover the same story from a TV news anchor desk. Two very different mediums that require two very different approaches.

Technology shouldn’t be driving how writers write, or how content is delivered, it should be the other way around.

Similarly, the iPad opens up enough possibilities that the writing style that works for a traditional web site just isn’t going to cut it for iPad-optimized sites or apps since the shift from laptop/PC-oriented websites to iPad apps is as profound as was the shift from traditional print media to laptop/PC sites.

I saw this same issue in 1997 when I started my own news/analysis firm. Our concept was to produce incredibly rapid analysis of breaking news events that would be delivered exclusively online in a user-configurable/on-the-fly format. This forced us to think in terms of concise bullet-point actionable content that was database driven and flexible in its purpose. It also forced us to seek out and/or educate a different type of analyst from the traditional advisory-based analysts. Traditional analysts were thinking “PDF-based reports” while we were thinking “flexible content”. They emailed fixed documents to their customers while we let our website/ database create the right content for each type of user.

There was no “right or wrong” issue here, just different approaches. But the point was clear: a shift to a new content creation or delivery model required a shift to a different type of thought process as well, and the iPad clearly represents a major shift in content delivery possibilities. Unfortunately, many existing journalists, analysts, etc. have been (or soon will be) placed in a situation where their traditional “content creation” skills need to rapidly evolve and adapt if they want their content to have meaning and “high consumer satisfaction” on iPads and similar devices.

So how do we fix this problem, given that we can’t just wait until all the current journalists and analysts retire (a really bad idea, btw)? Here are a few thoughts:

First, content “producers” must be intimately familiar with the different content distribution mechanisms. If your firm delivers content in 10 different formats or on 10 different types of devices, give all 10 devices to every author, journalist or analyst.

Second, websites need to adopt universal “site-wide” guides regarding the look and feel of information as it is presented on different devices. There is no AP Style Guide for an iPad, so write your own and let it evolve as you get more comfortable with both the device and the content creation/delivery process.

Third, as different information presentation formats are developed (and they will quickly as I expect many news/analysis sites to adopt an “app” approach in place of a website approach), content creators will have to start thinking about writing their core content in ways that allow it to be easily re-purposed or distributed in different formats (including not just different devices but different media, including text, pod-cast, video, etc.).

Lastly, while there are some really great thought leaders out there educating and developing a whole new wave of web-smart journalists and analysts, we have got to get the existing group of writers and editors out there proactively involved in the technological process. Technology shouldn’t be driving how writers write, or how content is delivered, it should be the other way around. I know some very smart journalists and analysts who could really take content creation and delivery into some very interesting areas, if only they had the chance.

– Author’s Note: This piece was originally prepared for the WeMedia Tabula Rasa event held in Washington, DC. For more information, check it out here: http://wemedia.com/2010/06/14/wethink-tabula-rasa-dc-preview-thoughts/