New Kids on the Block

by marc on March 9, 2012

Most madmen love the idea of fame so Joseph Kony’s wet dream just came true. He’s trending. He’s gone viral. He’s bigger than Victoria Beckham, Tiger Woods and Newt Gingrich all together. He’s still nuts, of course, but his madness has become the social media equivalent of a cuddly polar bear cub eating an ice cream cone.

Have you seen the stir caused by the success (over 50,000,000 views!) of Invisible Children’s video; of their campaign to stop butcher extraordinaire Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army? Check out Michael Wilkerson’s blistering critique, and then the critique of the critique (in the comments). The blogosphere is choked with aid agency pundits like me getting steamed by the sheer ego of Invisible Children.  Even the Ugandans are pissed off.  Although Obama jumped on the bandwagon.

Ok, they’re an easy target. A problematic approach to facts (oops, you mean Kony isn’t even in Uganda), a seemingly unprecedented exploitation of sentimentality (ugh, not his own oh-so-cute son again), ego so far beyond borders it becomes the ether of the message itself, a healthy dose of white-man-to-the-rescue-ism, and a “solution” that solves little . . . the critique is all spot on. Then again, what’s so new about any of that in the world of charity fundraising? Just look at some of the appeals launched around the Somalia crisis, Darfur, or, perhaps in the near future, the Sahel. Invisible Children isn’t that different. They’ve just raised the game.

So why, really, are we aid insiders so bothered? It’s the big green monster. Is there another charity whose message has captivated so many so fast? About six months ago, my niece “Lisa” in Chicago excitedly asked me to contribute to Invisible Children.  At the time, I’d never heard of it. I poked around. I can’t say I was taken by the cause, but I couldn’t help feeling envious of IC’s having so effectively reached Lisa, usually more interested in dance and boys. These young upstarts at IC are the next big thing. And we aren’t.

Why? Well, for one, they have a simple message that people grasp. For another, good looks. More importantly, Invisible Children has discovered what the entertainment industry figured out a decade ago. It’s not about us old timers. It’s not people who read the Philip Roth or contribute conscientiously to their pension fund. It’s about the under 25s, maybe even the under 15s. It’s about the kids. That’s why there are a couple dozen TV shows about teenage vampires. That’s why we have Jedward.

The aid industry has just been Biebered. IC’s hundreds of thousands of donor / activist – they were invisible to us.  Kids. That’s the target and that’s the message. If you think the aid world depends on gray haired HNWIs (High Net Worth Individuals, aka rich folk), wait and see what IC does with its pubescent legions.

My advice to the aid industry? First, get over it. Then, get on the boat. Invisible Children has more than an audience, more than loyal donors. They’ve built a repository of faithusiasm that will make change happen. As a colleague of mine lamented, too bad we can’t do for tuberculosis or Eastern Congo what they’ve done for Kony. Invisible Children might well deserve our scorn, but we’d be smarter to take notes. They are schooling us in comms, mobilization and fundraising. While we try to exploit social media to improve return on investment, IC turned social media into operations itself.

They don’t have any shame, and they don’t have doubts.  They don’t have any hang ups about dreaming.  When was the last time any of us from inside the aid cartel conveyed a dream? Oh, and because I can’t resist, what’s one more thing IC doesn’t have? A sense of irony. With image after image of saluting school kids in uniform, they’ve built a business model on the commitment to cause and enlistment of children in the service of one man’s vision. When they finally get him, I bet even a madman like Kony will appreciate that.


Do you think this is a lasting phenomenon? More lasting than Live Aid and the Blair Witch Project?

by Richard Reiss on March 9, 2012 at 14:37. Reply #

Hey Dick,
Don’t you think that this actually is the progeny of Band Aid and Blair Witch Project? The celebrity and youth driven mobilization to an oversimplified cause, combined with the hand held camera? Marc

by marc on March 10, 2012 at 09:49. Reply #

I’m actually more skeptical about the long term impact (good or bad) than the Yale political scientist mentioned in this piece.

The reason I’m skeptical is because I can visualize a lot of ‘action kits’ left in the back of teenage closets a few years from now. But I think it is a shrewd observation that in marketing of this scale, it’s not about ‘Kony,’ it’s about you. $30 for some meaning in your life seems like a pretty good price, less than a tank of gas for your parents’ Range Rover — which sounds really cynical but maybe it isn’t. (See also: what we truly want, as described by Viktor Frankl, Eric Hoffer.)

by Richard Reiss on March 12, 2012 at 16:33. Reply #

the social media strategy detailed:

Boiled down: short message, vivid call to action, Oprah and Ryan Seacrest on Twitter. And Bieber.

by Richard Reiss on March 9, 2012 at 15:36. Reply #

I’m Viewer 56,647,137, thanks to you. Believe I saw a similar video that was being circulated about 4 years ago. I remember the huge emotional impact it had on me at the time — the visual from the rafters of all the kids sleeping was breathtakingly sad and at the same time motivating. The simplicity of the message — “this is horrible and you can help” was and remains extremely powerful. As a “layperson”, the frustration is that I am neither called to be an “insider” nor do I just want to “throw money” at these seemingly intractable problems. Building capacity seems to be the name of the game, though of course immediate and urgent needs must be met simultaneously. What, besides giving money and forwarding videos, do you suggest non-insiders do which will help make a difference? What organizations do you think build capacity best, and why?

by Sophia on March 9, 2012 at 18:15. Reply #

That’s kind of the million dollar question Sophia. Seems to me what you are doing is already on course, by which I mean keeping yourself informed. Improved capacity is certainly the answer, but the track record of expatriate-led efforts to build the capacity of others isn’t great. The only thing I’m clear about is that humanitarian action is not a solution. We’re a bandage. Hard enough to get that job right. After that, all bets are off.

by marc on March 10, 2012 at 09:53. Reply #

Someone who gets it! I love your perspective. Well said as so very, very true.

by Andrea on March 9, 2012 at 19:17. Reply #

[...] Read the rest here. [...]

by Medical aid worker on Kony 2012: "The aid industry has just been Biebered." on March 9, 2012 at 19:18. Reply #

Loved this post. Not sure I agree, but it stopped and made me think. My take –
Thanks for your blog, will be following from now on.

by Sarah Peck on March 9, 2012 at 19:48. Reply #

[...] Ethan Zuckerman wrote Unpacking Kony2012 one of the best commentaries to the #Kony2012 phenomenon. A freedom of expression advocate and supporter of bloggers worldwide he starts his article by saying: “the Kony 2012 campaign is a story about simplification and framing. Whether you ultimately support Invisible Children’s campaign – and I do not – it’s important to think through why it has been so successful in attracting attention online and the limits to the methods used by Invisible Children.“ Marc DuBois has also blogged perceptively and amusingly on how “the aid industry has just been Biebered.” [...]

by #Kony2012 and the white man’s burden | on March 9, 2012 at 22:39. Reply #

[...] aid industry has just been Biebered”, schreibt Marc DuBois, UK-Director von Ärzte ohne Grenzen, mit Hinweis auf Teenie-Star Justin Bieber. Er sieht die Sache [...]

by Joseph Kony, Superstar | melaniemanner on March 10, 2012 at 23:15. Reply #

[...] aid industry has just been Biebered”, schreibt Marc DuBois, UK-Director von Ärzte ohne Grenzen, mit Hinweis auf Teenie-Star Justin Bieber. Er sieht die Sache [...]

by Joseph Kony, Superstar « melaniemanner on March 11, 2012 at 00:19. Reply #

I agree with the author for this article!
I write this from Uganda..and I work for the Red Cross here. I have hard a chance to work at the time when Kony was a big headache in Northern Uganda. I see he has become a hit…even when he is not in Uganda. I suggest some real attention be focussed onto very pressing public health concerns in the area like TB and the infamous Nodding disease! :(

by Brian Kanaahe Mwebaze Bilal on March 11, 2012 at 10:44. Reply #

Thanks Brian. Good luck with your work in Uganda.

by marc on March 12, 2012 at 17:06. Reply #

Hi Marc, I found myself agreeing with you 100% — which now makes me doubt whether we’re on the right line at all! :-)
The one thing which, watching the reaction to it, it reminded me of was a much younger and less cynical version of me protesting against the first Gulf war (*cough*). When anyone told me that “it’s so much more complicated than your ‘no blood for oil’ sloganeering”, I just brushed them off as an armchair critic and didn’t listen to them again. I hope that fate doesn’t befall all of us in the face of 55million people suddenly interested in previously-obscure central African wars…

by Sean Healy on March 12, 2012 at 12:06. Reply #

In my youthful days it was divestment in South Africa. Another issue where simplicity of messages belies the complexity of reality. Kony2012 certainly seems to have ignited a lot of discussion. One of the interesting points I saw was Ethan Zuckerman’s thoughts about this sort of advocacy: “I’m starting to wonder if this is a fundamental limit to attention-based advocacy. If we need simple narratives so people can amplify and spread them, are we forced to engage only with the simplest of problems? Or to propose only the simplest of solutions?” See

by marc on March 12, 2012 at 16:13. Reply #

re: Ethan Zuckerman’s post about complexity — the prospect of making things worse is a nightmare, as is pointed out in an older piece by Philip Gourevitch.

by Richard Reiss on March 12, 2012 at 16:42. Reply #

[...] madmen love the idea of fame,” says Marc DuBois of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), “so Joseph Kony’s wet dream just came true.” By focusing [...]

by More On Kony 2012 - The Daily What on March 12, 2012 at 23:02. Reply #

[...] Twice Before Donating to Kony 2012, the Charitable Meme du Jour” in Jezebel magazine with “New Kids on the Block”. The former is a passionate negative reaction to the campaign while the latter is a more guarded [...]

by Kony 2012: A Teachable Moment « Tom Kim on March 13, 2012 at 18:54. Reply #

[...] madmen love the idea of fame,” says Marc DuBois of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), “so Joseph Kony’s wet dream just came true.” By focusing all [...]

by “Its like deja vu all over again” « Move the mission! Panama City, Fl. on March 17, 2012 at 03:24. Reply #

Seen this one?

by Pete on March 18, 2012 at 23:58. Reply #

[...] In the Daily Maverick, “Lord Help Us, Because this Campaign Won’t Help Anyone”. Alex de Waal, Director of the World Peace Foundation, contributes by asking: “Don’t Elevate Joseph Kony”. Beyond that, one of the first critical voices can be found at the Blog “Visible Children”, by an anonymous student from Nova Scotia. Also, Ethan Zuckerman is “Unpacking Kony 2012″, Michael Wilkerson tells us that “Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things)” and Marc DuBois (of Doctors without Borders) on Kony 2012 being the “New Kids on the Block”. [...]

by News Digest – Debating Kony 2012 | Emmir Student Log on March 26, 2012 at 14:31. Reply #

[...] New Kids on the Block « Humanicontrarian [...]

by Dubois sophia | Catdate on March 31, 2012 at 11:13. Reply #

[...] his rant covers some of the same territory as my recent post on Chinese model of “charity”.  Glad to see he doesn’t get sucked into a romanticization of Chinese [...]

by Humanicontrarian on June 7, 2012 at 12:32. Reply #

[...] madmen love the idea of fame,” says Marc DuBois of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), “so Joseph Kony’s wet dream just came true.” By focusing all [...]

by tumblr backups on May 20, 2013 at 11:08. Reply #

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