The Kony 2012 video has been watched over 65 million times on YouTube. While there has been much commentary about how the video lacks nuance, there is another interesting issue to consider: how exactly did it spread so quickly? One columnist suggests the sociological idea of weak ties provides some insights:
Many years ago, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published a seminal article in the American Journal of Sociology on the special role of “weak ties” in networks – links among people who are not closely bonded – as being critical for spreading ideas and for helping people join together for action.
An examination of the spread of the Kony video suggests that one weak tie in particular may have been critical in launching it to its present eminence. Her name is Oprah Winfrey and she tweeted: “Have watched the film. Had them on show last year” on 6 March, after which the graph of YouTube views of the video switches to the trajectory of a bat out of hell. Winfrey, it turns out, has 9.7 million followers on Twitter…
In this online world of weak ties, famous tweeters like Oprah Winfrey have more influence than they have ever had before. Even though television shows or movies might be larger cultural works, new developments like Twitter and Facebook allow anyone with some influence to reach a large number of people quickly. With Winfrey located closer to the middle of a global cultural network, her suggestion can resound throughout the world.
The same columnist also considers what might happen as the result of these weak ties. In other words, what does it matter that over 65 million people saw this video?
The really interesting question, though, is whether this kind of development will further ratchet up the pressure on democratic politicians. The last two decades have shown how 24/7 media coverage of foreign atrocities can lead western leaders to morally driven interventionism.
We’ll have to see how this plays out. The Kony video itself claims that these sorts of media efforts work as they already pushed the United States to send 100 military advisers to central Africa. Additionally, they say this happened “because the people demanded it.” But they also suggest their viral efforts are not enough: the video talks about targeting a collection of political and cultural leaders, “20 culture-makers and 12 policy-makers.” Take these figures, such as Oprah Winfrey or Condoleezza Rice, out of the campaign and would as many people, in the public or on Capitol Hill, pay attention? Could just the public put enough pressure on governments through social media or viral videos? Also, the video itself is quite a production (a number of people involved in making it, per the credits on the YouTube video) from an established organization. This is a little different from a 10 year making a video in her bedroom.
This is not to take away from the fact that this videos has reached a tremendous amount of people. But if we want to understand why all those people paid attention, the story is much more complicated. Mass numbers can have an influence but powerful people are more centrally located within social networks and have more influential ties. If Kony 2012 is going to have legs and lead to lasting change, weak ties may not be enough.