After Kony, could a viral video change the world?

According to YouTube, 60 hours of video material are uploaded to it every minute – an hour a second. In the midst of such abundance, how can anything get noticed? Attention is now the scarcest commodity in cyberspace – which explains why virality is so craved by those with things to sell or messages to transmit. In that sense, the most significant thing about the Kony video is that it represents the most successful exploitation of virality to date. But when you delve deeper, it turns out that its success owes something to network theory as well as to storytelling craft.

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

The dissemination of the Kony meme does raise interesting questions for the future. It’s the most dramatic demonstration so far of how an idea can spread over the globe via a channel that is beyond the reach and control of established media outlets. YouTube can’t compete with conventional broadcasting at reaching billions of people instantaneously. But it operates outside the control of conventional gatekeepers and editorial sieves. And a third of the world’s population now uses the internet, so the video could, in time, reach an awful lot of people.

And what about truth, lies and propaganda? The Kony video was made by people whose intentions seem good, even if their ideology and analysis may be a touch simplistic. But what if a video with more sinister antecedents were to get this kind of viral boost? It suggests the old saying that “a lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on” is acquiring a chilling new resonance.

After Kony, could a viral video change the world? – The Observer

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