Monday, March 12, 2012

can the internet stop evil?

i adore gil-scot heron.

i am ashamed to be yet another person bastardizing his words. but i now believe the revolution CAN be digitized.

a couple of years ago, there was an article by malcolm mcdowell in the new yorker, about how the civil rights movement would never have had an impact if it had started out with a facebook page. his theory, which i agreed with myself in october 2010, was that people click or "like" and then go back to their real lives. their somewhat passive "action" makes them feel like they are doing something so they don't really have to. and the truth is - as both causes and commercial products are finding - "likes" don't add up to people voting with their feet or wallets.

so what happened? why did things change?

there was the arab spring. people in oppressive regimes took to the streets and started demanding change. a young tunisian man who got an education and could only sell fruit on the street, set himself on fire - rather like a vietnamese monk in the 1960s - and people began to realize that they not only could, they HAD to change things. the vast, sweeping movement in egypt started, at least, with google and twitter.

in the past couple of years, there were movies like V is for Vendetta and the subsequent online activists anonymous and wikileaks.

then across the water in peaceful, complacent u.s.a, we realized we were running out of money and natural resources. teachers, professors, workers, ordinary people in wisconsin moved into the state capital to protest budget cuts that would reduce their health benfits and force them to relinquish their right to collective bargaining. all this in the country that gave us emma goldman and norma rae. people all over the u.s. got online and ordered them deliveries of pizzas, sleeping bags and drinks so they could hold out.

people came out in force to demonstrate for and against park51.

the tea party and ron paul had made everyone start to think grassroots. whether we like them or not, we learned we didn't need to simply accept what authority told us.

then came #occupy - first wall street and then cities across the country. admittedly, it was a rag-tag bunch, mostly students who couldn't find jobs out of college and the usual band of socialist workers and people out of the mainstream. but what was surprising was their level of support in the mainstream. religious leaders across the spectrum - christian, muslim, jewish, buddhist - spoke about how the movement represented the necessary ethical struggle against greed and excess.

even though #occupy lost its physical space, in an almost predictable battle with a massive real estate holding, the idea that the average person DOES have power and presence in the political and economic landscape had taken hold. the issue, of course, was the fact that it was a band of people held together by their unhappiness with the economic situation, but their specific goals were so diverse that they were never made clear.

and now there is STOP KONY 2012 - a viral video and campaign started by an organization called invisible children. the video is the story of a young american man who is so moved by his meeting with a ugandan boy that he vows to help him eradicate the villain whose forces killed the boy's younger brother and destroyed his home and family.

in my advertising mind, the video was genius in several ways. there was a clear and evil "bad guy" (black and sweaty), there were clear and sweet "good guys" (mostly white and smiling) and a very simple message along with - we LOVE this term in advertising - a single-minded proposition. they tell you EXACTLY what to do, how to do it and, best of all, how it will make you feel.

i had only two issues with the campaign (from a purely commercial standpoint) - 1. the 25-minute video was WAY too long for my attention-span. on the other hand, since it targeted 13 to 17 year-olds, they have more time to watch and they were drawn into the story and the way the momentum built. 2. it was a little too obviously "white man's burden." the activists and the good guys were ALL white. the black people were either bad or victims - and they were ALL africans. we saw no non-whites (except in massive crowd shots) who were activists. a bright, young uganda woman explains how often americans/europeans arrive to "fix" africa.

on the other hand, from an advertising standpoint, we have a lot to learn from the exercise. like what everyone wants is an idea that makes them FEEL better about themselves. what is simplistic is to promise them that an antiaging creme, a hair dye, a lipstick, a fragrance, a dress or a pair of jeans will do that. we also all want an idea that makes us feel like we can have an effect on something important. who doesn't want to change the world? we all want, as they say in advertising jargon, "an activation." the DOVE campaign for real beauty did that, but didn't manage to deliver on the product.

however, a host of other places, the washington post, the new york times, the huffington post, friends on facebook, criticize the simplicity and sudden popularity of the campaign.

as for me, from a political standpoint, i agree with forbes. what the campaign has succeeded in doing is mobilizing a group of idealistic young people who could feel themselves powerless. when you are young, you have the space to think and care deeply about the suffering of others. when you are young and fed and clothed and sheltered, you can see the injustice of people who are not.

perhaps, since my children go to the united nations international school in new york city and grew up memorizing the "rights of the child" (rather than the pledge of allegiance), they are especially vulnerable to such propositions. but it seems like children all over the country are responding to the cry of another child, even though he's halfway round the world.

yes, the kony campaign is imperfect. it seems that the forces enlisted to rid the world of kony are only slightly less bad than kony's lord's resistance army. the solution proposed is simplistic. but then again, in today's complex world, we crave simplicity. the campaign is a bit loose and sloppy with the details and the facts, but so are most ad campaigns because the idea is to make a simple point. we get you thinking and then you do the work to find the important details.

if you are 13 to 17, the idea of triumphant music and a children's march to paper the country with STOP KONY posters on april 20, is both inspiring and empowering.

despite the horrible history of the word "crusade," i like the poetic sound of the word. for me, it means marching towards a goal, a sense of moral or ethical purpose. STOP KONY implies a children's crusade, much like the disney revival of newsies, a group of young newsboys who rise up for justice and fairness.

when rara was eight, she took all her pocket money and donated it to an organization called falling whistles, a campaign to end child soldiering in congo. they gave her a whistle to wear around her neck and sent her a letter telling her whistles would be given to children in congo. the idea was to make a noise, to stop the suffering of these - as the kony campaign tells us clearly - "invisible children."

in my opinion, the STOP KONY campaign, is both a massive success (whether or not it stops Kony, who, according to some sources, may already be starving and weak in the jungle) and also a testament to the desire of our young people today to change the world for the better.

can the power of the internet stop evil? yes. maybe. not totally. but it can change the way we think and make us realize even more how we are all connected. it can educate young people in global realities. the fact that american children's emotions are an online connection away from those of african children means that the global village is getting closer by the moment.

and that's just where as humans, we should want to be.

want to take another step towards stopping child soldiers all over africa? stand with amnesty international

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