April 17, 2012
(Thaler Pekar is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In her last post, she wrote about narrative, big data, and the future of communication.)
Invisible Children's Kony 2012 video, the most viral ever, is an almost perfect mashup of up-to-the-minute advocacy messaging and tactics: the personal story frame; the clear antagonist and invitation to the viewer to imagine him or herself as the hero; the explicit call to action executed across multiple platforms; the use of simple narrative; even the appeal to young people's concern that mass media ignores their voices.
That said, I find many things about the video to be unsettling. Never mind its strong support for a militaristic solution, or its use of a questionable dominant narrative (an issue that was addressed in the organization's follow-up video); I want to address the global conversation the video has sparked around the telling of complex versus simple stories. Is there a place for simple stories in advocacy? If your organization is seeking to solve a complex problem, must it always share complex stories?
Invisible Children has a clearly defined goal: "to arrest [the warlord Joseph Kony], disarm the LRA and bring the child soldiers home" -- and Kony 2012 invites viewers to engage with that story solely on the basis of the organization's proffered solution. Detractors of the video rightly note that the story of conflict in Uganda is far more complex than the video presents -- precisely because they themselves view the conflict through the lens of complex systemic change.
I don't happen to think simple stories are needed to share complex narratives. (I use "narrative" to refer to the larger story and frame, and "story" as the small episodes and moments that encapsulate the larger narrative.) People are emotionally complex, live complex lives, and can relate to authentic, emotionally complex stories. The longevity of The New Yorker, the popularity of This American Life, the respect and attention paid the deeply reported journalism of ProPublica attest to our willingness to thoroughly engage with complex long-form narratives.