Communication and storytelling in the modern world has run into a weird phenomenon – something that various people have termed the ‘over communicated society’. Social media means there’s so much white noise that it’s nearly impossible to hear the important stories or (more crucially in some cases) the important silences.
I want to take the recent Kony 2012 video as an example. When you have 30 minutes to spare, watch this:
It’s a fantastically well put-together story, spread using social media to tell the world. The global fireplace, if you want to get purple about it. And when I first saw it, I was hooked. Yes, it simplifies the issue of advocacy in a regional/civil war, but that was inevitable since you can’t get an international popular movement without a single strong point. The man on the street isn’t going to be emotionally involved in a debate on the morality of funding in Africa, but he might possibly get off his sofa to do something about child abduction and torture. They weren’t asking for money, either – all they were asking people to do was raise awareness of Joseph Kony, so that his crimes could no longer be ignored. I was impressed, enough to want to help. (And that’s hard to do, since I’m innately both lazy and selfish.)
Assisted by the raptor, who is innately cynical (one of many reasons we work well together), I spent a couple of hours on the internet researching. There are issues around Invisible Children, including funding (irrelevant to the argument of raising awareness), something called the ‘White Man’s Burden’ (insert John Dunne quote here), and the ignorance of Western Society meaning we shouldn’t get involved (which, followed through, means no one does anything about injustice and I might be speaking German right now). There were numerous blog posts, twitter feeds and debates going on across all forms of social media and, in the end, it came down to whether I felt the central point – that of raising awareness about Kony and his crimes – was valid and separated enough from the attacks on IC themselves.
What I did not find until the following day was this: Kony isn’t really the problem anymore.
The amount of social noise and hype made that rather crucial fact very hard to find. More hours of research later, I’m still not 100% certain of it (citation please, James?). What Invisible Children did – telling a story to the international country that is social media – is truly impressive, and the response shows how powerful such tools are. But I think it also shows the dangers.
There’s another danger which I haven’t really seen people touch on. Exposure to what’s commonly called the ‘data explosion’ means that we are much more likely to become jaded. Murder? Nothing new. Famine? We’ve all seen millions of pictures. You can’t care about everything so, in the end, you don’t care about anything if it doesn’t directly affect you. It’s much, much harder to get people worked up enough to take action which is one of the reasons I was so impressed with IC. As a couple of teachers on various blogs about the issue said, they even managed to get middle-class American teenagers to care enough to save up their pocket money. That’s powerful.
Like I said, I’m lazy, selfish and jaded. Yet the story IC told was strong enough to make me start to do something. If it wasn’t for a friend sending me that last link, I would (I hope) have gone ahead and run London IC Blackout Night. But the fundamental story is based on a lie – one they have deliberately propagated.
I still believe in the importance of stopping child abduction, soldiery, rape and torture. There are other ways to help. But, with all this white noise, they are harder to find and sadly, I’m a bit more cynical than I was before.