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The cat meme pothead test

I’m genuinely sorry for writing another column about Joseph Kony.

Many of you are likely sick of reading about this by now, and chances are any temporary excitement you might have had about the cause has vanished into a hazy world of angry Facebook statuses.

I feel your pain—and I write only to say that I think that’s very much the point. 75,150,482 views (as of the editing of this column) may seem like a lot, but even a substantial flicker of interest in not-for-profit causes among busy students and professionals is a fragile thing. And so I’m writing this as a plea to the self-proclaimed geniuses who are spouting off on Facebook about the perils of uninformed activism: Proceed with caution.

It is pointless to argue against healthy discussion and legitimate debate about the merits of Invisible Children, and I have no qualms with that. But we should draw a firm distinction between those discussions and a new, more insidious upshot of the video: holier-than-thou intellectualism. This brought to you by folks of all stripes who have deemed themselves arbiters of who gets to be interested in this stuff.

One online cynic claims bewilderment at “why the people who usually bombarded me with cat memes and status updates about getting high and eating McDonald’s were suddenly fervent supporters of Ugandan children.” Similar sentiments appear all over my news feed.

And this is not an issue unique to this movement. The term “slacktivism” far predates Kony 2012 and refers to people who are judged to be unqualified to be involved in whatever the cause de jour may be.

But far from endorsing these kinds of intellectual contests, I’d submit that the success of Kony 2012—or any movement, for that matter—should be judged precisely by the number of cat meme potheads (and the like) that have expressed interest.

I say this because the “real activists” (the ones who were already experts on child warfare long before Kony 2012 reared its supposedly simplistic head) are involved anyway. Facebook does not check its success by how many social networking gurus sign up; critical mass only occurred when it managed to attract people who were not natural consumers (that is, to say, geeks).

By the same token, not-for-profits—whose success depends on the financial support and volunteerism of a broad base of supporters—need to have a message that catches on with more than just the typical bleeding hearts.

Now, there’s an inherent challenge here. The kinds of people who are not usually committed to these kinds of movements are probably not going to be moved by long dissertations about the complexities of sub-Saharan politics. This means that there is going to be a natural tendency to dumb things down or present simplified versions of events (no surprise that this is precisely what many detractors accuse Kony 2012 of doing).

But this is true about anything. When Apple tries to sell iPads, Apple doesn’t buy hours of advertising space to give complex explanations of why their products are technically superior. By the same token, the measure of success for folks who feel Kony 2012 is an inferior cause shouldn’t be their insults of supporters but rather their ability to offer a concise description of why their approach is superior.

So instead of spending their days bemoaning our stupidity for watching and passing along Kony 2012, “real activists” might consider how Invisible Children managed to attract so much sudden visibility and try to replicate its success. Because I suspect the reason Kony 2012 is attracting higher donations is not the result of a lack of public support for charities that donate a bigger percentage of their revenue to aid.

So here’s my appeal to the high-minded cynics out there: Erase your angry statuses and take down your blog posts. Take the cadre of folks who already agree with you and go to the drawing board. Figure out how you will convince the ignoramuses of the world that your cause is worth five minutes of their time. That is to say, stop trying to deflate the bubble of interest generated by Kony 2012 and start trying to replicate it.

If Kony 2012 oversimplified the situation in Uganda, create a more compelling video that corrects it. If they don’t donate enough of their revenue to aid, design a campaign that highlights your sparkly financials.

Do not condescend to the people who are not natural enthusiasts.

They’re the ones you need the most.

Jeremy Ruch is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Wednesday.


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