Why Did Kony 2012 Fizzle? The Burn-Out of a Social Media Meteor

On my street, one lone tree was left hugging a Kony poster on Sunday … What happened?

Kony 2012, the movement that streaked across global media like a righteous comet in early March, was meant to shake the world with a night of action on April 20, last Friday.

But Cover the Night fizzled.

“Paltry turnouts on Friday at locations across north America, Europe and Australia left cities largely unplastered and the movement's credibility damaged,” wrote the Guardian, one of the few news outlets to actually cover the lack of action.

kony 2012 pics

Read also: Kony 2012: Viral YouTube Video Draws Celebs – and Criticism 

Sure, there were some activists who put up posters. A few.

The Kony 2012 website posted a slick video about it. But by Sunday night, the video had only 108,531 views, a pittance compared to the 88 million-plus who viewed the original documentary and were inspired to join up. 

On my street in Santa Monica, one lone Kony poster was left hugging a tree on Sunday.

My daughter Alexandra, a student at Columbia University who has been wearing a red Kony bracelet since March, wrote me sheepishly that she was busy in the library and came late to the Friday night event.

“No one showed up 🙁 ," she wrote. "It was quite sad. Even Fox called (an organizer) that day to ask if they could interview students on campus and they never showed up, either … don't know what that says about the movement."

Read also: 'Kony 2012': Can a YouTube Video Stop an International Child-Killer 

Julie Halpin, a spokeswoman for Invisible Children, the group behind the anti-Kony effort, disagreed that Cover the Night failed. "For Invisible Children, Cover the Night was a huge success," she told me on Monday. "People all over the country and all over the world participated. But the mainstream media didn’t cover it the way they covered the first video. So it’s a perception."

In fact, the mainstream media didn't cover it at all.

To me, Kony 2012 was another extraordinary step in testing the boundaries of social media. The movement took an issue from zero public awareness to headline news in every major news outlet to the embrace of the White House, fueled by the enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of kids across the nation.

But it didn’t last. Quickly came the wolves of the internet, who howled about how the nonprofit spent its money, criticized the naivete of the activists and questioned the utility of the protest. The web-savvy activists of Kony 2012 reacted quickly, but the pressure took its toll.

The founder of the movement, Jason Russell, collapsed. He was arrested in San Diego, detained by police and hospitalized after witnesses saw him running through streets in his underwear, screaming and banging his fists on the pavement.

Read also: 'Kony 2012' Filmmaker Detained for Alleged Public Masturbation 

Said a spokesman at the time: “The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday."

That, combined with the criticism, turned the newfound zeal of some into tempered curiosity.

Or did the kids just get bored? I asked my 18-year-old, who had pronounced the original 29-minute video one of the most important films he’d ever seen. 

“Once I started hearing negative things, I thought, ‘I don’t feel as strongly as I did,’” Jeremy told me. “But what he (Jason Russell) did, and the idea definitely overpowers anything else.”

But not enough to make him participate.

“I guess not,” he said.

My daughter wrote that the problem was timing. “Personally, i think the event should have taken place a week after they leaked the video because most people just forgot about it.”

Indeed. The fizzling of Kony says a lot about our era of short attention spans.

Also telling: The comments on the new Kony video on Youtube had been disabled. And Cover the Night was framed not as crowning effort but as merely the next step in the effort to bring the Ugandan warlord to justice.

We’ll see whether that’s the case.