The expansion of new media and social networking platforms has created new opportunities for producers and consumers to interact online. Many businesses are taking advantage of these new opportunities by increasing their social media presence to communicate with their consumers. A similar movement towards social media interactivity can be seen in the not-for-profit sector as nonprofit organizations (NPOs) adapt new strategies to achieve effective information transmission and campaign visibility. A 2014 Canadian study found that 96% of the 56 interviewed NPOs used Facebook, 89% used Twitter and 75% used YouTube (Obar, 2014). Another 2012 study found that 73 of the 100 USA based largest NPOs – as measured by incoming revenues – had an active Twitter account (Lovejoy & Saxton, 2012, p. 340). Not only are NPOs using social media platforms to transmit information to their audience, they are also using their immediate audience to spread information to others. This is often done in the context of online activist campaigns. For example, the NPO “Human Rights Campaign” asked people to change their Facebook profile picture to an equal sign as part of a movement to support legalization of gay marriage. Campaigns such as this demonstrate NPOs successful response to the new social media environment, and are largely successful for three reasons. Firstly, they exploit people’s desire to mediate their online persona. Participating in online symbolic action gives the impression of being an engaged citizen and has positive social repercussions. Secondly, the NPOs are creating content that is highly spreadable and directly asking people to share the content, therefore allowing for the possibility of virility and increased awareness about a cause. Lastly, NPOs are effectively using the affordances of platforms, such as scalability and visibility, among others, to spread their content quickly and effectively.
One of the most successful examples of an NPO using the above-mentioned attributes to benefit an activist campaign is the organization Invisible Children, who created the massively viral campaign "Kony 2012." This campaign centered heavily around a short video, released March 5, 2012, that focused on the infamous story of Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is a rebel group that operates in Uganda, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has an infamous history of human rights violations. Most notably the ongoing practice of abducting and using children as soldiers. This video appealed to watchers with the powerful message that, “nothing is more powerful than an idea” and that with the power of social media the viewers could together end the LRA and bring Kony to justice. You can watch the video below.
This campaign also raised around 8.6million dollars, but this blog will only focus on the online successes. The Kony 2012 video was the single fastest YouTube video to reach 100 million views, and completed this feat in only 6 days (Bina, 2012). This video is an example of the ways that NPOs are moving their campaigns online to increase awareness; however, why are online network publics such an ideal location for this kind of activism? Well firstly, as the video explains there are more people on Facebook now than there were on the planet 200 years ago, meaning that there is a massive, and highly receptive, audience for organizations to target. In the infographic below you can see the ways that people heard about Kony, and that 36% of people 18-29, and 22% of people 30-49 heard about the campaign on the internet
The age differences brought up in this infographic are important, as they highlight the fact that younger people were most likely to be viewing the Kony 2012 video. This may be a representation of the age group most likely to be active on social media, but also represents the age range which is most willing to participate in what Joel Penney (2014) refers to as symbolic action or media participation (p. 52). These both refer to online actions which gives those engaged in it social or psychological rewards. Sharing the Kony 2012 video is a form of symbolic action that may increase social status from the appearances of political participation, without the sharer engaging in “material political participation” (Penney, 2014, p. 52). In many ways, symbolic action is what Lisa Portolan (2016) refers to in her article "Premo Ergo Sum: I Click, Therefore I Am." Sharing activist campaigns on social media creates the appearance of being a conscientious citizen and therefore writes that reality into being (p. 1). Symbolic action therefore creates perception; in the activist context, you share, therefore, you care. This desire to mediate one’s online persona is often taken advantage of by activist campaigns, and the Kony 2012’s video did an excellent job of capitalizing on peoples’ desire to appear politically engaged, and included statements in the video such as “this is also about you,” making the claim that if more people knew who Kony was, the faster he would be stopped, placing the burden on the viewer to engage with the video. It is not only Kony 2012 which is capitalizing on this, activists often prompt people to share their campaign content – claiming that the action of sharing is political action in and of itself.
The audience’s decision to engage and share this kind of media to the point of it becoming viral is what Green and Jenkins (2011) would define as spreadability, or the “technical affordances that make it easier to circulate some kinds of media content than others” (p. 112). They discuss the virality of singer Susan Boyle’s video, the second fastest video, after Kony 2012, to reach 100 million views. Green and Jenkins discuss how the speed with which people share and consume media is routed in both what people value sharing and watching, but also the infrastructure and affordances of platforms which allow for “anyone to share this content with minimal effort” (p. 113). These were both major factors in the success of Kony: people cared about stopping Kony, and also were able to share this video on social media sites. But what are affordances, and how do NPOs use them to increase spreadability? As danah boyd explains in his article "Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications" the architecture of social networking sites and network publics create certain structural affordances which shape how people use social media (boyd, 2010, p. 7). Certain environments contain latent action possibilities, and these possibilities are realized in relation to individuals (Obar, 2014). NPOs often maximize these affordances to facilitated outreach.
Boyd refers to the affordance of “scalability” which he defines as “the potential visibility of content in networked publics”
Boyd refers to the affordance of “scalability” which he defines as “the potential visibility of content in networked publics” (boyd, 2010, p. 7). This affordance makes distribution of material possible on a much larger scale and is frequently exploited by NPOs in their attempts to bring issues to the forefront of public consciousness. In the case of Kony 2012, scalability came into effect when one person shared the video to their friends list, therefore increasing the people accessing the video. This explains why Facebook and Twitter are the most used platforms for NPOs, as their platform infrastructure facilitates spreadability by making sharing to your friends and their friends easy. Scalability is not the only factor which NPOs consider. A study which evaluated the ways Canadian activist agencies use media affordances identified four affordances which benefited these organizations the most: “visibility, persistence, editability and association.” Further, upon being interviewed, the NPOs believed that the democratizing factor of network publics allowed for more effective public outreach because it increased the speed of communication and enabled a feedback loop in the most cost-effective way (Obar, 2014).
So how are NPOs effectively responding to the change in new media culture? They are creating successful online campaigns such as Kony 2012 which allow people to create a positive self image, while also raising awareness for a cause. They create media which has the potential to become viral, and then deploy this media on platforms which have infrastructure in place to facilitate sharing and expedited spreadability. Lastly, they effectively use the affordances of platforms to create a feedback loop with the consumer and design content which people are willing to share.
Bina, E. H. (2012). “How 'Kony 2012' Went Viral (INFOGRAPHIC).” The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 23, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/12/kony-2012-viral-infographic_n_1421812.html
boyd, danah. (2010). "Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications." Networked Self: Identity, Community, and Culture on Social Network Sites (ed. Zizi Papacharissi), pp. 39-58
Green, Joshua and Henry Jenkins. (2011). “Spreadable Media. How Audiences Create Value and Meaning in a Networked Economy.” In The Handbook of Media Audiences edited by Virginia Nightingale, 109-127. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lovejoy, K. and Saxton, G. D. (2012). “Information, Community, and Action: How Nonprofit Organizations Use Social Media. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication.” 17: 337–353. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2012.01576.x
Obar, Jonathan. (2014). “Canadian Advocacy 2.0: An Analysis of Social Media Adoption and Perceived Affordance by Advocacy Groups Looking to Advance Activism in Canada.” Canadian Journal of Communication. 39: 211-233
Penney, J. (2014). “Social Media and Symbolic Action: Exploring Participation in the Facebook Red Equal Sign Profile Picture Campaign”. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 20: 52–66. doi:10.1111/jcc4.12092
Portolan, Lisa. (2016). “Premo Ergo Sum: I Click, Therefore I Am.” The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 21, 2017, from Http://huffingtonpost.com.au/lisa-portolan/premo-ergo-sum-i-click-therefpre-i-am_b_9084974.html?utm_hp_ref=australia