On the Unlikely Viral Success of 'Kony 2012'

With some 57 million views in four days, "KONY 2012" is a full-fledged mega-meme. But the odds were stacked against it going viral.

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For better or worse, you've probably watched, or at least heard of, Invisible Children's #kony2012 campaign. With some 57 million views in four days, "KONY 2012" is a full-fledged mega-meme. Just how quickly did this viral video blow up? By one measure, it was the fastest of all Internet time. But the odds were stacked against it going viral.

About the campaign, briefly: Joseph Kony is a brutal Ugandan guerrilla leader and all-around terrible man. Invisible Children, a San Diego-based charity, wants you to know who he is. Many people have many opinions on the campaign (not the man, who is terrible); The Atlantic Wire offers an explainer here.

Views on #kony2012 aside, Visible Measures, a third-party measurement firm of viral video, has been tracking the growth of the video's Internet notoriety since the documentary was uploaded on Monday. By the firm's "True Reach" measure, charted out above, the KONY 2012 campaign reached 70 million aggregate views in the shortest amount of time ever, four days.

"True Reach is the combination of related video assets across the web," Visible Measures' Matt Fiorentino writes to us by email. In the case of Kony 2012, this includes Invisible Children's two online documentaries plus any video responses other users have created, which according to the firm have a total of 77.9 million collective views as of this writing. "We combine the view totals for each of these clips to provide a holistic performance metric for the campaign."

Kony 2012's competition from the last seven years of YouTube includes Britain's Got Talent's Susan Boyle and Old Spice's line of absurdist ads as well as classics like "Dramatic Gopher," "David After Dentist," and "Evolution of Dance." But "Kony 2012," as a nonprofit effort, has not been posted to sell a product or to be funny (or either). "It goes against all the best practices for going viral," Fiorentino writes. "It's incredibly long. It's serious subject matter. Plus, it's horribly tragic."

Buoyed by its production value, perhaps it touches on an untapped desire for activism that no other charity video has accessed. The fact that it's a video produced for altruistic purposes gives it another edge as well. Unlike any home- or corporation-made viral video, it can and does explicitly ask viewers to share it, almost to the point of a guilt trip. And share it methodically. "We are targeting 20 culture-makers and 12 policymakers to use their power for good," the video's narrator says. "Celebrities, athletes, and billionaires have a loud voice, and what they talk about spreads instantly." Many "targets" have already tweeted it, including Justin BieberTaylor Swift, and Oprah.

This is all well and good for Invisible Children and its supporters at least. Expect to see plenty more causes try to emulate Kony 2012's success in the coming years. Co-founder Jason Russell is crossing his fingers for a billion views. Since the most-viewed viral video effort, "Charlie Bit My Finger," stands with a "True Reach" score of only 628 million after being posted in 2008, we're doubting they reach that. But don't trust us, we never would have anticipated Kony-mania in the first place.

Photo via Reuters by Adam Pletts.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.