Last Saturday morning, the world was supposed to wake up to city centers plastered with bright red posters telling us to STOP AT NOTHING. Towns were supposed to be covered with the messages of peace and common cause that made themselves known through youth who came out to "Cover the Night." The end game of the Kony 2012 video -- the most successful viral video campaign of all time -- was supposed to be a physical world awash with the graffiti of digital empathy.
The consensus, though? The thing was a flop. Hardly anyone came out.
But why Cover the Night was a flop is, actually, interesting. The hyped event's meager turnout could have a number of causes: our fleeting digital attention spans, or viral content's fireworks-to-fizzle trajectories, or the challenges of translating online activism to real-world change, or Invisible Children's failure to capitalize on the attention it had once it still had it, or Invisible Children's own pivot when it came to the stated goal of the event, or the widespread backlash that brought phrases like "the white savior industrial complex" newly, and powerfully, into the mass consciousness.
There are, in short, PhD dissertations to be written about the Kony campaign and the way it exploded and, at least for the moment, faded. In the meantime, though, there's one more thing worth highlighting: the branding the campaign took on, almost -- almost -- in spite of itself. Invisible Children's campaign became not just about Kony, and not even just about Invisible Children, but about the guy ultimately informing us of Kony's evildoing: Jason Russell, the Invisible Children co-founder. Partly, of course, things got personal because the video made them personal: "Kony 2012" starred not only Kony himself, and not only Jacob, one of the Ugandan children affected by the warlord's tactics, but also -- famously, infamously -- Jason Russell and his son. The video forced viewers to see Kony's story as an extension of Jason Russell's story, and of Jason Russell's organization's story, and of Jason Russell's kid's story. That was supposed to be what made the thing "relatable." That was its power and its pitfall.