“Kony2012” — the potential of weak ties in the age of the Internet.

Over the past month, much has been written about the Invisible Children’s campaign “Kony2012” and the 30minute film made to raise awareness of the activities of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. Leaving aside comments on its content and the ends, from a sociological perspective a very interesting aspect of the video concerns its virality, and how this unveils the potential of weak ties in network in the age of the Internet. In a recent article published on the Guardian, John Naughton reflects on this.

Certainly, viral dissemination has always been one of the key features of the Internet, but it is only in recent times (e.g. with the launch of YouTube in 2005) that its deliberate exploitation has been reached. On the one hand, the ‘explosion’ of the Internet has allowed for any kind of information to be virtually available to anyone across the globe. However, in the midst of such abundance of inputs, ‘attention’ and the ability of ‘getting noticed’ have become two of the scarcest and most sought after commodities in the cyberspace, and ‘virality’ something that every hackers, politicians and advertisers long for, but only few achieve. In this sense, the “Kony2012” meme stands out possibly as one of the most successful cases of exploitation of virality to date.

As Naughton aptly reminds us, the viral dissemination of the video can be understood looking back at one of the precepts of network theory developed over 30years ago by the sociologist Mark Granovetter—the strength of weak ties in networks. This refers to the crucial role played by links among people who are not closely bonded, to spread ideas and help people join together for action. From this angle, the prominence reached by the “Kony2012” video seems to owe much to one particular weak tie—a tweet by Oprah Winfrey in support of the film. Having 9.7million (!!) followers on twitter, her comment created a chain of reactions (or, better, twits and YouTube clicks) amongst her ‘virtual acquaintances’ which boosted the dissemination of the video and its message, allowing it to reach 26million views in less than six days.

Such level of dissemination has exposed the film to all sorts of criticisms, especially due to the rather simplistic ideology and analysis behind it. In spite of this, what is truly remarkable about the “Kony2012” meme is how it has exposed the power of the weak ties in networks, and the way in which these can allow for an idea (good or bad) to spread across the globe via channels beyond the reach and control of established media outlets. This raises crucial questions not on the content of this specific campaign, but rather for the future diffusion of ‘alternative information’ by any campaign able to instigate such virality. Following the view of positive hyperglobalisers, this kind of development could put pressure on democratic politicians, opening up the way to morally driven interventionism. As in the case of the Arab Spring, there comes a point when unremitting shouting that “something must be done” can no longer be ignored. In practice, however, it still remains to be seen whether this great potential will be fulfilled, unleashing an era of network power where the weak ties that populate the Internet can successfully spread across the globe not only videos of cats and celebrities, but democracy.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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