I thought I had the internet figured out. Downloads, uploads, live feeds, podcasts, chats and on and on - the terminology and associated programs and applications reveal a rich tapestry of online life over the past 15 or so years. There is always something new to learn and master, but I had believed nothing was left that could surprise me. Then along came a YouTube video about Ugandan guerilla leader Joseph Kony to blast away my naivety.
Kony is the subject of a 27-minute film by the US advocacy group Invisible Children. He and his Lord's Resistance Army forces are believed to have abducted an estimated 66,000 children across northern Uganda to be soldiers and sex slaves. Aimed at schoolchildren, the documentary, Kony 2012, seeks his arrest and to raise awareness and funding. It is well-produced, but nothing stellar: essentially, it is a video laying out a case and pushing for donations.
Producer Jason Russell did not have me in mind as part of his target audience, but I chanced upon his work through the Twitter account of Rihanna. Two weeks ago, a day after the film was posted on the internet, the pop star tweeted: '#KONY2012 Spread the word'. Being a sucker for all things pop culture and Rihanna, no matter how base they may be, I just had to find out what had caught her attention. I am not the only one: more than 82million others have since done the same on the original YouTube feed alone, after tweets from dozens of celebrities.
That is where the shock factor comes in. The video is not packed with special effects or hooks. From the opening scenes of Russell talking to his young son and Jacob, one of the former child soldiers, it degenerates into a plea to hand over cash to Invisible Children. There is nothing about its message or production to suggest that it should go viral. But there is an even more confusing matter: relevance.
Kony and his forces cleaved a swathe of abductions, rape and murder for two decades from 1986, but the Ugandan military pushed them out six years ago. Operating in remote pockets in neighbouring countries, the Lord's Resistance Army is now believed to number in the hundreds, not tens of thousands, as portrayed in the film. Northern Uganda has undergone tremendous recovery and is peaceful. Kony, while still troublesome, is by no means the region's biggest problem.
Debate rages about Invisible Children's motives. That the film refers to a bygone era has drawn fierce criticism, especially from Ugandans. But as over-simplified as it may be, the methods of promotion are nothing short of ingenious. Just as US President Barack Obama used the internet's social media capabilities to raise funds to win the election in 2008, Russell has turned to them to float a message that ordinarily would have sunk without trace.
The biggest cost of promotion has been the film. Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Oprah Winfrey and others have done the rest for free through Twitter and Facebook. Kony's name was one that I had encountered, but forgotten. Now I, along with hundreds of millions, are only too aware of him.
We often hear of the power of the internet. For those with a product to push or an idea to spread, regardless of how new or important it is, Invisible Children has shown how to get people talking.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post