How Does the 'Kony 2012' Phenomenon Illustrate 'Why Videos Go Viral'?

Why do videos go viral?  The success of the Kony 2012 documentary has a lot of filmmakers and activists pondering this very question.  Racking over 50 million views on YouTube since Monday (and over 14 million views on Vimeo) the documentary is the quintessential example of a viral phenomenon.  Now, beyond the accuracy of the documentary, or controversies swirling about it, it's interesting to consider just how and why this video went viral.  In a recent TED talk called 'Why Videos Go Viral', YouTube’s trends manager, Kevin Allocca, boiled the answer down to three interacting factors -- factors we can see at play in the 'Kony 2012' phenomenon:

First, here's what Allocca has to say:

So a video with a quality of unexpectedness is taken up by participating communities and/or tastemakers who then proceed to propagate the video to other participating communities and tastemakers by way of their reactions, re-mixes or endorsements.  If the cycle of sharing and re-sharing takes off, it leads to a "viral" effect.

The Kony phenomenon, in case you haven't heard of it, was born out of an effort by activist group Invisible Children to raise awareness about the atrocities committed by Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, and to pressure international authorities to bring him to justice.  It all started with a half hour documentary highlighting the activists' take on the issue along with a call to action:

In an attempt to understand just how the video went viral, The New York Times' meta-news blog, The Lede, ran an interesting item this morning that attempts to provide a blow-by-blow account of the documentary's viral rise.  It's fascinating to see how the video's success illustrates much of Allocca's model.

The Participating Community

The organization had an existing group of followers built up over the course of 11 previous films and numerous campus tours, a community that was receptive to the organization's call to action.  As The Lede explains, the documentary reaches out to viewers and

explains the social media strategy, which includes getting people to enlist celebrities on Twitter, including Oprah Winfrey and others with large followings, to help get out the word about the film and Mr. Kony. The group also specifically asked people who viewed the film to share it with their personal networks on social media platforms so that “Kony’s name is everywhere.”

The Tastemakers

Spreading the word is precisely what the organization's very participative community did -- reaching out to friends, family, and tastemakers--

Soon, celebrities from the film and music worlds, including Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Diddy, Alec Baldwin and Olivia Wilde were joining in and posting links to the film on Facebook and Twitter. Many did so at the urging of their fans. And the hashtags #kony2012 #stopkony began to trend worldwide on Twitter.

This triggered a domino effect, gradually hitting other tastemakers with massive followings -- folks like Oprah Winfrey, Ryan Seacrest, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian -- who then spread the word to their own participating communities.


The only factor the Lede piece doesn't address is the unexpectedness factor -- that mysterious mind-rub quality that speaks to folks and encourages them to share an item when they see it.  There are a lot of possible levels of unexpectedness for viewers encountering this video -- from folks who have never heard of child soldiers, to folks who expected the video to be a viral campaign for a movie or product instead of an Ugandan warlord's capture, to folks who wanted to feel they were part of a larger cause by sharing or clicking a "like" button.  Considering how many other documentaries cover similar or parallel ground, it still doesn't quite explain it.  This may be where the randomness of cultural mood and zeitgeist come into play -- perhaps if the film had been released two weeks from now, with a different mix of concerns preoccupying the public it wouldn't have had the same impact.

What does this all illustrate?

It shows the power of engaging with participating communities and tastemakers in an age when everyone with access to the internet can amplify a message.  People can create re-mixes, or simply share it with their friends and favorite celebrity.  Content creators don't have to rely on a "megaphone made of cash" to get their message out, but they do have to be part of communities that can help create a megaphone made of other people.

Does knowing about these factors guarantee a viral success?  No.  As pointed out, there is still an element of luck when it comes to why one item blows up in the popular culture while another never reaches beyond a small group of people.  Does knowing about these factors make it more likely your video will go viral?  Perhaps.  Without understanding the importance of message amplification, participating communities and tastemakers the activists could have left the "call to action" out of the documentary.  Instead it becomes this embedded prompt to continue sharing everytime someone watches the video.  Whether your video is picked up out of the blue by a tastemaker, or actively promoted by a willing community, by understanding who you're trying to reach you can better hone your strategy.

Do you think Allocca's model makes sense?  What do you think determines "unexpectedness"?  Let us know!

You Might Also Like

Your Comment


Thats why i hate hearing people say, lets make a viral video. You cant make a viral video on purpose. You make a video and have those three elements and it could, not will, go viral. At least that's my opinion.

March 9, 2012 at 4:34PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I totally agree with that. You can make sth awesome, but you can't guarantee success, although the use of promoted videos (paid positions) does help to get noticed.

More importantly, what film makers should learn from this is that they should not be afraid to let people remix their content. Unfortunately old copyright laws prevend just that, although no one really is original anymore, as Kirby clearly shows us -

March 10, 2012 at 12:06AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Interesting question on this interview about Kony 2012 on Aljazeera. The question at 15:20 touches briefly on the 'unexpectedness,' of IC's campaign. the interviewee says she doesn't see a formula to viral success, only that Kiny 2012 is unexpected. Seems like an ingredient that is hard to explain.

March 14, 2012 at 5:26PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Landon Sell

I think this illustrates more Jack Trout and David Ogilvy school of thought - celebrity endorsements work. It certainly has not gone viral in my circles, in fact personally I found it TL;DW. I'm sure there's a story behind the story.

March 9, 2012 at 4:39PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Haha, celebrity endoursements work. Yup, that about sums it up.

March 9, 2012 at 5:30PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


As for the ingredients needed- simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, story. And 30 seconds or less!

March 9, 2012 at 4:41PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Interesting article, Koo. I think it's easier to wrap one's mind around "unexpectedness" by describing it as more "shock and awe" instead. At I do videos very much like Julian Smith (my latest one excluded), but I can't hardly get a thousand views, much less millions! It's truly a fascinatingly inexplicable phenomenon, the viral video.

March 9, 2012 at 8:58PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Just to clarify, E.M. actually wrote this post, and I think he did a terrifically thorough job!

March 9, 2012 at 10:05PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Joe Marine
Camera Department

@PageLynch, I decided to take your bait and watch your last video. If you think "I do videos very much like Julian Smith" you're kidding yourself. There's a reason his are >600k and yours are <1k. Study and learn. But keep trying. Thanks for the great article E.M.!

March 29, 2012 at 4:53PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


It's not about going viral. It's about arming the world with media. Each and everyone of us being what is translated from ancient cultures as the rainbow tribe. That is when all of us have been reincarnated from one life to the next so rapidly that there is no tangible enemy. The enemy is the concept of suppressing, arresting, destroying, killing, & tormenting. It's happening all over on many levels. We are the viewers as well as the video makers. Ask yourself what you are watching, why you are watching, & what you would rather be watching. Get prepared, so when the opportunity arises, you capture that moment and post it online for the world to see.
And when you're ready to discuss survival, that is when you realize you are not just a cameraman or a tv personality. You are a gardener, a farmer, a pioneer, a builder, a mechanic, an engineer, a doctor, a politician, a parent, a teacher, a warrior, an amazing being who qualifies as godlike. So is everybody else. We just need to recognize this in ourselves and in others. Why would you want to be in front of a computer alone instead of the neighborhood garden surrounded by a beautiful community, unless you had too?

March 9, 2012 at 9:33PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


3 minutes in theres a feature of the canon c300!

March 9, 2012 at 11:06PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


ohhh just stop....this video went viral because most of us viewed it and saw that something wrong was/is happening. I'd love to see the follow-up video of his capture ....can we make that viral!

March 10, 2012 at 2:16AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


This is a refreshing perspective.

By David Childerley

March 10, 2012 at 6:45PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Or it went viral because it made us feel important, and asked no more than that we share it with our friends so that they could also feel important.

March 12, 2012 at 11:15PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


This was really well written! good job!

March 13, 2012 at 9:30AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Why everywhere I go on the web I read that Kony 2012 is a scam? Do you guys know about this?

March 13, 2012 at 11:11AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

You voted '+1'.
Pedro Carvalho

Very interesting perspective, and I think it highly relates to Malcolm Gladwell's concept of the "tipping point" whereby you have different groups of people that push an idea/product and make it go "viral", but that each successive group of people is required in order to make it happen. I highly recommend reading his book on the subject for anyone curious on this curious social phenomena

March 15, 2012 at 11:56AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


awesome work mate, i wanna spread awareness about Kony 2012 in my city of Surat (world's fastest developing city" in the western part of India, near africa, from where rebels like Kony sell diamonds that get processed in the endless lines of diamond polishingn houses in Varaccha area. Surat cuts 11 out of 12 diamonds in the world, i can safely guess a lot of these are diamonds being cut to hide their illegal purchase from rebels like Kony, yes we can change but the only thing i dont like about this video is it seems like a FB advert, why only show FB interface u should have put twitter and g+ too. But great video. I wanna offer the front face of my 10 floor building where a 10 storey long banner can be hung and be seen by millions within days because there are two flyovers right in front of it.,

March 16, 2012 at 1:43AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Good article, I would argue that this particular video fits into a different category though.

I like Page Lynch's comment about "unexpectedness" being better described as "shock and/or awe." I think that better describes that characteristic in a video that makes it more likely to go viral. However, that shock/awe factor is in regards to entertainment value. If it's so shocking or amazing that it's immensely entertaining, we'll want to share it. And others will do the same. That's not what happened in this case.

I've been personally thinking a lot about this video and how it went viral, as I'm a graphic designer and media producer for a non-profit organization. So obviously I'm wondering what methods we could use to hope for the same results. I've been thinking of writing a blog post about my thoughts, but haven't gotten around to it yet, so I figured I'd quickly post some of my thoughts here:

There's something about this video that tugs at our innermost desire for justice. I think it resonates deeply with people and that's what made it go viral. Because beyond the shock and awe entertainment, people also share what they're passionate about. What they deeply believe in. Now, the shocking thing about this video is that it's A HALF HOUR LONG and it still managed to do this. That's what blows me away. I find it hard enough trying to get friends to watch a ten or fifteen minute video I've created that addresses similar issues. How did so many unconnected people watch a half-hour-long video?

It starts with something that we've all experienced, and it tells us that we're powerful. The YouTube/viral video phenomenon. Then it tells us to pay attention. That's a big hook. Then it uses another common experience to pull us in and twists it to inform us of something that is so wrong we feel we have to do SOMETHING about it. That's the biggest hook. Note that I'm not trying to say this is wrongly manipulative, I'm just analyzing here. Once you've got that hook in you, you're pretty much there for the rest of the video.

So that's how it hooks people to watch the whole thing, which in my mind is the biggest hurdle with a video like this. After that, the other massive challenge is to get people to share it. Well, we've already established that we've learned about an issue so infuriating that we feel the need to do SOMETHING to fix it. But movement to action requires motivation to change, which often comes through guilt. No one likes to feel guilty. What if we give you the name of a person that you can shift all of that guilt onto? What if we can blame some of the world's worst atrocities all on one person? Pretty easy to get people to jump on that bandwagon. Most people will fight back if you tell them the world is suffering and they might be partially to blame. But if someone else is at fault, it's a lot easier. Finally, they paint the picture of what's already been done, that they've already done the hard part (getting the US to get involved) and all you need to do is share it with your friends. That's it? That's something I might of done anyways. Well, that makes it easy. Share with friends, and I feel like I've done SOMETHING to reverse these atrocities.

Now, I don't mean for this to sound all negative and critical of Invisible Children. I think what they've done is brilliant. I think it's mildly misleading/manipulative in some areas so that the message could be simplified and tailored for viral outbreak, but not in an overly offensive way. I know there is a lot of discussion about IC as an organization and whether or not to support them right now. I was thinking of righting a blog post about that too. Personally, the only issue I have is with the simplification of the problem boiling it down to the capture of one man. That won't solve the problem, and I think IC knows this and they've just boiled it down for communication and viral hashtag purposes. At least I hope that's the case. Regarding the issue of how they spend their money, and that only a third of it goes overseas. Well, they're an advocacy group. Of course their focus is going to be on filmmaking and advocacy. Anyone who's donated to them in the past few years has DEFINITELY got their money's worth. It's hard to calculate exactly how much they spent putting this film together, but even if it cost them a few million dollars, that's some of the best few million dollars ever spent, in my opinion.

Okay, so that ended up being an extremely long comment. Longer than I intended. Sorry about that. I wonder if anyone will bother reading it. Maybe I'll just copy-and-paste this for my blog post, that way at least my Mom can read it. ;)

March 16, 2012 at 9:49AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I had a video go viral a few years ago... I'm an artist by the name of Cutta C and my song called "ACK A AZZ" went viral at one point... it was all about interactions with people and spreading over the net

here is the link to the video :::

March 16, 2012 at 4:50PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


While I agree that this model of “why videos go viral” is interesting, applicable, and related to the Kony 2012 video, I believe Kony 2012 is a phenomenon unlike other viral videos. This is rooted in the social and emotional aspects of the video and Kony 2012 campaign, most of which fall under the unexpectedness category. People invest time into the video and they are told that sharing the video will cause change. Most people want to be a part of positive change. There is also an instant gratification that comes from sharing the video; you feel like you’re helping (which you may be, that isn’t my concern in this post). Why not share, it’s so easy and it's a good message. I think the April 20th Cover the Night component of the campaign really helped the video go viral and sets this video apart from other viral videos. Cover the Night gives the viewers an opportunity to help spread the message beyond sitting at the computer. The video was powerful, unique, and truly a phenomenon.

Noah S.
Tulane University

March 21, 2012 at 7:47PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Nuff said about the mysterious luck of a video going viral. Let's talk about a really well done video. Believe me when I say there are numerous issues that I care deeply about and I've watched or tried to watch videos & documentaries on those issues. The vast majority of vids and docs are just not well made. It amazes me how many earnest doc filmmakers can take a burning issue and put the fire right out by making a boring, talking heads, disjointed, overtly maudlin, repetative piece of crap. Kony 2012 hooked me and kept me in it right through to the credits. Those 30 minutes just flew by. The lift from celebrities would not have worked if the video had been any less engaging and amazing.

March 21, 2012 at 10:37PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Wazrom: noun \Wahz-rahm\ (Initiative)-Creative Intellectual Movement merging the division of modern art, knowledge, and people across the planet.
Created by Ian J. Winckelmann in 2012, in case we lost lives en masse in the days following 12-21-2012, based on the hysteria of the "2012 phenomenon, Mayan apocalypse". This would be the last true movement of the human race to either be looked at from surviving future generations, or if the prophecy was false, another piece of history that can be felt as a collective. In 2014, we saw more drastic ecological changes than ever before. As such, we can't close the book of Wazrom yet. Imagine all the people living for today, for each other, for the Earth, for a cause. Wazrom is the mantra, the verbal crystallization of united minds to let one another know we are not alone.WAZROM!

June 9, 2014 at 6:20PM, Edited September 4, 8:56AM