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Media Bites: I Wikipedia, Therefore I Am (Better Than You)

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Everyone loves secrets. Everyone loves knowing something powerful or important that others don't. Whether it's the proverbial hipster band "you probably haven't herd of" or some hackneyed "shocking fact" that isn't all that shocking ("did you know vikings didn't actually have horns on their helmets?") we cling to obscure knowledge and esoteric trivia not only for the intellectual superiority it brings, but the moral authority too -- the idea that by knowing something concealed or contrarian you're not only wiser than the yokels in your midst, but also a brave individualist unafraid to champion the challenging and subversive.

There's only one problem: learning glamorous, powerful secrets is hard. It takes, y'know, research and stuff. So we create shortcuts. Thanks to social media, you can follow Fun Fact accounts on Twitter and Tumblr that spit out dozens of nuggets of cool-sounding insight every day (without citation, natch). Or simply link-surf Wikipedia for hours and absorb someone else's biased take on hundreds of subjects. It's never been easier to get wise without work.

If there's a takeaway from the ignorant lunacy of last year's #stopkony 2012 effort -- a slick and self-righteous social media campaign to depose a Ugandan warlord who no one in the country, from the prime minister on down, actually felt threatened by -- it's this. Folks who ordinarily didn't care much about African politics one way or another watched a snazzy, 30-minute YouTube video and were instantly converted to the cause. Not, I suspect, because anyone really cared much about Kony or Uganda one way or another, but rather because there was just so much social capital and ego padding to be gained by appearing to care about an under-the-radar cause no one else did.

Kony was obscure, so simply being aware of his existence allowed anti-Konyites to boastfully harangue their Facebook feed about something important they knew but their pals didn't. They were egged further by a rich tapestry of #stopkony folklore declaring that the supervillian's crimes were going "ignored" by the powers that be (NB: they weren't), so even spouting the simplest generalizations about Kony's evil, his child soldiers, his torture, his whatnot, delivered a powerful hit of persecuted satisfaction one can only get from knowing something disturbing and tragic that "They" -- the government, the mainstream media, the United Nations, you pick -- are too haughty to notice. The entire campaign had the grating air of a door-to-door evangelist: "hey there, have you heard the truth?"

But the Kony people hadn't heard much truth themselves. Anyone with even a rudimentary education in African affairs made that clear very quickly through a string of indignant fact-checking editorials and other irritated rebuttals against their movement. So lesson learned? I doubt it. This was a movement about the emotional satisfaction that comes with owning knowledge, not the dreary business of searching for it.

Others have written about how the Internet may be literally changing our brains; reducing our ability to focus and making us less inclined to consume any information that can't be reduced to 140 characters or a status update short enough to avoid the dreaded "see more" link. At a social media seminar a few years ago I remember being taught that "no one wants to read what they can hear, and no one wants to hear what they can watch." #stopkony certainly didn't demand much more than that, and neither did Loose Change or Zeitgeist, two equally obnoxious and ignorant social media cause-celebres that retain passionate devotees to this day, despite being repeatedly savaged by debunkings every bit as thorough as the ones we'd like to believe killed the Kony cause.

You're not supposed to observe depressing stuff like this without adding some concession about how "the Internet still holds great promise for activism" and "social media has the potential to revolutionize politics," but these days I'm not so sure. Like any communication medium, the technological limitations of the web and the culture of its users make some messages work better on it than others, and the evidence is beginning to accumulate that the best-working messages of all are those that push some theme of victimhood and conspiracy while simultaneously promising easy, revolutionary knowledge to the otherwise lazy and ill-informed. It's a phenomena visible in everything from the increasingly convoluted, hydra-headed Obama birther stories to those horrible ads offering "weird tips" to make you thin, rich, pretty, or bilingual. If this is the schlocky stuff from which web success is made, it doesn't bode well for the fate of democracy in a political culture that's getting more and more web-centric. We've seen the future, and his name is Ron Paul.

The crusade against Kony wasn't the worst campaign to be endorsed by the Internet hive-mind, of course. The man was a monster, and even if his monstrousness is less pressing these days, it is nice that his victims are at least better known. But #stopkony remains social media's most representative failure just the same. Few campaigns have harnessed so much passion for such pointless ends, and spread so much ignorance in the name of unearthing must-know information.

The net is always evolving, however, and I guess it's possible, in time, that we'll eventually learn to break this cycle of vanity and posturing responsible for our current glut of naive e-rallying against dopey non-issues.

Just don't ask me how -- I haven't watched that video yet.

Lord's Resistance Army
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