Contributed by: Melissa Brough
Invisible Children: Participatory Culture and Humanitarian Spectacle
[Last updated 2.26.10]
What does participatory humanitarianism look like?
Invisible Children is a youth-driven organization that uses forms of participatory and popular culture to engage the ‘millenial’ generation in humanitarianism. In their music video Global Night Commute: A musical to believe in (2006), the three founders of this non-profit organization dance their way toward the camera singing over karaoke-style subtitled lyrics, “We’re on a mission; put Uganda deep inside your mind. It needs attention and a dance to make it sparkle and shine… We are here to change the world!” This music video, a take-off of the Disney film Captain EO (1986) starring Michael Jackson, served as a rallying cry to American youth to sleep overnight in city parks across the United States to raise awareness about abducted child soldiers in Northern Uganda. On April 28, 2006, the “Global Night Commute” drew over 80,000 American youth to camp out in 126 U.S. cities and helped pass the Northern Uganda Crisis Response Act in the U. S. Congress.
Overview of Invisible Children
Invisible Children started as a film project and an adventure for friends Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole. Shortly after Russell and Bailey graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, the three went to East Africa in search of a story for a documentary and met children in Northern Uganda who were “night commuting” from their rural villages to urban areas to escape abduction and forced child soldiering by the militant rebel movement known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. This was the story that would become the topic of their film Invisible Children: Rough Cut.
In 2004, after completing the film, Russell, Bailey and Poole founded Invisible Children, Inc. (IC) as a media-based organization to work for peace and development in Northern Uganda. Within three years, the organization went from raising roughly $300,000 to $10 million, the large majority of which was raised through donations of $20 or less from individuals across the U.S. and sales of Invisible Children merchandise. In contrast to more traditional humanitarian and development organizations, IC allocates approximately one half of the funds raised to media production (which has included two full-length documentaries, a book, numerous podcasts, and a feature film currently in production) and related awareness and advocacy events in the U.S.
Transmedia storytelling & branding their cause
Invisible Children has explicitly been trying to redefine humanitarian work through pop culture-inspired, transmedia storytelling about Uganda and about the adventures of the American youth involved in the organization. (Their second documentary, Go, for example, follows a group of American high school students who were winners of IC’s fundraising competition, on a prize trip to Uganda.) IC has taken their films on tours across the United States (recently branching out to Europe and Australia) with volunteer ‘roadies’ screening IC’s media and recruiting participants at schools, concerts and other venues. These events are often organized by the growing number of local IC chapters and clubs and coordinated through online social networking tools. IC also encourages supporters to organize their own ‘house party’ screenings.
A steady stream of podcasts and other media are used to keep youth abreast of IC’s latest campaigns, which are often focused around the production of a large, spectacular event that is then filmed and becomes footage for more storytelling. The Global Night Commute, for example, became a book in the form of a graphic novel as well as the music video I Got Soul, which serves as an advocacy video and visual account of the Global Night Commute demonstration and features footage of hundreds of youth collectively holding large signs with messages that, edited together, function to narrate the advocacy video.
Invisible Children’s modes of storytelling, some more participatory than others, range from such music videos, to flashy PSA-style videos, to reality-TV genre documentaries that focus as much on the adventures of the Western youth who participate in IC’s activities as they do on their Ugandan beneficiaries. While film and other entertainment media have been used in humanitarian campaigns for decades, Invisible Children’s media stands out for shrewdly engaging youth culture, through markedly more playful and pop-culture inspired media than more traditional campaigns—particularly in a sector whose media has historically been characterized by earnest, realist portrayals of human suffering (see Brough, forthcoming). Instead, IC’s media tends toward postmodern aesthetics such as self-deprecating humor, intertextuality, pastiche and camp. Initial data (collected by IC’s web firm Digitaria) suggests IC’s strategies are effective at captivating their audiences; in the 2007 survey of IC’s email list, 76% of respondents felt that watching IC’s videos best connected them to the cause; 44% responded that going to events and screenings best connected them (Hundley & Sauter 2007).
Invisible Children’s transmedia storytelling is intended not only to advocate for peace and provide support to communities in Northern Uganda but also to captivate the hearts and imagination of the millennial generation, primarily in the U.S., and mobilize them as creative, cosmopolitan activists. IC’s leaders (themselves almost all under the age of 30) identified a need to counter what they saw as a postmodern political apathy among young people (Invisible Children, Inc. 2008). They therefore not only draw from, but try to influence, youth culture. In contrast to traditional philanthropy, IC conceives of themselves as starting a “movement”; choosing entrepreneurial over traditional charity rhetoric, they describes themselves as “a creative global development firm” whose mission is to “be a social, political and global movement that uses the transformative power of stories to change lives” (Invisible Children, Inc., 2008, p.2).
Thus, instead of starting within fandom of a particular brand or product—as in some of the other cases we’re exploring here—Invisible Children has been exploring ways to brand their humanitarian advocacy and development work as a hip, adventurous lifestyle that will, to quote their Director of Director of Public & Media Relations, Jedidiah Jenkins. “wake up Western youth… to a life of activism and social engagement”. Their branding includes a variety of “merch” (clothing, etc.) sold at screenings, rock tours, and on their website—an approach that situates them within a framework of consumer citizenship. In the 2007 survey, 84% of the respondents who were donors said they donated through the purchase of IC products. Sixty-eight percent of all respondents said they’d purchased an IC product (Hundley & Sauter 2007).
Invisible Children as a participatory culture
“It isn’t charity. It’s a relationship.”
Invisible Children’s ‘movement’ has been constructed as a form of participatory culture aimed particularly at the millennial generation. Youth are encouraged to produce their own innovative fundraising and advocacy events, which participants often record on video and upload to YouTube. Examples include a “Shave it to save it” campaign in which a group of high school students convinced their teachers to shave their heads if a fundraising goal was met, and the planting of “floks” of plastic pink flamingos on neighbors’ lawns to be removed for a donation.
IC also orchestrates larger events, such as the Global Night Commute, which could be seen as a form of what Stephen Duncombe has called ‘ethical’ or ‘participatory spectacle,’– that is, an event created through the participation of tens of thousands of youth enacting what Duncombe calls a “dream on display” (Duncombe 2007, p.174). Duncombe sees participatory spectacle as a possible activist tactic in which the public participates in the co-production or performance of the ‘dream’ or the change sought—a form of ‘transformative play’. In the case of the Global Night Commute, participants enacted the night commuting of children in Uganda. The sheer spectacle of participation became part of Invisible Children’s subsequent storytelling, and their call for change. In IC’s more recent campaign “The Rescue”, participants in cities around the U.S. (as well as a few sites in the UK and Australia) ‘abducted’ themselves “to free the abducted”. The concept was to stage public ‘abductions’ of the protestors, who would then be ‘rescued’ if and when a media mogul (which they defined as a celebrity, a member of Congress or other public figure who would attract media attention) made a public statement of support and media coverage was secured.
In our upcoming research, we hope to understand whether and how participatory culture ‘skills’—such as performance, appropriation, networking, transmedia navigation, etc.—are developed through participating in these activities. Additional research questions we have include:
· How does IC's use of popular and participatory culture affect youth civic engagement in their campaigns? What motivates youth to become—and stay—involved?
· What transferable skills are developed through participating? Do participants carry these skills into other forms of civic or political engagement? How?
· What characterizes the activist identities and behaviors that IC is cultivating among millenials? How are youth conceiving of their advocacy for Northern Uganda and of their own identities as activists?
Invisible Children has drawn criticism from the humanitarian and development sectors as well as from academics (e.g. Schultheis 2008; Smith 2009) for their product-driven strategies, the tone of their campaigns (which clash with more earnest sensibilities surrounding representations of crisis), and problematic media representations (see Brough, forthcoming). Our research will thus also explore the ethical implications of this intersection of participatory and youth cultures, commodity activism and consumer citizenship, and international humanitarianism and development.
Brough, M. (forthcoming, 2010) “Fair Vanity: The Visual Culture of Humanitarianism in the Age of Commodity Activism” Submitted to Sarah Banet-Weiser and Roopali Mukherjee, eds. Commodity Activism: Social Action in Neoliberal Times (in review by NYU Press).
Captain EO. 1986. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 17 min. Walt Disney Attractions.
Duncombe, Stephen. 2007. Dream: Re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy. New York: New Press.
Global Night Commute: A musical to believe in. 2006. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole, 7 min., DVD, Invisible Children, Inc.
Go. 2008. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole, 1 hr. 19 min., DVD, Invisible Children, Inc.
Hundley, M. & Sauter, D. (2007) "Invisible Children: User Survey Results Report." Invisible Children, Inc.
Invisible Children, Inc. (2009) “Recurring Donor Survey Results Report”.
Invisible Children, Inc. (2008) “Annual Report Fiscal Year 2008”. URL: http://www.invisiblechildren.com/About/annual_reports.
Invisible Children, Inc. (2004) Invisible Children: Rough Cut. Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey, and Laren Poole, 55 min., DVD.
Jenkins, H., Clinton, K., et al. (2006) Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Chicago: MacArthur Foundation.
Resnick-West, Susan. 2008. Invisible Children: A Case Study. Working paper, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California.
Schultheis, A. (2008) “African child soldiers and humanitarian consumption” Peace Review 20(1): 31-40.
Shresthova, Sangita. (2009) Interview with Jedidiah Jenkins, Director of Public & Media Relations, Invisible Children, Inc. URL:
Smith, D. J. (2009) “Big-eyed, wide-eyed, sad-eyed children: Constructing the humanitarian space in social justice documentaries.” Studies in Documentary Film 3, no. 2: 159–175.
 http://www.invisiblechildren.com/campaigns/pastCampaigns, accessed January, 2010. See also http://www.invisiblechildren.com/theMovement/lobbyDay/; http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=s108-2264.
 Statement by Jedidiah Jenkins at the panel “Transmedia for Social Change,” Futures of Entertainment 4 conference in Boston, MA, December 4, 2009. http://techtv.mit.edu/videos/4665-session-3-transmedia-for-social-change
 Shresthova, 2009.
 See Jenkins et al. 2006.