Dear Robert: We tried.


{ You can’t make this stuff up. }

Poof! You’re a “brand ambassador”!

Our preference would be that National Geographic’s “social fans” would become members of the Society — especially since “Society” is supposedly one of the linchpins of NGS Mission 2015.

Then again, maybe we don’t fully grasp “social media best practices.”


See the full announcement here.

What might millions of people accomplish together as a networked community that they could never accomplish alone?

{ Please see updates, at bottom of post. }

Late last night, my teenage son walked up to my desk, leaned over my keyboard, typed in an unfamiliar URL, and showed me KONY 2012. He had been reading the site and had watched the project’s new video documentary — and he was stunned… and moved…. and said it was going viral. KONY 2012 was all over his Facebook feed. But it wasn’t on mine. So I checked out the site, and watched the video (below). You should too.

Joseph Kony

KONY is Joseph Kony — the notorious leader of a Ugandan guerilla group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which, for decades, abducted tens of thousands of children, and then forced them to join the Army’s murderous ranks. The goal of KONY 2012 is to arrest Kony by the end of this year, bring him to justice, disarm the LRA, and bring the child soldiers home.

It’s an ambitious and courageous initiative, an eminently worthy cause, a well-produced documentary, and a breathtakingly innovative use of the social media platforms we all use every day to do far less useful things.

This project is also an inspiring answer to a question I posed on opening day here at Society Matters: What might millions of people be able to accomplish together as a networked community that they could never accomplish alone? 

According to KONY 2012, the answer is: We can give hope to tens of thousands of children and their families. We can change the course of human events. And we can awaken people to the fact that human history is not a drama we’re passively watching from afar, but one that we’re living. Each of us has a place on the stage of history, and we’ve all been blessed with speaking parts. 

According to National Geographic, the answer is: Enter a photo contest! Follow us on Twitter! Like us on FacebookSend us pictures of your little kittyOur Society continues to use the internet primarily as another media pipeline — one through which we can send them a few snapshots and win prizes, and they can pump us the latest batch of rhino photos and TV shows about sex addiction — all brought to you by [insert name of advertiser here].


It’s as though someone gave you a new iPhone, and you used it as a coaster for a cold drink: Sure, the phone would protect your furniture from water stains, but the technology is capable of doing so much more.

Please watch this video. It might give you a sense of hope. It might even move you to action. And if all goes well in 2012 — and Joseph Kony’s reign of terror is finally brought to an end — then this project might also prove a very simple truth: We can often accomplish more together than we’ll ever accomplish alone.

cc (via email): John Fahey, Chairman & CEO of the National Geographic Society


UPDATE, 7 March 2012 @ 11:30pm
There’s been an enormous amount of coverage on the web today re: KONY 2012. Much of it shines a bright light on Invisible Children, the group leading this project. Critics have raised questions (and not for the first time) about its finances, its journalistic integrity, its ties to the military in Uganda, and more. For an excellent summary, please read “Joseph Kony is not in Uganda (and other complicated things),” by Michael Wilkerson. … That said, I’m still impressed by the creativity of the campaign, and what looks like an inordinately successful effort (so far) to mobilize people and raise money for a good cause — even though it’s a cause that might have made more sense 10 years ago than it does today.

UPDATE, 8 March 2012 @ 8:30am
Invisible Children responds to its critics here.
The Washington Post has a summary of criticism & the response here.

UPDATE: 8 March 2012 @ 1:37pm
From The Telegraph (UK): “Joseph Kony 2012: growing outrage in Uganda over film

UPDATE: 18 March 2012 @ 11:25pm
This piece by Nick Kristof in The New York Times is worth reading too: Viral Video, Vicious Warlord. Among his observations:

Nick Kristof

… When a warlord continues to kill and torture across a swath of Congo and Central African Republic, that’s not a white man’s burden. It’s a human burden. …

It’s true that indignation among Americans won’t by itself stop Kony. Yet I’ve learned over the years that public attention can create an environment in which solutions are more likely.

Public outrage over Serbian atrocities in the Balkans eventually led the Clinton administration to protect Kosovo and hammer out the Dayton peace accord. The Sudan civil war killed millions over half-a-century on and off, until public outrage — largely among evangelical Christians — led President George W. Bush to push successfully for a peace agreement in 2005.

I asked Anthony Lake, now the executive director of Unicef who was President Clinton’s national security adviser during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, whether a viral video about Rwanda would have made a difference then. “The answer is yes,” he said. He suggested that this kind of public attention would also have helped save more lives in Darfur and in Congo’s warring east. … 

The bottom line is: A young man devotes nine years of his life to fight murder, rape and mutilation, he produces a video that goes viral and galvanizes mostly young Americans to show concern for needy villagers abroad — and he’s vilified? …


“People are more magical than the iPad”

Scott Heiferman

Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup

Watch Us! See Us!
Download us! Join us!
Friend us! Contact us! 
 Follow us!

Enough about “us”!
It’s a false sense of membership.
It’s an illusion of engagement.

What about connecting them
to each other?
You’ve got followers. Now what?

I just discovered this presentation (below) by Scott Heiferman, CEO of Meetup, which he delivered at the 2010 Personal Democracy Forum. Scott makes some great points about the dynamics of groups, and about why people belong to them. His general argument (listen for his “Erins are everywhere” riff) is a wonderful refutation of what John Fahey, CEO of NGS, told me back in 2006: Nobody wants to belong to anything.

Evidently they do:

cc: Robert Michael Murray, National Geographic’s VP for Social Media

What happens when we reach 200,000?

If you were the VP for Social Media at a company that isn’t very social, would you hang around? Stay tuned….

Robert Michael Murray, NG VP for Social Media

Closing the loop

On Thu, May 5, 2011 at 12:16 PM, Betty Hudson [NGS Executive Vice President, Communications] wrote:

Dear Alan

Betty Hudson

It has been brought to my attention that you have published on your website from an internal National Geographic communication about accessing an employee meeting to be held today at the Society. These are regular meetings that management has with our employees to discuss future directions, strategy and on going events, much of which is confidential, proprietary and could be of interest to our competitors, which could of course harm the Society. Accordingly, we have made certain adjustments to limit access to this meeting to just Society employees. We trust you understand the need for such internal meetings with Society employees. We appreciate your continuing interest.

Best regards,
Betty Hudson
EVP Communications
National Geographic Society


On Fri, May 6, 2011 at 10:52 AM, Alan Mairson wrote:

Dear Betty,

Thanks for your email, and for the update.

First, please accept my apologies if my plan to liveblog the “all hands” meeting created a problem for you in sharing the webcast in-house. That was certainly not my intention. My goal is to help our Society find solutions to the serious challenges we face — even if that means highlighting our trouble spots. (You can’t fix a roof unless you know where it’s leaking.)

Second, I’m obviously disappointed you closed the webcast. I figured that putting the meeting on Livestream without password protection meant you were finally opening our Society’s doors a bit — something you know I’ve been nudging NGS to do for a very long time. (I shared some of these same ideas with you when we had coffee back in 2006.) I guess I took John Caldwell, NG’s President of Digital Media, seriously when he said:

“All media is social in the current climate and media-consumption culture,” said Caldwell. “National Geographic is an inherently social company….”

An “inherently social company” should be opening doors, not closing them — don’t you think?

Third, you mentioned that sharing information from John’s “all hands” meeting might pose a strategic risk that could harm NGS. Please know that I only want National Geographic to grow and prosper. That’s what Society Matters is all about: Imagining a better future for our Society — and our society.

But I’ve sat through many such meetings with John, and he’s never shared anything that would remotely pose such a risk — and I think you must know this. Why else would you approve yesterday’s password-protected webcast which posted live public thumbnails of the meeting, complete with Powerpoint slides, for all the world to see? {click to enlarge}

[Ed. note: Again, these thumbnails were public — visible to anyone in the world who visited during the NGS meeting.]

You certainly would not have webcast these images if they contained any Big Secrets. And, best I can tell, they don’t. (There is, however, an editorial problem: You might tell Melina that “Exploiting a Market Opportunity” isn’t the best choice of words when talking about our kids.)

As you know, my biggest fear is a very different risk, namely: What our Society is actually doing — or not doing — out in the open, day after day, for all the world to see:

•  We’re teaming up with autocratic thugs who may be Green — but who terrorize their own people.
• We’re recruiting soldiers for India’s army.
• We’re supporting a demagogue who may soon be thrown in jail.

• We’re self-censoring stories about China to keep our Chinese partners happy.
• We’re letting Rupert Murdoch drag our Brand through the mud.
• We’re signing business deals with companies that get an “F” from the Better Business Bureau.
• We’re silent when we should be speaking out.
• We’re selling our Brand equity over & over again without a clear business plan for how we will replenish that equity.
• We’re creating a byzantine corporate structure that makes it tougher to fundraise. (Rupert, again.)
• We’re pretending that our Society has “no agenda” — and that National Geographic has been agenda-free for “more than 120 years” — when that’s demonstrably not true.
• We’ve abandoned the Story that made National Geographic great.
And, best I can tell…
• We’re running our corporate communications not much differently today than we did in 1985 — pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-link, pre-web. (That is: HQ talks, and the world is supposed to listen, which isn’t very social.)

I think these mistakes “harm the Society” far more than showing the world our redesigned Brain book (photo, above) — don’t you?

To sum up: John recently wrote:

I believe we are in an excellent position to embrace the new technologies and be one of the most vital and loved brands on a worldwide basis for many years to come.

If John truly believes this, then why don’t you encourage him to share his vision with the world? He’s a smart, charismatic guy. Why keep him — and all the talented people who work at National Geographic — huddled behind a password-protected firewall? Given the freedom to speak honestly and openly, the staff — and everyone out here who wants only the best for NGS — just might surprise you, and help chart a sustainable future for our Society.

In a world where media is increasingly social, our old tag line says it best: Join the Adventure!  🙂

Thanks again for getting in touch….

all the best,

Alan Mairson
Society Matters

Why is our Society giving away our biggest asset?

“… Publishers who have chosen to hand over their entire communities to Facebook are likewise choosing to give up the entire value of their community. What this means is that they no longer have any data on loyal commenters, and no email addresses, which means no ability to communicate with them again. They’re no longer your users, they’re Facebook’s.

You’re giving a huge strategic and valuable asset to Facebook. They understand the inherent value of comments and community, and are attempting to take it out from underneath publishers before they even realize what’s happened.  And we’re back to where we started—publishers don’t quite understand the value of their communities yet.”

— from “What’s Easy is Not Always Right,” by Jordan Kretchmer (TechCrunch, April 9, 2011). Mr. Kretchmer is the founder of Livefyre, a social commenting system for blogs and sites.

“All roads now lead to Andy Carvin”

By Ian Katz, Monday 14 March 2011

Andy Carvin is getting a little sick of talking about which verb best describes what he does. “It’s somewhere between reporting and collaborative network journalism, and George Plimpton-like oral history, except that I’m doing it in real time in 140 characters. I don’t know what to call that and I don’t care as long as people don’t waste my time trying to give it a name.”

Andy Carvin

Whatever Carvin’s particular brand of news gathering should be called, it has made him a must-read source on the Arab uprisings – and possibly the most talked about person at SXSW. “All roads now lead to Andy Carvin,” declared media critic Jeff Jarvis at a discussion on the future of news.

Ever since the start of the Tunisian uprising in December 2010, Carvin has been ignoring his day job as a strategist for National Public Radio and serving as a one-man broadcast channel-cum-newswire on events in the Middle East. A veteran of social media who used Twitter to factcheck the 2008 presidential election, he began retweeting testimonies, pictures and video from the protests in Tunisia – then Egypt and Libya.

Although Carvin had a network of blogger contacts in the region whom he used to check information being tweeted, what marks him out is his willingness to retweet unverified material and ask his followers for help to establish its accuracy. “I admit that I don’t know the answer to things and see users as potential experts and eyewitnesses. In some ways what I’m doing is not that different from a broadcast host doing a breaking live story with a producer in one ear, talking to pundits and all the while anchoring the coverage, but rather than producers I have followers.” …

Follow acarvin on Twitter

Who at National Geographic is covering the disaster in Japan, and reporting on it Andy Carvin-style? No one, which is no surprise. Andy’s approach is new.

But here’s an idea: Next time a natural disaster strikes, why couldn’t someone at NGM follow Andy’s lead? One staffer could take on the assignment — Dennis Dimick (Executive Editor, Environment), or Robert Kunzig (Senior Editor, Environment), or Jamie Schreeve (Executive Editor, Science). Or maybe Robert Michael Murray (NG VP for Social Media).

By crowdsourcing the coverage via Twitter and other social platforms, National Geographic could engage a sliver of its huge global audience — hundreds of millions of people strong — to create something new and valuable.

Otherwise, National Geographic and its dwindling staff will be forced to take superficial, unsatisfying swipes at major events like the Japanese tsunami, for which we’re posting a handful of photos from AFP/Gettyreplaying old TV specials about tsunamis, and thus far doing little else. That’s sad, especially since covering natural disasters was once a National Geographic specialty.

Andy Carvin, and an increasing number of reporters who are not afraid of the people formerly known as the audience, are building new tools, new relationships, new communities, and a new kind of journalism.

So, too, can the National Geographic Society.

≡  Photo of Andy Carvin via

Our Man in Austin

SXSW (South By Southwest) — the 10-day music, film, and interactive conference and festival — is underway in Austin, Texas.

It’s one of the biggest annual events for digital media professionals, and National Geographic is there. Or at least Robert Michael Murray is. He’s our Vice President for Social Media, and, as befits a guy with that title, he’s on Twitter.

His Twitter stream (below) will give you one window on what’s happening this year at SXSW — and provide perhaps the only public summary of Robert’s SXSW adventure.

Questions or comments? Contact Robert directly via email at

(Robert doesn’t post his NGS email address anywhere online, so we dug up that alternate address (above) at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, where he is a consultant. Oddly enough, National Geographic’s website provides no information about how to reach our VP for Social Media or any other individual member of our Society’s staff — unless you’re an advertiser. Which strikes us as rather anti-social. … Robert, if you’re reading this — and we’ll tweet you a link so we’re sure you’ll see it — is there any chance you could add a few email links to, oh, the Magazine’s online masthead? We count more than 170 names, and there’s not an email address in sight. Thanks in advance for considering this idea.)

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.