Birds. Aren’t. Real. In January 2017, these three words started a viral movement that’s still gaining followers five years later. There are some counter-intuitive lessons that social impact leaders can take from this spontaneously created and self-sustaining movement that broke through the noise, grabbed and held people’s attention, and continues to get press half a decade after it was invented.
The Birds Aren’t Real Primer
On that January day, 20-year-old Peter McIndoe was visiting friends in Memphis Tennessee. While there, he was at the Women’s March where he also saw pro-Trump counter protesters. In response to what he was seeing, he pulled a poster off of a wall and wrote “Birds Aren’t Real” on the back of it. He invented the mythology of birds being replaced by look-alike surveillance devices on the spot.
His actions were captured on video and uploaded online where it quickly went viral. He decided to sell Birds Aren’t Real merchandise to fund the movement after he saw the traction the video had gained on Instagram.
For years, McIndoe has stayed in character in videos, interviews, and at protests. He and his “Bird Brigade” fellow activists once shouted down anti-abortion protestors at the University of Cincinatti, de-escalating a tense situation.
McIndoe didn’t plan to create a viral movement, but once he had, he recognized the good he could do from expanding on his spontaneous act. When a social impact leader understands the nature of virality, they can be ready to get the most from these moments of collective interest.
Viral Movements Are Bottom Up Events
Try if you like, but it’s unlikely that anyone sitting in a conference room is going to create a viral moment. Take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as an example. According to Time Magazine, the original Ice Bucket Challenge wasn’t tied to a specific organization or cause. Participants could name what organization they wanted donations to go to. As the virality of the challenges grew, it became associated with ALS because savvy people understood that there was a growing and organic association.
Social impact leaders would be well served to be on the lookout for opportunities like Birds Aren’t Real and the Ice Bucket Challenge. These moments are most likely to be discovered by, or generated within, your community. If you’re having meaningful dialogue with your community, they can point you toward spontaneous micro-movements that they are ready to get behind.
Gen Z Lives a Digital First Existence
Birds Aren’t Real gained traction because Peter McIndoe quickly saw the greater opportunities his off-the-cuff action presented.
If you have an established digital engagement strategy and a well-oiled machine for sharing content in place, you’re already primed to get the most out of the opportunities your community brings to your attention.
Established social impact organizations often ask us how they can attract and mobilize a younger coalition of passionate, active supporters. Highlighting content generated by peers within your movement is one strategy designed to accomplish just that.
What Gen Z Teaches Us With Birds Aren’t Real
According to the New York Times, “What Birds Aren’t Real truly is, they say, is a parody social movement with a purpose. In a post-truth world dominated by online conspiracy theories, young people have coalesced around the effort to thumb their nose at, fight and poke fun at misinformation. It’s Gen Z’s attempt to upend the rabbit hole with absurdism.”
As people who grew up in the digital era familiar with the tactics of the attention economy, Gen Zers often have a clear sense of when an organization or company is trying to manipulate them. They also tend to respond positively to those that use digital tools in an authentic way.
Some people mistake Gen Z as jaded and flighty as they move from one piece of digital content to the next. But a savvy social impact leader understands that if the content their organization produces is worthy of attention, then the people of this generation are excited to share and promote it. Having your organization associated with that scroll-stopping content can lead to increased awareness of you and your cause.
Tips For Expanding a Viral Movement
When a growing viral movement aligned with your mission comes to your attention, your approach can make the difference between looking like you’re riding someone’s coattails or being seen as part of the natural evolution.
A few things to keep in mind:
Humor is Key - We know that the power of positive messaging really works. So does humor. We deal with weighty subjects in the social impact space and some levity can help draw people in. When someone points out the absurdity or irony behind an issue, it can attract someone who might otherwise avoid engaging with the topic.
Community is What Happens When You’re Not in the Room - A viral movement you can align with is more likely to bubble up organically from your community than it is to be generated in a Zoom meeting with your team. If you’re participating in the jokes and memes your supporters are sharing with each other – these might be the starting point for your movement. If you’re engaged with them, you’ll already be speaking their language, making it easier for them to follow your lead.
Birds Aren’t Real works, in part, because the Bird Brigades are ‘in’ on the subversive joke. You need to be a peer in the conversations happening in your community. If you are, then it will feel natural to your supporters when you grab a viral moment and run with it.
Empower Others to Lead – Keep in mind, you might not be the entity that leads this movement. But you can be a key resource in helping it scale. For example, if you notice one of your extra-passionate supporters creating their own videos or hosting their own fundraisers for your work, you might want to boost their efforts with additional resources, support, and/or collaboration.
Prioritize the Message Over Your Mission - When we think of the power of a virtual campaign like the Ice Bucket Challenge, it isn’t remembered as the “ALS Fundraising Video Campaign”. It’s remembered — and shared — as the funny, unexpected, wild activity at the heart of it; the fact that you dare your friends to get doused by ice cold water. The donations to support ALS research were important, but happened as a result of the spirited campaign.
What To Do When It Works
There’s no way to know if you can build on the momentum of a viral moment, but if you gain traction, you need some strategies to sustain it and get the most from your efforts. Here are some tips:
Go All In - Over the years, Peter McIndoe has held character throughout his communications. This approach is one factor that gives the movement legs rather than it dying as a flash in the pan viral moment.
Think Outside the Moment - Birds Aren’t Real leverages multiple mediums to get their story across - merchandise, marches, videos, protest events, signs left around towns, being interviewed by the National Audubon Society. Their message keeps popping up in new venues and new formats — which keeps it alive.
Extinction Rebellion uses a similar approach, such as shutting down Times Square with a boat, where the action itself is protest and then the news coverage and dialogue around what has happened builds off of the energy of and value of the initial action.
Let Your Community Own It - There were many entry points for people to take actions and support what Birds Aren't Real is doing. Bird Brigade members self-organize, show up and protest, write about it, wear a shirt in non-activist situations, and keep the conversation going.
Create a Funding Circle - One clever element of Birds Aren’t Real is how they leverage merchandising. T-shirts produce revenue that funds the next steps of the movement and the production of more t-shirts, stickers, hats, and flags. Those produce additional revenue, which allows the movement to expand — and around it goes.
Be Intriguing - And stay that way. In a counterintuitive approach, Birds Aren’t Real doesn’t explain what they were doing. They simply take action rather than write content or surface data on their impact. There is a performative piece to their approach that makes them engaging. There is an exclusivity to the movement that makes people want to figure it out - you have to be in the know and that provokes engagement, research, and attachment that gets people emotionally invested in what’s happening in the movement.
Ready, Set, Go!
While we strongly recommend that social impact organizations should think and act from a digital-first mindset, this doesn't mean that you have to start producing over-the-top videos across social media in the hopes of replicating the success of Birds Aren’t Real. But you do need to pay attention to what’s happening in your community and be a welcome part of the conversation.
Scroll-stopping viral moments happen when someone does something spontaneous. If you’re in the mix, you’ll be in a great place to recognize and transform a moment into an enduring social movement that helps your cause and your organization soar above the squawking noise of the attention economy.