Of Ice Buckets and Virality
You have to be on another planet (or, offline) to not know about this. It has, most likely, been covered in the mainstream offline media by now (I don’t watch a lot of television, and I have not yet seen it in newspapers, but that does not mean it is not coming).
I am, of course, talking about the terrifically inventive charitable idea du jour – The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
On July 31st of 2014, Pete Frates, who has ALS, challenged some celebrities, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, to what would become known as the ice bucket challenge. The challenge already existed, per the linked article, but the concept did not begin to gain viral social media traction until July 31st .
The premise is simple – either donate $100 to ALS research or douse yourself with ice water. You’ve got 24 hours and, once you’ve done either (or both), challenge at least three more people. The idea spread virally. A lot of people were pleased to see something other than Gaza and Ferguson in their news feeds.
ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a serious medical condition for which there is no known cure. It is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. ALS is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Complicating matters is the fact that there are only about 30,000 or so people in the United States who are known to have it. Hence big drug manufacturers aren’t pursuing cures, as such cures and research are not profitable enough. It is essentially an orphaned disease.
But let’s get back to the challenge.
Purpose of the Challenge
I can come up with five purposes, and probably three (maybe four) of them were not the original ones.
- Raise money for ALS research
- Boost awareness of the disease
- Lean on drug companies to pressure them to work on developing a cure
- Lean on politicians to push them to pressure drug companies or perhaps pass laws subsidizing or otherwise encouraging research into orphan diseases
- Hire a celebrity spokesperson (or more than one) to advocate for the victims of the disease
The challenge performs the first two tasks perfectly. Either you pony up the funds or you get soaked – and that’s all done on camera and is uploaded to social media. Most people reveal their choice on Facebook, which has over 1.4 billion users. The last three purposes are the kinds of things that this sort of attention can be used for. I do hope the big folks in ALS research don’t squander this opportunity, and try for all three.
Why is it Viral?
The challenge hits about every mark when it comes to virality. Here are some reasons.
- It has a strong visual and auditory appeal. The dousing, the screaming, or even smug people signing checks and getting doused anyway – don’t underestimate how much humor there is in seeing someone getting their (allegedly deserved) comeuppance.
- Humor is one component to virality, or at least it is one of the elements that is somewhat more likely to be present when any piece of media goes viral. By definition, the flipping of super-chilled water onto anyone’s head is going to be funny.
- Another component that is often present in viral media is uplifting images, text, and actions. This is why Upworthy does as well as it does. When people write a check instead of dump water, they hit this mark instead. Either way, if they speak a bit about ALS, they also hit this mark.
- Timing – initiating the challenge in January would not have worked as well. While people have been answering polar bear-style challenges for years, if you want to go viral, you want the majority to participate, or at least believe that they might want to participate. Selecting the month of August was brilliant, as this is either the warmest or second-warmest month in most years in the Northern Hemisphere. That is, the hemisphere where people are, in general, more likely to be wealthy and more likely to be online. In short, these were the people most likely to either participate in the challenge or at least watch videos of it and read articles (like this one!) about it.
Yet More Reasons
- The second piece of timing is how it came when so many people had seen a lot about Gaza and Ferguson, as I stated previously. For many, the challenge was a welcome bit of good news in an otherwise dreary Dog Days of Summer media landscape.
- There is an element of daring in it but, except for the elderly (Sir Ian McKellan notwithstanding) and the gravely ill, it’s not really dangerous. But do watch out for slippery floors. Yes, there are already blooper videos out there (many of them are NSFW; Google is your friend if you’re interested in such things).
- Virality is baked right into it. One aspect of the challenge is to call out at least three other people and challenge them. Furthermore, they have 24 hours to respond either way. Hence you have added three more names. However, the names begin to repeat after a while. So the trebling of participants slows down, eventually shrinking a lot closer to a doubling of participants. The duplication of names also happens because most people run in somewhat small circles and share neighbors, friends, family members, etc. The 24 hour time limit plays very well into most people’s demands for more and more and different entertainment to consume, on daily, hourly, or even minute by minute basis.
Still More Reasons
- Social media has shaped a lot of our behaviors, and the ice bucket challenge plays nicely into how ordinary people are finding out that they are now entertainers online. They have followers, and they are beginning to understand that they need to provide content for their followers. As a result, so many people are obsessed with taking selfies, or Instagramming everything they eat or wear. Because they know they need to provide content, but they’re stumped as to what to provide! The challenge provides a perfect prompt.
- The involvement of celebrities added a cool factor. The involvement of all sorts politicians on the political spectrum allowed a way for political rivals to talk to each other. After all, who could be against trying to defeat a horrible disease?
The challenge has even spawned parodies and copycats. There’s the rice bucket challenge in India, the rubble bucket challenge in Gaza, and the Orlando Jones bullet bucket challenge. It’s a helluva clever campaign, and deserves all the props it’s been getting.
Amusing and upbeat, the challenge has, as of the writing of this blog post, raised over $50 million for research. Please give generously and, in the meantime, enjoy Bill Gates getting drenched.