Cold Limit: Ice Buckets & Social Storytelling

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the charitable dare that has ridden a wave of increasing popularity since it surfaced online this summer, has generated not only millions of dollars in donations, but intense pushback from many who view the web-inspired trend as a fleeting act of online narcissism and not a movement capable of achieving sustainable results. These criticisms, though well intentioned, are misguided. Rather than brush off the Ice Bucket Challenge as slacktivism, tempting though it may be, the sum of the thousands of videos uploaded and millions of dollars donated should be applauded, discussed, and dissected so that other charitable organizations can enjoy similar success through social storytelling.

Though its origins are murky and the rules vary with the meme’s spread, the opening premise of the challenge was simple. Having been publicly called out, the nominee must dump a bucket of icy water over their head, filming both the act and the reaction. Having successfully completed the challenge, the individual is then allowed to pass the meme along by nominating others to follow suit – usually friends or family. The entire video is then uploaded to the internet for all to see, with social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube being the main repositories for the clips. The motivation comes from a trusted source, your neighbour, your friend, your coworker, not a monolithic entity.

The trend has existed in some form or another since at least 2013, when people were taking the “cold water challenge” wherein participants had to run into a cold body of water. This act then morphed into the ice bucket dump as the idea spread and the original logistics became too complex or difficult to meet. Originally, the charitable donations were to be made in lieu of participating in the challenge. However, by July 2014, after the ALS Foundation had been named the charity of choice and, crucially, the challenge gained momentum among celebrities, brands and other well-off people and organizations, donations were being made regardless of an individual’s desire to get wet. For the next several weeks, the meme, now known as the #ALSIceBucketChallenge, would dominate social feeds and mainstream news conversations the world over, from the United States to Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil and Canada, among other countries. For the remainder of the summer, it continued to rack up donations for the charity, entertainment for the public, and social clout for the participants with each bucket emptied.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is not the first trend to break out of individuals’ social media feeds and spill into the mainstream consciousness by going viral, nor is it the first to have an altruistic slant. A similar movement gained widespread attention in 2012, when Invisible Children Inc.’s #Kony2012 aimed to raise awareness of the crimes perpetuated by African militia leader and indicted war criminal, Joseph Kony, in hopes of hastening his arrest. In April of this year, people sought to encourage political action following the kidnapping of more than 270 girls in Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram with the spontaneous rise of #BringBackOurGirls. When these trends were at the height of their popularity, they faced much of the same criticism that today critics lob at the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Ultimately, however, these campaigns faded into the depths of the web, with few lasting accomplishments to their names. By contrast, the Ice Bucket Challenge has been on the ascent, sidestepping this problem and the charge of “slacktivism” that comes with it by building a number of unique mechanics into the challenge that not only incentivize people to participate, but take advantage of the social storytelling tools at everyone’s disposal. Combining an easily met objective with a long-term altruistic goal in an entertaining way not only ensures the challenge’s spread and monetary success, but gives the individuals performing the act social credibility within their own circles by way of its performance and completion. In marrying these two elements, the Ice Bucket Challenge becomes not just a charitable request but a cultural phenomenon in which the public will readily participate, consume, and share.

A group of people takes the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in Boston, MA.

A group of people takes the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in Boston, MA.

If the Ice Bucket Challenge is viewed not simply as another fad to take over social media but a form of social storytelling, there are several points in its construction that account for the meme’s success in both the number of people reached and number of donations earned. It begins with the user, scrolling through their social media feeds. Spotting a thumbnail posted by a friend taking the challenge, the user may click to watch the video, hoping to get a minute or two of entertainment from the content her friend has created. Toward the end of the video, which is likely to be one of many the user has viewed by this point, she learns that her friend has nominated her to be the next person to take the challenge. This is the crucial first step in coaxing the user into the game, moving them from passive consumer to active participant. The challenge relies on three factors to tip the user into taking part: the trust one has placed in the relationship with the person who nominated them; the entertainment value of the content that has been created; and, the charitable act of donating time and effort for a good cause. The nominee must weigh the social and altruistic benefits of participation against the ramifications of declining, which may include a confrontation with the person who wanted to share the experience with them in the first place. Instilling these multiple checks that readily present social, psychological and charitable benefits for participating in the meme help nudge a new person into accepting the challenge.

Having accepted the challenge, the nominee must then secure the necessary materials, including ice, cold water, a large container, and a device to film the event. All of these are easily accessible, reducing the barrier to participating even further. From there, the nominee can then film the event themselves, but is much more likely to make the creation of their own video an event in its own right, enlisting others to take on various support roles. This includes delegating tasks to friends, such as collecting the items, operating the camera, and the pouring of the ice water. In this way, the Ice Bucket Challenge is not just something to do, but becomes a group activity, a shared experience between friends. And knowing that it will be presented to the world, with hashtags and @mentions motivates others to lend a hand, looping more people into the fray.

My own Ice Bucket Challenge video, with a personal spin.

Once the challenge has actually been filmed, an act which itself allows for extensive creative freedom that has been demonstrated in countless videos, the nominee, now participant, can share it. More often than not, the filming and uploading of ice bucket videos were done from a single device – the smartphone. The Ice Bucket Challenge requires a person both film and share an event, and the smartphone is a ubiquitous device that neatly collapses both of these once difficult functions into a popular form factor that is increasing its market penetration every day. Finally, having accepted, filmed, and uploaded her own challenge video, the participant then has the chance to nominate others just as she was. And since it is quite acceptable to assume new nominees will have smartphones or similarly capable devices of their own, the spread of the challenge is ensured.

There are other factors at play, of course. For instance, the implicit endorsement of the challenge by brands and celebrities, who share their own videos to audiences that far outnumber those of the common user, vastly increases the meme’s reach. It is this unique combination of social pressure, psychological motivation, charitable kindness, technological prowess, and, yes, even narcissism, that built the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge into the global cultural phenomenon it is today, one that has been accepted by over 28 million people and, as of September 7, 2014, raised more than $110 million (USD) in donations.

Expectedly, as popularity of the challenge has ratcheted up, so too have the arguments against it. Criticism runs the gamut, from charges of wasting water, to cries of corruption levied against the charities involved, to larger concerns about a culture that seems to place more emphasis on feel-good fluff pieces to the detriment of more serious news stories. While there may be some legitimacy to the latter point, many of these arguments can be disproven.

There are several points in its construction that account for the meme’s success in both the number of people reached and number of donations earned.

Critics have been quick to point out that the Ice Bucket Challenge seems to be consuming a lot of water – by the bucket load, in fact. This waste of a precious resource, a resource which, in other parts of the world is a prized and highly sought after possession, places unnecessary strain on a vital, life-sustaining element. On the surface, this argument is compelling, especially after witnessing hours of footage depicting people upending jugs of water over their heads on Facebook. However, the idea that the Ice Bucket Challenge is wasting water at an alarming rate is demonstrably false. In fact, the average challenge-taker uses fewer gallons of water than that used to clean a single tomato or make a cup of coffee.

As the Ice Bucket Challenge expanded in scope and racked up more donations, skeptics began to wonder just how much of that money would be put toward actual medical research. It wasn’t long before rumours began to fly that the ALS Foundation only used about a quarter of the donations toward its stated goal, with the rest going to executive salaries and overhead. This prompted outrage, particularly in right-wing media online. Again, however, this is false. Not only did the ALS Foundation issue a press release stating that its newfound wealth would be used responsibly and in line with the organization’s stated purpose, but Charity Navigator, an independent body which scores charities on their effectives, gives the group exceptionally high marks, showing how unfounded these claims are.

The final charge is much more difficult to pin down. Cultural critics have noted that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is simply another slacktivist campaign that rose to prominence in part due to a particularly difficult summer news cycle, one which featured, among other things, ongoing stories on the rise of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the Middle East, the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent standoffs between the public and police in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ebola outbreak in Africa. It is undeniable that the meme coincided with these events, all of which are still unfolding. However, to say that the public is somehow less informed on these and other serious international issues as a direct result of the meme is disingenuous. Though the challenge may have acted as a counterbalance to a wave of grim news stories, that does not mean those who participated or paid attention are worse off for it. In fact, as the lone human interest story in a torrent of grim news, the challenge’s rise to mainstream acceptance may have helped boost donations toward its worthy cause. As well, we have begun to see an interesting merging of the meme with at least one of these international stories, as Lebanese activists have updated the challenge’s mechanics. Rather than dump a bucket of ice water over one’s head, they encourage people to burn the black flag used by ISIS as a means of protest, building upon the popularity of the social media trend while simultaneously acting as a counterweight to the militant group’s own savvy use of social media. When viral memes go mainstream and interact with other stories, interesting reactions like this emerge.

It would be reassuring to believe that more people would be interested in learning about ISIS or Ferguson or ebola if only they would stop being led astray by petty distractions like the Ice Bucket Challenge. But such a criticism only scapegoats the meme and its proven power to mobilize millions of people behind a single objective. Rather than obfuscate its accomplishments, we should take stock of what the trend has done. In only a few short weeks, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised millions of dollars and priceless awareness of a serious disease the world over, blowing past even the grandest of expectations that charity may have set for itself. More importantly is how it was able to do all this: by connecting with people in the ways they connect to one another already, by inserting ALS into the stories that, mundane though they may seem, are important to average individuals because they come with the implicit endorsement of a trusted friend. The Ice Bucket Challenge will fade from popularity over time, as trends do. As readers, writers, businesspeople and content creators of all stripes, we should aim to understand the intimate details of this meme so that its virtues can be duplicated and its success replicated.