#ALSIceBucketChallenge: The Modern Day Chain Letter You’re Too Scared to Break

August 20, 2014

6:00 pm

Remember the chain letter emails you used to get on your Hotmail account? It went something like, “If you don’t send this to five of your friends, your dog will die.” You quickly forwarded it to your five friends and hoped to never get another one. Is it me, or did a lot of people feel the same way about the #ALSIceBucketChallenge social media phenomenon?

There is no debate that the #ALSIceBucketChallenge has proven to be one of the most successful social media campaigns to-date. Everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Bill Gates and even Oprah dumped a bucket of ice on their heads to raise money for research. At the time this article was written, the ALS association raised USD $23 million.

“This amount of money … it opens up new opportunities that were previously unfathomable,” Carrie Munk, the spokesperson for the ALS Association, told Forbes.

It’s pretty simple how the whole thing works. 1) You get challenged to dump freezing cold water on your head. 2) Then, you can either donate to a charity that funds research to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or suffer the iced water on your head. 3) Finally, you  must challenge other people, and so on. After three weeks, the campaign is still going strong –  just check your Facebook news feed right now.

So, the question for some of us to consider is: why has this particular social media campaign worked so well in terms of funding and awareness for the association’s cause? What does the success of this campaign say about where we are today – as a society – when it comes to technology?

The movement started with one man, Pete Frates, who was diagnosed with ALS at the young age of 27 years. He was introduced the Ice Bucket Challenge through a friend and decided to do it himself in order to raise awareness. He challenged athletes all over Boston to take the challenge, and they did. First came the athletes, followed by celebrities, and then everyone else.  People – including yours truly – joined them to support this specific cause.

And what better way to pressure someone publicly than through social media? Through mere Facebook tagging, people publicly called to act for a good cause has in turn made them more likely to get involved as part of an entire social network. We all know how social media peer pressure makes people engage in acts they might consider unthinkable under typical circumstances.

Some people didn’t want to pour a bucket of water over their head and post it on social media, but part of the challenge is that if you don’t pour the water, you donate the money specifically to ALS. Inconsequentially, many of those challenged ended up doing it anyway out of fear for suffering the social consequences of not sharing the belief in such an important cause. 

Keep in mind that the average person is limited in how much they’re willing to donate to good causes in the first place. As one commentator put it, “if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities.”

This campaign successfully tapped into the era of clicktivism, where the action required was either a quick donation via a click away, or posting a quick video of yourself on the Internet. In our current “selfie” era, the campaign is golden.

And then comes the celebrity factor. Celebrities have become an integral part of our social-media, extrovert culture. People normally worship celebrities because they want to be part of something bigger than their own life. Seeing all the celebrities in the media supporting the cause was definitely a catalyst to the movement (even Oprah did it!).

I’m not saying that the #ALSIceBucket Challenge is a greater cause than any other social media campaign, but it can certainly be argued to be more impactful because it has created a sense of pressure to participate, and the sense that your participation will create some change. It is about having some kind of social control, particularly in the midst of  negativity prevalent on social media at the moment, such the unfortunate events in Ferguson, Missouri or the recent tragic death of Robin Williams. 




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Camila has been heavily active in South Florida’s tech startup community, where she is a co-host of a local radio show called pFunkcast. Camila previously worked at Greenpeace International and the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in various communication roles. A proud Brazilian who spent most of he life in Peru, she is passionate about traveling and documentaries.

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