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Pouring Cold Water On A Viral Movement

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his five sons share in his #icebucketchallenge video

Author: Mike Kuczkowski

We know the story by now: On July 31, 29-year-old Pete Frates, of Boston, filmed a 52-second video that sparked a movement.

The video itself is unremarkable. Frates stares into the camera, moving his head back and forth to the beat of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby.” He says nothing. He writes a message naming nine people in it, tags it #icebucketchallenge and posts it to his Facebook page.

The story behind it, however, is incredibly moving. Frates was a former star outfielder for Boston College’s Division I baseball team. As team captain, he had led the 2007 team with five home runs and 19 stolen bases. In April of that year, he set a modern BC record with eight runs batted in in one game.

Yet, like the Hall of Fame Yankees star Lou Gehrig, Frates’ baseball career was cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease. Frates was diagnosed in 2012 and is now confined to a wheelchair. He cannot speak. He eats through a feeding tube. He types using ocular recognition technology.

Frates’ Facebook post was a flash, and the tinderbox of social media channels ignited in response. Athletes, celebrities and ordinary people were tagged by their friends and acquaintances.They heard Frates’s story and were inspired. They began filming #icebucketchallenge videos, posting them to Facebook and Twitter, giving money to ALS and challenging their friends to do the same. It works essentially like a chain letter: if you accept the challenge and film a video, you give $10 to the charity and nominate three others to do a video; if you don’t film a video, you pay the charity $100.

The roster of those who have doused themselves reads like a list of the Forbes Most Powerful. Bill Gates took the challenge, as did Oprah. Jimmy Fallon and the Roots took the challenge, as did Justin Timberlake, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Martha Stewart, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim McGraw. The list — and the elaborateness of the contraptions involved — grows more impressive by the day.

As has the volume of donations to the ALS Association: $7.6 million in two weeks, compared to $1.1 million in the same period last year, including gifts from more than 100,000 new donors. On Aug. 15, Facebook reported that 1.2 million ice bucket challenge videos had been posted, and 15 million had posted, commented or “liked” a post about the challenge.

Is this a lesson in social media virality? Is Frates a one-man maven and connector?

This chart, released by Facebook, supports the notion that the #icebucketchallenge is a viral, social media phenomenon (worth noting, the Facebook charts are based only on Facebook data).


And here’s a graphic shows the spread of the ice bucket challenge across the country, with a clear epicenter in Boston, where Frates lives.


In fact, the story is more complicated. The ice bucket challenge had actually been around for more than six weeks before Frates posted his video. My 13-year-old son received the cold water challenge on his Instagram account from a classmate on June 16. (He ignored it; there was no tie to charity at the time.) The challenge started as a dare.

And, as it morphed and added a charity component, it received significant mainstream media attention. On July 14, two weeks before Frates’ post, golfer Greg Norman challenged Today Show host Matt Lauer, who filmed his challenge on air. Lauer gave a donation to Hospice of Palm Beach County. Ironically, now that the phenomenon has become so closely associated with ALS, Lauer has been criticized for not mentioning the charity.

Frates also wasn’t the first person with an ALS association to post a video. A golfer in Sarasota, Fl., dedicated his video to an ALS patient July 14. Dan Quinn, whose brother Pat also suffers from ALS – posted a video to his brother’s “Quinn for the Win” page on July 26, urging people to learn more about ALS. Quinn’s and Frates’ networks overlap, and Frates tagged #Quinnforthewin in his July 31 post.[i]

But what can this tell us about social movements? Could anyone in marketing, public relations or fundraising, have predicted that Frates would be such an influential figure in this movement?

Doubtful. Because while Frates was definitely influential in all of this, he had a lot of help. There are four major factors of influence that matter when it comes to understanding how an idea can become a social movement: context, consensus, catalyst and calls to action.

Contextmay be the most important part. How are the environmental conditions right for this movement to take off? This is difficult to assess in the context of the ice bucket challenge. It would appear that the challenge had been around for a while, and that ALS awareness is lower than it perhaps should be (only 50 percent of Americans apparently are familiar with the disease. I guess, unlike in my own household, “Pride of the Yankees” is no longer required viewing.)

It’s also a hot summer in many parts of the country. From my standpoint, I don’t think the context is aligned with the challenge, and that’s part of why I and many others may feel some dissonance around it.

Consensus: There must to be some momentum around a need that audiences or stakeholders feel must change. And, I think there’s a latent consensus that something should be done to cure ALS: more research, better drugs. But again, nothing that has much of a ‘wow’ factor in this aspect.

The third factor is a catalyst. And, whatever the origins of all this, Pete Frates appears to be that. Some event or actor galvanizes public opinion that prompts some action. It’s interesting to note that Frates seems to have been extremely focused on raising awareness for ALS this year. He wrote a moving piece for the sports website Bleacher Report — with no mention of ice — about his diagnosis and experiences on July 2 to mark the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s famous “Luckiest Man” speech. He is also well-connected on social media, with hundreds of followers and a family actively supporting his awareness and fundraising efforts. Critically, his personal story provides a great hook to turn a nascent movement into something more powerful.

Calls to Action: Ultimately participation in a movement requires something people can do. And, this is where I think the ice bucket challenge wins big. As this post explains, the challenge involves something that is easy to do (film a video) and something we have been programmed to do since we were toddlers (play tag). And we all like to watch people do silly things, which is why so many of us have played these videos, whether from friends of celebrities, over the past three weeks.

Even given all that, there are three significant factors that have been extremely influential, but are getting far less attention than the ‘man who sparked a movement’ narrative:

Mainstream media: In terms of reach, Facebook says 15 million people were exposed to an #icebucketchallenge post on social media, an impressive figure. But let’s take a look at other channels. Lauer’s Today Show segment alone reached 4.2 million. Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 19, some 996 unique print articles are listed in the Factiva database with the term “ice bucket challenge.” The number of broadcast mentions probably dwarfs that figure. This may well be a case where the number of people exposed to mainstream media coverage of the challenge is 10 times the number of people exposed to it on social media.

Celebrity: A remarkable number of celebrities, each of whom has a greater than average number of followers, were caught up in this. As mentioned earlier, this challenge has been taken on by tons of athletes, musicians, politicians and business leaders. Today, each of those has his or her own followings on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel has four million subscribers, and his ice bucket video has been viewed two million times. Bill Gates’ video has been viewed 9 million times. Those two alone nearly match the Facebook engagement of #icebucketchallenge to date.

The Law of Numbers: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the math. As a challenge like this gains participation, the number of participants grows exponentially, just as a consequence of each challenge spreading to three more people. We modeled the rules of the ice bucket challenge in an Excel spreadsheet and charted the results below in what we call the “chain letter effect.”

Looks a lot like the graph Facebook released on the #icebucketchallenge.


So what does this all mean? What appears to be a social media viral phenomenon may just be a phenomenon. One where a catalyst and a call to action — facilitated by social media, boosted by mainstream media and the special sauce of celebrity participation — caught on and ultimately conformed to the chain letter effect. A young man suffering from a terrible disease did a good thing and gained attention for an important cause. And lots of people got wet. Cold and wet.

It’s unclear whether the boon of fund raising for ALS will sustain itself or pass. Studies show that many people give roughly the same amount of money to charity each year, suggesting there may be some cannibalization of nonprofit resources in ALS’s funding increase. What would really help, to state the obvious, is progress toward a cure.

In this respect, it is as it was in 1939, when Gehrig, one of the most famous men on the planet, retired suddenly from baseball after an astonishingly successful career, and gave one of the most moving speeches in history, one broadcast around the globe and celebrated to this day. He died two years later. Let’s hope today’s contributions lead to a cure long before we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Pete Frates’ viral ice bucket moment.

[i] John Frates — Pete’s dad — taped a video July 29, in response to a challenge from his son Andrew, of his own ice bucket challenge. You can see Pete in the video next to him. In contrast to Elon Musk’s sophisticated 5-bucket contraption, Frates’s dad has a friend dump a wheelbarrow of ice on him. Old school.

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