(Ice-bucket) Challenge Not Accepted: When Viral becomes Annoying

How the Ice-Bucket challenge surprised, inspired, and then ultimately, turned us off

I don’t doubt that when this article comes out there will still be hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people dumping perfectly good water, seasoned with ice, all over their bodies.  The nature of any fad/craze is that it will take a while to simmer down.  As the craze gradually subsides (don’t expect any ice-bucket challenges this winter!) there are a number of points of reflection for all of us, particularly those of us who “do social media” as a profession.

Charities

There have been hundreds of ad hoc board meetings, phone calls, and email threads in the last few weeks among charities and causes.  The burning question of all these exchanges was: “How can we also capture the imagination of so many?”  Here’s the bad news, charities and causes: you can’t.  Or at least it will be very difficult for you to plan to.  The ALS Ice-Bucket challenge caught on for a number of reasons.

1.  It was summer when it peaked and it’s a borderline prank – albeit one you do on yourself and is fun and harmless.

2.  It’s extremely social – one gets nominated via social media and then promotes their video via social media, nominating others in the process, and so on.

3.  There’s a feel-good factor: you get to say you are raising “awareness” (whatever that means) for a terrible disease.

All these frantic communications hopefully had at least one eminence grise present to remind everyone that people give to charities or causes because they are deeply connected to or affected by those causes or charities.  Sure, ALS has raised some record-breaking amount of money.  At last count it is on its way to $100M.  And maybe there will be some progress towards a cure because of those funds.  But it’s unlikely they have created a large number of lifetime devotees to the disease.  People don’t care about diseases that don’t directly affect them.  That’s the truth.

ALS should, if they are smart, see this for what it was – a fun prank that benefited them greatly, but is unlikely to change the rules of engagement for a disease that has eluded defeat for decades.  You can’t blame them.  All of modern society seems to have bought into the notion that if you throw enough money at a problem, it will be fixed, whether it’s schools, health care, or a disease like ALS.

Society

In the era of television we were able to simply turn the device off when we didn’t want to see anything more about a tragedy or fad.  In the era of social media, tragedy and comedy sit side-by-side.  I can scroll through my social media feeds, over a 2-minute span, and see friends pouring water over their heads, links to articles about murdered Palestinians, and an infographic about everything the iphone doesn’t do or doesn’t have.

But this means that, entirely against expectations, our social media universe forces us to see what we would rather not (we aren’t going to unfollow/unfriend people because they are doing the challenge).  Some champions of the challenge would argue that’s exactly why it was a success.  I would argue that’s precisely why it will go the way of the snuggie: you can’t make people care about a disease.  There’s no social media solution for that.  And if you don’t explain your cause to the many neutrals who are yet to be convinced to give you money, you’ll turn them off.

Individuals

People all over the world are at liberty to do what they wish with their money.  But each of us might have been fascinated to watch friends, families, and celebrities champion a cause they had never heard of before.  What motivated them?  A passion for ALS?  Unlikely.  A desire to do something fun?  Yes.  To participate in some global event with friends?  Sure.  Will they likely give to ALS again?  Probably not.  Indeed, one of my colleagues, when asking a client why that client had donated to ALS, was told that the challenge wasn’t a fundraiser but was simply a way to raise awareness.  The irony wasn’t missed by us.

Social media is just like regular life, but digitized and faster.  People get annoyed even faster on it than in real life.  As charities and causes plot their next moves, they would be wise…to not plan some viral prank.  They might also look to be involved in a greater coalition, as more and more people realize that disaster or disease-specific charities are not the most effective way to beat something.  As is always true in life, it is the passion that will drive the cause, not the cause that will drive the passion.

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