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Why Did The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Become a Movement?

At this point, if you haven’t heard about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, you may want to check your pulse. For the past several weeks, Facebook news feeds have been clogged with videos of folks dumping ice water over their heads for a good cause. In this post, Ami Stearns frames the Ice Bucket Challenge as a social movement, noting that the combination of several factors unique to our post-modern, selfie-obsessed society helped catapult this fundraising activity into one of the more coveted statuses our culture offers to the lucky few: going viral.

Mission Accomplished - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (14848289439)

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a disease that targets nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The disease can lead to paralysis and even death. The ALS Association is a national non-profit organization dedicated to helping individuals who have been diagnosed with the disease. Like other non-profits, the agency’s lifeblood, so to speak, comes from donations. As of the week I write this, an ALS press release announced that $94.3 million had been donated- just since July 29. For comparison, consider that this same non-profit received somewhere around $19 million in donations during all of their 2013 fiscal year. How has nearly $100 million been raised in a few short weeks? With the fervor of a meme like 2012’s Harlem Shake (see SIF’s earlier post on the Harlem Shake meme) and the ubiquitous selfie/navel gazing that is a hallmark of social media, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has become an unbelievably successful phenomenon.

You probably already have the campaign’s lowdown, but here’s a quick and dirty recap. Post a video of yourself getting soaked by a bucket of ice water, then tag your friends on your favorite social media site, or just call them out verbally. Either your friends must accept the same fate as you or donate some set amount to ALS in place of doing the challenge. In a testament to this movement’s success (besides the financial windfall for ALS), consider that even the rich and powerful (Ethel Kennedy! Justin Timberlake!) have filmed themselves doing the #ALSIceBucketChallenge. This CNN video contains a nice mash-up of several notables, including George W. Bush, Elizabeth Banks, and Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers, taking the ice bucket challenge. If celebrities and national leaders are doing it, you better believe the movement has solidified in American culture.

According to sociological theory, a social movement is comprised of a collective of individuals who organize to accomplish some kind of societal change. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fits this definition, but it differs in comparison to other movements such as the suffragette effort (i.e. the movement to grant women the right to vote) or the civil rights activism in its origination and momentum. First of all, this social movement arose not out of a group of dissatisfied people, but rather, with individuals who are accustomed to memes and gimmicks (see Grumpy Cat, see the aforementioned Harlem Shake, see Gangnam Style , see all the remakes of Pharrell’s “Happy”) and are quick to use technology to reproduce pop culture concepts. As far as momentum, participating in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a win-win for everyone involved. Those who do not donate money are actually telling the world they have not invested financially, but the re-tweets, likes, and re-posting of viral videos out there attest to the positive reinforcement given to the ice water dumpees.

Historically, recruitment in social movements depends on finding people who are deeply supportive of the issue and goals, but as the movement ages, it depends on being trendy and appealing (think about

KONY 2012). In the vein of “all good things must come to an end,” social movements experience a myriad of outcomes. They might succeed and become mainstream (the suffrage effort), fail or become repressed (the 1960s Equal Pay Amendment), or become co-opted by corporations (the “pinkwashing” of the breast cancer campaign). The fact that the ALS Association attempted to trademark the phrase “Ice Bucket Challenge” (they backed off after the public backlash), indicates that this movement is in the final stages. While the icy outcome of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge remains to be seen in the coming weeks, it has definitely set the tone by which all future fundraising efforts will be measured. Going viral now seems to be an important component in social movements.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Based on what you read about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, does it fit the sociological parameters for being a social movement, or do you believe it is something else?
  2. Why did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge go viral? What elements of the challenge made it so compelling?
  3. If you were in charge of a non-profit agency, in what ways would you suggest strategizing fundraising in the future, based on the success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?
  4. Read this L.A. Times article that critiques the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Respond to the article in writing as if you or a loved one were living with the effects of ALS.