Setting the stage

Adam London
Aug 12, 2014 · 7 min read

Sometime late last week (if anecdotal evidence in my Facebook newsfeed is to be believed) the #IceBucketChallenge went viral.

According to the ALS Association website:

The challenge involves people getting doused with buckets of ice water on video, posting that video to social media, then nominating others to do the same, all in an effort to raise ALS awareness. Those who refuse to take the challenge are asked to make a donation to the ALS charity of their choice.

Look, here’s mine!

After a day or two of build-up, my newsfeed was overtaken by a never ending stream of <20 second videos.

Friends were standing on balconies, pouring water over their heads.

Random acquaintances whose requests I accepted years ago were inviting me into their bathrooms to watch them shower in ice.


Each video follows a similar pattern:

(1) “I accept the nomination, I want to help raise awareness” (2) “I pass along the challenge to these people” (3) Pour ice over head (4) Scream!

What was unique was the reach of these clips. They were everywhere.

The Today Show, my girlfriend’s coworkers, my childhood best friend’s parents—everyone was promoting awareness, everyone was freezing and wet.

A key tenant of virality is that one person must share with others and, critically, those others must also act.

Well, this was happening. And it was happening at lightning speed.

Let’s step back, because there’s a pattern in virality.

There are many details that led to the campaign’s success. But I don’t want to talk about the drivers of virality (at least not in this post).

I want to talk about the responses to the challenge.

Interestingly, responses to BuzzFeed lists, viral videos, and the latest accidental-reply-all email sent to your office-wide list serve all share the same characteristics.

Responses progress through stages. They look something like this:

  1. Hilarious / Shocking / Incredible / Heartbreaking content is shared
  2. Folks pile on: chiming in with jokes, adding to the fun, supporting the chain—they want a part of the action
  3. The critics join in: they mock—it’s not cool to be a part of the crowd, the wise commenter steps in under the guise of superior intelligence
  4. Calm after the storm: the postmortem, observations and analysis; everyone has an opinion, some voice it loudly

As I type, the #IceBucketChallenge is moving through each stage.

First, everyone wants to be a part of the crowd.

It’s cool, they’re early adopters—it’s all fun and good natured.

The request to raise awareness was easy enough. People wanted in.

Quickly the challenge hit peak velocity (step #2) and more friends joined in: posting videos or donating to various ALS charities. In each video the speaker nominated 3–5 other friends; the network grew quickly.

My friend Greg summed up the state of his news feed (Sunday 8/10):

Predictably, people got angry. The critics came out.

Cue Monday morning (literally, this was yesterday morning) quarterbacks.

These folks felt the need to take an opinion and critique the challenge.

Posts like this (to your left!) began popping up across my newsfeed.


There are a few ‘anti-Ice Bucket’ arguments circulating the web.

What’s most interesting to me, however, is that they all intersect around a common theme / platform: social media.

Critics (often hypocritically) are quick to put words to a page denouncing challengers as armchair activists: folks who talk, rather than take ‘real’ action.

There is an important discussion to be had about the impact of social media and forms of mass communication on activism.

Key questions include: (1) What is the intent of the posts? And (2) Could posters be doing more? Is the ease of posting limiting more difficult actions?

Our lives are more public than ever before. We all have friends—I’m raising my hand in an admission of guilt here—who spend too much time crafting their next tweet or setting up the perfect scene to post to Instagram.

So, yes, you can question the intent of those who post. You can suggest they’re addicted to likes, that they could do more to learn about ALS, and, surely, it’s logical to implore people to do more (beyond raising awareness), to donate in addition to soaking themselves.

However, folks who are quick to shout, “viral videos don’t cure ALS” and “you’re not really helping” are often short-sighted and risk missing the challenge’s point.

Here is where I must caution my frustrated critic friends. Don’t conflate your discussions about behavior on social media with the outcome of this particular campaign. Criticizing one doesn’t mean the other failed.

You can question whether the megaphone of a social network makes it easier to feel like you’re doing more with less. But you must also entertain the counter-argument that it’s a positive outcome when 10x the amount of people are doing something vs. nothing.

It’s easy to poke fun at a challenge that feels so simple.

But it’s important to remember that these questions and the way the results were achieved do not negate the achievements of that campaign.

By all accounts, the challenge has been a success.

The frustrated critic will continue to point out: “We could have done more! What if everyone donated $5 instead of just posting a video?!?”

To that I say: What if everyone gave $10!

Just kidding.

It’s easy to sit back and say we could have done more. We’re talking about charity, of course we’d all love to do more.

I’d love if everyone filmed and donated. Or filmed and linked to the ALS Association site for more information.

But take a step back: by all measures—quantifiable and quantitative—this campaign was a success.

For any company or cause, low-cost / organic / peer-to-peer distribution of marketing materials is an incredible marketing win. Millions of people have discussed ALS this week.

Here’s where the critics jump back in with either: (1) “This doesn’t spread awareness!” Or, (2) “It might help a bit, but awareness isn’t action!”

And that’s where I beg to differ.

The low-cost, armchair nature of the campaign is likely what helped it spread.

Just like any campaign, you wouldn’t expect 100% conversion (t0 signups, payment, etc.) The goal is often to build buzz and inspire a subset of that population to reasearch, learn more, or find a way to give.

Guess what? It’s worked.

According to the ALS Association, over a $1m has been donated since July 22nd. Last year? In the same time period last year? They raised $22k.

Isn’t that the ultimate goal of any charitable campaign? Awareness will lead to education which drives involvement and giving. There’s a cycle here.

So, let’s be clear, awareness was raised (we’re having this discussion, the hashtag was trending in many countries, on multiple social networks) and, right in step, funding increased, too.

At the end of the day charity is good.

We can spend all day arguing whether people could have done more.

While the desire to ‘do more’ is not a proof point of the failure of the challenge, it’s still a fair point—this is an important philanthropic cause.

So if you still feel like you could do more, if you are angry and believe that friends who posted didn’t do enough, if you think that awareness is not a good enough outcome, if you were moved by what you’ve seen and learned, if you’re just a good person and want to give more than awareness…

I challenge you: join me in giving to support ALS research.

Last year, I joined Team Thumbs Up For Harriet in the ALS Walk for Life event. I walked with one of my oldest friends and his family to help raise critical dollars to support patient services, research, eduction, and awareness.

Guess what?

In a super convenient turn of events, the 2014 ALS Walk for Life is coming up this fall. Here’s your chance to act!

I would love for each and every one of you to give what you can. Follow this link. Give $1 or $100. If you have no dollars to give, share this post so others can.

The #IceBucketChallenge is an incredible campaign.

If it moved you, if you were freezing cold, if you laughed at a friend’s video, if read this or any other article and want to feel like you made a difference…

….join me and amplify your voice with a contribution.

Together we can raise awareness and make a difference.

Pop of Culture

Reality TV, gossip magazines, fantasy sports, superheroes, country music, and everything else you love or hate (or love to hate) about pop culture

    Adam London

    Written by

    Building @Uptake. Experimenting with @thelunchread. Before that: VC at Lightbank, BCG-er. Fan of travel + movie trailers. | @al0nd0n

    Pop of Culture

    Reality TV, gossip magazines, fantasy sports, superheroes, country music, and everything else you love or hate (or love to hate) about pop culture

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade