In recent years, it has become popular for researchers to study why objects go viral. Specifically, academics and business stakeholders have sought to discover how specific videos, images, and songs go viral. However, the viral nature of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge posits a new question: When do ideas go viral? The answer is probably not as complicated as Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthine film, Inception, would make it seem.
Under the guise of slacktivism, the Ice Bucket Challenge became a worldwide success, raising forty-two million dollars for the ALS Association over the three weeks of July 29th to August 21st. The Ice Bucket Challenge presents a great research opportunity due to the available metrics of success of the campaign. Whereas other viral campaigns have grey areas when it comes to success metrics, the Ice Bucket Challenge became an undeniable financial success. Using the Ice Bucket Challenge as a case study, I argue that slacktivism can work to perpetuate a particular idea and ultimately transform what was originally slacktivism into collective activism.
Communication scholars Kristofferson, White, and Peloza offer a definition of slacktivism in their article, citing slacktivism as “A willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause, with an accompanying lack of willingness to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change.” At the individual level the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge aligns with this definition. While we cannot assume that every participant in the challenge was performing an act of slacktivism, due to the viral nature of the campaign and the seemingly random nomination process for the challenge, it can be inferred that the majority of participants were performing slacktivism.
A question that should be asked before characterizing participation as slacktivism, is whether or not the participant would perform the action if the cause was substituted. Since public awareness of ALS was particularly low prior to the challenge, many participants had little knowledge of the disease itself. Rather, the participants performed their actions to maintain their online social identity.
To better examine this, we might call upon sociologist, Erving Goffman’s research on dramaturgy. For Goffman, the self is “made up of the various parts that people play, and a key goal of social actors is to present their various selves in ways that create and sustain particular impressions to their different audiences.” Participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge then, became more of a method for people to maintain “face” in front of their social media audience, rather than an outlet to disseminate awareness of ALS. This being said however, critics of the Ice Bucket Challenge have been shortsighted by classifying the campaign as slacktivism. At the individual level, the challenge can be classified as slacktivism, however, critics have failed to study the challenge in a collective light.
Ben Kosinski, a blogger for the Huffington Post, writes that “the viral nature of the campaign almost hurts ALS due to the substitution of potential donations with a social post; internally, people think they have donated when in turn they’ve only posted.” There are two essential problems with Kosinski’s argument. First, Kosinski assumes that the social media post works as a substitution for a donation. As discussed earlier, the majority of people were unaware of ALS prior to the challenge, therefore assuming that people would have donated if there were no videos seems illogical. Secondly, Kosinski assumes that performing the Ice Bucket Challenge does not assist the ALS Foundation. However, spreading awareness of the ALS disease was a primary objective of the campaign, and most social media campaigns do not involve any monetary donations at all. I can recall last year’s pink and red marriage equality box that went viral on participants Facebook profiles. There does not necessarily need to be a monetary donation in order for a positive impact to be made for a cause. The Ice Bucket Challenge exemplified how over a million slacktivists can turn into collective activism, regardless of whether or not the individual was self-aware of their own activism.
More than anything, the Ice Bucket Challenge succeeded as a crowd-sourced promotional campaign for ALS research. I anticipate that we will continue to witness organizations bridging the gap between slacktivism and collective activism in their promotional campaigns. The challenge reaffirmed the power of the collective when it comes to motivating viral campaigns, and future organizations will undoubtedly look to the Ice Bucket Challenge as an example of perfectly executed viral advertising.