Why did dumping a cold bucket of ice water all over you become the thing to do, when a million other challenges and wanna-be viral videos fell flat?
While obviously no one can cause a viral video, there are a variety of factors that tend to correlate with things that catch on, online.
The videos are a mix of unconscious and conscious efforts to help others, highlight ourselves doing something for others and tell a story about something important that otherwise people wouldn’t normally bring up.
Let me break down the elements so it’s clearer.
1. We’re highlighting ourselves.
We may not even realize it in many cases, but part of the motivation for doing this, is to brag about ourselves, and boost our own social currency.
It may sound odd, but dumping a bucket of icy water on your head is partly about being funny, and showing you care about others in a fun, entertaining way that tangibly helps people by bringing attention to the cause.
According to Jonah Berger, author of Contagious, we have a natural urge to do things that present us in a good light, in order to boost our own social currency. That means some people who might not donate privately will do something publicly for a cause, or will donate in part because they also get to highlight the cause online.
2. It’s emotional.
Many of the videos are simply entertaining to watch, which leads to more people wanting to do it and share it with others.
3 It’s public.
The challenge is very visual and public, making it easier for the word to spread, and typically someone knows at least one person they can call out online, effectively at least reaching an audience of one or two people and their circle of friends.
4. It tells a story.
Lastly, the act is like a story packed in a visual suitcase. People like telling stories, and it’s a prime way we interact and pass along information. This, in a nutshell, is a quick visual story about how much we care about ALS, though ALS is often not directly mentioned, because that’s not the part people enjoy talking about.
The flip side of this is simply writing a check, but because that’s routine, private and doesn’t embody an emotional story, it’s a much harder for writing a check to catch on.
But the stories and videos ultimately are yielding donations for ALS. According to the Washington Post, the ALS Association has raised $1.35 million over the last two weeks in early August, vs. $22,000 for the same period a year earlier.
“Let’s be clear: The cycle is tiresome. It’s stupid. It’s primarily intended, by all accounts, to let the challenger (a) exhibit his altruism publicly and (b) show off how good he or she looks soaking wet. But it also … works. It works well, in fact,” wrote Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post.
Ironically, the ice bucket challenge — which originated in the Boston area — originally wasn’t even about ALS when it started.