Social motivations

Ice hero

“If you haven’t been nominated for the #ALSicebucketchallenge yet then you have no friends!”

Search that on Twitter and you’ll find thousands of tweets to that effect. I’ve seen everyone from Justin Bieber to my sister’s best friend’s cat take an “ice bucket challenge” in the last ten days and it’s got me thinking. Of course the reason behind the trend is laudable – it’s raised $100 million to fund research around amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or motor neurone disease. And it’s sparked multiple spin-offs; most notably, residents of war-torn Gaza swapped water for rubble to highlight the conditions in their country, while Matt Damon covered himself in toilet water this week to draw attention to his charity and the lack of clean water in developing nations.

But just think about it for a second: At the most literal level, we’re all recording ourselves doing something a little bit ridiculous and posting videos of it across social media for the world to see. Strange, isn’t it?

I’m not here to pour scorn over the ice bucket challenge (pun intended), or those who have completed it. Plenty have already done that and I agree with this piece that mindless complaining is pretty disappointing. But I’m interested in the fact that this latest craze to sweep social media is illustrative of a wider trend. Our whole lives are now projected through digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It’s not our real lives, but a carefully curated version – a highlight reel. Each ice bucket challenge gets more outlandish and quirky as the trend gathers pace, as everyone grapples to show off his or her individuality. The problem is, we’re showing how difficult it is becoming to do just that.

Digital narcissism

Social media phenomena like the ice bucket challenge and the #nomakeupselfie are great at driving awareness for charities and increasing donations because they tap into our innate narcissism. This vanity has always existed of course, but few can argue that it’s exploded in the age of social media. From #throwbackthursday and baby pictures to sepia-tone Instagram images of our dinner and sharing shots of our morning run on Facebook, this new “look at me” culture highlights that we simply love promoting ourselves.

If charities can leverage this, then great – but when it’s reported that almost half of Britons failed to donate after completing their ice bucket challenge, then the motives behind the slew of videos on our newsfeeds have to be questioned.

The need to participate

The same report claims that half of those who completed the challenge had no idea why they were doing it. But here’s a suggestion: it’s our desire to be included. Social media has widened our friendship groups from a handful of close companions to, in some cases, thousands of people. When crazes sweep the country, our need to be involved is hard to resist. And when they’re linked to a good cause, that desire turns to pressure.

Where next?

Soon, all the ice bucket challenges will be complete. But rest assured, a new philanthropic trend will emerge before the year is through – probably by the end of next week. Charities are already looking at how to manage and capitalise on it. Macmillan, unjustly criticised in some corners of Twitter for encouraging its supporters to complete the challenge for the cancer charity, says it did so after failing to take advantage of the no-makeup-selfie trend. This collective compulsion to be involved is now a tangible strategic opportunity in a charity’s roadmap.

It’s the same with commercial brands: just look at Coca-Cola’s popular “Share a Coke” campaign. Everyone flocked to the shelves to find a Coke with their name on it and share it with the world. But these campaigns eventually run out of steam; Coca-Cola recently posted underwhelming profits as the campaign’s second run hinted that lightning doesn’t strike twice.

So, what does the future hold? Who knows – but I for one hope it doesn’t end up with us all live-streaming our entire day through Google Glass. I would much prefer the highlights.

(P.S. All Frameworkers – including me – who have completed an ice bucket challenge did remember to donate.)

Frameworker buckets

Drew no longer works at The Frameworks


  • Charity
  • Social media