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Viral Charity: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

If you have used social media this summer, then you have probably heard of the ALS ice bucket challenge. This charitable social media phenomenon challenges participants to, in under 24 hours, either donate $100 to the ALS Foundation or else pour a bucket of ice water over their heads and nominate their friends to participate. The challenge spread to almost every country in the world and even garnered attention from celebrities. People quickly began to scrutinize the effectiveness of the ice bucket challenge. Sure, it’s an internet sensation, but is it really raising awareness or is it simply self-indulging the “selfie” generation? Should people be advertising that they would rather make a video than donate to a charity?

“The Ice Bucket Challenge, By The Numbers” presents raw data arguing that, in fact, “slacktivism can raise real money”.  Since the spread of the challenge, ALSA.org experienced a traffic increase of 7,775% per day and raised $106 million. This article presents a visualization of the spread of ice bucket Facebook videos by location, revealing a network concentrated mostly on the East Coast and centered in Boston. The network structure clearly illustrates homophily; it displays densely connected participation around major city areas that are weakly connected to each other.

The ice bucket challenge simultaneously demonstrates the potential for charities in social media and exposes room for improvement. The numbers in the TechCrunch article make it clear that the challenge was successful in raising both awareness and donations. By asking participants to nominate friends and record themselves, the ice bucket challenge pressured participants to reach a higher level of involvement than other successful viral charities did, such as Kony 2012. The success of a more personal call to action can certainly be exploited by other charities. That being said, the network structure by which ice bucket videos were shared, though natural, reveals that many groups were left untouched by the challenge. The middle of America and less populated regions participated far less than cities did. In order for charities to reach a larger audience, they must ask themselves: how can we influence these sparse, less involved areas of the network?

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