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Network Effects: Why the Ice Bucket Challenge Went Viral

The Ice Bucket Challenge that raised $115 million dollars for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (A.L.S.) research back in 2014 was the result of network effects. According to an article from New York Times, one reason that the challenge became viral was due to the use of social media. Participants of the challenge post videos of them dumping ice on themselves which gave them likes. The nature of the challenge also force people to either accept it or face damage to their reputation. Since the challenge involved physical labor and pain, people ascribe more meaning to the idea that they are raising awareness of A.L.S. All of these reasons, combined with wide access to social media platforms fuel the challenge and cause it to spread globally.

The reasons mentioned in the article all point to two features of the network effects that we studied in class — the threshold value and the payoff. The reason why the challenge went viral was due to its high payoffs and low threshold value. Once people are tagged by their friends to complete the challenge, they are likely to perform it due to all the incentives mentioned in the article. If one person in a cluster of friends started this challenge, then he or she will tag friends whom they have strong ties with, and the friends will tag people whom they have strong ties with (who are likely to be in the same cluster) until everyone in the cluster has adopted the challenge. In order for this to spread further, i.e. outside the cluster, it must spread to the person who shares a local bridge/weak tie with someone in the initial group. Even if this person was not tagged by anyone, he or she will learn about the challenge and adopt it due to the low threshold. The same network effects will then allow this person to “infect” the new cluster to cause the challenge to become viral.


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