Yesterday, as I was driving home, savoring the last days of summer, a technology reporter for The Huffington Post phoned to ask my thoughts on “why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge had gone viral.” I’d seen a few challenge videos (Bill Gate’s, Lady Gaga’s, my friend Breck’s), some headlines about the challenge, and a couple of heated threads debating its merits. I’d seen them but hadn’t read closely, let alone given the matter any scholarly thought. But it’s always nice to be asked for an opinion, and traffic was languid, so I figured I might as well do my professional best to answer the reporter’s question. Far more people were going to read his piece in Huff Post than my last paper. In terms of public anthropology, talking to him felt like both opportunity and obligation.
I hadn’t studied the #ALSIceBucketChallenge phenomenon, only witnessed it passively in my media feeds. Thus, I couldn’t comment on criticism of it as “social narcissism” or “slacktivism.” However, if success is measured in dollars raised and videos made, I would identify two key drivers of the campaign’s success, without commenting on whether such campaigns are good social or science policy (or signs of evil times). (1) The video challenge is itself a template for replication across the media-sphere (hence viral), and (2) celebrity participation contributes to the symbolic power and appeal of participation.
By “a template for replication,” what I mean is that taking the Ice Bucket Challenge entails making a video challenging others to repeat the process, chain-letter style. The basic procedure is:
- Turn a camera on yourself.
- Challenge particular people (by name) to do what you are about to do.
- Get doused with a bucket of ice water.
- Post your video online.
Some videos mention ALS, others don’t. Some set a 24-hour deadline to “take up the gauntlet.” There is tremendous variation. Celebrities nominate other celebrities. Others nominate family, colleagues, and friends. One of the appeals of the videos is seeing who challenges whom. The making visible of social links is part of the drama. For example, Bill Gates includes a clip of Zuckerberg’s challenge to him in his video.
The Ice Bucket Challenge offers a script, a sequence of actions, a role that all who take it can step into; while simultaneously bringing something of their own to the mix. This sort of templatized self-expression is extremely popular and highly “spreadable” in the contemporary media ecology of the U.S. But such cultural forms are hardly unique to this setting or to social media.
As a repetitive social practice composed of a performed sequence of symbolic actions, the Challenge fits the formal definition of a ritual. Normally, I resist the call to Aeron Chair anthropology (or, in this case Honda seat), i.e., cultural analysis from afar, based on few textual sources. However, the circumstance of speculating while driving prompted insights I would not have otherwise had. It forced a focus on the formal, procedural aspects of The ALS Challenge, and the kind of symbolic analysis that I demonstrate for students but rarely undertake in my own work. In this sense, the reporter’s question took me back to school to give an oral report analyzing The Ice Bucket Challenge as a ritual.
Rituals, of course, are symbolic. They deploy culturally defined schema and reflect particular cultural values. As a cultural form, The Ice Bucket Challenge harkens to the duel (“throwing down the gauntlet”), and also to the dunk tank (a fundraising staple); and perhaps even the American sports tradition of players dumping a cooler of liquid (aka Gatorade Shower) over coach’s head after a particularly meaningful win. Although people pour water over their own heads in The Ice Bucket Challenge, they, too, undergo a physical ordeal as ritual subjects. One of the powers of rituals is that they bring body and mind together. This is central to what people “get out of them,” so to speak.
The physicality of the ice water is key to the Challenge, yet being doused is more than a physical trial. It is also a social one in which the honoree is brought low, expected to endure with good humor an assault that, outside of the ritual frame, would be humiliating. Dousing in ice water symbolizes (and enacts) a reversal of normal hierarchies. In Victor Turner’s terms, it is anti-structure that produces communitas, i.e., intense feelings of social equality, togetherness, and solidarity, such as one might get from dancing in a Mardi Gras crowd (or a great club).
By turning my attention to look for communitas, a structural approach led me to appreciate celebrity participation in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in a more nuanced way. While celebrities campaign for all kinds of causes, their participation in this video challenge is far from mere endorsement. Seeing the high and mighty perform the same ritual as the hoi polloi intensifies the equalizing liminality of the videos. The status play goes both ways. The powerful are drawn to the opportunity to perform as “regular folk,” just as surely as seeing them cut down to size (by being doused) draws a crowd and attracts participation.
In a diverse, individualistic culture, even the promise of communitas is no sure formula for going viral. The particular attraction of The Ice Bucket Challenge is that it affords what one might call “costless communitas.” In contrasting the symbolic ethnicity of whites (e.g., as Irish-, German-, or Hungarian-Americans, etc.) with the racialized ethnicity of non-whites, sociologist Mary C. Waters describes symbolic ethnicity as offering “a costless community” of voluntary participation, customized to the individual, and flexible over the life course. The appeal of symbolic ethnicity, Waters argues, is that it resolves “an essential contradiction in American life” between the quest for community and the desire for individuality (1990: 154). In similar fashion, the viral appeal of the Ice Bucket Challenge lies in producing communitas while allowing free rein for individualism. The Challenge is a social form that people are expected to personalize, not simply repeat. The opportunity for self-expression is a call to both play and work: not only a call to participate but also a challenge to do something new. To play properly, one is obliged to personalize.
Broad participation in The Challenge owes to the generality and abstraction of its cultural symbolism. The original, official, premise of the campaign was that, if you fail to rise to the challenge of making an ice bucket video, you have to donate to an ALS organization. One makes a video in lieu of giving to the cause, which seems perverse in the context of fundraising. Yet, the campaign raised a lot of money. The symbolism of dousing oneself in ice water reads more generally as self-sacrifice for a worthy cause. While some point critically to Challenge videos as failing to convey any coherent message about ALS, semiotic liminality, or entropy, is central to their symbolic power and broad appeal.
Numerous factors, from a “summer of downer news” to the narcissistic lure of social media “slacktivism”, are posited as contributing to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge going viral. I couldn’t address these directly in answering the reporter from my car, which forced me to break out some analytic tools I hadn’t used in awhile. The exercise led to an understanding of #ALSIceBucketChallenge, not simply as a social media fad, but as a vehicle, or template, for producing communitas in a diverse and individualistic nation that, in comparison to others, has relatively little of that sort of thing in public life.
While the idea of a template draws metaphorically on biological and informational replication, it would be a mistake to think too literally of “hard-wired” genomes and codes. Turner’s theorization of structure and anti-structure transformed the anthropological view of rituals from conservative vestiges of cultures dead and dying, to dynamic arenas in which social change might emerge and be absorbed into social practice. Looking at The Ice Bucket Challenge as a ritual doesn’t immediately reveal it as a vector of social change. However, drawing attention to communitas and anti-structure opens the way to consider the possibility and ask new questions. These are questions I might never have asked had I not ventured an armchair analysis from the freeway. That is, had I not asked and answered without burden of directed research.
As soon as I got home, I sat down to write up what I’d said to the reporter. Very quickly I found myself jumping into “research” mode, playing some of the challenge videos (to check formal properties) and surfing the headlines. Fearing that a surfeit of data would muddy the account, I resisted research and simply tried to write up the analysis made on the freeway. Of course, additional clarification and elaboration slipped in, as it always does when writing up. The goal, however, in writing this account, has not been not to produce a cultural analysis of The Ice Bucket Challenge. Rather, it has been to celebrate and share the pleasures of extemporaneous analysis, not as a substitute for grounded research, but as an exercise or tonic that brings vital anti-structure to the mix.
- Turner, Victor. 1966/1995. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Aldine Transation.
- Waters, Mary C. 1990. “The Costs of a Costless Community.” In Ethnic Options (147-168). Los Angeles: University of California Press.