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It was hard not to let out a sigh when yet another naked face appeared on my newsfeed. Would it soon be my turn to neck a pint of egg yolk and vodka? Scroll down the page. There are ten play buttons waiting to be pressed, ten buckets swollen with ice water poised above ten heads.
The influence of viral campaigns on social media has not gone unnoticed in 2014. In fact, if you have Facebook, they’ve been near impossible to miss: the infamous “neknominate” challenge that made everyone sweat at the appearance of the notification alert back in January. The March “no make-up selfie” that utilised vanity in the name of Cancer Research UK. Most recently we had the “ice bucket challenge” that soaked several to the skin for the sake of Motor Neurone Disease. For actions so trivial in appearance, they raised millions for charities that otherwise would have had nowhere near that level of donations, nor would such exposure be given to a serious condition as Motor Neurone Disease to the attention of the wider public.
The importance of social media in this sense is obvious and crucial. Facebook has over 1.2bn active users per month, and in the US 83% of those aged 18-29 who are on the internet use Facebook. It would seem ludicrous to exclude this demographic from direct involvement in raising awareness and money, as it seems so natural, even necessary in the modern age, to exploit social media in favour of charity. The need for these viral campaigns was proven when last month Macmillan Cancer Support were accused of ‘hijacking’ the hashtag #IceBucketChallenge, washing over its association with MND/ALS to propel fundraising for its own causes. The campaign, not being owned by anyone, was arguably within Macmillan’s rights to use. However, many were angry at a charity that is already well known and successful at raising funds through their Coffee Mornings, whereas the level of publicity that MND/ALS received was relatively invaluable for their Associations and indeed those who benefit from them.
The thing about both #NoMakeupSelfie and #IceBucketChallenge was that they were designed to support extremely worthy causes. Through the no make-up selfie, Cancer Research UK received £2,000,000 in just 48 hours at the height of the trend. Similarly the ice bucket challenge raised £2,700,000 for the Motor Neurone Disease Association with the hashtag “#ALSicebucketchallenge”. And, their American counterpart, the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association, also receiving donations totaling $98,200,000. Looking at these figures alone, it is hard to anticipate a downside to utilising social media as a platform for viral campaigns. However, the challenge #Neknominate was not associated with a charitable cause.
The concept of necking a drink and nominating friends to follow suit instead relied on the influence of peer pressure to flood our newsfeeds. The first video I saw for neknominate involved a man eating the head of a dead chick, speaking about another participant who had apparently downed a pint of vodka which was “not bad, but there was no f***ing protein”. It was disgusting, but those who have seen neknominate videos would be lying if they said they weren’t waiting to see who would do what next, and more importantly, if they themselves would be nominated.
The problem is that social media is also a powerful tool for strengthening influence and heightening vulnerability. You can’t merely switch it off; a community still exists even when you are not online. It is hard to assess the impact of viral campaigns without wondering if, in plain terms, they are just another form of, at best, peer pressure, or at worst, bullying. Neknominate is an extreme example of this as people started to die from alcohol poisoning in their efforts to better themselves against their peers. It began with the deaths of Jonny Byrne, 19, and Ross Cummins, 22, quickly followed by Stephen Brooks, 29, Isaac Richardson, 20, and Bradley Eames, again aged 20.
The families of these people reached out to the social media community urging people not to participate in neknominate challenge. This, alongside the trend becoming ‘old news’, meant that others were prevented from following the same fate. This is perhaps one saving grace of the more dangerous viral social media campaigns: they are relatively fleeting. Everyone remembers Kony2012, and everyone forgot about it just as quickly. The impermanence is only a negative when you remember that fundraising is vital to the longevity of every charity.
Of course, there is no reason to follow these campaigns by mirroring others. I noticed that one friend used #IceBucketChallenge to highlight the need to conserve water alongside the importance of raising money for MND and she chose to fill a bucket with objects to donate to charity. In aid of #NoMakeupSelfie, some men decided do the opposite and photograph themselves wearing make-up (“#MenInMakeup”) and as a result encouraged donations to continue pouring in to Cancer Research. There is a definite argument for some simply jumping on the bandwagon as opposed to donating because of cause and heart, but it is fairly impossible to differentiate between two posts dedicated to the same viral campaign. Each trend, each hashtag was not about every individual post, but the accumulation of posts as a collective unit of support.
The only thing that really bothered me particularly was how not participating was to give the impression of not caring. Whilst this isn’t true, again it comes under the category of peer pressure, even if the implication is just that, implicit. Pressure of any sort here however is only truly relevant when it involves danger, as with #Neknominate. There was and is no reason to involve recklessness in any of these viral campaigns, but the driving force of #IceBucketChallenge and #NoMakeupSelfie was the notion of giving to worthy causes. Remove the charity element from a viral campaign and it can allow for far more sinister consequences to occur.
Social media is now largely regarded as part of day-to-day life. Yes, there is a repetitive element to these viral campaigns, and it can feel tiresome being essentially bombarded with photographs and videos urging you to do the same. What the ice bucket challenge and the no make-up selfie have in common is that the charities involved have claimed that they are not the source of these campaigns. Whether this is true or not, viral campaigns on social media have proven a few million pounds more powerful than what fundraising without the influence of a newsfeed can do. Even #Neknominate proved testimony to the importance of this platform. If you brush aside the arguments for stupidity and vanity, you’re left with one basic rule: donate, share, and save lives. It doesn’t get more critical than that.