How an Ice Bucket Challenge became the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

It is the sensation that raised a charity over $13 billion dollars in less than a month. Millions of people throwing ice and cold water over their heads in order to avoid coughing up to charity,  but then paying anyway. Very confusing.  Who ever heard of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis anyway? How did it take off so fast? And why?

I can tell you what it wasn’t… it wasn’t a marketing tactic or a group of advertisers attempting to create hype and attention.  In fact, by the time ALS got hold of it, it was already an established movement.

According to Wikipedia, the Ice Bucket Challenge was started by ALS patient Pete Fray. Fray’s first post regarding the challenge was on the 1st of August 2014 when he posted a video of himself dancing to Vanilla Ice’s, Ice Ice baby. Fray commented that his disease and ice don’t really mix, so instead he nominated a bunch of people to take the challenge.  That’s how ALS got all the credit.

But almost a month earlier, anybody who was a part of or had friends in the UK deaf community would have noticed people dumping buckets of water over their own heads. For no other reason it seems than just having good fun and sharing an experience with one another. It’s a true example of individuals embodying the Internet’s original purpose to enable communication outside of time and space.

As I’ve previously discussed in this blog, it’s no surprise that companies or organisations take grassroots movements and attempt to rebrand them as their own. A whole segment of the marketing industry has spawned to take advantage of this, it’s called movement marketing. But that’s the great thing about the Internet, the truth will be out there! You just have to go looking for it, and then be prepared to scroll… and scroll… and scroll.


Proof the ethos of the Internet is still alive and strong

Whilst it’s inevitable in the capitalist society that we live in that, once something becomes popular, it will be rehashed for profit, claimed, branded and eventually copyrighted.  Let’s take that as a given, put it to one side, mark it as wholly uninteresting. Let’s instead focus on the grassroots movements behind some of these feats of ingenuity and revolution.  User-driven/demand-driven/whatever you want to call it, what interests me are the people and stories behind the trends we see emerging in our newly networked world.

But how does something go from being a localised activist campaign or small artistic movement, to reaching all corners of our globe, being printed on t-shirts or simulated for advertising purposes?  I think part of the answer to that lies within the Internet’s geneses…

The origins of the Internet

When Tim Berners-Lee gifted the World Wide Web to the world in 1990, he could have restricted it and copyrighted the code it was written in, but he didn’t. He foresaw the amazing things that could be accomplished by sharing and distributing the ability for continued growth and development. In doing so, Sir Berners-Lee (yes, he has since been knighted) epitomised the extraordinary characteristics that the technology continues to enable and produce.

Tim Berners-Lee

The definition of humility in tech. Source: Twitter

New app Firechat enables a revolution

A much more recent development and example of technology being used for amazing feats of communication is the phone app FireChat. Firechat allows users to send memos to one another “off-the-grid”.  The app allows content to be broadcasted and received through ‘peer-to-peer-mesh’, meaning, you don’t need network connectivity!

Just as the inventors of sticky notes  never expected their product to become essential office stationary, Firechat never expected to be aiding a revolution. But for the resident protestors in Hong Kong’s Admiralty District who are taking part in the Umbrella Movement, that is exactly what is happening. The app is enabling communication despite an overburdened network.

It’s by no means perfect, concerns about authentication and privacy are already being raised, it is still very much a fledgling technology.  But with over 100K downloads per day at the moment, expect big things to come!  My brain almost explodes with excitement at the prospect of a future in which no one is beholden to large telecommunications companies!  Imagine the possibilities!

My very first love…

I’ve been in love with the Internet ever since 1995 when I was first given access in my high school library. I remember spending lunchtimes exploring this amazing new world, figuring out what was inside and trying to work out ways to get around the school’s restrictive Internet filter. Almost 20 years later I’m still in love with the Internet, so much so that I am undertaking a degree that focuses on it.

As part of my studies I have come to understand that the Internet isn’t a single thing. It’s an intertwined assortment of technologies, both hardware and software, but also people, groups, and institutions.  Almost every day I learn about new ways that the Internet’s capabilities are being used to innovate.

The most remarkable part for me is that many of these innovations are user-driven. Take the hashtag on Twitter for example. Twitter didn’t come up with that. Some guy called Chris Messina did. Messina encouraged reporters of the San Diego bushfires in 2007 to include #sandiegofire in their Twitter reports. The hashtag helped to organise the sharing of emergency information about where the fire was headed. Just as the hashtag helped to quell those fires, the phenomenon was ignited. Twitter profited immensely, but so did we all as the end-users of such an extraordinary communication channel.

Communication is the over-arching theme here. As a teenager I struggled to cope with the transition into the grown-up world (a combination of my parent’s divorce, an awkward adolescence and some mental-health issues) for two years I participated in an online community that allowed me to escape the bleakness of my situation.  My time spent instant messaging and responding to my friend’s posts felt so much realer and more important than real-life did.  The people I met and the connections I made got me through what I still reflect on as the darkest period of my life.

Humans are social creatures so the ability to connect with one another in difficult circumstances is nothing short of magical. This blog is an opportunity to explore and examine new ways people are using the Internet to create meaningful connections.  To me, the hashtag represents just one of many opportunities that the Internet offers each of us to connect and share our lives with one another outside of the customary confines of time and space.

I hope you will join me as I examine and delve into the origins and roots of user-driven movements. My hope is to reveal how these emerging trends have made their way into our mainstream, globalised society.