AUGUST 29 ― Anyone with a social media account (at least 84 per cent Malaysians online), will probably have seen a video of the “ALS #IceBucketChallenge”.
Briefly, for those still wondering what it’s all about, this involves somebody taking a short video of themselves getting doused with a bucket of ice water, and nominating three others to do the same within 24 hours, or donate to the ALS Association, which is dedicated to finding a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a fatally debilitating neurodegenerative disease.
Many thousands who have taken part, from Steven Spielberg to ordinary teenagers, and it has been lauded as another example of social media’s positive power to bring about a better world, whilst others bemoan it as celebrity-driven tokenism. Nonetheless, hate it or love it, more than US$100 million (RM315 million) has been donated in the last month. This is an extraordinary amount, which will advance the necessary medical research, as well as help those afflicted by this disease who require a high level of dedicated personal care and home support.
Other charities will be wondering how they can pull off something similar, but we can also ask ourselves what this phenomenon tells us about the global and cultural implications of social media, and the ways in which they allow people to mobilise around ideas, political beliefs, or ephemeral moments of entertainment.
When Lou Gehrig, a renowned baseball player who was diagnosed with ALS in 1938 and after whom the disease is often known, gave his famous farewell “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” speech to a stadium packed with adoring fans, only a short segment was filmed. Nowadays, there would be hundreds, if not thousands, of videos recorded and photos taken ― edited in a few minutes, or immediately uploaded and shared with a few friends or thousands of followers. The IceBucketChallenge is, in the first instance, a reflection of how easy it has become for people to create and distribute media content ― fundamentally changing media industries.
However, it also teaches us some important lessons about humans as social and cultural beings, “suspended in webs of significance,” as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz argued in 1973.
When the person taking the challenge calls out the names of nominees, more often than not, they will also be “tagged” via their shared social media platform. Even if the nominee is not online, or does not see the video, the notification will usually be “pushed” ― demanding their attention. As Niki Cheong recently reminded me, the analysis of social media often focuses on “weak” ties (for example with acquaintances) and “strong” ties (for example those that exist within a family, or between good friends). The latter are more important to a person, who will usually make an effort to keep them active, but with social media the former have become much easier to maintain in a relatively effortless way. Tagging someone is a way of activating, reactivating, or strengthening ties, and is a function enabled by the algorithms that lurk behind all social media flows of interaction. In Facebook, if you tag someone, it tells the vast relational database that you are more interested in that person than someone who you have not tagged, and you are then more likely to see updates from that person ― this organisation of your Facebook-mediated relations is what Bucher calls “algorithmic friendship”. The lives we share online are shaped in ways we don’t see, that react to selected actions we take online.
Another aspect of social media raised is the complicated blurring of public and private distinctions. When the person acknowledges their tagger, and proclaims their taggees in the video, they are making a public call on what is often (though not necessarily) a private relationship. This overlapping and often confusion of private and public spheres is a feature of social media. In everyday life, it is most often experienced in the embarrassment (or worse) that can occur when a social media user posts something addressed to a particular group of friends, and forgets that their colleagues, or classmates, are also able to see it. Knowing and judging our audience, and adjusting our behaviour accordingly, is a habitual social skill that is made more difficult online.
However, there is an important aspect of the Ice Bucket Challenge that explicitly leverages publicness. Just like Kony2012 and Oppa Gangnam Style, the fact that global celebrities such as Justin Bieber or Oprah publicised the challenge is essential to understanding its popularity.
Ever since 1967, different social experiments have confirmed the possibility that most people on the planet can be connected by linking ties through six people. This idea of “six degrees of separation” was behind the name of an early social networking site (“SixDegrees.com”), and is also expressed in the idea of “small world networks”. More recently, an experiment on Twitter found that most people on Twitter can be connected with five steps ― in effect, making the world smaller still. The presence of global celebrities helps this, with hashtags connecting millions of their followers to each other.
Finally, why are people so interested in seeing a celebrity drench themselves with water? While tagging highlights the role of social media in linking on- and offline contexts, the increased direct access to celebrities’ thoughts and daily habits, and the practice social media users gain in sharing their own lives online, brings into relief another universal human social activity ― the ways in which we perform different roles in different contexts.
Performance management, epitomised by the Kardashians, is something social media is teaching everyone. However, when the celebrity ― or one’s friend ― pours the ice water over her head, there is a brief moment when an authentic reaction may shatter the shell of presentation management. We might see something about who they truly are.
In the new digitalised world, our shared spaces are increasingly shaped by algorithms and commercial logic, and social media is bringing us together in new ways, as well as teaching us new ways to set ourselves apart. As we learn more about social media, we can also learn more about ourselves ― the challenge that faces us is how to react to it.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.