Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Future of Money

ice-bucket-challenge-alsa

Everyone's doing it. (Photo: Hot Gossip Italia/Flickr)

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

• August 28, 2014 • 12:00 PM

Everyone's doing it. (Photo: Hot Gossip Italia/Flickr)

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?

Internet memes are hard things to pin down, much less cause intentionally, but when one attaches itself to you or something close to you, it becomes apparent very quickly. Take the dominant Internet meme of the past two weeks, for example. Celebrities, politicians, and all of your Facebook friends have been dumping buckets of icy water on themselves and videotaping it in a viral donation drive for the ALS Association, a foundation promoting treatment for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, also commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

The challenge of choosing between donating an amount of money to a charity and dumping cold water on yourself plus donating a smaller amount didn’t start with ALS, but that’s where it hit its mark. With the help of Matt Lauer and golfer Chris Kennedy at its start, the Ice Bucket Challenge has reached everyone from Bill Gates to Jimmy Fallon. In the past month alone, the ALS Association has raised $94.3 million, according to the organization, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year.

There’s no doubt that this sudden influx of attention is helping the non-profit as well as victims of the disease. But like all viral sensations, there’s a time-limit for the buzz. And when it fades and the ALS Association goes back to netting $2 million a month, it will have to decide what to do next.

TO ANALYZE THE ICE Bucket Challenge’s future as a profitable meme, we first have to figure out just what makes it one. Calling something a “meme” on the Internet is often a shorthand for saying that it’s popular—an image, joke, or video is omnipresent on social networks, getting shared widely, so it must be a meme, right? Yet memes aren’t only defined by their popularity.

While the Ice Bucket Challenge may have come from amateur sources, it no longer has claim to that kind of cache, and the link between its viral reach and monetary income has become clear.

Originally, the word “meme” was used in the study of linguistics to refer to a pattern of grammar or speech that was copied throughout a certain group and spread, much like a virus. Over time, that definition has expanded. In a 2003 paper, the psychologist Dr. Susan Blackmore wrote, “whatever is copied from person to person is a meme.” Considering that definition, the Ice Bucket Challenge is certainly a meme—it has inspired countless copycats as a cultural trope and it spreads from one host to the next via its challenge mechanism, if not by sight alone.

The format of an Internet meme, however, is different from a purely linguistic meme. An Internet meme is an “idea, template, or specific construction that you can remix and can slot in variations on,” says Gretchen McCulloch, a meme analyst and the editor of Slate’s Lexicon Valley, a language blog. Online, memes are much more interactive than they appear to be in verbal language. With memes like Advice Animals, Doge, or Grumpy Cat, viewers are encouraged to make their own remixes, using the memes as tools to express their own ideas rather than just copying users who came before them.

Here, the Ice Bucket Challenge becomes more complicated. When someone performs the challenge in order to raise money for ALS, they’re usually not using the performance as a tool, they’re just re-hashing the trope as a way to pass on the positive message. But if the Challenge didn’t start out as a remixable Internet meme, it has become one now. People are making fun of the challenge by appropriating its form, like this “shit-bucket challenge” from Bulgaria, in which a Bulgarian rapper proclaims, “I challenge everyone and I souse myself with shit for health.” Now that’s a meme.

Successful memes need authenticity, according to McCulloch, “a sense of amateurism … not trying to make money, doing it for the entertainment of friends,” she says. While the Ice Bucket Challenge may have come from amateur sources, it no longer has claim to that kind of cache, and the link between its viral reach and monetary income has become clear. Perhaps it is its very status as a meme that is precipitating its downfall.

THE ALS ASSOCIATED HAS gained nearly $100 million from its unintentional meme, but I’m betting they have also bought themselves some accidental blowback. It is tweets like Playboy editor Jeremy Repanich’s quip, “When VH1 makes “I Love the 10s” in 2025, what will people say of the #IceBucketChallenge?” that portend the slow death of the meme, the descent from earnestness into irony, from positive message to joke.

So when the money stops flowing, the organization will have to decide how to sustainably spend their gains. As Fortune points out, ALSA has a good track record of actually distributing the funds it receives, but that’s hard to do all at once. “When you’re doubling a budget, it can’t be spent all in same year,” Lance Slaughter, the organization’s chief chapter relations and development officer, told Fortune. Executives like Slaughter will make sure the funding lasts for longer than the meme does.

As for its wider cultural impact, I predict that the Ice Bucket Challenge will become a kind of meta-meme, a trope that other non-profits will attempt to appropriate in order to kick-start their own funding drives. If it worked once, why wouldn’t it again? But virality is like lightning: it rarely strikes the same spot twice, and the Internet gets tired of memes quickly, ensuring that the next do-good stunt-drive will be met with more derision than optimism. Maybe the Red Cross can get a monkey to take a selfie for them?

Kyle Chayka
Kyle Chayka is a freelance technology and culture writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @chaykak.

More From Kyle Chayka

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.