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The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

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

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

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.

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?