When the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took over our Facebook feeds last month, I was a bit uncomfortable. I’m generally suspect of altruistic efforts that seem more trendy than helpful (have we caught Kony yet?), but was at least relieved the ALS Association ended up raising an incredible sum of money. But that’s not what got me really uncomfortable about the Challenge.
Being obsessed with all things media, I instantly remembered an announcement from March: Facebook planned to push it’s ability to deliver autoplaying video to advertisers, effectively recreating television advertising for the mobile age. That is the type of advertising you can make a lot of money on.
But through the Spring, I didn’t see a ton of autoplaying Facebook videos. Most of the video I would see on Facebook was an embedded Youtube, or a Vine, or an Instagram, and it was rare someone I knew chose Facebook for spontaneous video creation, hosting and sharing.
That all changed with the Ice Bucket Challenge. The NY Times outlined the success: 17 million Ice Bucket videos uploaded, with 440 million people watching them over 10 billion times. That is insane. I completely support a competitor to Youtube, but there’s one thing that never sat well with me:
The first celebrity I noticed on my feed doing the challenge was Mark Zuckerberg. The day after Zuckerberg did it, it became a constant presence in Facebook’s top right trending bar. Every Ice Bucket post from anyone, even people whose posts I’ve never clicked on, started making it to the top of my feed. Zuck’s Ice Bucket challenge also surprised me because I can’t remember ever seeing a post from him before (and though I wish he was my friend, he’s not).
How exactly did Zuck’s Ice Bucket Challenge fit into the viral explosion? I can’t figure out how to pull the data on # of Ice Bucket Facebook Posts, but a quick Google Trend analysis is really interesting. Zuck’s challenge was on August 14th. Look at the trend line. It absolutely explodes right after. That’s virality that would make Jonah Peretti blush.
I wonder how it went down. I’m okay with the idea that Mark Zuckerberg was approached about a burgeoning trend that could get people comfortable both uploading, and experiencing, auto play video on Facebook, and could potentially do good for the world. A quick search makes it all seem pretty organic. Zuckerberg was challenged by Chris Christie, who was challenged by the Philadelphia 76ers owner, and the challenge seemed to be taking off among athletic executives (even Roger Goodell) on August 12th.
What I’m not okay with is if Facebook manipulated all of our feeds to fill them with Ice Bucket posts and Zuckerberg’s post was a well-coordinated start. There’s a constant debate among media types over the validity of Facebook’s algorithm, but this is the most suspicious to me yet.
Can Facebook completely control what enters our feed and end up creating trends that help further their long-term commercial needs? Was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge artificially promoted by Facebook to encourage people to upload video and get comfortable with autoplay for eventually lucrative video ads? Does that not only compromise the entire user experience, does it mean brands paying for distribution on Facebook will always play second fiddle to “free” promotion if it benefits Facebook? The cynical MBA in me almost accepts this as a reality, and that trend line above seems to confirm it. But the longtime Facebook user just can’t get comfortable with that notion as it would kill the entire utility of the platform.
The only thing I can take away with certainty is I pray that Twitter doesn’t kill it’s pure, reverse chronological timeline.