Agata Stepnik, Kai Tuesday 5pm
An increase in participation on social networking sites (SNS) across the globe has also seen an increase in the content generated on these sites. Text, images and videos are easily shared on SNS thanks to the intuitive user interfaces each platform has incorporated into its design, as well as apps that make it simpler to edit images and video. The convergence of technologies like cameras, SNS apps and internet connectivity on mobile devices also means people can generate new content from almost anywhere, at anytime, giving rise to what Jenkins, Ford and Green describe as “spreadable” media (2013). If social media is the butter and society is the bread, SNSs are the knives that are spreading the media around.
However, with over half a million comments generated per minute on Facebook alone (Zephoria, 2017), understanding how media spreads is important for anyone wanting to successfully use it as part of their online marketing strategy: “People forget that sending may be boundless, but attention is limited. It is easy to speak on the Internet, but difficult to be heard” (Dijk, 2012, p. 40)
SNS enable individuals to engage in natural social behaviours in an online environment (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013a). To understand how social media spreads it is valuable to examine the social theories that have existed well before the advent of SNS or even the World Wide Web. Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts on the forms of capital is one such theory (1986), which I will now examine in regard to how it relates to one of the most successful social media campaigns of all time, the 2014 ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
Over the North American Summer of 2014, more than 17 million videos were created, uploaded and shared across various SNS including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube (ALSA a, n.d) as part of a fundraising and awareness campaign into Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Each video featured someone dumping a bucket of ice cold water onto themselves, an activity with a very low threshold to participation. But why did this initiative go viral when others did not? What is it about this campaign that made it the phenomenon that it was?
Part of the answer lies in the concepts of cultural and social capital (Bourdieu, 1986). Capital, in its traditional sense, refers to wealth that has been earnt and can be used to invest in the future (Oxford Dictionaries, n.d.). Applied to financial wealth, Bourdieu refered to this as economic capital. But he also observed that economic capital does not act alone – if it did, every person who laboured for an hour would earn the exact same amount of money and benefit from it in the same way. In reality this is not the case; people are not solely compensated with money for their labour, not all labour is economic and there are other factors that can influence a person’s economic potential. Bourdieu posited that these factors are forms of capital too – knowledge being cultural capital and relationships being social capital – and that these can also be used to “invest” in the future. This is a simplification, but a necessary one to then apply to the Ice Bucket Challenge.
The campaign raised over US$115 million for research into the disease over the course of a few months (ALSA, n.d). This is a solid example of economic capital – people took part in the challenge, made videos and raised awareness (labour) which directly resulted in donations (economic wealth) which was then invested into further research into the disease.
However, the amount raised is directly linked to the popularity of the campaign itself. This popularity, or how it went “viral”, was influenced by cultural and social capital generated within the SNSs used in the campaign, especially Facebook and YouTube. The campaign itself quickly became a meme, a shared cultural instance on the internet with its own explicit and implicit rules that signified membership into the online campaign (Nissenbaum & Shifman, 2017). Cultural capital can be seen in the knowledge of how to participate, as well as what makes an entertaining video (fails, extreme reactions, etc). Taking part in the challenge is building cultural capital – credibility as a social media personality, or simply in being able to say that you took part. I argue that this desire to build cultural capital – to participate and be known for participating – contributed to the overall number of participants, and therefore the overall amount of money that was raised for ALS research. These videos are also examples of user created content (UCC) – users are creating the videos to share across SNSs – as well as user generated content (UGC), where these videos are then shared and commented on by others (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013b). As UCC and UGC make up the bulk of online content, the videos, comments and sharing culture all contribute to the accumulation of cultural capital. But cultural capital alone can’t account for the phenomenal success of the campaign.
I argue social capital was a significant factor in the success of the 2014 campaign. Social capital is the goodwill that is generated through the maintenance of social relationships or by virtue of social status. How well known someone is, and how esteemed they are within a social network, determines how much social capital that individual can generate and then call upon in the future.
Social capital can be seen in the campaign in two ways. Firstly, there is the social capital that exists between ordinary individuals (non-celebrity or public figure) and their network of friends within a SNS. This network would comprise of a combination of both strong and weak ties (Granovetter, 1973). Strong ties are relationships that would have regular and close social interactions (e.g. family and close friends), whereas weak ties are those where less time has been spent maintaining a bond (e.g. between work colleagues or friends of friends). For ordinary individuals participating in the Ice Bucket Challenge, the social capital that exists within the strong ties would likely result in that tie actual donating to the cause, as well as sharing the video within their own social network, therefore spreading the video further.
Secondly, celebrities and public figures participating in the challenge influenced its popularity. Typically, these individuals maintain a public profile on social media that allows the general public to feel connected to them in an intimate way (Marwick, 2013). The relationship between these individuals and their followers would best be characterised as weak ties, where the individual’s social status as a celebrity or public figure generates social capital rather than a personal relationship. It is no surprise that the majority of videos with the most views are those created by celebrities. Their social capital would also have influenced many of their followers to either donate or participate themselves, spreading the campaign even further.
Both cultural and social capital contributed to the overall success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in 2014. Perhaps demonstrating the temporal nature of both forms of capital within a specific context, and the timeliness of a successful social media campaign, it is interesting to note that although the challenge continues each year, the peak was its inaugural 2014 campaign (when the majority of celebrities and public figures participated). As discussed in the PBS production The Merchants of Cool, what is seen to be “in” can very quickly become passé (2006). These forms of capital are not perpetual.
In regard to how cultural and social capital affected my own personal learning this semester, it informed many of the decisions my group made in deciding on a strategy and which activities to include in our social media campaign pitch for the Conservatorium of Music. We believe that both forms of capital are integral to generating both UCC and UGC (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013b), as well as in fostering a sense of community and belonging online. We included activities that allow users to demonstrate their acquired cultural capital with music trivia-type discussion questions as well as well as competitions that require creativity within the context of music. From a social capital point of view, we included activities that profile students that are performing in concerts as well as engaging successful alumni for Ask Me Anything (Musical) sessions. By including these types of activities we believe the campaign stands a better chance of success in achieving the target of increasing community engagement online and therefore increasing attendance at their concerts.
ALSA (n.d) Impact of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Retrieved from http://www.alsa.org/fight-als/ibc-infographic.html
Bourdieu, P. (1986). Chapter 9 : The Forms of Capital. . In J. G. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York: Greenwood Press.
Desreumaux, G. (2014, June 11) Just One Minute On Facebook [infographic]. Retrieved from http://wersm.com/just-one-minute-on-facebook-infographic/#prettyPhoto
Dijk, J. v. (2012). The network society (Vol. 3rd). London: SAGE.
Gates, B. (2014, August 15). Bill Gates ALS Ice Bucket Challenge [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XS6ysDFTbLU
Granovetter, M. S. (1973). The Strength of Weak Ties. American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013a). Social Networking Sites. In Understanding Social Media. London: SAGE.
Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013b). Participation and User created Content. In Understanding Social Media. London: SAGE.
Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Introduction: Why Media Spreads. In Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press.
Marwick, A. (2013). The Fabulous Lives of Micro-Celebrities. In Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age (pp. 112-162). Yale University Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/stable/j.ctt5vkzxr.6
Nissenbaum, A., & Shifman, L. (2017). Internet memes as contested cultural capital: The case of 4chan’s /b/ board. New Media & Society, 19(4), 483-501. doi:10.1177/1461444815609313
Oxford Dictionaries (n.d.) Captial. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/capital
PBS (2006). Merchants of Cool. Frontline. New York: PBS. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/cool/view/
Zephoria (2017) The Top 20 Valuable Facebook Statistics – Updated April 2017. Retrieved from https://zephoria.com/top-15-valuable-facebook-statistics/