The #tenyearchallenge swept the Internet in January 2019, clocking up 2.5 million hashtag mentions over the month as celebrities and ordinary users posted current and past pictures of themselves online.
Journalists initially explored how the challenge reached back to the dawn of social media, smartphones and the selfie. Then the media coverage evolved to include a controversial suggestion that the challenge was actually engineered by Facebook in an effort to sharpen up its facial recognition technology (which Facebook denied).
And so the challenge spread in a classic wave pattern, before fading away, as expected. But what’s really going on when a social media challenge blows up? Why do we respond so enthusiastically to some concepts, but not to others? And why do so many challenges seem to skirt the bounds of rational behaviour?
We gathered the collective insights of marketers, academics and journalists to identify seven factors that define the success of so-called Viral Challenge Memes (VCMs).
1. Successful challenges naturally accommodate incremental change
The #Neknomnation challenge started in New Zealand in late 2013 and hit the Internet in early 2014. Participants were required to film themselves downing a pint of alcoholic beverage in a single gulp. The challenge spread quickly and is widely considered to be one of the world’s pioneering VCM’s.
Crucially, each #Neknomination participant was able to add a personal, innovative touch by changing either the liquid consumed or the manner of consumption. The concept was consistent, yet open to incremental personalisation, which is one of the most important structural features required for effective viral uptake. In the first two months of 2014 alone, #neknomination was mentioned 800 000 times on the Internet.
Later in 2014 the ALS ICE Bucket Challenge arrived in our lives and became perhaps the most widely recognised and understood social media challenge of all. Its structure was also suited to small changes by participants, but that wasn’t the only factor underpinning its success.
2. Celebrity involvement drives uptake
The ALS Ice Bucket challenge saw a stunning 19 million hashtag mentions from the beginning of July to the end of August 2014. The ALS part of the name refers to an organisation that supports research into and support services for people affected by Motor Neuron Disease. Donations resulting from the challenge are reported to have reached as much as $115 million.
Other good causes have tried to replicate the Ice Bucket Challenge, with varying degrees of success, while the much more frivolous but nonetheless celebrity fuelled Kylie Jenner Challenge (which involved sucking the air from a shot glass to create friction and a Kylie Jenner-like pout) reached more than 15 million mentions in April and May 2015 alone.
Clearly, celebrity presence can add rocket fuel to the challenge fire. Sometimes a charitable structure can push celebrities to become involved, and sometimes they’ll participate off their own bat. Regardless, when the influencers accept a nomination or are involved in the concept, conditions are good for viral spread.
3. No one wants to ‘arrive late’
Social science researchers at the University of Kent explored the social media challenge phenomenon in a 2017 paper, Prestige, Performance and Social Pressure in Viral Challenge Memes,  which included a survey of the opinions of social media challenge participators. One of the paper’s more intriguing propositions is that once a VCM has hit full steam its popularity means nominees increasingly feel they might actually lose social credibility by participating.
Take the Kiki challenge, for example, which saw 6.2 million hashtag mentions from 1 June – 31 August 2018, at an average of roughly 2 million mentions per month. Also known as the In My Feelings Challenge, Kiki involved jumping from a moving vehicle and dancing in the road to the tune of Drake’s “In My Feelings”. It all started when American comedian Shiggy posted an Instagram video (which didn’t actually involve a car – this only became a feature of the challenge after his friend, Odell Beckham Jr, danced in front of a vehicle). With celebrity participation and the ability to add incremental changes pretty much baked into the format, #Kiki was destined to outperform 2013’s The Harlem Shake (5.5 million mentions in February / March 2013). By October 2018, however, Kiki mentions were still all the way down to 500,000 and falling.
The rule is simple: as a challenge hits peak popularity we start to see participation in it as merely following the crowd – the opposite of cool. And so the wave breaks and loses power.
4. Social groups are excited by risky behaviour
Many social media challenges involve stunts that can cause physical harm. Wired Magazine examined why physical risk can be so compelling in a 2018 article that cites Damon Centola, associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of How Behaviour Spreads.
“Adopting dangerous behaviours is usually triggered by emotional excitement, which is amplified in crowds,” he says. On social media, mass comments, likes and shares easily trigger this state of group excitement, encouraging participation. Thus, if a challenge has just enough risk to create emotional excitement and participation, but not enough danger to make it implausible, it is likely to tap into our group instinct to be a little thrilled by danger.
It’s no accident, then (pun intended), that many of the biggest VCMs of the recent past test the bounds of human safety. In fact, the risk is part of what makes a challenge appealing to inherently excitable online groups.
5. Self-identity matters more than fame
Somewhat counter-intuitively, most challenge participants don’t actually want to break the Internet with incredible Harlem Shake or Kiki dance moves. Instead, our priority is more on connecting with peers by demonstrating a touch of personal style.
Prestige, Performance and Social Pressure in Viral Challenge Memes raises the idea that VCM participants feel some pressure to show their ‘skills’ by posting something ‘good enough’. This is an important notion that suggests most participants don’t want to stand out too much. Rather, they enjoy following the rules to communicate aspects of their personal identity within the social context of their peer group.
The Mannequin Challenge, which received 20 million mentions in the last two months of 2016, illustrates this dynamic. Started by students at Ed White High School in Jacksonville, USA, the challenge involved adopting sudden mannequin poses – essentially repeating the formula of the ‘Planking’ phenomenon of 2013. Sports teams and professional athletes loved the concept, and delivered a litany of Mannequin poses that reinforced fun and innovative aspects of their identity within the nuanced and localised social rituals of sport, friends and fans.
6. The media always plays a role – and sometimes takes over
The Tide Pod phenomenon took off in early 2018, challenging people to literally consume colourful laundry detergent pods. The concept is said to have arisen from an ironic article originally posted several years earlier in the satirical publication, The Onion. Soon after the Tide Pod Challenge appeared online, articles highlighting the poisonous nature of the detergent within the pods and warning of severe injury also appeared, including calls from relevant associations and stakeholders for participants – chiefly children, tweens and teenagers – not to respond to nominations.
However, as this article on Mashable explains, while cases of pod related poisoning rose dramatically in the USA, the numbers were still very low. Statistics from the American Association of Poison Control Centres show that 39 such cases were reported in the first 15 days of 2015. Yes, there were only 53 cases in the entire preceding year, but ultimately 39 cases from 40 million teenage Americans remains a small number.
Nonetheless, the Tide Pod hashtag gained 2 million mentions in the first two weeks of 2018. In this case, though, the mentions relate mostly to discussions around the idea of the challenge, rather than executions of the challenge itself. Also, the warning nature of extensive media coverage saw most sites taking down videos of Tide Pod consumption. When you search for Tide Pod Challenge videos today, the returns are almost always fakes– videos purporting to be Tide Pod Challenges that actually end up being a warning not to do participate.
7. We love riding the challenging wave because it's social
VCM participants generally have a strong feel for what the ‘range’ for their effort should be, including an instinctive sense of the reputation risks that come with pushing the boat out too far. This ingrained social instinct allows us to enjoy through the process even as we obey ingrained social rules. The authors of Prestige, Performance and Social Pressure in Viral Challenge Memes offer a neat summary:
“For most of the participants, negotiating these boundaries and tensions produced an enjoyable, creative and fleetingly shared moment. The latter point suggests another important feature of participation, namely an overarching desire to be part of the social.”
It’s this insight which, ultimately, defines why challenges are destined to remain a strong feature of social media. Despite all our well-founded anxiety about the changes our new digital lifestyles have wrought, most of us still relish the opportunity to share the fun with friends and family. And that’s probably a good thing.
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