The Technical Secret To The Success Of The Ice Bucket Challenge

Saved you a click: autoplay.

The Technical Secret To The Success Of The Ice Bucket Challenge
[Photo: Flickr user Anthony Quintano]

One unconsidered factor in all the thinkpiecing about why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral is autoplay videos. The #challenge, which has so far raised more than $50 million for the ALS Association, would not have succeeded to the extent that it has without one of the most annoying features on the Internet.


Consider the experience of scrolling through Facebook the last couple of weeks. A video of a half-naked person standing in a backyard pops up and starts playing without any prompting, sans sound. Maybe you ignore the first one, and don’t even get to the bucket part. But then another with a similar template pops up. You let it play a little longer and see a human being dumping a bucket of water on his head. Curiosity piqued, you restart the video, this time with volume.

Autoplay video got your attention.

Since Facebook started rolling out autoplay videos in December, twice as many people watch videos on the social network. It’s hard not to attribute that increase at least in part to the introduction of autoplay, which draws attention to something that otherwise might pass by in the blur of your News Feed. They’re hard to ignore: They move without any prompting, something not even GIFs do on the platform. (People have likened the experience to seeing the magic newspapers in Harry Potter.) And because the clips default to play muted, a much-welcome feature, users have to “engage” to get the full experience. They’re clickbait.

That phenomenon, by the way, is why marketers love autoplay videos: They get people to watch things they otherwise would gloss over.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, however, popped up at the perfect time for video on Facebook. As of June this year, about a month before the first ever IBC video was uploaded, Facebook started considering “whether someone has watched a video and for how long they watched it” as one of the factors in determining what shows up on the feed, in addition to likes, comments, and shares, according to a recent post.

The result of that technical tweak: “People who tend to watch more video in News Feed should expect to see more videos near the top of their Feed.” Within the context of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, ice buckets begat more ice buckets.


Of course, there were other factors that led the ALS awareness videos in particular to go viral, as pundits and academics have pointed out. It has the perfect combination of emotion, challenge, and social currency, as Wharton professor Jonah Berger explained. “It’s almost like a duel: You’re calling out a friend of yours and it’s very hard for the friend to say no. It’s a signal of who they are, so they want to step up to the challenge,” said Berger. “It’s almost the best type of chain letter in that respect.”

If nobody reads a chain letter, does it exist? For the Ice Bucket Challenge, autoplay meant there was no way to escape it.

About the author

Rebecca Greenfield is a former Fast Company staff writer. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Wire, where she focused on technology news.