Why Did the Ice Bucket Challenge Go Big? Boston

According to new data from Facebook, about 15 million people have encountered the fundraising game.
Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon undertook the ice bucket challenge earlier this week. ( The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon/Facebook )

Where did the ice bucket challenge came from?

Since the beginning of June, the viral fundraising game has spread across social timelines and late-night talk shows. According to Facebook, more than 15 million people have posted, commented, or liked a post about the challenge. It has raised more than $2.3 million to support research to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

The challenge’s premise is straightforward. Someone challenges you to the ice bucket challenge. You then must either donate to a charity that funds research to fight amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or dump a bucket of ice water on your head. Then you challenge other people, and the game runs on.

But there’s been some lack of clarity about the origins of the craze.

New data from the Facebook data science team heavily supports one theory: that the ice bucket challenger originated with Peter Frates, a former captain of the Boston College baseball team. Frates is 29 years old, and he was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. 

After Frates posted his ice bucket challenge video on July 31, the challenge took off. As the chart below shows, of the more than 15 million who have posted, commented, or liked a post about the challenge, roughly 9 million did so in the past week.


Cumulative Number of Users Posting, Commenting, or Liking a Post About the Ice Bucket Challenge 

Facebook

But why does the Facebook data team think the challenge originated with Frates? 

It’s circumstantial evidence, but a great deal of ice bucket challenge data is situated around Frates’s home of Boston. Here’s a map of the northeastern U.S.—each line represents at least 10 ice bucket challenges, connecting nominees and their nominators. Boston is undoubtedly the most active area, with strong ties to other East Coast cities where the challenge took off. (And note the size of the activity splotch in Boston relative to the much more populated New York City, for example.)


Facebook

The case for Boston-as-origin gets more compelling after examining a map of the contiguous United States. Boston is clearly the most active area in the country, the origin of the most challenges, with many traveling all the way across the country. 


Facebook

Maps like these overstate the importance of continent-wide connections: Someone challenging three people in their own town won’t appear as dramatically as someone challenging three people across the country. But they help with some rudimentary analysis, and this one makes clear that Boston is the locus of the challenge.

According to Facebook, the most popular posts about the ice bucket challenge over all came from Blake Shelton, Darius Rucker, Jimmy Fallon, and—here’s Boston again—the New England Patriots. 

Facebook—and many other social companies—periodically release data about its users en masse to highlight interesting trends and to receive positive press coverage. In February, Facebook shared what it sees when its users fall in love; last fall, Foursquare showed how the habits of its users changed in D.C. as the government shutdown dragged on. These big data dumps should also be a reminder that Facebook can see many things about us—very often details that are less splashy than a bucket of ice water, but revealing in ways we'll never know.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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