Eustace v Baumgartner – The Difference that a Social Media Campaign Makes

Last week, Google Senior Vice President Alan Eustace broke the world record for the world’s highest sky dive, leaping from an altitude of 135,890 feet, breaking the previous world record by 7790 feet. While excitedly reported by news outlets worldwide, this grand achievement has been met with relatively little fanfare from the general public.

Contrast this with the last time the record was broken, some two years ago by professional sky diver Felix Baumgartner. Certainly, his jump was more of a historical event – it had been some 52 years since the previous record had been set by Joseph Kittinger in 1960. Yet, that should make it even more impressive that within two years, technology and knowledge have progressed to the point where the record could be broken again.

The difference is in the publicity, not just during the jump, but beforehand. Red Bull’s widespread social media presence, blogging, tweeting etc. ensured that it was viewed live by over 9.5 million users, setting a record for the “live stream with the most concurrent views ever on YouTube”, making it a major publicity stunt for YouTube’s then relatively new and frequently bug-plagued service. The event trended on every social media platform going, particularly twitter with thousands of tweets under the hashtags #felibaumgartner and #stratos (not linked to here as this hashtag has since been overtaken by other trends).

His sponsors were also able to paint Baumgartner as a daredevil everyman in the public view, a good-looking, likeable athlete living the Red Bull dream. Alan Eustace may be a wonderful person and his achievement is certainly great, it’s unfortunately hard to portray one of Google’s top people as anything other than rich and entitled, unless there is effort in the media to portray him as such. The public opinion is even noticeable on the video of Eustace’s jump, with people criticising his efforts and diving technique compared to Baumgartner’s, or being outright skeptical of his record claim – after all, how could a google employee have made the jump if there is only a rough, low-quality upload on YouTube, watched by a mere 50,000 or so people compared to the millions on Red Bull’s vide?o (not even counting it’s many re-uploads, recuts etc.) Eustace’s jump seems to be a personal goal, which is great, but it means that ultimately the average person, when asked about sky diving records, will certainly remember Felix Baumgartner more clearly.

Good related reading: Multimodality in Transmedia Narrative: Red Bull Stratos by Lucy Turner looks at how Red Bull’s online campaign drew people into the story before and during the event.

Social Media Charity Campaigns

Having been working in social media and PR for a charity for the last few months, I know how much the ALS Ice Bucket challenge was at the forefront of everyone’s minds and twitter accounts. It was certainly a triumph of social media, a phenomena that spread around the world and raised awareness of a disease rarely discussed in the media. Willow Wood Hospice, where I work, has always taken patients with Motor Neurone Disease, known in the US as Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) so we were the benefactor of a number of Ice Bucket Challenges. (Incidently, the name of the challenge itself caused not a few issues, since the condition has different names in different countries. A number of people that I spoke to did not seem to realise that they were in fact the same disease.)

I recently read Matthew Sherrington’s ‘The ice bucket challenge has been the cause of a great deal of bitchiness‘ article, which raises some great points on how people doing the challenge might open them up to doing more charity fundraising, even if the cause itself did not leave a lasting effect on them. It’s an interesting look into what motivates people to do charity events through social media – Sherrington’s view is that a lot of the time it isn’t sheer altruism that motivates them – it’s the peer pressure, and the feeling of being part of something bigger and exciting that makes people want to be involved.

From a charity perspective this is both good and bad. These people are donating, and the charities are getting the money and exposure. Yet at the same time,  there’s no lasting benefit, as the hive mind of hashtags moves onto something new and stops giving you money. Also, there may be little attempt to actually understand what your charity or cause is trying to do, and the message may be lost as the idea spreads. There’s also a worry of causes being ‘highjacked’ in some way – even accidently (See: when Cancer Research UK’s text donate number during #nomakeselfie was rather similar to Unicef’s) or people being encouraged to support a cause without looking into whether it is worthwhile. The spectre of Kony 2012 still looms large.

I also understand both the concern of charities who might benefit from hashtag activism but fear the potential backlash and the concern of onlookers, who feel it’s very easy to whip up online support for a cause on platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr, which are geared for the easy spread of catchy campaigns but not for the detailed information needed for an informed decision.

Sherrington’s article does address these issues, but most importantly he ends by asking reader not to be ‘snobby’ about people’s reasoning for donating to a cause – it is more important that the cause is supported in any way possible.