Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Ice Bucket Challenge

by Melissa Scott, Writing Intern

The Ice Bucket Challenge dominates social media. Everyone, from Justin Timberlake to Ethel Kennedy, poured a bucket of ice water over their head, then challenged others do the same, or else make a donation to fight ALS.  Once a person or group is challenged, they have 24 hours to complete the task.

Countless videos of people dumping ice water over their heads continue to clog my Facebook newsfeed. #icebucketchallenge.

I only just realized that the Ice Bucket Challenge is purposed for combatting ALS or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. My confusion about the specific target of the challenge derived from emphasis placed in the videos. Few people explain the challenge’s purpose in their videos. The ones who do, rush through the introduction, eager to list the newly nominated friends and reach the cold-water action. Even celebrities forget this most important piece of the challenge. 

Matt Lauer’s Ice Bucket Challenge--broadcast on the Today Show—did not include a reference to ALS at all. I Googled "ALS" to understand what it was, and to appreciate the seriousness of the disease.

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
In addition to the lack of emphasis on ALS itself, the whole act of the ice bucket dumping is contradictory. The challenge provides two choices: 1) either douse yourself in freezing water within 24 hours of nomination, or 2) donate $100 to ALS research. 

The ALS Association officially describes the rules, “The challenge involves people getting doused with buckets of ice water on video, posting that video to social media, then nominating others to do the same, all in an effort to raise ALS awareness. Those who refuse to take the challenge are asked to make a donation to the ALS charity of their choice.”

In theory, the freezing water is an incentive to donate the money, since donating could be the more viable and comfortable option of the two, for many people. Those who choose the ice bucket are supposedly choosing not to donate the money. Judging by social media posts, the non-donors make up a sizable group. This is fun, and engaging, but the goal of the challenge is the contributions and awareness, not the viral social media fame.

I won’t deny the ALS Association’s success in raising awareness. The sudden and viral nature of the challenge videos demonstrates this. Those who participate, at the very least, contribute to spreading awareness, even without donating. The challenge-acceptors, who neglect to acknowledge ALS’s importance in their videos, at least spark enough interest in others.  Those others might go on to do the relevant research. 

But I doubt that lighthearted videos and tweets of wet participants smiling and laughing helps their cause much. ALS awareness might be the ostensible aim, but the Ice Bucket Challenge videos tend to feature people promoting only themselves. My reproach quavers, however, when I look at how much money the challenge actually helped raise to further ALS research.

Questionable publicity aside, the Ice Bucket Challenge amassed $4 million over the last two weeks, as opposed to the $1.1 million raised in the same period last year. In fact, ALS Association-wide donations broke a single-day record this week with a whopping $1.9 million! So while the high activity of the ice buckets should indicate that people choose not to donate, the numbers show otherwise.

Some people, like Jimmy Fallon, publicly announced their choice to commit to both options – they get drenched, but still donate. Others, such as President Obama, preferred to donate to ALS and stay dry.  Knowing that this money goes toward treating people with an incurable and deadly disease, has slowed my criticism of the challenge. I’ve decided that the ends justify the means in this case.

A friend nominated me, via Facebook. I’ve already mentally planned the water dumping, and my nominations. I fell into the same trivial trap of staging my awesome challenge, for social media me.  I do plan to donate the suggested $100, and now I understand the benefits of that donation. If the Ice Bucket Challenge trend ultimately helps others, does it really matter if social media frivolity is a by-product?


  1. This is so true! We all want to be seen contributing to youtube ...not sure who is contributing to the charity!
    Altruistic idea but as usual we have to have fame and fun for doing a good deed.


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