As a kind reminder: you are not alone. This past week my Facebook feed has too been flooded with videos of bright, eager faces dumping large buckets of ice water over their heads and then nominating their friends to do the same. The reason for this psychosocial madness? To raise awareness and money for ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease colloquially known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The condition involves the breakdown of motor neuron cells which leads to the loss of muscle movement, the inability to speak and swallow, eventual paralysis, and death. It is a terrible disease that is estimated to affect around 30,000 Americans at any given time, leading to two deaths per hundred thousand population annually. The basic gist of the contest is this: people have 24 hours to donate money to the ALS cause or they have to douse themselves with a bucket of ice water. They must nominate any number of their friends to do the same, and so the contest spreads to an ever-widening audience. A similar competition which involved jumping into recently thawed bodies of water made the rounds earlier this spring called the Polar Plunge. Other causes have found similar viral success through mediums such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube.
There has been no shortage of rich and famous people who have taken this opportunity to champion the cause, for one reason or another. Those that have taken on the challenge or been nominated include news and TV personalities Matt Lauer and Martha Stewart, pop icon Justin Timberlake, MMA fighter Ronda Rousey, former N-SYNC member Lance Bass, the entire football team the New England Patriots and their head coach Bill Belichick, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the entire Clinton Family, and president Barack Obama, among others.
The Ice Bucket Challenge reportedly finds its origins in Massachusetts with former Boston College Baseball Player Pete Frates, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012. This is the story that is repeated in many media news outlets… however it doesn’t paint the whole picture. The challenge really began as a dare among a group of pro-athletes, including golfer Greg Norman and motorcycle racer Jeremy McGrath. The challenge was the same except the cause was any charity of your choice. It was essentially a large joke fueled by the omnipresent desire to see one’s friends do stupid things. Matt Lauer and other personalities have been criticized for not mentioning ALS in their challenges, however they joined before the cause transformed into being about the specific disease. The story, as most do, became rounder at the edges over time, and eventually became an outlet for altruism.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been effective. According to ALS Association Spokeswoman Carrie Munk, the ALS Association has raised $2.3 million since July 29, compared to $25,000 in the same period of time last year. “We have never seen anything like this in the history of the disease,” said Barbara Newhouse, President and CEO of The ALS Association. “We couldn’t be more thrilled with the level of compassion, generosity and sense of humor that people are exhibiting as they take part in this impactful viral initiative.”
At the same time, pieces in Time and Slate as well as other publications have chastised the challenge and the cause for being a surface-level approach to a complex issue, for tacking on the “donation” part as an afterthought, and for presenting donation as an alternative to being doused with cold water. They are, admittedly, valid points, but they end up casting shade on an issue that doesn’t care what they think.
It is very easy to get on a soapbox and complain about phenomena that get a lot of traction in pop culture, particularly ones that, on the surface, seem silly and meaningless. However if the end result is positive and the means to achieving that end are mildly annoying to a handful of members of our society, then the criticism falls rightly on deaf ears. For those who donate money, which is clearly many, ALS benefits. For those, who don’t, well… currently, ALS is a disease that is 100% fatal. There is no cure and no long-lasting treatment. According to the ALS Association, about half of Americans are uninformed about the disease. As Munk states, “The monetary contributions are amazing but there is so much value to the visibility that this is generating. It’s unquantifiable.” Her sentiments are echoed amongst other leadership in the community. “While the monetary donations are absolutely incredible,” said Newhouse, “the visibility that this disease is getting as a result of the challenge is truly invaluable. People who have never before heard of ALS are now engaged in the fight to find treatments and a cure for ALS.”
At worst, these contests perhaps don’t quite make the impact one would hope they would. They’re fun, but inconsequential. More importantly, they’re harmless. At best, they encourage awareness, a dialogue and can even illicit incremental change. I mean, I’m writing about it right now, and many people have spilled ink in the wake of this challenge like I have. The unfortunate fact is that, for many people, just donating the money alone isn’t enough. There aren’t tangible benefits and no one pats you on the back for being such a great person. It’s empty and superficially unrewarding. It’s a disappointing reality but it’s one that technology, social media and our subsequent demeanors have reinforced time and time again.
So yeah, maybe this approach to fighting causes is lazy, maybe the execution and the rhetoric aren’t perfect. But we must remember that change, however small, is rarely pretty. It takes on different forms and it shapes itself to its audience. In this case, we are a short-attention-span, fad-driven viral culture. The challenge reflects this, and it asks us to become aware anyway. As much as the hashtags, the virality, and the occasional apathy of it all bother me, I still view the Ice Bucket Challenge as a positive force. Begrudgingly, I join the wave. Screw it, #IceBucketChallenge.
“ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Takes U.S. by Storm.” ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Takes U.S. by Storm. The ALS Association, 12 Aug. 2014. Web. 13 Aug. 2014.
Davidson, Jacob. “We Need To Do Better Than the Ice Bucket Challenge.” Time. Time, n.d. Web. 13 Aug. 2014.
“Facts You Should Know.” – The ALS Association. The ALS Association, n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2014.
Keyes, Alexa. “Striking Out ALS: Ice Bucket Challenge Brings Flood of Donations – NBC News.” NBC News. NBC, 11 Aug. 2014. Web. 13 Aug. 2014.