By Dave Smith Special for USDR
It is often surprising what captures the imagination of the public or goes “viral” on the internet. Whether it’s the answer to one of life’s burning questions, world leaders laughingly taking “selfies” during solemn remembrances, demon sheep, or “Gangnam Style”, it can boggle the mind what takes the internet by storm. Fueled by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and an ever-increasing number of social media, crazes that formerly had to spread by word-of-mouth, person-by-person, now grow exponentially, sometimes to literally millions of people, without the inhibitor of proximity.
What’s not surprising is that businesses and charities have tried to create their own viral pathways. Why pay for advertising if people will spread the word for you, and do it for free? Charities in particular can benefit from this, as they don’t have the luxury of massive advertising budgets and Madison Avenue image makers. Before the internet, there was a time when it was just second nature to put a quarter in the cardboard March of Dimes displays at the checkout line, deposit coins in those space-age funnels, or participate in a “Bowl-a-Thon”.
In terms of creating awareness about a devastating disease and turning that awareness into financial support, the ALS Association has hit the (literal) jackpot with this summer’s viral craze: the “Ice Bucket Challenge”, where a person is dunked with ice water, then “challenges” friends (or enemies?) to do the same. Someone refusing the challenge is supposed to donate $100 to the ALS Association; the person being doused is expected to donate only $10 (or, in some versions of the challenge, no donation at all).
Those taking the challenge have included former President George W. Bush (who himself called out former President Clinton), Bill Gates, LeBron James, and Justin Bieber, showing that the gimmick has gained traction among a broad swath of celebrities as well as the general public. A search of the hashtag #IceBucketChallenge on Twitter shows an enormous interest, and videos of ice-drenched people (sometimes shouting profanities) are filling up Facebook timelines.
The result: between July 29 and August 21, the ALS Association received $41.8 million in donations, a twenty-fold increase over the same period in 2013. The craze has become iconic in the way Lance Armstrong’s LiveStrong bracelets – a staggering 80 million sold – did on their release in 2003 and their high-profile appearances in Tours de France.
The phenomenon is not without its detractors, however – no good deed can be allowed to go unpunished by the purveyors of Pecksniffian commentary. Participants in the activity have been accused of “slacktivism”, or decried as wanting nothing more than “piles of Facebook likes in return”. For one writer, engaging in this gimmicky form of spreading the word about a deadly disease involving the progressive atrophy of muscles (and raising funds to help its victims and perhaps find a cure) is nothing more than a “non-achievement” that involves “wasting several gallons of cold water” and is an exercise in “false pretext and self-congratulation”. Note that this particular writer makes sure that the reader is fully aware of his own donation, sans ice water; apparently, congratulating oneself by writing about one’s charitable donation in an online column is the proper form of self-promotion.
The fixation on the supposed “waste” of the world’s most plentiful resource is apparently not rare. In parts of California where drought is a serious issue, people are being asked to skip showers, and cities like Los Angeles have full time agents investigating water misuse. In such cases, it makes sense to be good stewards and conserve resources (although a single exercise of the challenge uses about as much water as two toilet flushes). However, there are some that see frivolous use of water as a bad idea writ large, going so far as to estimate the total number of gallons “wasted” by “privileged First World residents”, and claiming that such frivolity is an “an insult to the parts of the world that have little or no drinking water readily available” – as if somehow water used in an Ice Bucket Challenge were diverted from places where the resource is less plentiful.
There are others who see the challenge as an existential threat to overall charitable activity. One researcher accuses the exercise of “funding cannibalism”, stating that “if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities.” It’s the classic zero-sum argument that assumes static behavior, ignoring the good will of people who might use participation in the challenge as a springboard to greater philanthropic pursuits. It also ignores that the popularity of the Ice Bucket Challenge will spur innovation, as other charities look for more creative ways to generate awareness and money. Some will undoubtedly fail, but competition isn’t just good at sharpening the teeth of the profit-seeking saw.
Even the value of giving to an ALS-related charity has been challenged, based on the idea that there are relatively few people afflicted with this disease – according to the ALS Association, “as many as 30,000 Americans have the disease at any given time.” The same arguments were formerly used, however, against funding AIDS research. Decrying the time and attention spent on a debilitating disease on the basis of its relative rarity seems a rather callous calculus.
The success of the Ice Bucket Challenge has spurred interest in a disease previously most familiar to many people because of the baseball player for whom it is informally named, Lou Gehrig, or because of physicist Stephen Hawking. More important than just interest or “awareness”, the challenge has spawned a great philanthropic outpouring, certain to give hope and encouragement to those suffering from ALS and their families, and certain to provide financial assistance to those fighting the disease.
In spite of those benefits, there are detractors, proving that somewhere, somehow, there is always some cynic looking to turn that old familiar saying on its head: they’re taking lemonade and making lemons.