The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: An Afterthought

November 24, 2014 / by / 0 Comment

I’m sure almost everyone reading this has heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, unless you lived under a rock this summer, or didn’t have access to news media or social networks. Either way, here’s a brief: Aimed to raise awareness and funds for the disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the challenge required participants to either douse themselves in a bucket of ice water, or donate US$100 to the ALS Association for cure research. The clincher of the challenge? If you choose to drown yourself in ice water, then you’d upload a video of it on some kind of social media – Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, Twitter, etc. The challenge got its start from Peter This challenge spread far and wide: it became its own unique global phenomenon for a couple of months (June-September), and almost everyone was participating, including celebrities, politicians, and public figures – many of whom also donated large amounts of money.  However, while this challenge had significant meaning and an even more significant social impact, I was struck by the sheer superficiality of it.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and is fatal with no identified cure. ALS kills 2 in every 100 000 people, and only 20% of patients survive beyond five years.

I must’ve seen countless ALS challenge videos, captioned with the generic description of what ALS is and how to donate, but as I started writing the previous paragraph, I still opened up the ALS Wikipedia page for a few extra specifics on the disease…and I’m not too proud of myself right now. As a social experiment, I asked five people sitting around me approximately how many ice bucket challenges they’ve seen…their answers ranged from between 35-60 videos. But when I asked them to tell me about the disease, I received blank faces and blanker answers.

The challenge was aimed at spreading awareness about the disease and died down about three months ago, but today most people who actually participated in the challenge still don’t know much about it.

When did charity become about the giver? What is the point of helping someone, or some cause, if you’re doing it to receive appraisal or attention from the people on your Facebook friends list?

Most people I know did the challenge and didn’t donate the money (though a few gems silently donated money without uploading any videos, or donated AND uploaded their videos). But for some people, the videos became about demonstrating their creativity, “courage”, or stupidity – each with their own reasoning. One of the worst explanations I heard for the video-making was that pouring cold water on your head is supposed to mirror the loss of motor functions that ALS patients face (and if you do a quick YouTube search for ALS Challenge Fails, you’ll very quickly see what I mean about the stupidity).

But – and this is absolutely crucial – no one  can discredit the movement in terms of money raised. In total, the ice-bucket challenge made almost US$22.9 million – a truly incredible figure. Celebrities and public figures donated much more than the US$100 – many donating as much as US$100 000 (Leonardo DiCaprio!). Five years ago, charity runs used to mean bake-sales, lemonade stands, garage sales, clothing drives, sponsored silences, etc. But how many bake-sales have ever raised US$22.9 million?

And on an even more important note, awareness was indeed raised for the disease. Most people hadn’t heard the acronym “ALS” before the summer, and now they do know of the disease. Of course, most don’t know the details of the disease, but at the very least at least they acknowledge its existence, and hopefully, also its perils.

My head was bouncing between these two ideas: the attention people gave themselves for a cause that should’ve been focusing on people who were receiving the donations vs. the staggering amount of money the challenge made. I can point in disdain at the obsession people had with getting views/likes on their ice-bucket challenge videos, but the fact remains that the amount of money raised is pretty staggering – it truly is amazing, and I sincerely hope the money which goes into ALS cure research makes a difference. Ten years ago, the world could never have come together to raise money for a singular cause in such a unified and optimistic manner.

It still doesn’t change the fact, though, that thousands of people participating in the challenge, really didn’t care for the cause. They took part because their friends and family were doing it, or because it was a charming new trend. In short, for many (not all though), the need for attention superseded the importance of their intentions.

The challenge’s success also brings up the power of social media in our lives today. The internet has, I’m pretty sure, never seen social media inducing this much revolutionary change for a social issue before. I was amazed by the capacity Facebook/Instagram/Youtube showed during the months of the challenge. We didn’t have this kind of outlet till recently, so this new method of raising money was especially compelling.

But then again, if everyone’s energy went into the ‘fad’ or ‘trend’ of the ALS challenge, will using social media in this manner be undermined in the future? Have people already gotten bored of the style of  this movement? I wouldn’t be surprised if something like this never works again. Don’t we always want new ideas to captivate our attention? If that’s the case, was the challenge ever actually about ALS patients?

I know there are several factors/perspectives/issues regarding the challenge I haven’t acknowledged – both good, and bad. But I wanted to focus on the ultimate question of whether or not the means, or intentions, justify the ends. I could continue bouncing back the moral question of the challenge in my head, but the numbers don’t lie – the challenge was a massive financial success, people are aware of the disease’s existence, and the money raised could end up changing countless lives.

Yet, once again – when did charity become about the giver? I don’t think I’ll ever understand this.

What are your thoughts on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Did you choose to participate? Why/why not?  Share your experiences, ideas, and emotions. Tell us in the comments section below.

And if you’d like to make a difference without wasting a bucket of water, check out the Rice Bucket Challenge from the link below and please do this -  or its equivalent - in your community, for no attention, or appraisal in return.


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