The so-called “ice bucket challenge” is a public awareness campaign uniquely suited to the social media age.
The challenge itself is pretty simple — not that I need to tell you, since you’ve probably seen it in your Facebook feed half a dozen times, yourself. A friend nominates you to participate; you donate $100 to a charity working on the incurable, degenerative disease ALS or film yourself dumping a bucket of ice water on your head; you nominate some more friends; the cycle continues.
Let’s be clear: The cycle is tiresome. It’s stupid. It’s primarily intended, by all accounts, to let the challenger (a) exhibit his altruism publicly and (b) show off how good he or she looks soaking wet. But it also … works. It works well, in fact.
The ALS Association, the nation’s largest ALS charity, says it’s raised $1.35 million in the past two weeks, versus a paltry $22,000 in the same period last year. Project ALS, a New York-based non-profit that funds ALS research, told the Post it’s received nearly 50 times the donations it usually gets this time of year — typically “a slow month in the non-profit world.”
“It’s been incredible,” said Erin Fleming, the group’s associate director. “We are somewhat shocked at how many people are ‘putting their money where their mouths are’ for this challenge — in our experience, it’s difficult for awareness campaigns to translate into dollars, but the ice bucket challenge has certainly succeeded on both fronts.”
In other words: Hey haters, this might annoy the heck out of you every time you log into Facebook or Vine … but it’s producing actual results for organizations battling a crippling neurodegenerative disease.
Granted, the results differ a bit from what Project ALS usually sees. Fleming said the average donation per person has been substantially lower than average, perhaps because “many of the donors don’t have a vested interest in the disease.” She also can only hope that donors will maintain interest in her non-profit, and in ALS in general, once the novelty and virality have faded.
Based on the experience of viral hashtags like #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls, that seems unlikely. Viral causes flare up and burn out, leaving little but think pieces in their wake.
But the ice bucket challenge demonstrates a very specific, narrow use case where viral activism can legitimately do good. Maybe it’s not raising real awareness about ALS, as Will Oremus points out at Slate. (“Few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used.”) And certainly, many challengers are little more than social media exhibitionists, masquerading as something a little bit nobler. (Wrote Kara Brown at Jezebel: “[it helps] those participating feel very good about themselves and all the good goodness they’re doing.”)
But “awareness” and “exhibitionism” are squishy, unquantifiable concepts. Money, on the other hands, is concrete. And the ice bucket challenge has generated lots of it.
“We’ve seen an explosion in donations in the past week,” Fleming said. Per Project ALS, 89 percent of those funds will go directly to research and educational programs — including ground-breaking stem cell and gene silencing research that could provide the first therapy for the disease.
If that means a couple dumb bucket posts in my Facebook feed, I’m alright with that.