The Ice Bucket Challenge
Unless you've been living under a rock this summer, you've probably heard about the Ice Bucket Challenge by now—and how thousands of celebrities and ordinary people across the country are challenging each other via social media to make a video of themselves dumping ice water on their heads to raise money for research into ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
You've probably also heard the criticism of this novel fundraising campaign—that it's silly, that it's narcissistic, and that it's slacktivism. Not suprisingly, perhaps, many social good sector veterans worry that big, viral social media campaigns like this one, which require the participation of others online, are a terrible substitute for real, long-term involvement in a cause. But that's not all. Some drought-weary residents of California have been especially critical of the campaign, blasting organizers for wasting good water.
Vice News reporter Arielle Pardes put it this way: "There are a lot of things wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge, but most annoying is that it's basically narcissism masked as altruism."
Whoa! Before you think that everyone is throwing cold water on this blockbuster social media campaign (sorry)—or should—listen up.
1. The campaign is working. More than a million challenge videos have been posted on Facebook, the challenge has raised well over $6 million and counting to fight the disease, according to the ALS Association. Last year, says the association, they were happy to get a fraction of those donations.
2. This is philanthropy by the 99%. Before social media, philanthropy was mostly played offline and by the 1 percent, the high net-worth crowd. Now? Social media have brought everyone to the donor table, and online campaigns that can raise $5, $10, or $20 each from thousands (if not millions) of cause-wired do-gooders should be applauded. Five dollars here, 10 dollars there—pretty soon, it's enough money to make an impact.
3. Narcissistic? Maybe. But have you ever been to a philanthropy charity gala? Showing off for charity is hardly new—and not only online. Making a video selfie of yourself participating in a good cause, and having fun doing it, is not much different than elbowing your way into a charity gala and getting your photo taken for the society pages (or, for most of us, the nonprofit's Flickr pages). When people give money for good, they want a pat on the back for it. Showing off is something that big-money philanthropists have done for decades, and selfies are hard for anyone to resist. Why wouldn't Millennials do the same thing? Look at it this way: Bill Gates put his name on the Stanford University computer school building that his philanthropy enabled. My friend Lisa Sennis? Like thousands of Millennials over the past few days, she made a YouTube "selfie" of her getting ice-water poured over her head. She put her name on it, and shared it digitally. She also donated $100 to the ALS Association online and noted that, too—on her tweets and on Facebook. Granted, a YouTube video isn't the same as having your name on a building somewhere. But it's very definitely the same idea—a digital twist on philanthropy's centuries-old naming traditions. Give, get. Showing off is universal. [And Bill Gates also had a video made of himself getting soaked, which was viewed on YouTube more than 10 million times.]
4. And one more thing? The Ice Bucket Challenge is fun. It's been a long, dicey summer, pepper-sprayed with racial tension in Ferguson, Mo., a new terrorist group called ISIS, the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, more creepy data security leaks, and a weird-and-getting-weirder climate. Nothing wrong with chilling out for charity on a summer afternoon, right? Since the early 2000s, Millennials have been staging experience-based, group giving activities—from grow-a-beard contests for charity to shopping cart races that spectators place bets on for social good. Being surprised that something like the Ice Bucket Challenge can go viral means you haven't been paying attention. Young people, and all other socially-networked 99 percenters, are reshaping philanthropy and advocacy. They've been doing that for a while now. Embrace it. Be thrilled more people want to do something.
But just in case you're still wondering where we stand on this social media phenomenon, here's what we told NPR-Los Angeles earlier today, when they asked. Have a listen, and tell us what you think.
[Photograph: From the Bill Gates's YouTube video for the Ice Bucket Challenge]