It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single creative idea in possession of some mainstream traction immediately becomes a bullseye for detractors. 

So, I’m sure you all have been seeing the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” videos flying around your social media feeds to raise awareness and funds to help combat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, leading to lack of muscle control and paralysis. Basically, the challenge goes like this: You are challenged to either make a video of yourself having ice water dumped on you and donating $25 to the ALS charity of your choice, or you don’t accept the challenge of making the video, and you donate $100. You then nominate three other people to take on the challenge, and they have the same choice to make – and on and on.

As is inevitable with any information that travels virally, bits got lost in translation. Some forgot to mention the disease they were doing this for in their videos. Others forgot to mention the fact that they were donating, in addition to mentioning that those who don’t do the video have to donate more. It happens. But on the whole, it was a great way to get ALS in the national conversation in a way it hasn’t been, possibly since Lou Gehrig.

From a press release at the ALS Foundation website (emphasis mine):

Between July 29 and today, August 12, The ALS Association and its 38 chapters have received an astonishing $4 million in donations compared to $1.12 million during the same time period last year. The ALS Association is incredibly grateful for the outpouring of support from those people who have been doused, made a donation, or both. Contributions further The Association’s mission to find a cure for ALS while funding the highest quality of care for people living with the disease.

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.”

With only about half of the general public knowledgeable about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, the Ice Bucket Challenge is making a profound difference. Since July 29, The Association has welcomed more than 70,000 new donors to the cause.

So the organization that stands to benefit the most from this viral giving-fest is thrilled at both the amount of donations they’ve received (four times what they received at the same time last year), and are seeing that people are now getting engaged in the fight against ALS. What could be wrong with that? 

A lot, according to internet critics.

Matt Lauer participates in the Ice Bucket Challenge on the Today Show.

This article, #IceBucketChallenge: Why You’re Not Really Helping by Ben Kosinski at the Huffington Post, has gotten almost as much viral traction as the challenge itself. I read it, and it pissed me off. Particularly this bit: 

And although the ALS Assocation has seen as much as four times as many donations during this time period than last year, just imagine with me for one second: What if the thousands of people who spent money on buying one or two2 bags of ice actually gave that money to ALS? It would be out of control.

I love how that statement has to start by totally discounting the increase in donations to the ALS Foundation. So…the challenge is a bad idea, because we should be imagining what people who wouldn’t have even thought about ALS without hearing about the Ice Bucket Challenge would’ve donated instead of buying bags of ice for the challenge they wouldn’t have heard of if this challenge didn’t exist?


Look, the only reason why we’re even HAVING this conversation; the only reason why people even have a hook for cynical articles about how challenges like this don’t work is because of challenges like this WORKING. (Wanna get cynical? How about writers writing articles railing against something popular just for the web hits?) The fact is, the ALS Foundation has gotten a buttload of money, and has gotten people talking about a disease that hasn’t been talked about in any kind of a mainstream, high-profile way in FOREVER. Because let’s be honest – how many of us have given a second thought to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in the last, I don’t know, EVER?

Also, ice is super-cheap. If you’re only giving the amount of the ice you would’ve bought, I hope you’re mailing them cash, because otherwise it’s not worth the credit card processing fee. And lots of people have ice machines in their refrigerators, or – I don’t know – got ice out of their multiple ice trays. You don’t have to spend money AT ALL to do this challenge.

Also-also, I don’t know what kind of high-maintenance, perfectionist friends this writer has, but no one I know did multiple takes of their video or bought more than 2 bags of ice, tops. This isn’t a major motion picture.

The Ice Bucket Challenge on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

Here are some other common complaints, and my retorts:

1) Why don’t you just give to charity without throwing the spotlight on yourself? 

Of course people are free to do that, but it is not inherently wrong to do so publicly. The idea that everyone needs to give to charity modestly or it doesn’t count is absolutely ludicrous. Charities and non-profits COUNT on people talking about their donations in order to get others to donate. If you’re not telling people that you’re donating to a cause you care about, I would argue that YOU’RE NOT DOING HALF YOUR JOB. If you really care about a cause, wouldn’t you want to shout it from the rooftops to get other people to do it, too?

It’s all very well and good to say “Why don’t you just give to charity without the spotlight on you?” But the fact is, people don’t, and I ‘m not being critical when I say this. There are SO many charities for SO many different causes. Who do you give to? How often? Which cause do you support? There’s so much going on in the world, so many things wrong, that people often get stuck in a holding pattern of helplessness and don’t do anything. What this challenge did is get lots of people OUT of that holding pattern and donating to the ALS Foundation, regardless of the amount. “Giving to charity” can mean lots of things – and non-profits have to fight for people’s attention somehow, especially when we’re not in the Holiday Season when people are more likely to think about charitable giving. I think this viral campaign is genius. This campaign did its job – raising awareness and funds – I think nit-picking people’s intentions is unnecessarily cynical, and  trying to talk about hypothetical funds that could’ve been raised had this challenge not existed is just silly.

2) Don’t you know there’s a drought (in CA)? Don’t you know that there are people around the world who don’t have water – and you’re just gonna waste it?!

Don’t ever wash your car again. Each person doing this challenge is only doing it once. You, however, will use a crapton of water washing your car over the course of its life. Also, how do you know what this person is doing with their water otherwise? They might do this challenge, but also not leave the water running while brushing their teeth. They might “let it mellow.” They might soap all the dishes in their sink first before turning the water on to rinse them. You have no idea how they use water, so you’re in no position to talk to people about wasting it.

Also, yes, CA is going through a serious drought right now. But this challenge is a national one.

3) This is just an example of Slacktivism!

I HATE THAT WORD. Oh, my God. I hate that word with the fury of a thousand suns. The idea that spreading information about an important cause is useless infuriates me, probably because I’m a writer who makes a living spreading valuable information, and I know several writers who do amazing jobs educating people about important causes, and in doing so are activists. If you’re criticizing “armchair activism,” you’re basically pissing on my whole career, so thanks for that.

But seriously, what did you think was happening before social media? Do you think your average person was more active? NO! Not only were they not any more active or charitable than they are now, but they often just didn’t know about a lot of causes if they weren’t being promoted through mainstream media. At least now, in the time it takes them to retweet, or share, or whatever, they are thinking about whatever the cause is. The fact that they’re bothering to share the information at ALL already indicates that it’s something important to them. Once they’ve done that, what usually follows is some sort of conversation about their post through either people “liking” their post, or asking them questions about it, or agreeing with them. Very often, these small acts lead to bigger involvement for that cause later, AND it helps in the education of more people on a cause’s behalf.

Don’t believe me? Check out this article in the Washington Post about a study out of the University of British Colombia about how “slacktivism” actually works.

My point is this, there’s some people out there trying to do good stuff. Don’t you have anything better to complain about in the world than the fact that they might not be doing good stuff right? And I get it – sometimes people thinking they’re doing good can be problematic, like young, white people engaging in voluntourism.

But criticizing people for not doing enough just because the way they choose to engage is disseminating information? (revolutionaries have a long history of handing out flyers. They can now pass out flyers across continents!) Criticizing people for not going the lengths to which you would go (hypothetically)? Criticizing people for getting too much attention for helping?

Why not channel that angry, cynical energy toward a cause YOU care about? Stop yucking other people’s yums! 🙂