The Ice Bucket Challenge isn't slacktivism

The Ice Bucket Challenge isn't slacktivism

Facebook exploded this past week with the “ice bucket challenge,” which asks people to film themselves dumping water on their heads or to donate $100 to support ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) research charities. Then they nominate three more people to do the same.

Obviously, some people ignore the challenge, as they are totally allowed to do, and others don’t have enough money, so they dump ice on their head. Others, like me, have neither a bucket nor $100 to spare, and pray quietly that no one nominates them.

Others still have been getting on the internet in droves and posting pictures like this:

…and just generally decrying it as “slacktivism.”

The clean water joke is mostly that, a joke, because most people that have shared that meme presumably flush the toilet when they pee and not just when they poop, and thus waste clean water for purposes even less noble than raising money for a charity on a far more frequent basis than the ice bucket challengers. Or maybe they’ve been to a water park or a swimming pool before. Either way, “wasting water” isn’t a complaint that holds any water (ha!) with the ice bucket challenge, considering there are far more mundane wastes of water out there.

As for those who call it slacktivism, they’re just wrong. It’s not slacktivism. It’s not even activism: it’s philanthropy with a gimmick. And it’s a particularly effective gimmick: the ALS Association says that it has received nearly $12 million more than they received in the same period last year as a result of the ice bucket challenge. So kudos to the ice bucket challenge people for figuring out a clever way to raise money.

The internet, as always, is flooded with cynics, and sometimes, they’re right: the Kony 2012 video was a particularly bad example of slacktivism, where sharing something on social media was mistaken for actual political action, and where the political ends of the campaign were poorly thought out in the first place. And “liking” Gay Rights doesn’t bring about gay rights: actual political action does.

But charities shouldn’t be condemned for finding a way to hack the short attention span of the internet and to turn it into a sudden influx of funds. And that’s the way of the internet: to take anything attempting to make a positive change, and to cynically chew it up and spit it out. Usually, there’s an element of truth in the cynicism, but with the ice bucket challenge, the cynicism has finally overstepped a bit and has simply revealed itself as cynicism: the challenge actually is making a difference for those charities, and that affects real world change.

Most of the claims about the challenge are at the very least exaggerated: complaining that people would “rather dump a bucket of ice water on their head than donate to a charity” ignores the fact that many people do both in order to both raise money and spread the message. And if people decide to dump the ice water on their head instead of donating, so what? They could have just as easily ignored their challenge and broken the chain, which would cut off the possibility of someone else down the line donating that money. Any harmless act that results in an uptick of philanthropic giving is a positive act.

Other complaints are patently ludicrous: Vice claimed it was an excuse for people to show off their beach bodies, and that’s why it took off: “it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism.” Leaving aside the fact that the inclusion of the word “narcissism” in any article discussing a millennial trend is getting incredibly boring, let’s assume for a minute that it is simply narcissism: good. Narcissists are the worst, most of the time, and if the ice bucket challenge gets them to do something that is at least nominally in service of others, than maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

Another complaint is that the ice bucket challenge is cannibalizing money from other charities, and this is just a little bit over-the-top. First off, there’s nothing stopping an ice bucket challenger giving money to any charity: ice buckets aren’t specific to ALS in any tangible way. Second, the summer months are traditionally dry periods for charities, so many of the ice bucket dumpers were likely not donating to charity anyway.

Slacktivism is an issue in the internet world, and it is a real thing. But internet cynics tend to think internet activists are far dumber than they are: during the DOMA decision, they were annoyed that many people on Facebook changed their profile pictures to the HRC’s equal sign, claiming that “changing your profile picture doesn’t influence the supreme court.” Which no one who changed their picture really thought: the equal sign was a symbol of solidarity, not an impetus of change. They’re doing the same now: assuming that ice bucket challengers are all miserly narcissistic slacktivists rather than well-meaning people who have found a fun way to give.

Featured Photo Courtesy of the University of Central Arkansas.

Let's start doing new stuff with balls

Let's start doing new stuff with balls

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