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 Sorry To Be A Wet Blanket, But Ice Bucket Challenge Is A Gimmick

Sorry To Be A Wet Blanket, But Ice Bucket Challenge Is A Gimmick

A version of this column ran in The Virginian-Pilot on August 13, 2014


Reason No. 799 to loathe social media: the ice bucket challenge.

If you're on Facebook or Twitter or surf YouTube, you've probably been exposed to this latest example of narcissism masquerading as charity. If not, consider yourself blessed.

The campaign is almost as cringe-inducing as the take-a-sad-picture-of-yourself-holding-a-handwritten-sign-that-reads #BringBackOurGirls that was all the rage back in April after Boko Haram terrorists kidnapped about 270 schoolgirls in Nigeria.

Even first lady Michelle Obama took part in that effort, which seemed to operate on the naive assumption that monsters who abduct children would mend their ways if they saw lots of people frowning on Twitter.

Let's be honest. That Twitter campaign had one goal: To draw attention to the person in the picture. She or he went to the trouble of writing a sign. And posing for a photo.

Oh, the splendid selflessness of it all. What a marvelous, caring person.

Once the hashtag campaign ran out of gas – these things have a half-life of about four weeks – most people forgot all about the Nigerian girls. In case you're interested, NBC recently reported that about 60 have escaped and about 210 of these young women are still missing.

In other words, the Twitter movement failed.

But who cares? Social media has moved on. Hundreds – if not thousands – seem to believe they're doing something for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis by slopping buckets of ice water over their heads.

These are mostly adults, by the way.

For those in the dark, here's how it works: You get someone to film as you or someone else dumps a bucket of icy water over your head. Sort of like the Gatorade baths that football coaches receive after a big win.

Next, you "nominate" three others to do the same. If they decline the challenge, they're supposed to donate to ALS research. Oh, and you scream something like "I'm doing this for ALS!" as the cubes bounce off your cranium.

Then you post the video on social media so all your friends can admire you.

In a Slate piece promoted as "Stop Dumping Ice on Your Head. Just Give Money," Will Oremus claimed that the ice bucket challenge initially had nothing to do with the disease that killed Lou Gehrig. In fact, it started with pro golfers who were just trying to incite their friends to do stupid things.

By the time Matt Lauer of NBC's "Today" show got wet last month, Oremus says the host was supposed to either dump water on his head or give $100 to his challenger's favorite charity.

Lauer got doused and he donated. To a hospice.

It was live TV and amusing. At least to people who watch television early in the morning.

Now, the campaign has morphed into something designed to draw attention to ALS, a truly terrible disease. According to the ALS Association's website, as many as 30,000 Americans could be living with this grim, degenerative illness. Fifteen new cases are diagnosed every day.

The ice bucket challenge has turned out to be a bonanza for the charity.

"The ALS Association told Fox Boston that it has raised $1.35 million in the past two weeks," Oremus reported. "It raised just $22,000 in the same period last year."

That's impressive.

In recent years, nonprofits have gotten very good at encouraging folks to engage in stunts to get others to open their wallets. Who hasn't been asked to sponsor a runner for charity?

In that sense, the ice bucket challenge is just another harmless fundraiser.

But the look-at-me aspect of it – combined with all the unbridled braggadocio and faux humility that permeate every corner of social media – makes it tedious and gimmicky.

Oremus suggests giving to charity and urging friends to do the same. Without ice water or video.

I'll go one better: Try giving anonymously to charity, for a change. See how good that feels.

While you're at it, spare the rest of us your embarrassing ice-bucket videos.

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