Why does the Ice Bucket Challenge work?

Underlying the craze is a sense of community

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Amid the cacophony of voices that come into our lives asking us to learn about a problem, to care about it and ultimately to contribute money to help fix it, few causes have been as successful as the Ice Bucket Challenge. 

By now you’ve undoubtedly seen the giddiness of friends and celebrities as they’ve poured ice water over their head while challenging others to do the same or contribute to fight ALS. (Most people both douse and donate.) Most likely though you haven’t seen them do this person. This is a social media phenomenon, experienced through videos or links on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Like other social media extravaganzas that preceded it, the challenge has sparked a swell of participation, a burst of interest in the cause, a backlash of criticism and, finally, a quest for lessons learned.

As of Wednesday, the ALS Association said it had received $31.5 million in donations since July 29, compared to $1.9 million during the same time period last year.

The cause itself is above reproach. ALS is a disease that causes nerve cells to deteriorate and die. More than 70 years after it struck Lou Gehrig, the causes of ALS are still unknown. Those who are afflicted usually die within 2 to 5 years after symptoms develop.

But as the trickle of videos became a torrent, they’ve become tiresome. Caitlin Dewey made sense when she wrote in The Washington Post that the videos are “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.”

And yet she’s also right that witnessing this self-indulgence is worth it because the money is going to a good cause. Not everyone agrees. Critics note the disconnect between the videos and raising any true awareness of the disease. Better, they say, to quietly contribute money to the cause of your choice.  

Here’s the rub though – people give to charitable organizations all the time. What’s driving the Ice Bucket Challenge is partly the sheer zaniness of it, but also a sense of community, of sharing a cause together.

This wasn’t part of a slick marketing campaign drawn up by the ALS Association. The Wall Street Journal traced its origins and found the challenge began when a professional golfer challenge a cousin whose husband has ALS. Once it took off, the ALS Association embraced the challenge, but at heart this was a social media enterprise from the get-go.

As difficult as it is to prompt public awareness of an issue through social media, there’s no assurance the interest will be sustained. Two years ago, teenagers were fascinated by the “Kony 2012” social media campaign against a mass murderer in Central Africa.

Earlier this year it was the #BringBackOurGirls campaign designed to save 200 kidnapped Nigerians schoolgirls. Fascination with both causes seemed to dissipate quickly.

While the intense interest in ALS seems as likely to fade almost as quickly the bucket ice melts, the community that rallied behind it may not disappear entirely. New contributors have left behind digital footprints. And the ALS Association now has more than 600,000 new donors in its ranks.

Each of them has made a choice to contribute, and not depend on others or the government to do it for them. Perhaps they made an irrational choice, based on videos from friends and celebrities.

But they now have a connection to fighting the disease they never had before. Other nonprofits are already trying to figure out how to make their own social media campaigns go viral. In an era when the fabric of civic mindfulness is in question, things could be worse.

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