KNAYSI: An icy welcome

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is an example of social media-driven activism done right

Last weekend, I was having dinner at the downtown mall when my waitress handed me a plate of food and said, “We’re all about to do the ice bucket challenge if you all want to watch me get drenched.” Call me out of touch with social media these past few weeks, but I had no idea what she meant. Suddenly, it seemed the phenomenon was everywhere. Walking by Monroe Hall yesterday, I saw my College deans spread in a line across the main entrance — buckets of water in hand, nervous laughter in the air, and iPhones held ready. I watched each of them succumb to the same icy fate.

The “Ice Bucket Challenge” is a new phenomenon where people douse themselves with buckets of ice water, post the videos to social media, and then nominate others to do the same in an effort to raise money and awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It’s quickly become an internet sensation, and includes participation by notable figures such as Steven Spielberg and former President George W. Bush. By a recent estimate, ALS donations have now topped $70 million thanks to the activity.

Despite the funds it has raised, the social media phenomenon is often criticized as “slacktivism” — online endorsement of a cause that requires little time or effort. The connotation is that the participant’s motive is more about making himself look charitable than advancing a cause. I’m skeptical of this terminology, and I would sooner classify “the bucket challenge” as creative fundraising. With a medium like the Internet, we need clearer definitions of what constitutes “activism.”

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that deteriorates nerve cells and ultimately leads to total paralysis (though does not cause cognitive decline). ALS currently afflicts an estimated 30,000 Americans, and life expectancy is typically two to five years from the time of diagnosis. The precise cause of ALS is still not understood, and no known cure exists. Money to the ALS Association — the American nonprofit that advocates for the interests of those afflicted — is much needed.

Before applying labels like “slacktivism” or “hashtag activism,” it helps to have a definition of activism. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action, especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” Thus, an actual act of activism requires a bit more of a commitment than pouring water over your head or even donating money to a cause.

To be sure, there are ALS activists: for example, those who give sustained time and energy to advocating for increased public and private support of ALS research and relevant health care reform. The individuals at the ALS Association — which funds research partnerships and drug testing, as well as supports the families and caregivers of ALS patients — make a full time job of this. It seems no one should call the bucket challenge activism or even “slacktivism.” It’s just creative social media fundraising.

Still, the criticisms of the bucket challenge raise a legitimate concern: if people view such uses of social media as legitimate activism, they might be less likely to act in a meaningful way outside of the internet. Could “slacktivism” be taking the place of traditional civic action? One 2011 survey by Georgetown’s Center for Social Impact found that Americans who support causes via social media “participate in more than twice as many supportive activities (both online and offline) when compared to their non-social media promoter peers.” As always, no single study can settle a complex question, but such work suggests that the ice bucket challenge may be less harmful than its critics assert.

In four weeks, the campaign has already raised triple the amount of donations that the ALS Association received all last year. These millions of no-strings-attached dollars will go toward fighting a truly horrific disease. So I suggest we keep on with the bucket challenge. We just need to remember that such fundraising does not take the place of traditional civic engagement. In the age of social media, it’s all too easy to repost an article for “awareness” and feel as though you’ve done your duty as citizen and human being.

George Knaysi is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at

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