A cold shower for the ice-bucket challenge

Shachi Amdekar 31 August 2014

Of course it’s self-centred and morally dubious. Of course it’s a waste of fresh water. And yes, it has absolutely nothing to do with the cause. Yet the macro scale of the ice bucket challenge and the volume of money it has raised warrants that the argument go beyond the individual. Beyond how Justin Beiber could possibly get it wrong the first time, beyond wet t-shirts and tiny tots cursing like sailors, and beyond Buzzfeed Top 10 lists of ‘Who Did It Best?’ the most noteworthy thing about the ice bucket challenge is that despite all the obvious moral, environmental and logical problems, it has actually ‘worked’ on a macro level.

In taking that weighty decision to chuck a bucket of icy water over yourself and plaster it over social media in the name of charity, it is completely irrelevant whether you as an individual think it is simply mischievous, old-fashioned slapstick fun for a good cause or concede that it is probably an indulgent sloshing of smug online self-promotion. Your opinion is as irrelevant as you may or may not deem the challenge to be. 

What is not irrelevant, however, are the vast results the challenge has yielded, how they have come about, and how they might be replicated for other important causes – whether charitable or political. This singular action by an individual does, admittedly, denote a bizarre mass behavioural change that recalls all the stupidity of chain e-mails in the late-1990s. Yet somehow the ice bucket challenge really has reached into our pockets and delivered the goods. Over the last couple of months, it has raised almost £60 million for the ALS Association and over £3 million for the British-based Motor Neurone Disease Association (MNDA). That has to be a good thing. Just as it is completely daft for Olly Murs to wish for a bucket of icy water to the head in order to give to charity, we can say with equal certainty that a speedy aggregate donation of over £63 million towards medical research is an excellent achievement.

Yet, behaviourally we are talking about two completely unappealing and economically irrational actions: publically becoming cold and wet, and then paying for it. If woefully human and eternal traits of vanity and self-perception on social media are the force behind this unlikely behaviour, then let’s be glad it’s at least being harnessed into something worthy. Consider ‘planking’, the cinnamon challenge, or some similarly daft exhibitionist trend performed for the sake of getting an extra ‘like’; challenges in which the power of peer pressure and the perception of (online) self-worth through social approval inevitably prevail. This performance is nothing new, and we shouldn’t blame social media for having become the most efficient means to express this sentiment. It is a rather similar notion to ‘gap yah’ students who pay thousands to go off and build things in Africa, and tend neither to leave it out of their CV, nor stop going on about it.

Nevertheless, regardless of how these are all equally self-indulgent, the ice bucket challenge is definitely more illogical, more environmentally wasteful than other such irritatingly trendy-and-ever-so-slightly-fun exhibitions like the #nomakeupselfie, and, somehow, it is also more annoyingly present.  But the results it has yielded have been spectacular, as mentioned.  So why don’t we channel the power of the ego, get people to be just as annoyingly narcissistic as they would otherwise be, and do it for other good causes, and give more for it. It would be like a populist 5-year plan. If everybody who did the ice bucket challenge would take 15 minutes to write a letter to their MP complaining about the badly funded rape crisis centres (or some other essential service which is being quietly killed off) in their constituencies, that’d be pretty nifty.

Too dark? Charity isn’t all fun and games.